2 Corinthians 1:3-7 “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 have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.”
I often say in our services, “Let us praise God as we sing this hymn,” and the wonder begins, ourselves, who float like specks before the eternal vision of God, yet coming before the infinite, eternal and unchangeable God and we are ascribing praise and majesty to him, and he is pleased to hear us. Sometimes when we have sung a hymn under the blessing of the Spirit of God we experience such doxology that we’re thinking, “We may as well go home now.” Our spoken words seem to plod in comparison to the flight of our praise.
As we sing I may become conscious of one sister who has lost her husband after a few years of marriage and she is missing him dreadfully, but she is singing these words from her heart,
Not a burden we bear,
Not a sorrow we share,
But our toil He doth richly repay;
Not a grief nor a loss,
Not a frown nor a cross
But is blessed if we trust and obey.
Aware also that this was their wedding hymn I find there’s a lump in my throat which prevents me singing and I have to compose myself. Grace has taught her to praise God with those words – every one of which she means – “And we never can prove the delights of his love until all on the altar we lay …”
All men need objects of praise. Michael Owen the striker for Liverpool Football Club scores a hat-trick and the crowd on the Kop raise their hands in the air and bow down towards him in praise. But there are all those other occasions when Liverpool lose, and Owen misses, and a disgruntled crowd shuffle home heads down. Their life’s comfort has disappeared. But these verses in the Bible can speak of a guaranteed comfort which is here in “all our troubles”. There is not a trouble for which there is not provided a totally adequate consolation. This seems unbelievable, but consider that young widow, whom I can now see in my mind’s eye, affirming to God in her grief that she is yet trusting and obeying him. Her loss is immense, but she is continually being comforted.
Why should we bless God? Richard Sibbes the great Puritan preacher answers that question at the beginning of his sermon on this text:-
i] It is our duty to praise him. There is never a moment when God is unworthy of our worship. That is why the angels don’t cease from praising him as they say to one another, “Look at that … consider that …see here … look there … isn’t he Holy … Holy … Holy.” God is never static for a moment – a glorious kaleidoscope of might, joy, wisdom, grace, righteousness and providential power. Isn’t it our duty to praise him?
ii] Other people are stirred by your praise. This summer I talked with the parents of a young woman who had been the librarian of the Evangelical Library in London whose life had been cut short in a motor accident caused by a careless farmer in his tractor. I sympathised with them again: I had been preaching on the Christian duty of contentment and apologised to them if I were harsh in bringing this to them. “Not at all,” they said, “we have learned so much from God in the past five years, what a faithful and loving heavenly Father he has been to us.” I was stirred and moved to thank God by their praise of him. They had told the farmer that they forgave him. They enlarged the Lord’s praises in my eyes by manifesting to me the blessings they knew.
iii] Praise makes us holier people. The ungrateful man never praises God and so his whole spirit dries up. We imagine his soul looking like an aged prune. But those who continually praise God, what healthy personalities they become as every part of their being is exercised:-
O thou my soul bless God the Lord,
And all that in me is,
Be stirred up His holy name
To magnify and bless.
Consider now the larger context of these opening words of 2 Corinthians:- the apostle is being put under some pressure to justify himself. He had attempted to return to Corinth, and had told them that he was on his way there, but he had been thwarted. So his enemies in Corinth had accused him of being fickle, in announcing his coming and then disappointing the church. “Typical of that unreliable man!” they’d said, and so Paul is protesting here, “When I planned this, did I do it lightly? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say, ‘Yes, yes’ and ‘No, no.’ (v.17). Thus, in this opening paragraph he is explaining to them why he had been delayed, telling them, “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 of life. Indeed in our hearts we felt the sentence of death” (vv. 8&9). That is the only reason he had been prevented from coming, he is saying. Paul is vindicating his own integrity, and if his enemies want to twist this providence and interpret what happened as the judgment of God coming upon him then let them be assured of this, that God delivered him from all those intense sufferings, and more, that the apostle had experienced in a remarkable new way the comfort of God. He can’t stop speaking about this comfort in these opening verses. He mentions it ten times in these five verses. “Let me assure you of the blessed reality of the comfort of God,” he is saying to them and he praises God for this.
