The God of All Comfort
2 Corinthians 1:1-11
IntroductionThis letter from the apostle Paul to the church in Corinth (southern Greece) is mis-named. It is actually the third or even fourth letter to them. We'll learn more about the specific purposes of this letter in the weeks to come. It provides us with some of the most personal glimpses of Paul's relationship with God.
Read vs 8,9a. Paul has experienced a terrible ordeal in Asia (western Turkey), probably in Ephesus. We don't know what the specific cause of the suffering was because he doesn't tell us.
Some speculate that it was the riot at Ephesus (Acts 19:23ff.), when it appeared that the entire work there was going to be wiped out and that Paul and his companions would be killed.
Others point to 1 Cor. 15:32, where Paul says he "fought with wild beasts in Ephesus." This may refer to gladiatorial combat in the arena.
Whatever the specifics of his ordeal, Paul's focus is not on it but rather on God's provision in it--read vs 3-7. It doesn't take a scholar to understand that Paul's emphasis is on God's "comfort." He uses this word 10 times in these 5 verses. What exactly is God's comfort?
Parakaleo means "to come alongside" to strengthen (Jesus' name for the Holy Spirit in Jn. 14-16--"Paraklete," not "parakeet.")
God's comfort is the experiential assurance of God's love and sovereign goodness in the midst of suffering. It is associated with God's "peace," "hope," and "joy" (Rom. 15:14). Note that it is not given instead of suffering, but in the midst of suffering (" . . . who comforts us in all our afflictions . . . "). Rather, he buoys you up so that you can overcome the suffering (Phil. 4:7). This is one of the deepest blessings/greatest benefits of biblical Christianity.
Paul specifically states that God's comfort is available for all kinds of sufferings (vs 4: "all," "any"). EXAMPLES: consequence of fallen world (ILLNESS; DEATH OF LOVED ONE); consequences of own sin (BROKEN MARRIAGE); consequences of others' sin against you (CHEATED FINANCIALLY; BETRAYED); sufferings associated with serving Christ (PAUL). No matter what suffering you are experiencing, God is willing and able to comfort you.
Who wouldn't want to experience this? Yet many of us here today are probably not experiencing God's comfort. Why not? Because there are certain conditions we must meet. Paul mentions three such conditions . . .
Become God's childThe most basic condition is that we belong to God's family. These promises of God's comfort aren't given to everyone. They are addressed to "the church of God," to the "saints" (vs 1). In other words, to those who have chosen to become children of God by receiving Christ (Jn. 1:12).
According to scripture, we are not born into this world as God's children. Our problem is not that we simply don't realize that we are already united with God (EASTERN MYSTICISM). Rather, our problem is that we are actually alienated from God because of our true moral guilt (DEFINE). Like runaways on the street, we are trying to survive apart from the guidance and personal love of the One who made us. This is one of the reasons why we find it easy to question God's love or existence. We point to all of the evil and suffering in the world and say "Where is God? What kind of God made this?"
The answer is: a God who loves you. A God who gives you free will even though you misuse it to rebel against him. A God who sent his Son to pay the penalty for your rebellion. A God who invites you to receive his forgiveness and become his child. When you do this, you will experience the comfort of God (Rom. 8:15,16)!
Affirm God's purpose for suffering & comfortBut we must acknowledge honestly that many who have received Christ are not experiencing his comfort. And it has nothing to do with their circumstances. We look over at this person who has horrible circumstances (like Paul), and they are filled with the reality of God's goodness and love. Then we look over at another person whose afflictions are relatively minor, and they are miserable.
What accounts for the difference between these two Christians? It is their response when they suffer. The former has remembered God's purpose for suffering and actively affirmed it, while the latter has lost sight of it. Those who affirm God's purpose for suffering and comfort are the ones who experience his comfort. What sticks out about this passage is how clearly Paul sees God's purpose.
Read vs 9. How far did his suffering go? Beyond his strength to cope with it. Why? "So that we might not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead . . . " Here is a deep truth. Our self-sufficiency and self-will run so deeply that we will always rely on it unless there is no other way. God uses suffering to break our trust in ourselves. Only when trust in self doesn't work can we understand what it means to trust in God. God loves us enough to bring us into situations that go beyond our own strength so that we abandon self-dependence and discover more deeply what it means to trust in him.
