‘The God of all comfort… comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.’ (2 Corinthians 1.3-4)
The ‘God of all comfort’ is one of the best-known phrases in 2 Corinthians, and the idea of comfort is clearly important in the opening chapter of the letter, with Paul mentioning it explicitly seven times (vs 3-6). The repetition is interesting in and of itself. It’s Tom Wright who comments that Paul sounds flat, indeed depressed. He repeats the same phrase, over and over, as depressed people often do. This insight has transformed my reading of these verses. I think back to some of my own conversations with people in my darker moments: my comments were monotone, lacking in liveliness, dull, flat, repetitious – probably far more so than I realise. Obviously 2 Corinthians 1 is much better than any rambling monologue from me! I believe with all my heart that – as is the case with all Scripture – this great chapter is God’s word to us. But as well as being the breathed-out word of God it also reflects the personality and circumstances of the human author. That’s God’s genius and God’s grace: he uses frail and fallible humans to accomplish his purposes. Such is his amazing love.
What is being offered to us in these verses? We want to be comforted, and we certainly need that at this time. But we can easily misunderstand what is being said here. Our view of comfort might relate to ease or even luxury, yet the word translated comfort in the NIV, paraklesis, has nothing to do with this. It could easily be rendered ‘encouragement’ and carries the sense of someone being alongside to help. Paul has experienced hardship and distress and even ‘deadly peril’ as he has given himself to cutting edge mission (v 10). God comforts him by being alongside by the power of the Holy Spirit and ‘delivering’ him. This deliverance comes not so much with Paul being taken out of his situation. Rather, God walks with him in it, and sees him through to the other side.
This is a vital principle for all Christian disciples. Suffering will come and on our own we will not be able to keep going (v 8). Yet God promises to be alongside to strengthen and save.
As far as our current situation is concerned, it’s almost unnecessary to apply this. Many who are reading this will be suffering because they have followed Jesus faithfully and sought to engage in his work. Many will be suffering right now because Covid 19 is a wretched virus, and these times are a tough context in which to serve. It was really hard to find an image to accompany this post that didn’t involve touching or hugging! In the end, we’ve gone for a picture which does show physical touch. It provides a good accompaniment to Paul’s words but it shows us what we’re missing. Given these socially distanced times, you might not even be able to summon up a flat monologue to articulate how you feel. That doesn’t matter. As C.H. Spurgeon has said, God hears the cries and the sighs of saints in distress. Reach out to God for his compassion and help in hardship. And reach out with confidence, because our wonderful, gracious ‘God of all comfort’ is more than ready to listen and respond.
And there is a postscript. God may help you very directly or his encouragement may come through a fellow Christian. This reminds us that as we receive comfort we are to play our part in the cycle of encouragement by comforting others (v 4). God has been so good to us in Jesus, pouring his grace into our lives. Having received so much from our God, our call is to let this ‘overflow’ in comfort to others (v 5). God used this weary, beaten down, depressed apostle to comfort and strengthen others. If you feel at all similar to him take heart. Who knows how God may use you today?