It is something he has experienced for himself. You notice that the word ‘comfort’ is only exceeded by the frequency of the words ‘us’ and ‘we’ and ‘our.’ He is talking as a man who knows. When you hear a man who likes the sound of his own voice eventually you will discover whether he knows what he is talking about, and whether his words carry any weight. The late Donald MacDonald who pastored Greyfriars Free Church, Inverness from 1958-77, and was converted in Ness on the Island of Lewis, spoke of one of the men he remembers there, “who had a tremendous gift of memory and a rare gift of language. He could speak of the ships that go to all parts of the world. He could describe the work done aboard those ships, from the Captain downward, with all the tasks that had to be undertaken, and how they were done. He would also describe the ports where the ships landed. All this he never saw, but from the Minch” – the channel that separates the Hebrides from the north of Scotland – “Those who knew him knew that he was only passing on information that he had derived from others. His talk carried no weight, but he could tell the facts far better than some who had the experience of what he described” (Donald MacDonald, “Christian Experience”, 1988, Banner of Truth, p.84).
The apostle Paul was a total contrast with such a man. He had had a new baptism of the comfort of God, and he would never forget it. He bursts out, “Blessed be the God.” You may notice that these words are in the passive voice, and that simply means that Paul is speaking on behalf of the whole Christian community. As on each Sunday I lead you in prayer, and voice your thanks and intercession and confession, so Paul here raises his voice in praise from the whole church of God: “Praise be to the God.” He stands in aching solidarity with them in all their ‘troubles’, ‘sufferings’ and ‘distresses’ – those are the words he uses in this passage – and he renders praise on their behalf to Almighty God.
1. GOD IS THE GOD OF ALL COMFORT.
The first great fact that Paul draws to our attention is the nature of the living God.
i] He is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We can never move an inch in the Bible without meeting its teaching on the Triune God. We love that fact, and also to speak of it. Note well! There was that great Mediator whom Saul met on the Damascus Road who said to him, “I am Jesus.” That was the eternal Son of God who had humbled himself by adding to himself our human nature thus making himself dependent upon God. When he became frail flesh he came into need of the Holy Spirit, and also he had to pray without fainting to his Father for help throughout the sufferings of his life. Paul announces in our text that Almighty God – the only God there is – is the God and Father of this God-man, Jehovah Jesus Christ, and through the apostle’s meeting with Christ on the road to Damascus the living God had also become Paul’s Father. So it is through Christ that God becomes the Father of all who have believed upon the Lord Jesus. It was not as Creator that God was Paul’s Father. Of his only-begotten Son alone is he the direct Father. The many have become sons in Christ. But Jesus is Son in none. Is Christ your Lord? Then, and only then, the one God there is also becomes your Father. And it is for the sake of Jesus Christ his Son that he blesses and helps us. How remarkable it is. As a hymnist put it:-
And couldst Thou be delighted with sinners such as we
Who when we saw Thee, slighted and nailed Thee to a tree?
Unfathomable wonder, and mystery divine!
The voice that speaks in thunder says, “Sinner, I am thine.”
And what a Father he is, as we note in the second title the apostle gives to him:-
ii] He is “the Father of compassion:” I am the father of three daughters, but God can father graces. He is the fountain-head of love, joy and peace. They all originate in him, and from his infinite fulness of such graces – like a vast sea – they also pour down upon us. Where can compassion be found in this world? In God, and immeasurably so. That God who has become our Father through Christ ministers to us in every grace we need throughout our lives, so that we are never lacking because of any inability or drought in God.
Have you heard someone complain, “If only my husband were a compassionate man, or if only my minister were a compassionate man then things would have been so different. I would have kept my marriage vows: I would not have been unfaithful: I wouldn’t have got a divorce. But my husband and minister and my counsellor weren’t compassionate, and so I had every right to walk out on the marriage.” But it is not the compassion or lack of it in husband or preacher or friend that is of key importance but that your God is the Father of compassion, and that this grace flows in streams never ceasing to all who want it. That calls for songs of loudest praise, not whinging at the failures of others. Go to God your Father for compassion. He knows and cares for you deeply.
