How to Receive God's Comfort
2 Corinthians 1:1-10
This morning we begin a study of the highlights of 2 Corinthians (read 1:1,2). Before we go further into the text, let’s briefly familiarize ourselves with the setting of this book.
2 Corinthians is actually at least the third letter that the apostle Paul wrote (probably from Macedonia) to a group of Christians in the city of Corinth (MAP). Paul had started this church some four or five years earlier. The Corinthian church had a lot of problems, and they were not always open to Paul’s help. Both letters reflect a stormy relationship between them and Paul—but things are on the mend as he writes this letter.
2 Corinthians is one of my favorite letters of Paul. In addition to containing some great doctrinal instruction, it gives us perhaps the clearest window into Paul’s heart. It is an extremely personal letter, in which he discloses many reasons for his own spiritual vitality and how he expresses God’s love in a difficult, conflicted relationship.
It is especially full of insight about Paul’s sufferings and how he not only endured them victoriously, but viewed them as vehicles of great blessing in his life. In fact, he begins his letter with one of these insights...
God is a God of comfort
Read 1:3,4a,5,7. It doesn’t take a theologian to recognize the main theme of this passage. Paul uses the word “comfort” ten times in these five verses, and in each case he is describing God as the source of this comfort. The God of the Bible is a God of comfort, and he wants us to experience his comfort whenever we suffer.
What is this comfort that God wants to give us? This comfort is neither a sappy, sentimental “There, there”—nor is it being comfortable. The word is parakaleo, which means literally “to call alongside” in battle. It is usually translated “encourage.” This comfort is rather God fortifying us by infusing us with the strengthening assurance of his sovereign goodness in the midst of suffering. It is what the sons of Korah describe in Ps.46:1,2,9-11 (read). If you have ever experienced this comfort, then you know that it is precious beyond words.
Paul emphatically states that God’s comfort is available for all kinds of suffering (1:4a). No situation of suffering is excluded (CAUSE; KIND; DEGREE; DURATION). In fact, the more abundant and intense our sufferings, the more abundant the comfort God promises (1:5). This is why (ironically) the people who testify most to the reality of God’s comfort have often suffered the most.
Sometimes I read a passage like this and I identify with Paul. At other times, I can't identify with him and I ask "Why am I not experiencing God's comfort?" It is not because my sufferings are too great for God’s comfort, nor because God is unwilling to grant it—but because (out of ignorance or unwillingness) I have not satisfied the conditions for receiving it (SMOKE INHALATION VICTIM REFUSING OXYGEN MASK). In this passage, we learn how to receive God’s comfortby learning about two of the most important conditions for it...
#1: Understand & affirm God’s purposes for allowing suffering in your life
If you want to experience God’s comfort in the midst of your suffering, you have to both understand and affirm God’s purposes for allowing suffering in your life. This is a huge blind spot for most of us, because we live in a culture that deplores suffering as the ultimate evil and denies any redemptive purpose for suffering. We simply have no category for how God-permitted suffering may be good and necessary for us. Yet God says that although he is not the author of most suffering and that he will one day remove all suffering from his people, in this age he is accomplishing some of his most important purposes for our lives through suffering. He knows what he is doing, and his purposes are worth the sufferings he employs to accomplish them. The better we understand these purposes, the more we will experience his comfort. What sticks out in this passage is how clearly Paul sees God’s purposes—which is why he has God’s comfort. He speaks of two such purposes in this passage.
Read 1:8. We don’t know the specifics of this suffering; we only know that it was so intense and overwhelming that Paul despaired of life. (Maybe God left the specifics out so we could identify with Paul more easily.) But notice why God permitted this suffering (read 1:9). It had to go beyond Paul’s strength “in order that we might not trust in ourselves, but in God...” God permits—even orchestrates—sufferings in our lives in order to break down our trust in ourselves and promote dependence on him.
There is a very unflattering implication in this reason—something about us that God makes explicit throughout scripture. We were created by God to live in dependence on him for our identity, significance, security, direction, etc. But since the fall, we are deeply committed to making our lives work apart from God--for our own agenda and by our own resources. This is so deeply and insidiously ingrained in our natures that only suffering exposes the futility of our autonomy and awakens us to our need for God.
I like the way J. I. Packer puts it: “This is what all the work of grace aims at—an ever deeper knowledge of God, and an ever closer fellowship with him...How does God (accomplish) this purpose? Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh, and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament...; but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort or another—it is to ensure that we shall hold him fast. The reason why the Bible spends so much of its time reiterating that God is a strong rock, a firm defense, and a sure refuge and help for the weak, is that God spends so much of his time bringing home to us that we are weak, both mentally and morally, and dare not trust ourselves to find, or follow, the right road. When we walk along a clear road feeling fine, and someone takes our arm to help us, as likely as not we shall impatiently shake him off; but when we are caught in rough country in the dark, with a storm getting up and our strength spent, and someone takes our arm to help us, we shall thankfully lean on him. And God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing, so that we may learn thankfully to lean on him. Therefore he takes steps to drive us out of self-confidence to trust in himself...”
