Affliction and comfort in Christ
Text: 2 Corinthians 1:1-13
Paul’s theme here is that God comforts those in affliction. He does so, and then those who have been comforted are able to comfort others. Thus the ministry of Christ is multiplied throughout His body.
Christ’s comfort is made manifest alongside His affliction. Todd White has said that we are given the Comforter because God knew we would find ourselves in places where we would need comfort; where the comforts of this life and self-comfort would not be enough. We would need supernatural comfort, available only from God.
So when we are afflicted, we are comforted. And when we are comforted, we can comfort others. When we afflicted, we do not afflict others, as many in the world actually do; instead, through the Holy Spirit, we comfort others. The focus in all cases is on comfort, not affliction.
The hidden key to all this is in verse 6, where Paul says we must patiently endure our sufferings. Some – indeed, many – of the good things of God are only obtained through patient endurance in His course of discipleship. Hebrews 13 brings out how discipline is grievous in its time, but afterward brings forth the peaceable fruit of righteousness. Righteousness – being fully reconciled to God, not only forensically but manifestly, practically – is exactly what we need in order to overcome the hurdles of this life. Righteousness is akin to Christlikeness, for as we are conformed to the likeness of the Savior we increasingly take on His character. Christlikeness is the be-all and end-all of our program of sactification, for God intends that we fully become sons of Light, and no darkness will be permitted in His presence in the coming Kingdom. Therefore we must change.
Time and again during His ministry, the Lord Jesus warned His followers that the way would be hard. “Cramped and narrow is the way that leads to life”, while “broad and spacious is the way to destruction” He tells us in the Sermon. We must “hate” parents, family, even our own life, if we are to be His disciples, He warns. This is not a carnal hatred of the intrinsic thing, it is a putting of God first, not allowing anyone or anything, no matter how dear to our souls, to interfere with His purposes.
And so, in Asia, for whatever reason, Paul and his company were burdened, even beyond their ability to endure. It is often said that God does not give us more than we can handle. This is not an accurate reading of 1Cor 10.13 It says there that God will provide the way out, so that we can endure it. In other words, God will add His strength to ours, so that we can endure what was unendurable. That’s a whole different ball game. Once we understand that, we stop praying for an easy life, and we start praying for strength. It’s sometimes right to pray for escape (as the disciples did when Peter was jailed), but if continuing in it is against the will of God, we will get weaker. But if we pray for strength, we will grow in spirit and overcome all obstacles. We have to test the spirits.
So Paul went through that process in Asia. He was burdened beyond his ability to endure, but Holy Spirit came and “took hold on the other side” (which is, by definition, what the Para-klete does), and aided him. He endured and ultimately overcame. And now he was writing the Corinthians, not preaching a gospel of ease and pleasure, but giving comfort and helping them to overcome their afflictions.
The affliction Paul endured was so great it felt like a sentence of death, causing Paul to despair of life itself. Have you ever been there, despite being in Christ? God allows us to fall into situations where life puts its finger on the deepest root issues of our hearts. Under this pressure, we are in great pain and our strength is taken from us. We does God allow this? He cannot share His glory with anyone. Sanctification is ultimately His work, not ours, and He reserves its deepest work for His hands alone. This is why He denied Paul’s request for removal of his “thorn”, explaining, “My grace is sufficient, for My power is perfected in weakness” (2cor 12).
Paul learned in his darkest moments to trust neither in man nor in himself, but in God alone. This is advanced Christianity. If you learn this lesson, no failure of brother or church will derail you. It will hurt to go through, but your strength will be in God, not fallible man, so you will not stumble utterly.
Paul testifies that God did deliver him from that dark trail. Then he says an interesting thing: he trusts that God will deliver him again. We should not think that Paul’s trial was a one-time affair. No, that trail had come and gone, and Paul was now faced with fresh challenges. Perhaps the current trial wasn’t as great as the one in Asia that led him to despair of life. We are not told. But the significant thing is that Paul’s life was filled with trials, and those who want to live godly in Christ Jesus should expect no different.
That is not to say the life of the Christian is all drudgery. That would be a radical misstatement. While we do have adversities, afflictions and trials in this life, we also have the comfort and joy of Holy Spirit. And the more we focus on the latter, and the more victories we have, and the more maturity we gain, the more confident we become in God’s faithfulness and in His ability to deliver. And with that confidence comes Gospel power.
One final point. Paul ends his discourse on affliction and comfort by entreating the Corinthians to pray for him and his company. It is through prayer and practical aid that the Body comforts itself and builds itself up in love. These prayers can be open and known, or they can be hidden, known only to the Throne. But it is through sharing in each other’s burdens that the Body draws together and fulfills the law of Christ, which is love, even sacrificial love.
So when we are heavily burdened, let us not despair, but let us turn our focus to Christ, who will aid us and in due season raise us out of the affliction. And let us join in solidarity, in both prayer and action, with those who are suffering – of which there are many.
May the comfort of Holy Spirit be on all those who love the Lord and seek His rightful reign.