James Fraser was the minister of Alness in Ross-shire in the far north of Scotland for 44 years. No country bumpkin his father was a notable preacher and James himself wrote a book called, “The Scripture Doctrine of Sanctification” which has once again been reprinted. He has been described as “a man of singular wisdom and great integrity and steady friendship. He was a faithful counsellor; while his courteous behaviour as a gentleman, his piety as a Christian, and his great learning and knowledge as a divine, made him highly acceptable to all ranks” (Dr John Kennedy, “The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire,” Christian Focus, p.41). He was thus a minister of great stature. But James Fraser had a wife who was the very opposite of all he was, cold, unfeeling, bold and worldly, so much so that he never sat down for a comfortable meal in his own house. He would have died of hunger if his church members had not provided food for him, one of them leaving what we would call ‘packed lunches’ at a spot to which his minister regularly walked. “Even light and fire in his study were denied to him on the long, cold winter evenings, and as his study was his only place of refuge from the cruel scourge of his wife’s tongue and temper, there, shivering and in the dark, he used to spend his evenings at home. Compelled to walk in order to keep himself warm, and accustomed to do so when preparing for the pulpit, he always kept his hands before him as feelers in the dark, to warn him of his approaching the wall at either side of the room. In this way he actually wore a hole through the plaster at each end of his accustomed beat” (ibid, pp.43&44). He was in his 69th year when he died, his wife, who never softened in her attitude, outliving him.
How did James Fraser continue in the ministry, growing throughout his life as a counsellor and preacher so that many were awakened by his sermons? Not at all through the loving support of his wife. He appropriated each day the Father of compassion who responded abundantly to him. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so Jehovah pitieth them that fear him; for he knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are dust” (Ps. 103:13f). Fraser sought God and asked for his help at the beginning of the day and walked with him through the day until its close. His congregation did not have to depend on James Fraser’s own resources of wisdom, or mercy, or love. He never said to them, “That is all I have to give you.” Fraser had at his disposal the illimitable resources of every grace. He had the fulness of the super-abundant God to tap, and with that he comforted and strengthened himself and his favoured people for 44 years, even though throughout that time he had no support whatsoever in his home.
iii] He is “the God of all comfort.” In other words, there is no possible trouble for which he is not able to provide the most perfectly suited comfort. Different trials need different comforts. Think of someone whose only comfort is an occasional hug. Better than nothing, but garrison fare. Imagine a congregation being encouraged to have a hug time in a service: how artificial and meaningless – to hug on order. How pathetic! A hug alone is scarcely adequate, and can create all kinds of dangers. There is loneliness, and bereavement, and infertility, and illness, and financial problems, and rejection, and despair. A hug for each of them is as attractive as a shop announcing a sale of suits – one size to fit all shapes. One can run through a brief summary of trials, and what heart-ache lies behind every one. Variegated comforts are needed of wisdom, and patience, and creativity, and thoughtfulness. To Elijah God’s comfort was sleep and food, but for Peter his comfort was in watching and praying. Some might need a break, but others need an access of life so that they spring forth to the battle knowing that their very lives depend upon it.
Recently we received our regular letter from Caring for Life in Leeds. The tough people who work for that organisation are seeking in the name of Christ to help some of the most dysfunctional and disadvantaged members of society. What an enormous pastoral task they face, only made possible by daily receiving from the rich comfort of God. This letter describes one of the ongoing situations at the present hour. “Jason and Julie have a long- standing but stormy relationship. They will ‘move in’ with each other, then have violent rows and split up. Jason is a disturbed man, coming from a background of violence and abuse throughout his childhood. Julie also has an almost unimaginably unhappy and abusive background. Both make professions of being Christians, but getting them to understand even the basics of what Christian living means is extremely difficult. Julie has announced that she is pregnant, news which in the case of people like Julie and Jason, is the worst news we could hear. Jason, one of the most difficult people to house, has been trying to get psychiatric help. This week he ripped out his gas fire and standing with a box of matches in the gas-filled room threatened to blow himself up. The police evacuated 8 streets of houses in the middle of the night. Understandably the incident hit the headlines in Leeds newspapers. After assessment we are now being asked to house him in a ‘gas-free’ house. Just one of the pastoral and practical crises Caring for Life faces today” (Crag House Farm, Smithy Lane, Cookridge, Leeds. Info@caringforlife.Karoo.co.uk). How can a Christian help in such circumstances, experiencing so many disappointments? He would soon come to the end of his own resources unless he could tap the comfort and wisdom of God.