Or consider this quote by C. S. Lewis: “My own experience is something like this. I am progressing along the path of life in my ordinary contentedly fallen, and godless condition, absorbed in a merry meeting with my friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity today, a holiday or a new book, when suddenly a stab of abdominal pain that threatens serious disease, or a headline in the newspapers that threatens us all with destruction, sends the whole pack of cards tumbling down. At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. Then, slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times. I remind myself that all of these new toys were never intended to possess my heart, that my true good is in another world and my only real treasure is Christ. And perhaps, by God's grace, I succeed, and for a day or two become a creature consciously dependent on God and drawing its strength from the right sources. But the moment the threat is withdrawn, my whole nature leaps back to the toys..... Thus the terrible necessity of tribulation is only too clear. God has had me for but forty-eight hours and then only by dint of taking everything else away from me.”
This principle is operative in every stage of our spiritual development in this life:
This is why most of us come to Christ during a time of great suffering. I’d like to say that I came to Christ out of complete intellectual honesty after a time of careful inquiry, or because life was so good that I wanted to thank God for it—but the truth is that I came to Christ because a girl that I’d put my hopes in rejected me and that rejection was so painful that it broke my pride and forged an openness in my hard heart to admitting my lostness to God. Those who mock Christianity as a crutch for those who can’t handle life are wrong—not because Christianity is not a crutch (it is), but because they think they can handle life without one! The real question is not: "Will you use a crutch?" but rather: "Will you lean on the crutch that is strong enough to bear your life, or will you keep leaning on faulty crutches that disappoint you and damage you more?" If you're ready to admit that you need a strong crutch, listen to Jesus' invitation (read Matt.11:28,29). If you do that, the day will come when you will thank God for that suffering because of all the goodness it led to.
This is why so many of us who have become serious servants of Christ can point to some experience of suffering that moved us to give up on our idols and tell God he can have our whole lives (DIVORCE; BUSINESS FAILURE; HANDICAP).
This principle is also operative for those of us who have committed our lives to Christ as his servants (Read Jn.15:2). We find that we are so fallen that our hearts still grow cold toward God so that we lack spiritual intimacy and power and fruitfulness. An when we cry out in alarm about this and ask God to do whatever it takes to restore spiritual reality and vitality, God answers us through suffering so severe that it casts us before him in trembling and thankful dependence.
Do you want to become more dependent on God? Do you recognize how insidiously your flesh moves you away from this? Are you asking God to do whatever it takes to develop this? "Which do I want more--to be spared from suffering, or to become more dependent on God?" Don't answer this question too quickly. But know that there is a real connection between how you are and whether you are experiencing God's comfort.
Paul reveals a second reason why God allows suffering into our lives--read 1:4,6a. God works uniquely through suffering to enable you to comfort others. God’s purpose for you in this life is not to make you healthy, wealthy and trouble-free. It is to make you into a person who can impart his comfort to others in such profound ways that they are drawn to him.
As a young Christian, I noticed that not all Christians are alike in this area. Some had the ability (through their teaching, counsel, etc.) to communicate God’s compassion and intangible life and vision so that I left their presence cleansed and restored in hope. Others left me cold (or worse), even though they may have said some of the same words.
I was so affected and inspired by the former that I told God, “I want to be able to impact others for you like that! Make me into that kind of person!” (Maybe you’ve said the same thing to God. We can never have enough of this kind of Christian. Every home group needs several of these.)
Do you know how God answers this prayer? Do you know what I discovered each of these people had in common? They had all gone through rounds of deep suffering, through which they learned deeper dependence on God, deeper confidence in his ability to comfort, and deeper love for others.
"Which do I want more—to avoid suffering, or to become a powerful agent of God’s comfort to others?" Don't answer glibly, but know that there is a real connection between your answer and your experience of God's comfort. If you want the former, you will complain when God allows suffering in your life and you will forfeit his comfort. If you want the latter, then you will thank God for these sufferings and you will experience his comfort as he makes you into a conduit of his precious comfort to a broken world.
#2: Allow other Christians to give you God’s comfort
The second condition for receiving God’s comfort is that you allow other Christians to give you his comfort. This is the other implication of 1:4b,6. If God wants to give his comfort through you to other Christians, he also wants you to receive it from other Christians. The same Paul who was such a powerful vehicle of God’s comfort to others never outgrew the need to receive God’s comfort through other Christians. This is why he says 7:6 (read). God has decided to give much of his comfort to us through other Christians, and if you want in on it you have to be involved.
Conversely, if you insist that God comfort you directly, you will forfeit much of what he wants to give you. You won't be able to bully God on this--he will wait until you are willing to let his people into your life on this level.
This is one of the key differences between attending Bible studies and being in fellowship. How can you know if you are involved in this way? Consider these questions:
Are you relating regularly to other Christians?
Do you share your sufferings as they occur?
Do you pray with others about your sufferings?
Do you ask for and consider their insights into your sufferings?
Do you try to serve them in the same ways when they are suffering?
The main context in my life for this is my HOME GROUP. It should be for you, too.
Let’s listen to Mary Nitschke share how she learned to receive God’s comfort...