Affliction. Suffering. We’ve all been there, or we will be. Suffering is an inevitable part of the Christian life. The more I explore the Scriptures, the more often I see God’s Word addressing affliction and suffering and pain. Each of the difficulties we face is an opportunity to observe just how our merciful God meets our needs—our every need—through the gospel of grace.
There are many types of affliction that come to the lives of believers in Jesus…it can be affliction resulting from simply believing in Jesus, affliction resulting from living out our faith, affliction that results from our own bad choices—our own sin—or suffering that results from relationship problems or the sin of others. Our children may walk away from us. Our spouse may have a problem they are struggling with. Our boss at work may have a goal of making us as miserable as possible.
Then there is the affliction that comes seemingly randomly. That is, affliction that comes to our lives that in our view has no apparent reason; affliction that comes to our lives only because it is part of God’s overall plan for our lives. And no, we will not necessarily understand the “why” of it. We will not necessarily understand God’s purpose. In fact, more often than not, from a human perspective, we will see no good reason for the random suffering that comes to our lives—period.
Even though what we will be examining this morning applies to all forms of affliction, I would like you to be thinking about affliction that seemingly comes out of nowhere, suffering that is not the result of the sin of others, affliction that is not a consequence of our own sin. Comfort in that affliction is an important part of that discussion.
3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4who 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. 5For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 6If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. 7Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7, ESV)
How does Paul start out this section of his letter to the Corinthians? He intentionally praises God, even though, as we will see, he had gone through an extremely difficult time in his life. He made the time to praise God, thereby demonstrating his confidence in God. Again, he had gone through an intense time of affliction, but he knew for certain that God was with him through it and that God would never forsake him, no matter what! God gives you and me that same assurance in the midst of our affliction…
Paul knew that praising God in the midst of trouble causes us to focus on him, rather than on our affliction. Doing so will tend to keep us from replaying in our minds, over and over again, the difficulties we are experiencing. I have observed that praising God enables us to see, as Spurgeon talked about, the fact that God uses our troubles for our good and for his glory.
In v. 3, Paul referred to God himself as the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He saw God as full of compassion, as a God who felt pity at the sight of the affliction of one of his people. He knew that only God is the source of all mercies, the source of all compassion. God alone can provide divine deliverance from our troubles and difficulties. Remember that—we’ll come back to it in a few minutes.
It is worth noting that Paul mentions the mercies of God before he dives into the afflictions we experience. He also refers to God as the God of all comfort—the word for “comfort” has the same root as the word for Holy Spirit and conveys the idea of encouragement. Comfort here is not referring to mere support or some kind of inspiration. Instead, it refers to God’s transformative compassion. His love for us and his kindness to us comes in the form of encouragement, and it changes us. It changes how we view the suffering we are in. It causes us to understand and recognize that only his compassion can have any impact on the affliction we experience. It results in us being able to do what Paul talks about in v. 4, comforting, encouraging others with the same comfort God has provided to us. In Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, David Powlison wrote, “What we learn from God in our particular affliction becomes helpful to others in any affliction.”
Finally, understand, God is not only the God of some comfort, but the God of ALL comfort. He is the one who encourages us in the midst of our afflictions.
The comfort or encouragement that God provides us is comfort that is accomplished by God presently, that is, currently and actively, in the midst of whatever difficulty we face—and it is not something that we can cause to happen. Not only that, but God encourages us through our afflictions, through our tribulations. Nowhere are we told as believersthat we are exempt from suffering. No. It is understood from Paul’s language that we will go through difficulties, afflictions, suffering and tribulation. Even so, God moves us through that suffering—remember, he said he comforts us in our affliction—providing encouragement along the way, and not just in some cases, but, Paul says, in all affliction, to the exclusion of nothing!
Also in v. 4, we get a glimpse of one possible result, one possible outcome, of the afflictions that come our way—Paul said, “so that”—that tells us there is a reason—“so that we may be able to comfort (encourage) those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God”.
Here we have a statement of a habitual action on God’s part, along with a statement of fact—“with which we are comforted” is a description of the encouragement that comes our way from God not just on one occasion, but continuously. It is a habitual action on his part that we receive encouragement from him and it is a certainty. God continuously providing comfort to us in our afflictions is a fact. Period.
Because of that fact, we all have the ability, the gifting, to encourage and to comfort, other believers as a lifestyle, as a continuous action. It goes without saying some of us have that ability more than others, but all of us can provide comfort to one who is suffering. Again, Powlison: “What we learn from God in our particular affliction becomes helpful to others in any affliction.” Understand that what Paul says here is not a command for us to comfort others. No, instead, it is a statement that describes what the believer’s life will look like, that is, one of providing comfort to fellow believers when they are suffering. We have the privilege of mediating God’s comfort to others in any and all affliction they may be experiencing! John Piper said, “suffering is a primary means of building compassion into the lives of God’s servants.” He is right. We do have the privilege of showing compassion to our fellow believers. This show of compassion is what characterizes our lives as believers. But too often, we don’t do so.
