I’ve known about the Biblical kind of comfort that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, gives to believers way back when I was teaching at a missionary children’s boarding school in Guatemala. A few other teachers and I got together for a Bible study, and of all things we chose 2 Corinthians to study.
Right away we had to deal with the subject of comfort, and by extension, the reason we need comfort: suffering. Yep. Comfort that the Holy Spirit gives is the kind of arms-wrapped-around-a-grieving-person kind of empathy. An I’ve-got-you kind of presence. A lean-on-Me whisper to one about to collapse under the weight of anguish or despair or bereavement.
Here’s what Paul said after his intro:
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 will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (vv 3-4)
I admit, I was taken aback when I read the first lines of the response penned by a person in our church as part of our “Ears to Hear” read-through of the New Testament:
I guess that when I think of comfort, I first think of “ease and comfort.” This is like the easy life, or “the life of Riley” as people said a while back.
Somehow I’d divorced the word comfort from its dual meanings. It never crossed my mind that the Bible was talking about anything other than the empathetic care and concern God has for us when we are going through hardship. And as the next verses show, Paul was particularly thinking of the hardship Christians experienced because of their faith in Christ.
So, could the word refer to the ease and comfort notion, especially that which a group of professing Christians hold to be ours for the claiming? Was Paul saying that God greases the wheels for those dealing with affliction so that they’ll quickly move to a place of comfort and ease? That they’ll be relieved of their troubles and will soon embrace health, wealth, and happiness?
I think that’s a perverse interpretation. It cheapens what God actually promises. The original word which we translate as comfort is parakaleō, and it’s first meaning is “to call to one’s side, call for, summon.” Clearly, the promise God is giving to those suffering is His presence. It also means “to console, to encourage and strengthen by consolation, to comfort.” God’s promise, then, is that He will build up the suffering saint in the inner being.
This understanding fits particularly with Paul’s autobiographical illustration, when he and those with him were so hard pressed by the opposition that they “despaired even of life” (v 8b). They were either so overwhelmed they felt like giving up or they saw no way to escape those who were trying to kill them. Either way, Paul needed comfort.
The other thing that caught my attention in these verses about comfort is that God wants us to turn around and give to others what He gave to us. I’ve seen this principle at work often, and it is beautiful. Perhaps the first time I experienced it was when my dad died suddenly of a heart attack. He hadn’t been in the hospital a day in his life, and suddenly he was gone.
Needless to say, I was in need of comfort. One of my neighbors, who I knew only in passing, took the time to put his arm around me and say, I know what you’re going through. I lost my dad in the same way when I was young. Suddenly I was not alone. I could grieve with someone who understood, and it was . . . a great comfort.
Since then, I’ve been able to put my arm around others and say, I know what you’re going through. I lost my dad suddenly, too.
In God’s economy, He gives us comfort, not for us to hoard, but to share. We generously receive from His hand that we may in turn give to others in their time of need. This kind of comfort, by the way, is not the lie so many give: It’s OK.
It’s not OK that you lost a loved one. Death is the enemy, a result of sin, a foe that needed a Victorious Warrior to defeat it. It’s not OK that you’re suffering for your faith. That’s sin and Satan working to cover your light, to make your salt useless. It’s not OK that you lost your job or that your spouse cheated on you or that your son is on drugs. The sin of this world that affects us personally is not OK. It’s NOT! So why do people trying to bring comfort say that it is?
When we admit that the suffering we’re experiencing is wrong and that it hurts and that it changes all of life, then we can accept the comfort God offers for us. When we’re at a helpless state, God sends the Helper.
He won’t lie to us and tell us it’s OK. He will say, I’ll be with you when the waters overflow, I’ll never leave you or forsake you, I’ll walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death. And that’s the kind of comfort a sufferer needs.