This is why most of us came to Christ in the first place. God mercifully allowed enough suffering in our lives that we realized we weren't making it by ourselves, we weren't good enough in ourselves, etc.
The same principle applies once we come to Christ and begin to follow him. This is why Jesus says that he prunes the branch that bears fruit, so that it may bear more fruit (Jn. 15:2b).
Do you ask God to bring whatever is needed into your life to keep you depending on him and deepening your trust in him? This is the prayer of one who knows his own flesh and means business with God. When suffering comes, you realize that this is God answering your prayer, so you thank him for it (ME).
God has another, related purpose for your suffering. Read vs 4,6a. Paul has an other-centered attitude toward his sufferings. Even God's comfort is not exclusively for him, but somehow to help others.
God wants to work through you and me so that we are able to have much deeper impact on others, so that we can encourage others to give their lives to Christ. I know people like this; I've been affected by them. They have an authority, a confidence in God, a sense of spiritual reality that is unmistakable. You interact with them and you come away seeing clearly and motivated to live for Christ. I've told the Lord, I want to be that kind of person. I want to be able to affect others for you in that way." His answer is, "They are able to comfort you because they have followed me through deep suffering. Are you willing to do this also?"
If we want to experience God's comfort, we must be willing to suffer for the sake of helping others. "All the things that are happening to me right now are ultimately for others. All that he is building into me through this suffering and comfort is to enable me to turn around and give away to others what he is giving to me." We'll study this in more detail in chap. 4:12.
If the reason for me being afflicted is just so that I can be a deepened person, count me out! I'll stick with the shallow life; I don't need that kind of stuff. Even though it might be cool to be some mystic, who needs it? This is eastern mysticism. But biblical spirituality is always ultimately other-centered. When this has happened to me, I have looked around in such despair that I would not have been willing to press forward if I didn't know I had so many other Christians depending on me.
When the heat is on, and Satan is telling you to cave in, choose to reject the lies of your contrary thoughts and feelings, actively affirm God's purposes--and thank him in advance of the comfort . . .
Allow other Christians to minister to youRead vs 11. Paul knows that God's comfort came to him (in part) as an answer to their prayers for him. This is another aspect of the corporate dimension of Christian spirituality. Just as God comforts us so that we can give his life to others, so also he often communicates his comfort to us through others. As spiritually mature as Paul was, as many direct revelations as he had, he would have thought you were crazy if you expected him therefore to keep his sufferings to himself. Throughout his letters, he asks his readers to pray for him. See also 2 Cor. 7:5,6.
We need to learn the same lesson if we want to experience God's comfort.
Some of us readily complain to others. This exclusively horizontal practice is a way of substituting God's comfort, of saying "I don't trust that you want to or are able to comfort me. I want people's sympathy, etc. more than your comfort."
But others of us are too proud to share our sufferings with other Christians, ask them to pray for us, and receive the encouragement and support he wants to supply through them. If this is the case, God will sweat us down until we humble ourselves before our Christian friends. Some of you have lost the correct perspective because you are unwilling to let God remind you of the truth through other Christians. Some of you are so isolated that you have no Christian friends with whom it is easy to share in this way. What better time to remedy this situation than to drop your guard and share your suffering with them?
Conclusion: What is the alternative?No matter who you are, you will still suffer. We cannot ultimately control how much we suffer--we can only control our response to suffering. If you don't respond in the way Paul did and receive God's comfort, what are your alternatives?
False comfortYou start to look to other things as an anesthetic--ALCOHOL, SENSUALITY, MATERIALISM, EATING SPREE, etc. These are illegitimate pain-reducers. You only become more hungry for real comfort, and you only become addicted to these things in the long run. Ironically, it produces much more pain in the long run.
Bitterness and self-pityYou can go through your life blaming other people (or God) for how messed up your life is. Anger is a very powerful emotion, but it will poison your life.
Slavery to fearWhat a horrible life to live it with the goal of avoiding pain!! This is how most people wind up as they grow older--even among Christians. Don't spend your life cowering before the possibility of pain!!
Stride forward heroically, offer yourself up for suffering for the sake of what God can do through you for others (vs 6)!!! Are you afraid? Don't worry about that--just don't let it dictate your response. You can do it God's way and experience his comfort so that when suffering comes again, your instinct is to lean into it. You can develop a certain momentum this way . . .