So what keeps us from comforting others in their time of affliction? If you think about it, way too often, our identity is tied up in what we can be to other people. Our identity is tied up in what others may think of us, or it is tied up in how we think they see us—instead of who we are in Christ—that we are loved by God because of what Christ did for us. In other words, we are focused on ourselves instead of others. We are focused on ourselves rather than on who we are in Christ.
So, because we see our identity wrongly—that is, what we can be to others or how they see us—what keeps us from comforting other believers is the radical self-centeredness of the human heart. So often, we don’t think we can provide comfort and encouragement to another believer who is going through a time of suffering. Again, that’s because we are self-absorbed and egocentric. We are worried about ourselves and our perceived inability more than we are aware of our identity in Christ—or more than we are concerned about a fellow believer. We are worried we might do or say the wrong thing, or we worry that we won’t know what to say, all because we are worried about what another may think of us. And to justify our self-absorption, we tell ourselves, “well that’s the Pastor’s job anyway”. Really?
I read an account of a man we will call Sam who was going through a very difficult time. Sam had two visitors (as opposed to Job’s three visitors). The first guy that came along sat and talked about his own difficulties, his own experiences with suffering, and talked about how sin could be the problem behind Sam’s suffering. This guy asked Sam what God was teaching him through his difficulties, and told him that he needed to “cling to the promises” in the Bible. He pulled out the old standby, Romans 8:28, and laid it on Sam. He prayed with Sam, but his “prayer” was more preaching at Sam than intercession for him. Sam couldn’t wait for the first visitor to leave.
Now, theology is important, but timing is everything.
The second visitor came, sat with Sam, cried with him, and just listened to him as he poured out his grief. He offered no cure for Sam’s suffering from Scripture, he didn’t talk about what might have been the reason for the affliction—he just listened and prayed with him. When it came time for the second visitor to leave, Sam said, “I didn’t want him to go”.
Why? Why did Sam want the second guy to stay with him? Because the second guy was living out the gospel. He wasn’t worried about how he looked—he was focused on his identity in Christ, which allowed him love God and therefore love his neighbor. He was not concerned about what Sam might think of him because he knew that what Jesus had already done was what Sam needed in his time of affliction.
You and I experience the comfort of God for a reason, and it’s not just for our benefit. We do not have to be “skilled” in comforting others. All it takes is an understanding—however limited—of what Jesus has done for us and an understanding—however limited—of the comfort God has provided for us. We don’t have to be great theologians. And because of what God has already done on our behalf, God will use us in the lives of others.
5For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 6If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. 7Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
Sharing in Christ’s sufferings does not mean that we add anything to his suffering, as if his suffering was insufficient to achieve God’s purposes. His suffering was sufficient. Paul is telling us that just as Jesus endured suffering, so too will we. The suffering we endure is for God’s glory. As a result of our faithfulness in the midst of that suffering, God’s name is glorified.
The abundant comfort, the comfort that is more than sufficient that we receive through Christ, is not only a certainty (a fact), but is more than enough to counter the things that press down on us as they come our way. The difficulties, the suffering, the afflictions do not necessarily come our way individually, either. It may seem that one area of our lives is improving and then we identify another area that is hurting—or two or three! Even so, even if the afflictions come in a bunch, the comfort and encouragement that come from God through Jesus is enough to overwhelm each of those afflictions.
Paul makes the point that our afflictions and resulting comfort from God through Christ benefits the body of Christ, the church.
6If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort…we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. [v. 6, 7b]
Paul knew that the believers in Corinth were also experiencing affliction, and that together, God was cultivating patient endurance in all of them.
…when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. [v. 6b]
He recognized that whatever he went through was going to benefit the church at Corinth. The reverse is also true—what the believers in the church experience benefits the individual believers in the church. How so? Well, we are given the privilege of being witnesses to the dispensing of God’s grace in our lives and in the lives of other believers. We get to see how, because of God’s grace, other believers patiently endure the affliction that comes their way. This aspect of community is why being in community is so important!
As a result, we do not give in to despair. No. Paul said, …our hope for you is unshaken…[v.7] So instead of despair, we as believers have hope—and that is not a trust in our own ability to “get through” the suffering, because on our own, we cannot “get through” our suffering. The hope we have is a living hope, a hope in the future. The hope we have is in God, remembering that it is God who sustains us, it is God who strengthens us, it is God who encourages and comforts us in all our affliction [think back to v. 3]. Remember, Jesus preceded us in all of it! He has already borne the affliction for you and for me.
