How does God create a person who is skilled in comforting others? We naturally think about DNA and dispositions. You’ve met them—those genetically sweetened souls who were born to care, predisposed to sympathize, hardwired to ask questions and ooze concern—the burden-bearers who thrive on your chaos. But you look in the mirror and you know that person, or anything close to that person, is not staring back at you.
So how does God take people who aren’t inclined to care and transform them into comforters? You see the world clearly. We are born bent inwards towards self-care, self-concern, and self-comfort. Others’ pain is an unwelcome distraction from our extended self-sessions. We look up wondering who dares to divert us from our comfort-expedition. So how does God take people fixed on self-comfort and turn them outward towards others? How does He break our narcissistic gaze into the pool’s reflection to look up at the pain all around us?
Our culture peddles many fixes. Drugs comfort, or so we’re told. So we swallow pills, or dabble in a little blow or crank—anything to escape the pain and return to our happy-place. But drugs dissipate, and with them goes our comfort. We turn elsewhere. We eat comfort-food, visit the Comfort Store to buy comfy-stuff, or plan a getaway at the Comfort Inn. Never in the history of the world has the illusion of comfort been more available to so many. But when comfort is self-diagnosed and self-treated, it proves to be pretty elusive.
Recently, Zeke got hit with some uncomfortable news. His father was diagnosed with cancer and his mom became so disturbed by the news that she won’t leave her bedroom. Ten years ago, her own mother (Zeke’s grandmother) died of cancer. Since then, the mere whisper of that disease stirs his mom’s darkest fears. The news of this sinister disease in her husband has justified her darkest fears. She seems utterly inconsolable.
Zeke knows his family needs him, and on some level, he wants to help. But between the demands of work, the weekend activities with friends, and occasional church events, Zeke’s capacity for expending energy towards others is pretty spent. Sure, he prays for his parents. But really, Zeke’s got his own life, his own problems, and his own need for help. Zeke feels like he can’t supply comfort because he needs it so much of it himself!
How does God take people who feel, sometimes desperately, the preoccupying need for comfort and make them want to provide it to others? What steps does he take to transform us from comfort-consumers to comfort-providers?
The Corinthians and Comfort
In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul seeks to help the Corinthians understand the inextinguishable spring that supplies his comfort. The Corinthians are an unusual audience for this particular lesson since they have been in a decidedly ‘discomforting’ relationship.
Paul’s recipients had a self-esteem that soared way beyond reality These were the kind of Christians that received trophy’s for having consistent devotions. They saw themselves as markedly mature, but to Paul, they were still in diapers (1 Cor 3:1-4; 1 Cor 5:1). This was no easy partnership for Paul. The Corinthians believed lies, tolerated fools, followed imposters, boasted unashamedly, and betrayed Paul. But he had a soft spot for knuckleheads, and Paul still wanted the Corinthians to know how to find. He also wanted them to understand how to pass it along to others.
In 2 Corinthians 1:3-6, Paul gives them three paths of travel to guide them towards lasting comfort:
“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.”
Paul first points the Corinthians upward to “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (v. 3). This is not Paul including the obligatory ‘Godward’ point so that he can then wax practical and move on to the really helpful handles. Paul is unveiling the cornerstone of all enduring comfort – “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
Go back and read that last paragraph. It really is that important. You made need it right now. If not, you will need it soon enough. And when the floods of distress and anxiety overwhelm, moving ‘upward’ may not seem very comforting. You see, there is a reflexive human instinct – deep in our DNA – to reach out for people when our souls are weighed down; we’re talking the flesh-and-blood variety of comfort. You’ve felt it. We want to talk it through, find a sounding board, bear our heart, find someone—anyone—with whom we can share our burden.
Paul guides this human instinct with divine truth. He doesn’t challenge the need, but the priority. For comfort to be ultimately meaningful and durable, it must spring first from an eternal source –“the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.”
And God’s comfort is not Tylenol-type relief, working for a few hours until it wears off. Paul sees something grander, more sustainable and more inexhaustible, a fount of never-ending comfort that satisfies the soul! Not long ago, Kimm and I went to Wakulla Springs, the site of the longest underwater cave in the United States. This spring gushes over 200-300 million gallons of water per day. A few minutes of pondering that number immediately triggers the auto-crash valve on the brain. But it’s the same idea Paul is conveying – an endless supply of comfort from God, driving us to a soul-relieved, awe-inspired worship.