All true comfort comes from above. In his sermon on this text Spurgeon set out four headings on how this comfort comes to us – personally, habitually, effectually, everlastingly – what vital adverbs! Perhaps there are some Peter Pans here who have never grown up, and who constantly look back to their childhood and the way Mother dried their tears, picking them up in her arms, wrapping them in her blanket before giving them chicken soup. You once had comfort, you think, but not any more, and today you are ever looking back to that time wishing you were still there. But I am telling you of a Father who constantly comforts his children – those who have come by faith to the Lord Jesus Christ, confessing their sin and their need of his salvation.
2. THIS GOD DOES COMFORT US.
See how Paul states this, “the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles,” (v.4). He does so initially by giving us knowledge. How important is that? All important.
i] God assures us that our suffering is not unexpected. What need have the proponents of the Health and Wealth message of a God of comfort? With their big houses, big cars and big bank accounts ‘comfort’ is the last thing they’ll ever need from God. For them comfort is a mark of defeat. They claim that they never suffer ill health or poverty because they have named and claimed bountiful health and a Bentley, and people are foolish enough to believe them. We can say with the utmost confidence that if there are any true Christians amongst that crew who’ve been captivated by ‘health-and-wealth’ that they will soon become some of the most unhappy and disillusioned believers you will ever meet, because they must discover the truth of what the New Testament preachers told the first Christians, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Thus it was, and thus it ever will be, if we would live godly in Christ Jesus. If they are not true Christians they may live and die in health and wealth but most surely they will not enter the kingdom of God. The Christian nurse, Florence Nightingale, said it all so starkly when she wrote in her diary in May 1851, “My life is more difficult than almost any other kind. My life is more suffering than almost any other kind. Is it not God?” Not why me? But, this is the sovereign God at work in my life.
What sort of doctor would you choose as your General Practitioner? Someone who unfailingly smiled and said, “Nothing wrong at all, you will live until you are 100”? or someone who took that lump or the soreness seriously? We know which response we would like to hear. We would walk home wonderfully comforted from the first doctor, but we know the doctor we need is the one who carefully considers our plight. So it is with the Bible. It comforts us first of all by placing our little lives in the vast context of a groaning creation and the entrance into it of the Redeemer. That word tells us that the Son of God himself often needed comforting during his life, by the communion of the Spirit, the voice of his Father and the ministry of angels. Will we not need this too? If we expect to share in Jesus’ glory we can expect to share also in his suffering. Right now we are part of a broken world that groans for the day when God makes all things new, and we groan right along with it. But we are loved by the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, and when we don’t even know how to pray, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Roms. 8:26).
ii] God comforts us in assuring us that even the most senseless and unjust suffering can have a purpose. In 1981 Alison MacDonald, the 18 year-old daughter of Kenneth and Reta, disappeared from a busy street in Sonamarg in north India where she had gone on holiday with a friend. Kenneth immediately flew out to look for her. A massive search was launched in the surrounding hills but she has never been found. Kenny has travelled to India on average once a year since that time to search for her. Since 1995 he has been further hindered by suffering from multiple sclerosis. How has God’s comfort come to this much-used one-time pastor of the Rosskeen Free Church of Scotland in the face of such fearful providences? He and his wife firmly believe that this event did not take place by mere chance, but that their trauma is part of God’s plan for them and will work for their good. Though that does not take all the pain away that comforting knowledge does help them to keep trusting the sovereign God.
That is the only response permitted by the faith of the Bible. The God who is in charge of everything that happens to us is working his purposes out. Hear what God says, “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal …” (Deut. 32:39). “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (I Sam.2:6). “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn, that he may heal us; he has stricken, and he will bind us up” (Hos. 6:1). Isaiah refers to “the day when the Lord binds up the hurt of his people, and heals the wounds inflicted by his blow” (Isa. 30:26). The Christian who knows that will say, “Sovereign God is the Father of compassion. He loves me and knows what I am going through because in Christ he has gone through it first. He knows what he is doing with my life, and this is all part of his purpose for me to give me a new understanding of him and make me more usable in his hands.” So often we are tempted to say to someone going through a trial, “Now don’t blame God.” As though God were not there when the event occurred. But the sufferer’s greatest need is to know that God was there all along. We live and move and have our being in God.
