by Rev. Bryn MacPhail
2 Corinthians 1:1-11
Is there anyone here today who does not know what it is like to suffer? Is there anyone here who does not know the sorrow caused by the death of a loved one, the discomfort of a nagging illness, the heart-break of an ended relationship, the stress of occupational demands, the anxiety of financial hardship, or the weight of chronic depression?
The sobering reality is that suffering is a part of being human. Even more sobering is the reality that suffering may even be more pronounced in the life of a Christian.
Some mistakenly believe that becoming a Christian will mean the end of their suffering. The apostle Peter, however, refutes this notion in his first letter when he writes, "For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in His steps" (1Pet.2:21).
The stark reality of Scripture is that the Christian is called to suffer. Because Christ suffered, and because Christ bids us, "follow Me", we can expect to suffer. Yet, how does the apostle Paul begin the body of his letter, 2 Corinthians? Verse 3 begins, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ".
"Blessed be God", Paul says. On what account? Why should we praise God? Why should we thank the One who has ordained for us to suffer? Because God, as Paul tells us, is the "God of all comfort".
Some people might find it unsettling to think that God actually allows us to suffer, yet for me it is the converse which I find frightening. What is scary is to think that God has no power or control over our suffering. As Charles Spurgeon has said, "It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity."
Spurgeon goes on to say, "if our great pains were not regulated by (Divine) wisdom, we might be alarmed at them, but now we need not be afraid . . . He who made no mistakes in balancing the clouds and meting out the heavens, commits no errors in measuring out the ingredients which compose the medicine of souls."
What is most tragic is not that we suffer. What is most tragic is that so many Christians suffer without uniting themselves to God in the midst of their suffering. The reason Paul could say, "Blessed be God" in the midst of tremendous anguish is because he was convinced of the reality that his God was a "God of all comfort".
Why it is that Christians forsake God or leave the church while suffering is beyond me. It is in the midst of suffering when we need the fellowship of God the most. How can we ever survive the "valley of the shadow of death" unless God is with us? How can we endure unless "His rod and His staff, they comfort (us)"?
The good news is that the God who permits us to suffer is also the "God of all comfort; 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"(2Cor.1:3,4).
Paul begins and ends this sentence with the same message: God comforts us in our affliction.
The word affliction comes from the Greek word, thlipsis, which means "pressure". If I were to ask you today if you were suffering, you might say, 'Me? No I'm not suffering.' But, if I were to ask you if you were under stress, if I were to ask you if you were under some sort of 'pressure', and if you were to answer me honestly, your answer would likely be 'Yes'.
Hear the good news: God comforts us when we are under pressure.
The word comfort, or consolation, is an important word here. When we use the word comfort, we usually mean little more than a word of encouragement or a hug. Paul does not mean that. The word in the Greek, paraklesis (par-ak-lay-sis), means much more than a friendly word or a pat on the back. It is a word that implies action--it essentially means "to strengthen".
The same word is used by Jesus to describe the Holy Spirit as "The Comforter". And what does the Holy Spirit do for us? Does He whisper encouraging words in your ear? Not likely. Does He give us a big bear hug when we are sad? No--the Holy Spirit strengthens us to do the will of Christ.
What Paul is promising here is that God provides the strength to act like Christ even in the midst of tremendous stress and pressure.
Perhaps your afflictions are numerous. Perhaps the stress you are facing is immense. You might be wondering then, 'How much does God comfort us? How much strength can I expect to get from Him?'
The apostle Paul answers this question for us in verse 5, "For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ." We hear the same message in Psalm 94:19, "When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, Your consolations delight my soul."
What a blessed proportion! Our sufferings are abundant, says Paul without apology, our anxious thoughts are multiplying, says the psalmist . . . but so too are the consolations of Christ abundant. As one theologian has remarked, "The spade of trouble digs the reservoir of comfort deeper, and makes more room for consolation"(Spurgeon).
Now here lies our problem. The average Christian sees nothing but "the spade of trouble". Before even looking for God's consolation, the first words out of our mouth usually are "Why, Lord?". Because we are so prone to stare at the "spade of trouble", because our human tendency is to focus only on our suffering, Paul aims to teach us about the great blessing of Divine consolation.
First of all, Paul aims to teach us that God's consolation involves providing the strength to endure every trial. We see, in verse 8, that Paul learned this lesson the hard way. Paul writes that because of the "affliction" that had come upon him in Asia, he and his companions "were burdened excessively, beyond our strength"--beyond who's strength? Paul's strength. Why would God allow Paul to run out of strength? Paul gives the answer is in verse 9, "in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God". Paul had to learn the hard way that the way to endure a trial is to trust in God's strength, not his.
The second thing Paul teaches us is that God's consolation always involves creating something good out of suffering. We see this in verse 4, "(God) 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". In other words, God allows us to suffer so that we become in a position to help someone else who is suffering. I think we all know, from experience, how true this is. When we are suffering, the best human comfort usually comes from those who have already been where we are.
The idea that God comforts us by creating something good out of suffering is also seen in that oft-quoted verse, Romans 8:28, where we read that, "God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God". What a comfort it is to know that God can take the worst situation and He can work it to accomplish holy purposes.
The third thing we learn about God's comfort is that God strengthens us through intercessory prayer--that is, prayer made on our behalf. It is not that our own prayers won't work or be heard, but as many of us know, our suffering can become so intense that it becomes difficult think straight--let alone pray for what we need. Paul experienced this in his affliction and so he comments in verse 11 on "the favour bestowed upon (him) through the prayers of (others)." God comforted Paul by answering the prayers offered by his friends.
We are even told in Romans 8:26 that the Holy Spirit can pray on our behalf. When we are too weak, or when we do not know how to pray, "the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words."
Friends, your suffering may be great, and so we need to be reminded that the quantity of our suffering is matched by the quantity of God's comfort.
When Paul says later on that God's grace is "sufficient"(12:9), he means to tell us that there is enough of it. God gives enough grace and enough strength to help us endure every trial. God works all things--even trials--for good to those who love Him. And when you are too weak to pray, be comforted knowing that the Spirit of God is praying on your behalf.
You need not suffer alone. The God of all comfort is with you. Amen.
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