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. 2 Cor. 1.3-5
Someone once said the main task of the preacher is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. At times, it seems Christians require both. Following Paul’s painful letter (1 Cor. 5.9) and visit (2 Cor. 2.1), which was brought about by an unaddressed moral issue in the church, things have turned around. They had repented from their indifference regarding a sin affecting them all (2 Cor. 7.6-16). At least that’s what Paul has heard and hopes to be true. Right at the beginning of this letter, Paul speaks of comfort in affliction because he knows they are still distressed over his honesty regarding their sin. Sometimes, the truth must cut and wound before it can heal. Because Paul is not sure the issue has been totally resolved, he continues to tell them the truth, even if it hurts (cf. Proverbs 27.5-6).
Not only were they still ‘smarting’ from this word and visit from Paul, they were living in one of the most difficult places to be a Christian. Corinth was notorious even among pagans for its outrageously immoral lifestyle. Its low standards were proverbial, as those who were influenced by them were said to be “Corinthianized”. We, like the Corinthians, suffer the temptation to live like those around us, who may appear to have it better than we do. It’s easier to ‘go with the flow’ than to swim upstream and be a true follower of Christ. Affliction comes to us in a variety of ways, yet Paul tells us that God himself comforts us in it. In fact, he will even use our own struggles to help comfort others.
The prince of preachers, Charles Spurgeon, once wrote the following regarding affliction in the Christian life:
It is almost needless for me to say that, in some respects, the same events happen unto all men alike—in the matter of afflictions it is certainly so. None of us can expect to escape trial. If you are ungodly, “many sorrows shall be to the wicked.” If you are godly, “many are the afflictions of the righteous.” If you walk in the ways of holiness, you shall find that there are stumbling blocks cast in the way by the enemy. If you walk in the ways of unrighteousness, you shall be taken in snares and held there even unto death. There is no escaping trouble! We are born to it as the sparks fly upward. When we are born the second time, though we inherit innumerable mercies, we are certainly born to another set of troubles, for we enter upon spiritual trials, spiritual conflicts, spiritual pains and so forth—and thus we get a double set of distresses, as well as twofold mercies.
Here is a note, then, about God’s comfort in affliction. 2 Corinthians is really about God’s glory in the midst of suffering, no matter what form it takes or how it comes. Paul knows that to have someone walk beside us on the path of resistance rather than the path of least resistance is a comfort in itself. How many of us feel this comfort when we have someone come alongside and say, “I know where you are, I understand your struggle because I’ve been there too”? What Paul tells them is always true for everyone who is afflicted – that God will be with you in the fire.
My mind is drawn to a story in the Old Testament book of Daniel, where we find a group of young men who were experiencing adversity and were being pressured to bow down in worship to a pagan king named Nebuchadnezzar. Along with the king’s orders, this would likely require them to adopt the ways of the pagan society in which they were living. In a furious rage, the king responded to their refusal to bow down and serve him.
Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? … If you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Daniel 3.14-18
Their response was to serve the true God no matter what the cost. And for that, the king ordered them to be thrown into a furnace of fire. But, what he saw when they were in the fire amazed him and ultimately changed him.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?” They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.” He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.” Daniel 3.24-25
Jesus himself was with them in the fire. In the midst of their affliction Jesus delivered them.
Christian, you and I serve the same God. Although we may face affliction and find that deliverance comes in different ways, Jesus will always be there with us. He provides great comfort because he too has been afflicted (cf. Isa 53.7). He says to us, “I know where you are … I understand your struggle because I’ve been there too”. We can count on his presence even in the most difficult places and the most terrible circumstances. We ourselves may tremble and fear at what we face. Our hearts may sink and our legs may shake. We may be weak, but we are never alone.
A possible theme verse for 2 Corinthians could be found in chapter 12 verse 9:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Are you facing or enduring some hard thing today? Just know this: the Divine Presence will be with you in it. And you can walk through the fire. God does not promise to circumvent affliction, but he does promise to walk through it with us.