"God's Comfort in the Face of Despair"
Feb.5, 2006 2Cor.1:3-11
Problems befall us in many forms. The Good News of Christ is that, when we view our problems not as pointless pain but pointers to our Heavenly Father, there is help.
Stress is a common and serious problem. 43% of all adults suffer adverse health effects due to stress. The head of the Menninger Institute has stated that up to 70% of minor ailments such as colds and fatigue are psychosomatic reactions to day-to-day stress, and also that they can lead to more serious problems. Stress has been linked to all the leading causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis, and suicide. An estimated 1 million workers are absent on an average workday because of stress-related complaints. Stress is said to be responsible in the US for more than half of the 550 million workdays lost annually because of absenteeism. This is no minor affliction!
So what causes stress for people? What makes us 'sweat'? A survey of 501 adults conducted for the Mitchum antiperspirant and deodorant company categorized the major sources of stress for typical Americans: Work was the biggest source of stress, cited by 36% of respondents. Money was second, 22%. Children was third, 10%. Then came health 7%, marriage 5%, tied with parents 5%. Only 5% said they have no stress at all in their daily lives; and 19% "a little".
What can we do? How can we cope with all this stress that's so prevalent? Our Bible reading gives us valuable insight into how the apostle Paul coped with problems in his life, with help from God and other believers.
The Apostle's Beastly Burden
In vv8-9 Paul briefly refers to severe trials he encountered in the Roman province of Asia (now Asia Minor): "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia.We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death." We're not sure just what he's referring to here, but we do know Paul encountered ferocious opposition at Ephesus, the capital of the province of Asia, as described in Act 19(29-34). Demetrius and other craftsmen stirred up a riotous mob that probably would have torn Paul limb from limb if they'd gotten their hands on him. There may have been a plot against his life - he had to leave town in a hurry; in Romans 16(4) he says Priscilla and Aquila "risked their lives" for him. At another place he says, "I fought wild beasts in Ephesus" - probably referring to the brutality of the opposition rather than actual animals (1Cor 15:32).
These hardships must have been something else. Paul says "we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself." (NRSV) It was "beyond our ability to endure" - more than they could take, humanly speaking. The word for "despaired" here means "to be utterly at loss, be utterly destitute of measures or resources, to renounce all hope, be in despair." Are there times in your life when all your resources were exhausted and you didn't know where to turn? Times when you seemed crushed unbearably - perhaps a failed business venture, a relationship that bombed, someone you thought was a friend betrayed you irreparably? Perhaps a medical condition had you 'down for the count' and the future looked pretty bleak? Then you can start to understand how Paul felt.
Stress means the pressure's on. Paul admits, "We were under great pressure..." The Greek word refers to weight, heaviness, similar to the root for "barometer" - to measure pressure. Up in v4 he talks about "all our troubles": that's a different word, like "afflictions, tribulations"; the Greek comes from the word for "press" as in a grape-press to extract the juice. Last summer Mason Bailey offered an open house at his apple orchard just west of town. We got to see apple cider being made: the apples went up a conveyor, through a chopper, then into a powerful hydraulic press which bore down and down on the apple pulp wrapped in cheesecloth until all the juice came oozing out. When the press was finished, all that was left was a pretty dry matted cake. But we were able to drink some fresh-squeezed juice, and it tasted so sweet! Unfortunately when the pressures come in a Christian's life, what exudes from us is complaining and bitterness - anything BUT sweetness. Like instead of a bushel of MacIntosh apples you'd tossed in a pailful of crab-apples!
Perhaps we're bitter sometimes because we had a wrong expectation that the Christian life should always be full of peace and tranquility because it's easy going. Surprise - becoming a Christian may actually INCREASE pressures in your life, on account of unbelievers or the enemy; it's just that now we have a supernatural Helper to assist us in coping. In v5 Paul concedes, "the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives..." Jesus Himself may be physically out of Satan's reach, but His followers are still subject to attack. In the last days, the book of Revelation (12:5,17) describes how after the male child "who will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre" is snatched up to God and to His throne, "the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring - those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus." Clearly, if we're trying to obey God and stand for Jesus, that's going to make us a bit of a lightning rod that attracts evil's negative energy.
God's Comfort Overflows
Were we left to our own devices, this would be a hopeless picture; "despair" is a strong word. But Paul turns to describe two sources of help in times of trouble - the Lord and His people.