The suffering of the Lord Jesus seemed to be without purpose, and yet it turned out to be the very centrepiece of God’s plan for the universe. When God did that he gave the church an earnest that he would also transform the sufferings of all his children to serve his purposes. Not knowing the Lord Jesus will mean suffering may embitter, and our lives seem to be a tale of sound and fury meaning nothing. But through the sovereignty of the God who redeems his people the most enormous tragedies must work for our good.
iii] God comforts us by blessing us with the hope of heaven. The Saviour’s sufferings ended and he rose triumphant in resurrection glory. He endured the cross because of the joy that was set before him. So our suffering will give way to those pleasures which are for evermore at God’s right hand. Paul tells the church in Rome living under the shadow of Nero’s palace, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Roms. 8:18). Paul wrote that as one who had known immense suffering. Put in the balances the sufferings of today and then the glories of eternity. There is no comparison.
When troubles drag you down or you find yourself drowning in self-pity, fix your eyes on what is unseen. Think of the glory, the eternal pleasures, the splendid inheritance that God promises his children. You think you don’t deserve what you’re going through? I don’t know so much about that: the very best of men is a fearful rebel. We don’t deserve the glories of heaven, but they have become ours in Jesus Christ.
Gwyn Williams of Cardiff gave four conference addresses here in Aberystwyth in 1992 on this theme of heaven, and they have just been published in English by the Bryntirion Press. In the second address he lists five things we will never find in heaven. They are the following:-
– Difficult providences – like disability, sickness, accident and disappointment. They are all absent from heaven.
– The presence of sin – aren’t you depressed by half an hour of TV news? There is not a speck of sin in heaven.
– Temptations – William Williams, Pantycelyn, the greatest Welsh hymn-writer, writes in one hymn of falling a hundred times into the same sin. That is the reality of the experience of every single Christian. Isaac Watts rejoices that in heaven
Sin, my worst enemy before
Shall vex my eyes and ears no more;
My inward foes shall all be slain,
Nor Satan break my peace again.
– Persecution. The wearying disdain of your boss for you, however faithful your service is.
– Death. Heaven consists of being in that place with those we love and knowing that they will never be snatched away from us again.
The Christian life is like a game of two halves, and death is merely the half-time break. In the first half so much seems to be going the way of those who hate the gospel: “They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills” (Psalm 73:4&5). But there is a second half: “Then I understood their final destiny … How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors … but afterward you will take me into glory” (Psalm 73 17, 19& 24).
iv] God comforts us by arranging our providence so that no trial will be greater than we can stand. He is always making a way of escape so that we can bear it. Sometimes he removes the source of heart-ache from us; other times he prevents our worst fears from being fulfilled. He will send a wise counsellor into our lives. He will constantly address us in sermons exhorting, teaching, reassuring. He will make the loveliness and all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ more vivid to us. He will veil our sins from those who love us the most. He will give us a deep assurance of our own interest in the Saviour’s blood. He will always give us sufficient grace. His word will uphold us. Forty years ago Elisabeth Elliot sat stunned beside a short-wave radio in a house on the Atun Yacu, one of the principal headwaters of the Amazon. She had just learned that her husband, Jim Elliot, was one of five missionaries missing. Surely he could not have died? In her fear this passage of God’s word came to her, “I have called you by my name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned … For I am the Lord your God” (Isa..43:1&2).
Shouldn’t such people who know this divine comfort be a happy people? That is why Paul told the early Christians, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.” He practices what he preaches, and so our text begins, “Praise be to the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles”.
