When I was seventeen I contracted amoebic dysentery in a Papua New Guinean village while volunteering at a youth camp. I thought I might die. I could not keep anything inside me but when I stood up for the necessary bathroom visit, I fainted. My mother, a nurse by profession, held my forehead while all my bodily fluids escaped with projectile force. At night, as soon as I cried, “I need help,” my father’s feet hit the floor and raced down the hall to come to my aid. My mother soothed and my dad strengthened. I needed both for comfort in my suffering.
The apostle Paul experienced his own “sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:9). No wonder the church in Corinth rejected him at first. He didn’t look like a blessed, God-appointed minister in their eyes. Then a “painful visit” (2:1) and a follow up, tearful (and now lost) letter (2:3–4) led to reconciliation (7:8–9).
Paul opens what we call his second letter (but actually his fourth) to the Corinthians by finding common ground with them. He has faced trouble—great pressure and burdens, far beyond his ability to endure, to the point of despair (1:8). In reality, he has suffered far worse than they realize. The apostle doesn’t reveal his specific pain (although a vast array of suffering is described in 11:23–28) but we can be sure he only survived because God intervened.
The Corinthians (and all of us) can relate on some level, for as creatures of the earth we too suffer. And as citizens of God’s kingdom, we also share in Christ’s suffering.1 But just as we suffer abundantly, we also receive God’s abundant comfort (1:5).
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who 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 NIV
Paul mentions comfort ten times in his first eleven verses. The Greek word, paraklesis, means to call someone near to help.2 It communicates the idea of one person standing alongside another in order to encourage and support them.3 The same root word, paracletos, also describes the Holy Spirit (John 14:16) and Jesus (1 John 2:1). We tend to believe we’ll be comforted only when our trouble is taken away. But God promises comfort in the midst of affliction. According to one of my pastors,
Comfort is strength shared through solidarity whenever there is suffering, ushering people into hope and trust. It leaves you soothed and strengthened.—JoAnn Hummel
Comfort starts with consolation—“being there with understanding and love, not trying to change or fix things. Comfort doesn’t change the situation itself, nor can it take away the pain, but it relays the message that someone cares and understands.4 We soothe when we say things like: That sounds really hard. That’s appalling. I’m so sorry. I mourn with you. But biblical comfort also includes strengthening—encouraging others to change their perspective, reminding them of God’s promises, or pointing out how they can be grateful.
The key here is timing. First we soothe by standing with someone in their pain. Strengthening comes later when they are ready for encouragement. When we go directly to strengthening—often quoting verses like Romans 8:28—we don’t give space for grief, lament, and the honesty of real pain. On the other hand, when we just console, we stay in the realm of touchy feeling emojis without much help. Only the Holy Spirit can help us both soothe and strengthen when the time is right.
Paul explains that suffering teaches us to patiently endure and to rely on God (1:6, 9–10). Then as we experience God’s comfort in the midst of our pain as well as his deliverance from it (after all, he can raise the dead), we learn how to comfort others.
Paul concludes his introduction by reminding us of the importance of prayer in this process. When we pray for each other, we put ourselves under the weight of another’s heavy burden and work together to lift it.3
Therefore, my friends: Rely on God. Soothe and strengthen each other. And pray for one another.
What troubles are you facing right now for which you need God’s comfort and deliverance?
How are you relying on God for comfort (for both consolation and encouragement)?
Who might you be able to comfort because you have been comforted ?
Who can you pray for today who needs comfort? Who can pray for you?
God of all comfort, on [you] we have set our hope that [you] will continue to deliver us, as [we] help [each other] by [our] prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many (2 Corinthians 1:11 NIV).
1 This is not anything we endure because we are pigheaded, stubborn, judgmental, or unable to walk in someone else’s shoes (1 Peter 4:15–16), but rather the specific suffering we endure because we belong to Christ.
4 David C. Pollock, Ruth E. Van Renken, and Michael V. Pollock, Third Culture Kids 3rd Edition: Growing up Among Worlds, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, Boston, MA: 2017), 314, 94.