Conduits of Divine Comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-7)
One thing that I’ve never heard said is that people profit the most from those who suffer the least. The most profound and lasting encouragement typically emanates from people who’ve experienced the deepest trials and greatest loss. When I’m hurting or wallowing in self-pity, I don’t instinctively turn to those who’ve been insulated from pain or who’ve never tasted the bitter dregs of disappointment and heartache. People who’ve walked through “the valley of the shadow of death” and bear its scars are a greater inspiration to me than all the collective wisdom of those who remain safely isolated on the mountain top of spiritual triumph.
This isn’t something widely embraced in our day. All too often we look on the healthy and wealthy and conclude they must be walking in lock step with the Lord, while those who struggle and suffer and endure an endless succession of heartaches are deficient in faith and therefore disqualified from any meaningful ministry to others.
Two of my heroes are a standing rebuke to such unbiblical thinking. Few have had a greater impact on my life than the Soviet dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada. The former endured the injustice of Stalin’s gulag and the persecution of an atheist communist regime while the latter has spent the last forty or so years in a wheel chair. Yet their endurance and joy and resolute commitment to Christ have inspired millions, myself included.
There’s a sense in which they’ve been conduits of divine comfort, middle men, so to speak, “between producer and consumers” (Harris, 144), much like the apostle Paul described himself in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. This calls for explanation.
Let’s not be naïve. Solzhenitsyn and Tada, again like Paul, have each undoubtedly felt the pressure to yield to self-pity and bitterness. After all, few things have the power to turn us in upon ourselves as do affliction and inexplicable suffering. When we hurt, we rarely think of others. We expect them to think of us.
Both Solzhenitsyn and Tada openly confess to their initial, indeed recurring, struggles with suffering. There have been times when they both prayed for death, wanting only to be delivered from an anguish that at times seemed senseless and unjust. I suppose some today would consider them failures, decidedly lacking in faith. How else, after all, does one explain their pain and constant battles? Surely this couldn’t be “God’s will”, or could it?
Reflect for a moment on your own seasons of suffering and consider the two most likely questions that came to mind: “Why me?” and “Doesn’t anyone care?” The first is directed at God and implicitly accuses him of injustice. The second is aimed at others and explicitly charges them with 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?” Let’s read Paul’s words:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and 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. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 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. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort” (vv. 3-7).
I want to highlight two remarkable truths in this paragraph. There are undoubtedly other things that could be said, but let’s focus on these two in particular, and in reverse order.
First, Paul clearly affirms that there is, what can only be called, a qualitative and quantitative correspondence between the intensity of human suffering and the availability of divine comfort. If there is an abundance of suffering, so too there is a supply of comfort that is more than adequate to sustain the hurting soul (see esp. v. 5).
No amount of human suffering can outstrip or exceed the resources in God’s heart to bring comfort and sustenance and grace to see us through. You need never doubt whether God is up to the task of providing what your soul most needs to survive, even thrive, in the midst of the worst imaginable heartache and hardship. It was only because Paul was confident that God’s comfort matched and exceeded his suffering that he was able to mediate that comfort to others when they faced similar, perhaps even more severe, trials.
Second, Paul also discerned a divine design in his hardship. What might appear haphazard and serendipitous to the human eye comes wrapped in the package of God’s eternal purpose. Look closely at Paul’s statement in v. 4 where he asserts 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 anesthetize us to any observable “so that”. It seems so senseless, so random, so utterly lacking in good and devoid of a goal. 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 likewise endure affliction of body and anguish of soul.
This doesn’t immediately resonate with many of us. We are by nature so intractably selfish that we regard our own souls “as the center of all providences” and “naturally seek to explain everything by its bearing on ourselves alone” (James Denney). We struggle to envision 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 Christianity and the sense of remoteness within and among many contemporary churches" (Paul Barnett, 73).
But there’s 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, avail yourself of the corresponding comforts of Christ and, second, lift up your head, look around, and ask: “Who else, Lord?”
Here’s 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. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.” Nothing in Paul's life was interpreted as existing or occurring solely for himself. It was for them!
There are two possible ways to interpret Paul’s use of the word “salvation” in v. 6. Certainly he is not claiming that his sufferings are redemptive, as if he accomplished in his body and soul what only Christ achieved at the cross. Rather, some believe Paul is afflicted for their “salvation” in the sense that they received the gospel in the context of his suffering. "What they tend to despise in him [his weakness that comes from suffering] is part and parcel of what brought life to them" (Barnett, 77). On the other hand, the word “salvation” may simply refer more to their general well-being; i.e., spiritual safety and health, as well as joy and victory over sin (i.e., sanctification) rather than any notion of deliverance from divine wrath.
In any case, as Murray Harris rightly notes, “Paul’s suffering of affliction and endurance of trial ultimately benefited the Corinthians in that he was thereby equipped to administer divine encouragement to them when they were afflicted and to ensure their preservation and spiritual well-being when they underwent trial” (149).
I’ll be honest: I’ve never found obedience to this passage an easy thing. To look up and away from my own discomfort to take note of others for whose sake God is equipping me, runs counter to my instinctive fixation with self. That’s why I must constantly be reminded: 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 I hurt or am confused or perhaps am put upon unjustly, I’ll not ask, “Why me, Lord?” but rather, “Who else?” Then, from the deep reservoir of abundant and wholly adequate strength that God supplies, I’ll become a conduit for the life-giving, refreshing waters of divine comfort for which others so desperately thirst.