3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. 7 Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. 2 Corinthians 1:3-7
I was listening to a young pastor recently taking questions. He was bright, clever and theologically sharp. As he answered questions on life, and all that life throws at us, what became increasingly evident was his lack of personal experience in the things he was speaking about. In fact his subject matter was very personal to me and I did contemplate contacting him and explaining to him the complexities of my own personal situation. I was a coward and chose not to, neither would I wish him to face my circumstances.
Yet I do find encouragement typically does come from people who’ve experienced the deepest trials and greatest loss. I may not know them but I look to them as an example of how to get through.
When I’m hurting or wallowing in self-pity, I don’t look to those who’ve been insulated from pain or who’ve never tasted disappointment, trials or heartache but rather, I instinctively look to those who have walked through “the valley of the shadow of death” and bear its battle scars. They are, to me, a greater inspiration than all the collective wisdom of those who remain safely isolated away from real life but can quote a scripture from Lamentations.
However, this isn’t something that is that easy. All too often we look at those spiritually pumping, saying the right things and conclude they must be walking close with the Lord whilst considering those who struggle, suffer and endure, what appears to be a succession of heartaches and pain, are lacking in faith, weak, and therefore disqualified from any meaningful spiritual help to others.
Two people come to mind when I look at the passage above. One was a man named Frank Gamble who served God against all the odds. At the age of 26, Frank was a fully fit, soccer-playing father of two, and then came the devastating news that he had an incurable disease that would attack every joint in his body, bending him over and confining him to a wheelchair. I met Frank on many occasions, he preached in the church I previously led. Frank was extremely funny and a man of great faith. He led his church from his wheel chair, discipled many people, wrote books, and spoke at conferences. He is now united with his Jesus and has a new body. Frank did not just survive his illness he triumphed in it and set an example to thousands.
The other is Joni Eareckson Tada. I was given her book to read in the late 1970’s. “Joni: The unforgettable story of a young woman’s struggle against quadriplegia & depression.” She was an activity girl, riding horses, hiking, tennis, and swimming. On July 30, 1967, at just 17, she dived into the water in Chesapeake Bay, but she had misjudged the shallowness of the water. She suffered a fracture between the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae and became a quadriplegic, paralysed from the shoulders down. Joni has spent nearly fifty years in a wheel chair. Yet her endurance and joy and resolute commitment to Christ have inspired millions, myself included. She is a an author, a radio host and a conference speaker.
I think I need to ground this in the passage! I think there is a sense in which both Frank and Joni have shared their divine comfort with us much like Paul describes in these short verses.
Let’s not be naïve. Frank and Joni , again like Paul, have each undoubtedly felt the pressure of trials and suffering. After all, few things have the power to turn us in upon ourselves as affliction and unmeasurable suffering. When we hurt, we rarely think of others but we expect them to think of us.
I don’t know this for sure, but I have met others in similar situations who have said that death was the easier option. They want to be free from an anguish that at times seems unending, senseless and unjust.
How does one explain the pain and constant battles? Surely this couldn’t be “God’s will”, or could it?
Take a moment to think about your own seasons of suffering and trials and consider the two most likely questions that come to mind: “Why me?” and “Doesn’t anyone care?” The first is directed at God and accuses him of injustice. The second is aimed at others and accuses them of insensitivity. But as I read this paragraph in 2 Corinthians 1, I hear Paul saying that there are two quite different questions that ought immediately to cross our lips: “Who else?” and “What for?”
I want to highlight two truths in this passage . There are loads of other things that could be said, but let’s focus on these, and in reverse order.
Paul clearly states that there is a connection between the intensity of human suffering and the availability of divine comfort. If there is an abundance of suffering, so too is there an abundant supply of comfort that is more than adequate to sustain the one suffering. See verse 5
For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
No amount of human suffering can outstrip or exceed the resources in God’s heart to bring comfort, help and grace to see us through. You need never doubt whether God is up to the task of providing what you most need to survive, even thrive, in the midst of the worst imaginable pain and hardship. It was only because Paul was confident that God’s comfort matched and exceeded his suffering that he was able to pass on that comfort to others when they faced similar, perhaps even more severe trials.
Paul also discerned a divine design in his hardship. What might appear haphazard and strange to the human eye comes wrapped in the package of God’s eternal purpose. Look at Paul’s statement in verse 4 where he says that when God comforts us “in all our affliction” it is “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
Pain threatens to immobilise and isolate us. It seems so senseless, so random, so utterly lacking in good but, Paul won’t hear of it. Whatever degree of suffering I’ve endured, says the apostle, it was to equip me to serve you who also endure suffering. Get it?
This doesn’t often resonate with many of us. We are by nature so selfish that we regard our own battle as the most important thing and see life through the lens of our own personal suffering
We struggle to see how our pain and hardship could possibly have any relevance for, or bearing upon anyone else. If nothing else, Paul’s confession calls into question the individualism of modern individualist Christianity. However, there is a vital lesson for us to learn in this truth. When afflicted, whatever its nature or source or perceived cause, stop and do two things: first, receive for yourself the supernatural comfort of Christ and then, lift up your head, look around, and ask: “Who else, Lord?
This is how Paul put it in terms of his relationship to the Corinthians. “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.”
Nothing in Paul’s life was interpreted as existing or occurring solely for himself. It was for them! His suffering, affliction and endurance of trials ultimately benefited the Corinthians in that he was equipped to administer divine encouragement to them when they were afflicted and to ensure their preservation and spiritual well-being when they underwent trials. Who can I help? Let’s say that again, who can I help?
I’ll be honest, I’ve never found obedience to this passage an easy thing. To look up and away from my own pain to take note of others for whose sake God is equipping me, runs counter intuitive to the feelings of self that overtake me. That’s why I must constantly be reminded that God’s comfort is more than adequate to meet my needs so that he may meet the needs of others through me.
So, I hope the next time you, or I, are suffering, hurt or confused or perhaps are put upon unjustly, we’ll not ask, “Why me, Lord?” but rather, “Who else?” Then, from the deep abundance of strength that God supplies, we will become a divine comforter of the divine comfort that has been given us.