Splinters are no fun. We probably all have some early memories of having them removed. It was uncomfortable, painful—perhaps even traumatic if we were young enough. Of course, as we got older, splinters were still no fun, but the drama dialed back as we were able to put them into perspective and see them for what they were.
It would sound remarkably out of proportion to refer to the sickness and suffering of life as “splinters.” Such language seems to trivialize these conditions and fails to see them for the devastating things they can be. The word “insensitive” also pops into my mind. And yet, this is the direction Paul takes us in Romans 8:18 when he says, “I am sure what we are suffering now cannot compare with the glory that is going to be revealed to us” (CEV).
Before we dismiss this as out of hand, let’s note a couple of things. First, this is not the statement of an armchair theologian but a man well acquainted with suffering. He says this in 2 Corinthians 11:22-27:
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and often gone without food, I have been cold and naked.
Whatever else we think of Paul’s statement, we can hardly accuse him of speaking from an ivory tower point of view. He knew pain and suffering in a way that many of us do not.
The other point worth noting is that if we examine Paul’s statement carefully, he’s not making any attempt to deny the painful reality of sickness and suffering. In fact, his statement assumes the opposite. He’s making a comparison between present suffering and future glory and saying that the two aren’t comparable. If he viewed suffering as nothing or trivial, then his point would be nonsensical. It’s because he has experienced suffering and does regard it as significant that his words are so weighty.
Still—is “splinter” the right word for what goes on with the terrible realities that come with cancer, stroke, emphysema or other things? That’s the image the man who wrote Romans 8:18 uses in 2 Corinthians 12 to speak of something that brought him torment (v. 7). If we return to children having splinters removed, it is torment to some of them. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t to us, the reality they’re experiencing is a harsh and unpleasant one. It is only as they experience more of life that they are able to put their pain, fear and anxiety in the proper context. We do exactly the same thing with the pain that we experience. At the time it is the worst thing in the world—it is only later that we can see it for what it is. That’s what Paul is saying in Romans 8:18. When we experience the glory God has in store for us, we’ll have the true context we need to put the sufferings of life into perspective.