‘God of all comfort’ isn’t some unique way to describe the Father. It’s a reminder that He is the source of an endless supply of comfort.
Since our comfort comes first from above, we can now be comforted within. This means when God comforts us, it sticks.
What is the aim of this fount of comfort? Paul answers, “.who comforts us in all our affliction”. Similar to a top rated insurance policy, God promises ‘comprehensive comfort coverage’. But unlike many insurance policies, God always delivers on his promises. Always! Think about it: The physicians calls with terrible test results; the job just evaporated; the stock market tanked; the teenager rebelled; the marriage crumbled. Hour after hour, day after day, tear after tear, the God of mercies is poised to supply us all the comfort we need in the place we need it most – our heart.
Inward comfort for “all our affliction” means God’s comforting-grace is sufficiently vast to console us in ‘all’ the dark places where trials and afflictions tempts us. God’s comforting-grace exposes the cravings for self-pity, self-indulgence, self-flagellation, self-atonement – the God-replacing comforts that distract us.
The taste of God’s consolation stays with us, until our hearts see what Paul saw and say what Paul said. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort”.
In a broken world where we have no control over the arrival of bad news, that’s the kind of promise that makes all the difference.
3 Paths to Travel
In 2 Corinthians 1:3-6, Paul provides three paths of travel to guide the Corinthians towards lasting comfort. We’ve already looked at the upward and inward path. Here we cover the path the moves us out towards others. But first, let’s return to the passage!
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.
Comfort isn’t merely vertical, as if the Christian life was just a ‘me-and-God’ thing. God’s comfort is not given to create ‘comfort consumers’ – Christians occupied exclusively with our own needs and blind to the suffering of others. That’s a comfort-keeper, not a comfort-carrier. No, the direction moves from God to our hearts and then out towards others, “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.” God’s comfort arrives with God’s intention – that we might be comfort-conveyors, people who experience comfort and then pass it along.
It’s really pretty simple. God comforts us that we might care for others.
Paul presses the point further. “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”. Paul seems to be saying that his affliction is actually given to supply comfort and compassion to others. Are you taking all of this in? God is so serious about His people helping each other that he’ll even afflict us to position us to care for others.
If you’re detecting a strange smell right now, it may be your paradigm on suffering shifting without a clutch.
I don’t want my friends to suffer. But I can’t begin to describe the difference it’s made in my life that I’ve sat across from people who get my cares and calamities on an experiential level. You know it immediately when they speak. There’s nothing clinical or abstract; it’s raw, real, and relevant. It’s also a great comfort to know they are enduring, and maybe even prospering. It’s a great mercy to see that they encountered grace. And it’s a great relief to know that we are not going crazy!
If we want our comfort to truly bear fruit, it must be conveyed to others. It must be shared in our churches, small groups, and communities. We have been given a genuine comfort grounded in the God of all comfort. We have something real to offer others. Something that lasts.
Paul understands. He told the Corinthians, “For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn— fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more” (2 Cor. 7:5-7).
Paul was discouraged and afflicted. But a friend (Titus) sat down with him in that despondent moment. Titus reported, Paul listened, comfort came. Titus spoke of the Corinthians’ love and zeal for Paul. Titus’s lips were moving, but for Paul, God himself was speaking straight to his soul.
It’s worth saying again. Affliction is not simply God’s growth strategy for us. It certainly includes that, but it’s far more than that. God calls us to think beyond our pain to the people that might be served by it. Yes, it’s a big Ask from God. It seems totally counterintuitive; helping others is honestly the last thing we want to do when we suffer.
Sheila understood. The pregnancy came after 5 years of waiting and then it all ended one rainy afternoon when the technician couldn’t find the heartbeat. The grief seemed overwhelming, but the grace was there too. Now Sheila is sitting with Jenny, who just received the news of her own miscarriage. Sheila weeps with Jenny – she understands the pain. Sheila prays for Jenny, she comprehends the hurt. And when Sheila speaks of hope, Jenny listens with a hope-filled heart. She thinks, “If God met Sheila, he can meet me too.”
Jenny is comforted. In a strange way, Sheila is comforted too. All because she had the courage to go outward.
How good of God! He doesn’t call us to suffer alone, or without the tangible help of an informed comforter. God anticipates our needs and prepares customized care when we need it most!