Do you see that here? In the worst thing that could ever happen, the death of the Son of God, Jesus died for us enduring the wrath and the fury of God, and took our hopelessness to the cross with him. The best thing that ever happened was the resurrection of Jesus. As a result, we can now have hope for the immediate future and for the ultimate future, the New Heaven and the New Earth.
Can we comprehend that totally? No. Obviously not. I certainly can’t wrap my head around it completely. But that is exactly what Paul was talking about in v.3—“mercies” and “comfort” = divine deliverance from our troubles and difficulties…the gospel—Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection—turns all of the suffering, pain and affliction around. The gospel guarantees the believer a time in the future where there will be no tears, suffering, or pain.
Again, Keller: “The erosion or loss of hope is what makes suffering unbearable”. He continued, “Human beings are hope-shaped creatures. The way you live now is completely controlled by what you believe about your future”. What do you believe about your future? Do you think that this is all there is? If you do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ, then there is no hope for the life to come, let alone hope in this life. I mean, without Jesus, this is all there is.
On the other hand, if you know that you know that Jesus saved you, rescued you from the consequences of your sin—that is, eternal damnation—then you know that you know that this is not all there is. There is so much more! In Revelation 21, John talks to us about the New Heaven and the New Earth where we will be with God, where every tear will be wiped from our eyes, where there will be no more death, or mourning, or crying or pain—no more suffering and affliction! Without question, the affliction, suffering and pain we experience here now is so very difficult. At times it is, as Paul says in v. 8, utterly burdensome, beyond our strength, and immeasurable. We think we can’t go on. We are at our wits end.
¨ when our hearts are gripped by the gospel of grace,
¨ when we have a right view of ourselves,
¨ when we see ourselves for who we really are in Christ,
¨ and then when we think of the suffering Jesus endured on our behalf,
¨ when we think about the suffering God the Father endured on our behalf in the voluntary giving of his only begotten Son to pay our penalty of sin,
¨ THEN we are strengthened, we are encouraged, we are comforted.
Remember, 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. [2 Corinthians 5:21]
God did not withhold his only Son. Jesus came and voluntarily walked to the cross. Did Jesus want to do that? No. Remember he asked the Father to “let this cup pass”? Jesus was in such distress that he was sweating drops of blood, because he knew what was ahead for him. If anyone knew what affliction, suffering and pain was all about, it was Jesus. What Jesus endured was worse than we could ever imagine, in that he bore the brunt of the Father’s wrath, AND was utterly forsaken by the Father. And all that he endured was then credited to you and to me. That is the gospel, that is good news, and that gives us comfort in our affliction!
The gospel is why the hope Paul talks about is reliable, firm, and valid—a guarantee from God that is in concrete. It is important to remember, though, that this has absolutely nothing to do with our own ability, or with our own level of spiritual maturity. If we think too highly of our spiritual maturity, we will fall flat on our faces. On the other hand, complete trust in God opens us up to God’s comfort and encouragement.
Think about it, we have a great high priest—Jesus—who has the ability to sympathize with our weaknesses, in the midst of our afflictions, and because of that, we can confidently draw near to the throne of grace and receive mercy and grace in our time of need.
8For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 11You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. (2 Corinthians 1:8-11, ESV)
Here, Paul provides us with a concrete example of what he is talking about.
For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. [v. 8b, 9a]
Let’s be honest. Many of us have or will at one time or another in our Christian life think that what has come to us is so horrible we just cannot continue on. The grief will seem totally unbearable. We lose sleep. We can’t concentrate. Our minds wander. We may find ourselves in bitter anguish as we suffer affliction, and think death would be a welcomed alternative. We wonder what God is up to, and, if we are really honest, we ask ourselves how he could really be sovereign over the entire universe. That is reality—
That is exactly what Paul was thinking.
We must realize that we must find our comfort in God or we will find no comfort at all. That comfort comes in the form of the “peace of God”, which is not only the calm we experience when we trust God, but also the sense of protection we experience when our trust is in him. This is what the psalmists were talking about when, in the midst of affliction, they talked about the LORD, saying the LORD is our strength, rock, shield, refuge, defender, stronghold, salvation, fortress, deliverer, and the horn of salvation.
This sense of protection is the knowledge that nothing will come to our lives that he has not already provided for.