3. THIS GOD ENABLES US TO COMFORT OTHERS.
Let us take apart some of the different strands of these last verses:-
i] “We can comfort,” says Paul. But you would put yourself down. You “don’t have the experience, the training, or the personality.” But Paul says to the whole Corinthian congregation, “we can comfort.” This church had many problems, a weak grasp of doctrine and immature people, but Paul stood alongside them and said, “we can comfort.” It is not that the pastor, or the officers have the competence to comfort but you, just as long as you have experienced one reality, that you yourself have been comforted by God. That means that you have true biblical knowledge of the reasons for suffering, and also it means real Christian experience of the Holy Ghost, Comforter Divine. So, just as long as you have the assurance that God was in charge when things went wrong, and that you have known those times when he has healed your broken heart then you too are competent to comfort.
I can remember after my father died on Christmas Day 1978 many people from the church, young and old, came to sympathise with me. Every one without exception said the kindest and wisest words, and they were enormously helpful. That day was one of the spiritual highs of my life. I shall never forget such an overwhelming time. The members of this congregation had been comforted in their disappointments by God and they were helped by the same God to lift me up. That gives me some understanding of what Paul means when he talks of his hope that the Corinthian congregation had truly been changed by a work of God: “our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort” (v.7). I know that I am not alone in recalling such times. “We can comfort” other Christians in this special way. Our God will not let a single word of consolation fall to the ground. When we stand in the name of God, resting upon the Spirit of God, to say a word for the Lord Jesus out of love for our fellow men, all the grace of God is behind us.
We do not need ourselves to go through identical losses and sufferings to sympathise, because every one is different. We simply need to have had dealings with the comforting God in our pain. We know something of the confidence of the psalmist, “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.” All such people “can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (v.4).
One of Elisabeth Elliot’s long-time friends had cancer surgery and its aftermath was an incision that had to be scraped and cleaned daily for weeks. She wrote to Elisabeth, “It was so painful that Diana, Jim, Monica, and I prayed while she cleaned it, three times and some days four times. Monica would wipe my tears. Yes, Jesus stands right there as the pain takes the breath away, and my toes curl to keep from crying out loud. But I haven’t asked, Why me Lord? It is only now that I can pray for cancer patients and know how the flesh hurts and how relief, even for a moment, is blessed” (Elisabeth Elliott, “On Asking God Why,” Fleming H. Revell, 1989, p.16). Her own sufferings and the divine comfort received have made her a comforter.
ii] Both the sufferings and the comforts that came to Paul because he was a disciple of Christ simply flowed into his life (v.5). His troubles were not an occasional heated church meeting, or a disgruntled phone-call, or that someone told him that he did not agree with the sermon. Those things are not sufferings. Get real! They are petty discomforts. Paul is thinking of what had happened to him because of salvation. Paul said, “I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Cor. 11:27-29). He would have known none of that if he had never become a Christian. He would have remained a fat cat Pharisee. It was because of Christ he suffered those things, and so he calls them the ‘sufferings of Christ’ and he says that they flowed over him like a Niagara. He is not referring to the natural illnesses and famines that all men share in a fallen world. Let us call them ‘creation sufferings.’ Paul is singling out what has happened to him purely because of his devotion to Jesus, “the sufferings of Christ.” Let us call them ‘Christ sufferings.’
But our Lord is debtor to no man, and Paul has to add that the comforts which he received from Christ were more abundant than those privileged ‘Christ sufferings.’ They seemed to overflow from heaven down upon him, like the Niagara Falls. God keeps his own even in the most terrible afflictions. When young Edward Freese, an early English Protestant, was chained to the walls in the Lollard’s Tower in Fulham in 1530 for writing out some texts from the banned English bible his wrists were so severely pinched that the flesh grew up higher that the irons. He lost his reason and his eyes glared fiercely. He was left like that for months in the darkness and when he was finally brought to St Paul’s Cathedral for an examination he was kept three days without food. When they dragged him before the church court he was scarcely able to stand, and he looked around at the spectators like a wild man. They asked him question after question but he never retaliated. All he said in answer to every question was, “My Lord is a good man … my Lord is a good man.” That’s all he would say. Those were the comforts he was receiving from Christ as he went into the twilight of mental illness, from which he never recovered. His brother, Valentine, was burn alive at the stake in York.
iii] Our distress and our comforts are both alike for the blessing of other Christians. You have just heard of the distress of Edward Freese and it has put metal in your backbone if you are a Christian. You say, “Thank God for such a brave man. Make me like him, Lord.” So distresses are for our salvation. They don’t make us any more forgiven, or justified, or adopted, or united mystically to Christ, or glorified. There is no saving merit in them to make us more fit for heaven – all the fitness God requires is to see our need of Christ and trust in him alone. But the sufferings and comforts of other Christians in the cause of the gospel bring the affections of watching believers to Christ. We are stirred: our feelings are raised. Their courage and peace rebuke this curious phenomenon of Christian atrophy. We sing Frank Houghton’s words:-
From cowardice defend us,
From lethargy awake!