V5, "For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows." Through faith the believer experiences a oneness with Jesus by which He strengthens and reinforces us. He's in solidarity with us through hardship. Paul knew this especially well because in his earlier life when he was persecuting Christians, Jesus interrupted him on the way to Damascus and asked, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?" When Saul asked who this was, He replied, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." (Acts 9:4f) See how the Lord identifies with His suffering church? He's aware what we're going through and wants to aid us.
Skip back to vv3-4: Paul describes God as "the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles..." The Greek word for "comfort" is paraclesis, as in "Paraclete" - Jesus' name for the Holy Spirit who "comes alongside to help" (Jn 14:16; 16:7). God's middle name is Comforter, one who gives consolation. In ALL our troubles, He comforts us - that's a big promise.
And it's not like He just takes our hand, pats us on the shoulder and says, "There, there." That would have been little help to Paul in his struggle with "wild beasts"! V10 says, "He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us...." Deliver here is to rescue as in drawing out of a pit. God brings practical, life-giving assistance. 5 times Paul was lethally whipped, receiving the 39 lashes; 3 times he was beaten with rods; once he was actually stoned - but the man gets back up and goes on living, only by God's intervention (2Cor 11:24f). V11 refers to "the gracious favour granted us" - that's God's mercy in deliverance from trials. Later in the chapter, v21 tells about even more great things God does for us: "Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come." There's a lot packed in there. God strengthens us here and now, helping us "stand firm in Christ". He anoints us with the Spirit, a 'deposit' or 'down payment' guaranteeing the good things and eternal life awaiting us. What blessing! What undeserved great fortune is ours, to possess and inherit the treasure of God's own Spirit inside us - a little ongoing foretaste of heaven.
I've heard it said that the important thing about coping with trouble is whether you allow it to drive you closer to God or further away from Him. Paul alludes to this, implying there is purpose to our hardships in the second part of v9: the hardships in Asia happened, he says, "that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead." Trials are allowed to come in order to encourage us to trust more in God, put our confidence in Him. As v10 adds, "On Him we have set our hope that He will continue to deliver us." When we sense God's comfort strengthening us during tough times, that bolsters our faith. In fact, trials may be part of God's curriculum teaching us to turn to Him when we're at the end of our rope.
Comfort is for Sharing
But there's another purpose for trouble illustrated in this passage. Paul is very clear that the sharing of hardships, relating to the struggles of other believers, strengthens our connectedness as Christians. Look again at v4: God "comforts us in all our troubles, SO THAT we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God." Our Father's intention is not just so that we be comforted ourselves, as if it stops there. No, the "Father of compassion" intends that we be equipped by our hardships to minister His consolation in turn to other people who experience similar hardships. The second half of v6 continues the thought: "If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer." The Lord wants Paul to comfort others in turn, to help them learn how to bear up under the types of hardships to which he's been subject. His example, his history - telling how God delivered him - will help others be strengthened, too.
There is a solidarity, a connectedness or sharing, in the fellowship of believers that both divides the load of hardship and multiplies the healing reinforcement. V7, "Just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort." The word 'share' is koinonos, fellowship or communion, partnering together. In Luke 5(10) we read that James and John were Simon Peter's "partners" in the fishing business - same word. Paul wasn't going through his troubles in isolation from other believers; they were all "in it together", connected. We see this reflected in the spirit-activity of praying in v11: God will continue to deliver Paul "as you help us by your prayers [so that] many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many." See how that flows? The prayer requests of "many", when responded to by God, become reason for widespread thanks to be offered by "many". So there's a connectedness not only in comfort post-hardship, but also in holding up each other's needs in prayer during the trial, and sharing in the joy of deliverance when the requests are granted.
In v11, "help us" by your prayers translates a verb meaning to work together. Later in the chapter, Paul alludes again to this "partnering": in v24 he says they don't "lord it over" the Corinthians' faith "but we work with you for your joy." It's a collaboration.
