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 2:3
Make no mistake – this world does not operate under a system of comfort but rather a system of survival of the fittest whether it is in the school playground or the board rooms of major corporations. Comfort and compassion in the midst of troubles come from God whether He is recognized as the author of it or not.
But how do we experience comfort in suffering? Doesn’t suffering, by definition, leave no room for comfort? Comfort and suffering (troubles) don’t co-exist but are strongly related as our biblical text attests. Comfort and suffering don’t co-exist but they can come in alternating waves. A person can be suffering from the loss of a loved one but moments of reprieve can come by way of a friend’s presence or an unexpected mercy and then later grief can hit again with a raging force and then later God’s comfort comes again to sustain.
He is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort whether it comes as sustaining relief or in spurts of reprieve that give just enough hope to take the next breath.
We can experience comfort during periods of trouble and hardship. Let me suggest four reasons why we don’t feel God’s comfort or at least not get all the comfort available to us.
1: We don’t feel God’s comfort because we don’t ask for it
We will seek comfort from almost anybody or anything before we ask for it from God. Call it unbelief, pride, plain laziness or lack of imagination. Whatever it is, it does not depend upon or uphold the one who is called “the Father of compassion and all comfort.” Mercifully, He gives it out anyway to those who don’t even care much for Him. But how much more is our hope and faith enlarged when we ask for it, keeping our spiritual antennas pointing in all and any direction as we wait for his timing.
2: Comfort may not come immediately and so we are disappointed and distrustful
Waiting on the Lord is a frequent refrain in the Psalms and is fundamental to the meaning of faith and belief. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) Some of the great saints, preachers, missionaries, and hymn writers as well as many clients and friends of mine have been sufferers of depression and experienced great losses; but they were believers in the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and were all the wiser and compassionate for it. Their experiences of waiting on God have given hope to innumerable sufferers.
3: Comfort does not always come to us in the way we expect.
We may be failing to recognize God’s comfort because it is not being delivered in a way we are used to or want. We must be alert for the subtle comforts of God.
Acts 17 of the New Testament reports a theological sermon Paul gave to some Greek intellectual philosophers who were being introduced to the Christ- way for the first time. At one point in his debate he says in reference to humankind “that they should seek God, and perhaps reach out for him and find him. Though he is not far from any one of us.”
He is close at hand but we miss Him because our antennas (if even up) are pointing only in certain common directions. God’s comfort is sometimes so close that it is missed. I have a friend who experienced disappointing career reversals and then had to leave her home. She was sitting in her car after clearing out the last vestiges of a life she loved. Sitting there alone she wondered where God’s care and comfort were for her and her family. At that moment she noticed a disabled refugee she had seen limping along the street many times before but paid little attention to. This time she watched him as he bent down to gaze at a small dandelion. He then looked up, turned towards her with a big toothless grin in what seemed to be a response to the beauty of a simple blooming weed. That was the moment my friend saw and felt the compassion and comfort of God. And it was through a man with far less material wealth and physical comfort than she. She drove off comforted by faith in a God who was there and whose compassion was shown to her in an unexpected, humbling way.
4: Suffering is not understood as having any value
A paraphrase of the last part of this verse goes something like this: “there will come a time when you will comfort others. The comfort you received from God when you were suffering will allow you to ‘pay it forward.’
When I was a young woman I suffered from a serious anxiety disorder. By today’s standard of mental health care I would likely have benefited from an SSRI and cognitive behavioral therapy. (A lot has changed in forty years.) Instead I received comfort through my Christian community even though it felt endlessly drawn out. I am pretty sure that if God had supernaturally spoken to me with a promise that someday I would be providing comfort to others because of the troubles I was having I would have said, “No thank you”. I would have still pleaded for the quickest and most permanent relief intervention possible. And there would have been nothing wrong with that reaction. He would have understood and expected it. But my life was to take a different course. In hindsight I can see that without that experience I would have missed out one of my life’s greatest privileges and satisfactions. I am a mental health clinician today because of my training and education. I am an empathic health clinician because of the “troubles” I went through in my early adult years and the benefits I received through the community of faith. God leveraged what happened in my life to later help me help others.
But, there is a caveat to all this. Proceed gingerly and prayerfully before telling a sufferer of how God is going to use their suffering. I just told my sad story but there are much, much sadder stories than mine being experienced. A bible verse like the one quoted above has truth but the messenger of that truth will more than likely be the Holy Spirit working through someone who has gone through a similar hardship to offer comfort to another.
In closing, I almost gave up this blog post several times. As I worked on it over the course of a week I had periods of discomfort and discouragement. I worried about a return of cancer and a host of other things. I felt like a hypocrite. But at the same time I had moments of insight and comfort so I stayed with it. And isn’t this an imitation of life? We have periods of discomfort, discouragement and trouble. We feel like giving up. But we persist, or rather God persists, comforting us, particularly if we ask Him for it, and then we wait and look for it in the ordinary and the extraordinary. And dare I suggest, when we come through it, it is time to pay it forward.