by Rev. Bryn MacPhail
2 Corinthians 7:4-7
The question, 'Where is God when it hurts?', is a commonly asked question--by Christians and non-Christians alike.
We ask this question when the doctor tells us there is nothing more that can be done. We ask this question when we realize that a close relationship has eroded beyond repair. We ask this question when we come to understand that only the presence of God can bring comfort in our time of immense pain.
The question, 'Where is God when it hurts?' is the title of a best selling book written by Philip Yancey. Yancey, while admitting how complex suffering is, gives a very simple answer to the question, 'Where is God when it hurts?'. And the answer Yancey gives is essentially the same answer the apostle Paul gives in 2 Corinthians 7, verse 4 and following.
Paul writes to the Corinthians, "I am filled with comfort. I am overflowing with joy in all our affliction. For even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within. But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus"(7:4b-6).
Before we unpack these verses, it is important for us to do a little review. This is our 3rd Sunday studying the subject of suffering from 2 Corinthians. And, in all three passages, the word Paul uses is the word "affliction". The word affliction, you might remember, comes from the Greek word, thlipsis, which means "pressure".
This is important to note because we tend to reserve the label of suffering for those in desperate situations. But since Paul, uses the word for "pressure", we conclude that he is teaching something that is applicable to every person here.
So what does Paul say about his affliction? Well, actually, Paul does not even begin by talking about his suffering--he begins by talking about his comfort. "I am filled with comfort", Paul says, "I am overflowing with joy in all our affliction", Paul says again.
'Paul, how can you say this? You have been beaten up. You have been shipwrecked, you have been whipped, and you have been stoned and left for dead. Paul, by your own admission, your body has had no rest.
And, in addition to your outward afflictions, you also talk about your "fears within." How is it that you are "filled with comfort" and "overflowing with joy"? Paul, what is your secret?'
The secret to Paul's comfort is revealed in verse 6--Paul worships a God "who comforts the depressed". The Greek word for depressed here, literally means "brought low". One is brought low when the pressure becomes too great. But here is the good news--we worship a God who comforts the depressed.
How does God do this? How does God comfort and strengthen us when we are suffering? The answer lies in verse 6, "God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus".
Where is God when it hurts? God, through His Holy Spirit, is in every Christian ministering to those in need. We are called "the Body of Christ" for good reason. We are to be the physical presence of Christ in this suffering world.
Philip Yancey, goes on to say that a better question to ask is, "Where is the Church when it hurts?" How the Christian Church responds to suffering is important because the Church is intended to be the physical representation of Christ in this world.
God comforted Paul by the coming of Titus and He means to comfort you by the presence of your Christian friends. Knowing this makes me even more baffled when I learn that people are staying away from church because of their suffering. (The exception this, of course, is those people who suffer physically).
Suffering should drive us to seek out Christian fellowship; it should drive us to seek out Christians who can incarnate God's comfort towards us.
Now I realize that there are two sides to this coin. On the one side is Paul, who is afflicted and in need of God's comfort. On the other side is Titus, the Christian God has chosen to work through in order to bring comfort to Paul.
Sometimes we will be in Paul's shoes, and at other times, we will be called to be a Titus for someone in need. Either way, we can learn something important from both of these examples.
From Paul, we learn the necessity of seeking comfort. To see this, we have to flip back to chapter 2, verses 12 and 13, where Paul writes, "Now when I came to Troas . . . I had no rest for my spirit, not finding Titus my brother, but taking my leave of them, I went on to Macedonia."
Paul sought out God's comfort, and he looked for it in the presence of his good friend, and brother in Christ, Titus. And until he found Titus, Paul spoke about having "no rest for (his) spirit". This is noteworthy because not everyone seeks after comfort.
Foolishly, many people refuse the comfort that God brings through His people. We see this even in the Bible. When Jacob thought that his son Joseph had been killed, we read that "all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort (Jacob), but he refused to be comforted"(Gen.37:35).
We are not meant to face suffering alone. God, who comforts the depressed, comforted Paul by the coming of Titus.
At this point, we may be curious to ask, 'What exactly did Titus do, or say, that brought such comfort to Paul?'. It is interesting that Paul does not mention anything that Titus said or did, but only that he was comforted "by the coming of Titus".
From this, I conclude precisely what Philip Yancey concluded: "It is not our words or our insights that they want most; it is our mere presence" (Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts?, 177).
Christian author, Tony Campolo, tells the story of going to a funeral home to pay his respects to the family of an acquaintance. By mistake he ended up at the wrong funeral parlour. It held the body of an elderly man, and his widow was the only mourner present. She seemed so lonely that Campolo decided to stay for the funeral. He even drove with her to the cemetery.
At the end of the graveside service, as he and the woman were driving away, Campolo finally confessed that he had not known her husband. "I thought as much," said the widow. "I didn't recognize you. But it doesn't really matter." She squeezed his arm so hard it hurt. "You'll never, ever, know what this means to me."
I read of another account of a man mourning the death of a loved one. The mourner wrote about the great many people that came by the house verbalizing their sympathy and offering words of advice. Later on in the day, another friend came by, and sat with the mourner for more than two hours without saying a single word. Reflecting on that particular visit, the mourner wrote, "Never, in all my life, have I felt so much comfort."
When our Lord allows us to suffer, we must remember that He promises to provide us abundant comfort as well(2Cor.1:5). If we are given a "thorn in our flesh", we must also remember God's promise to us, "My grace is sufficient for you"(2Cor.12:9).
We must remember these things because people who are suffering often feel as if God has left them. Perhaps no one expressed this better than C.S. Lewis in the journal he kept after his wife's death. Lewis said that at the moment of his most profound need, God, who had always been available to him, suddenly seemed absent. Lewis felt fear, and abandonment, and in the end it was a community of other Christians who helped to restore him.
I have come to learn from C.S. Lewis, from Philip Yancey, and from the apostle Paul, that God's grace often comes to us in human form. In times of extreme suffering and grief, God's loving presence is often communicated through ordinary people like you and me.
Where is God when it hurts? Have a look around, God might be expressing to you His love through someone sitting nearby. Amen.
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