The struggle between God's Kingdom and the forces of evil calls us to transcend divisions in the body of Christ and partner with other believers. Joining together to support one another through the hardship prepares us to also share the joy of God's deliverance. It is good to see church and para-church organizations sharing together for Kingdom purposes. Recently Focus on the Family Canada opened a new Ottawa think-tank to provide resources to government leaders from a Christian perspective. The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada will address issues such as age of consent, taxation, child care, marijuana decriminalization, divorce, assisted suicide, and palliative care. Across town, Janet Epp Buckingham oversees the Ottawa office of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. But rather than seeing the IMFC as unwanted competition, she welcomes it as a valuable ally on issues of mutual concern. She says, according to ChristianWeek, "We have been stretched very thin over the last few years...I welcome having another voice, another perspective, another group...Plus, you can't just have one group saying something[to politicians]. We need to be supporting one another." [emphasis added] There's that "working together" solidarity Paul talks about.
What does this look like on an individual level? Maybe it means calling up another Christian on the phone or dropping them an email to ask for prayer about a difficult problem. Maybe it means just "hanging out" more together, getting to know one another more deeply, so that we can share tears and joys and go beyond superficial advice or pat answers. I know there were "many" praying for Allison's student visa to come through. We were at the point of despair: we'd started the process back in December, and were under the impression it would take about 10 days. Then the medical information had to be referred to Australia, which isn't usual. There seemed to be no way humanly possible of "hurrying" the process: no phone number to contact the Australia office; slow-as-molasses response by email. We'd already re-booked the flight once and it looked like it would have to be delayed even further, meaning she'd actually start missing classes. We were starting to despair; there was nothing more we could do, but rely on God and lift our faces to Him in prayer. And the eve of the day before her flight, approval came through. Were we joyful! We were happy to share the good news with those who'd been praying for us. Crisis does bring you together when faced with faith. The fellowship of other believers becomes even more precious when you're coping with problems day by day with God's help.
Speaking of visas: after many months of waiting, a Russian girl finally obtained a visa to visit her relatives in Canada for 3 months. She arrived in Canada and was shown around the various attractions, amusements, and entertainments. The young Russian seemed immensely impressed by the amount of things that people were wrapped up with. As the 3 months drew to a close, everyone expected her to defect and seek political asylum in Canada. She surprised them all by expressing a desire to return to her family in Russia and the small group of believers to which they belonged. She explained that in North America everyone seems wrapped up in "things" and doesn't have time for people. In Russia, they don't have as many material possessions and consequently they need each other. She wanted to return to a place where people relied on each other, where fellowship was important. Though they may not have had much compared to us, they knew the richness of fellowship, relying on God and partner Christians.
Roots & Wings: Rock-solid / The Invisible Updraft
About his hardships, Paul concludes in v9, "this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead." As Christ-followers, when stress comes, even serious stress that drives us to despair, we remember that God can even raise the dead. Abraham kept that confidence even when called upon as a test to sacrifice his son Isaac (Heb 11:19). We cling by faith to the stone that was rolled away from the empty tomb. "He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us." (1:10)
When we lived in northern Ontario, it was not unusual to see trees uprooted by the wind because the soil above the bedrock was quite shallow. There'd be a 6-foot wide mass of roots but only a 6-inch thick slice of soil. Now, a seed that falls into a mere handful of soil next to a boulder can sometimes grow into a large tree by sending its roots down to the earth, roots that firmly wedge it onto the rock. The wind won't blow it over because it's anchored on the rock. Likewise, our faith needs to hang on to the rolled-away stone to give us stability, relying on God to rescue us and hold us fast.
Hope in the Lord. Paul said, based on personal experience, "...it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ." (1:21) Isaiah said centuries before, "He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak...those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." (Is 40:31)
Eagles' wingspans extend to nearly 8 feet. But they don't fly like other birds, by flapping their wings. Eagles can't flap very long; they're built for soaring, and thus they can go much further on little energy.
God created our planet with invisible columns of hot air called thermals rising up here and there from the surface of the earth. Eagles find these thermals, fly into the invisible currents, stretch out their wings, and are lifted higher and higher into the sky as though ascending on an elevator. They may rise as high as 14,000 feet, so high they can't be seen with the naked eye. When they reach those heights, they emerge from the updraft, wings still spread, and they soary this way and that, traveling for miles with very little exertion of strength.
Isaiah seems to saying that, like the invisible uplifting thermal currents of this planet, God is present for His people. When we search Him out, claim His promises and trust in Him, spreading out the wings of faith, we are caught up to a higher plane. We mount up with wings like eagles; we can run and not grow weary. Hardships no longer overwhelm us when we're in partnership with Him and other Christians. The strength we need for holy, victorious living comes not from frantically flapping our wings like sparrows in distress, but from trusting in God and resting in Jesus. Let's pray.