In Our Affliction (1:4)
I am often struck by one prevailing assumption of Scripture that we often miss (largely because many of us disagree with it) – the people of God knew one another’s business. A large reason we cannot (or do not) apply much of the biblical teaching about overcoming our struggles is because we insist on making application in private. That is the equivalent of trying to perform a “Three Stooges” routine with only one actor.
As Paul talks about receiving comfort for life’s struggles, he assumes these struggles would be shared with the church. This is the only way “those who have received comfort” from God could every share that same comfort with someone who is currently struggling.
To this it is often rebutted, “You do not have to be a part of a church (or open with fellow believers) to be a Christian.” I agree. But I would respond, “You also do not have to have a home to be a human, but I have not met many (any) healthy, homeless humans.” Our goal is not mere survival (getting into Heaven), but living the healthy Christian life God designed as a living testimony to God’s wisdom and goodness so that we can offer that hope (comfort) to others.
Application: Do not wait until you are in a crisis to start being uncomfortably honest with fellow Christians about your life. Whatever self-consciousness or pride that keeps you from accessing the comfort and guidance of God’s people is a tool of Satan in your life; a foothold specially designed for your destruction. In order to correctly apply Scripture, you must believe that private, isolated Christian faith is necessarily anemic and contrary to God’s design.
That We May Comfort
II Corinthians 1:3-5 implies that Christians should be excellent at giving comfort. We all suffer in a world that is broken. We have a Father who is full of mercy and comfort. We share the comfort we have received. The problem is that in our impatience, insecurity, or idealism Christians are often not skilled at giving comfort.
Consider the following suggestions as ways to increase your ability to share the comfort we receive from God.
- Listen – you are offering comfort not answers. How often does Scripture ask us to pray? God listens to our struggles. If we are offering God’s comfort to one another, then we should be eager to listen. When we listen we do not merely learn what has happened to our friend, but how our friend is making sense of what happened. If we are going to comfort we need to know both facts and interpretation.
- Incarnate – your presence means as much as your words. How many times does God say “I will be with you”? Suffering makes us feel awkward and alone. Having someone near counter these two emotional lies (awkward “your suffering makes you unacceptable”; alone “no one cares”). God put the Truth in flesh, so should we.
- Identify – you are not comparing suffering but relating stories. This is not saying “I know exactly what you feel. I have been there.” It is saying, “I have had my faith shaken by hardship too. Your questions, fears, or anger are rationale. When the time is right we’ll try to figure out if they’re true.”
- Be Moved – you are not their Rock but their friend. A stoic response does not usually comfort. If you can hear someone’s suffering without being moved you either do not get it or have no heart (from their perspective). Jesus allowed Himself to be moved by the pain of those around Him.
- Speak Biblically, Yet Tentatively – you do not “know” God’s working in their small story but only in The Big Story. Be careful how emphatically you declare that you know what God is doing in this situation. Give general truths about suffering at a pace they can be received. It is possible to kill a patient with the right treatment, before he is ready to receive it.
An Honest Example (1:8)
These are surprising words to hear from the apostle Paul, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” They are even more surprising when you consider they are in the introduction of a letter where Paul is defending the legitimacy of his teaching and ministry against false teachers who were challenging Paul’s authority.
Paul shows us two important things in this verse. First, a teacher must follow his own instruction. If Paul was going to tell the Corinthians to be open and receive comfort in their affliction (v. 3-5), then he must model the same vulnerability. Second, godly human authority should not hide its own weaknesses. Too often we have applied a leader’s qualification to be “above reproach (II Tim 3:2)” as being “most hidden, secretive, or off limits.” This is another Christian paradox “strong” does not mean “without weakness.”
Reflection: Paul was more concerned with following his teaching about how to deal with life’s struggles than he was with putting up a front that he was perfectly keeping the standard of God that he proclaimed (i.e., “do not be anxious about anything” Phil 4:6). Why do you think Paul was more concerned with modeling God’s methods than in hiding his struggle to live up to God’s standards? How do you think this effected (for better or worse) Paul’s defense of the legitimacy of his ministry (II Cor 10)?
Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.