Forth on Thine errands send us
To labour for Thy sake.
And God awakens us by the stature of a friend passing through a great trial. When the early Christians saw the bravery of Stephen in his martyrdom they made loud lamentation over his death. Did they then determine to work twice as hard to make up for his loss? So both our distress and our comfort further the goal of the church’s ultimate salvation.
The women in the Rosskeen congregation began to meet and pray together led by Reta MacDonald. When Kenneth would return from another visit to India with no news of missing Alison “Reta was steadfast in her faith and belief. When you prayed alongside Reta you were very aware of her deep faith in Jesus, her love for him, and that her much quoted phrase – ‘The Lord’s mercies … they are new every morning’ (Lamentations 3:22,23) – was really how Reta lived … the example that Reta showed us, as wives and mothers, was of lasting benefit to us” (Janice Stirling and Cathy Dunlop in Janice Maclellan’s “Ordinary People, Extraordinary God,” Christian Focus, 2000, p.99).
iv] The greatest blessing that can come from your involvement in the distress and comfort of other Christians is “patient endurance” (v.6). You are not going to avoid pain – unless you become reprobate. So cleave to the Lord. You can try to run away, but where? You can give up Jesus and live a life without Jesus, but what a low life. You can drown yourself in drugs and drink and entertainment – and so kill yourself. Or you can cleave to the Lord. Patiently endure. You are not alone. Each of us has his cross to bear. We are not better than the Lord Christ. He bore his and we will bear ours to. Keep on! Please keep on carrying it. Everybody – keep bearing your cross. Cleave to the Lord!
v] We share in one another’s sufferings, but we also share in one another’s blessings. “We know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comforts” (v.7). We are members of the body of Christ and so we are members one of another, and we know that means “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cors.12:26). The Times newspaper this week has been serialising a new biography by a woman called Val Sampson, and the stark title which the book has tells you immediately her own story. It is called “The Breast Cancer Book” (Vermilion). It relates her own experience in being diagnosed with this condition, and how she has coped. She did not say, “Well, this is just one little lump on one part of my body. My mind will ignore it. My hands and my eyes will busy themselves with other things.” She could not and dare not say that, because her body is one, and as Paul says, “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” Val Sampson wanted to martial her whole body to resist this disease. In fact she made her surgeon promise that during the operation itself he would only say positive things to the operating team. She did not want her ears to convey a message to her unconscious which they had picked up from voices around the operating table. She wanted every part of her body to co-operate together to resist the disease. So all the congregation focuses their concern on a member going through a trial. They uphold her in hope.
Paul writes to these Corinthians and he says, “I know that you share in all the sufferings we experienced in Ephesus,” – and that is the reality of being in one body – then he adds, “you share in our comforts” too (v.7). All the family members shared in the renewed strength of Val Sampson when she went successfully through an operation. They have been uplifted by her renewed vitality. So it is within the congregation, that our own comfort as we emerge from a trying providence overflows to others. The hearts of the whole church are recharged with hope as our peace and strength is recognised by them.
The loss of Alison which Kenny and Reta MacDonald experienced “has been a means of blessing to others. Liz Merry, who was Alison’s travelling companion in India, has since become a Christian, as have many other people who have been moved by Alison’s story. Kenny describes how his own experiences have given his sermons a particular kind of credibility with members of his congregation facing other crises” (Janice Maclellan, “Ordinary People, Extraordinary God”, Christian Focus, 2000, p.140). So the great pastor who wrote this letter to the Corinthians writes, “if we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer” (v.6).
10 September 2000 GEOFF THOMAS