Though we do not know the nature of the affliction he experienced in Asia (it is not recorded in Acts), Paul wanted them to see first hand what he was talking about. What we do know is that the affliction was beyond measure—it could not be quantified. He thought for sure he was a dead man. He believed he was going to die because what he experienced was no different from a death sentence handed down by a judge. The word “despair” communicates the idea that there was no exit or way of escape available to him. He was so weighed down that he had no hope from a human perspective. In short, he was depressed. But, in v. 10, he says God rescued him from what he perceived to be a death penalty, and, Paul says, “he will deliver us”. In other words, he recognized that it was God who saved him from that death penalty, from that utterly burdensome affliction in Asia, and it is God who continues to rescue him. Look again…
10He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.
The verb “deliver” has the idea of “preserving” or “keeping intact”. Paul is talking about the past deliverance by God, and the continuing deliverance God provides for those who are his. He is pointing out how God preserved him in the past, and his assurance that God would preserve him in the future. He was absolutely confident—notice he said, “On him we have set our hope”—he knew in his heart that God would continue to deliver him from all trials and suffering. He knew that because he knew that no affliction is able to cancel out God’s love and his gospel. Our hope IS the gospel! We’ve been delivered by the gospel—what Jesus did and who he was—and we continue to be delivered by the gospel.
So why? Why the affliction? Why did he sense the sentence of death in the midst of affliction?
But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. [v. 9b]
Paul saw the deliverance God provides is not unlike being raised from the dead. He recognized that the result of his affliction was his dependence on God and not on himself, to rely on God, to rest in his plan for his life. My friends, get that! The result of his affliction—and the result of your affliction and my affliction—is our dependence on God rather than on ourselves! That is what happens when the gospel is applied to our lives!
God’s design for every believer is for us to be persuaded, to be confident, to trust in God alone! Not in ourselves! This word “rely” also conveys the idea of doing so because we have been trusting him already, in the past, and that we are continuing to rely on him alone, with the result being permanent. It is existing, it is living in a state of complete trust in God alone!
Depending on self can be an easy thing to do when going through affliction. Why? It is because relying on one’s own strength, one’s own abilities rather than on God is our default mode. But there is nothing we can do for ourselves. Depending on ourselves, or being confident in our own abilities in the midst of affliction is useless, and gains us nothing. But, resting in what Jesus has already done on our behalf enables us to recognize that:
10He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.
Paul testifies to the fact that it was God who delivered him in the past, it was God who rescued him from the affliction he referred to in v. 8. It was God who rescued him from the certain death he had faced. But he also confidently testifies to the fact that God will rescue him from any and all affliction in the future, that God’s deliverance continues into the future. Of that, he is certain. It’s not a maybe. It’s not “gee, I hope”, like we say today. No, he is absolutely confident that God’s deliverance—the gospel—has already been accomplished at a specific point in the past and that it continues into the future.
God wants to wean us from the world and confidence in ourselves, and he wants to set our hope fully in him alone. Suffering, Paul told the Roman church in chapter 5, results in hope!
Do you understand what all of that means for you and for me? It means we don’t have to do it! Getting through the afflictions of this life is not dependent on our own abilities, or our own strength! It all has to do with God’s ability and his strength. It has everything to do with what Jesus did on our behalf. We merely rest in—we don’t work for—no, we rest in what he has already done. “Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God.” [Asaph in Psalm 50] That is God’s design for us.
11You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. (2 Corinthians 1:11, ESV)
Here, Paul again emphasizes the importance of being in community. We need you, Paul said, to join with us in prayer, interceding on our behalf, thereby participating in the ministry God has given to us. He recognized that the prayers of the Corinthian saints were effectual, not only because of the blessing—the gift, the demonstration of his grace in the deliverance that was theirs—granted to him and those with him, but because of the outpouring of thanksgiving to God by other believers.
It is no different today—our church emails a newsletter every week that has a link that will take you to the prayer requests. The people on that list, Paul would say, need you! They need your prayer support just like Paul needed prayer support!
We must remember that the churches Paul wrote to were no different than the churches of today, in that they were populated by broken, fallen people. As a result, just like today, the Corinthians had a tendency to be self-sufficient. Verse 11 blows that tendency out of the water, in that Paul instructs us to remember that because we are a part of the church, a body of believers, we are dependent upon one another for prayer, support, and encouragement. We do not exist in a vacuum. God has brought us together for many purposes, and supporting one another in prayer is just one of those purposes. The excuse provided for forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, that is, “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian”, is just that. An excuse, a false reason that enables somebody to do something he or she wants to do or avoid something he or she does not want to do. In light of Scripture, it does not hold water.
Brothers and sisters, the result of our affliction is dependence on our holy and sovereign God. He comforts us in our affliction, and we in turn comfort others with that same comfort. It’s not something we HAVE to do, it is something we just do because we “get” the gospel, because we know that our ultimate comfort is in the gospel of grace.