This sermon is part of the sermon series "Unbreakable". See series.
Where do you turn for comfort when you encounter loss, pain, or disappointment? Some people turn to food. For some reason, certain foods—like fried chicken, mashed potatoes, apple pie, and ice cream—seem to make us feel better. There's actually some science behind comfort food. Fatty, sugar-laden foods slow the production of certain stress hormones, so we calm down. There's some psychology behind it, too. Men typically turn to heartier foods such as meat loaf, pasta, mashed potatoes, or stew, because those were the foods their mothers used to make for them. Women, on the other hand, tend to avoid labor-intensive foods when times get tough, and opt for snacks—chocolate, chips, ice cream. If food doesn't work, how about a drink? A cup of hot chocolate usually hits the spot. Some people go for the harder stuff. They don't call it Southern Comfort for nothing.
Some people turn inward when life hurts. They pull back from the normal routine and relationships. They become introspective and take long walks in the woods, listen to music, or write in a journal. Others turn outward and get active; they socialize, volunteer, or visit family and friends. Some people say that comfort is simply a matter of time—keep up the routine, let the days pass, and eventually you'll begin to feel better: time heals all wounds.
I suppose any one of these might offer a measure of comfort in a time of loss or pain, but are they really enough? Macaroni and cheese might offer some solace after a bad day at work, but it's not going to cut it when something really bad happens. When life hurts, we need something—or someone—better than that.
Paul wrote 2 Corinthians in response to a difficult time in his life. At one point, the apostle wasn't sure he and his companions were going to make it, as he suggests in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9. We don't know exactly what happened to Paul in Turkey. The word "troubles" is a very general word that could refer to just about any serious hardship. It might have been physical—a life-threatening illness or injury. It could have been some form of persecution. Later in the letter he reminds us that he's been stoned, beaten, flogged, shipwrecked, and left for dead on numerous occasions. But it could also have been some internal anguish—a season of spiritual distress or depression. Whatever it was, it was so painful that he wondered at times if he'd be better off dead. But when he was at his very lowest, he found comfort. Perhaps it is better to say that comfort found him; and it was enough to get him through. In fact, it was more than enough.
God provides enough to get us through.
What exactly is "comfort?" The word appears nine times in 1:1-11, and twenty-nine times in this letter. Obviously it's an important concept. We tend to think of comfort as something that makes us feel better, like our favorite food, a shoulder to cry on, or someone telling us that everything's going to be okay. Comfort is soothing; it eases our pain, relieves our distress. The hotel chain Comfort Inn, for example, promises fresh linens, fluffy pillows, cable television, and a good night's sleep after a hard day on the road. When we call something comforting, we usually mean that it makes us feel better. That's not what Paul had in mind.
The word "comfort" in the Bible has more to do with strengthening than soothing. It doesn't just relieve our pain; it stiffens our resolve. The Greek word means "to help by giving courage." The English word points us in that direction, too. "Comfort" comes from the Latin root fortis, which means "strength." It shows up in words like forte, fortress, and fortitude. Comfort, according to the Bible, isn't about feeling better; it's about feeling stronger.
Isn't that what we really need when bad things happen? Have you ever seen someone's knees buckle when they receive bad news? Have you ever heard someone say they're so sad they can't even get out of bed, or make a simple decision? They need strength. If you've just lost someone you love or been disappointed in a major way, you're supposed to feel bad, sad, or mad. What you need is the strength to get through it.
The second thing you need to know is that comfort isn't something you find; it has to find you. Someone has to bring it to you. The Greek word for comfort literally means "to come alongside" someone. In the Old Testament, this type of word is often used to describe God's showing up in a time of distress to rescue his people or to relieve their suffering. In the New Testament the word is associated with the Holy Spirit (the Comforter), whom God sends to encourage and empower his people. Real comfort can't be found in a bowl of beef stew or a shot of whiskey or a walk in the woods. When you're hurting, you need someone to come alongside you in order to provide you with the strength you don't have.
Listen to how writer Bob Greene described a season of hurt in his own life:
When my wife died, I was so numb that I felt dead myself. In the hours after her death, our children and I tried in vain to figure out what to do next, how to get from hour to hour. The next morning—one of those mornings when you awaken, blink to start the day, and then realize anew what has just happened and feel the boulder press you against the earth with such weight that you fear you will never get up—the phone rang, and it was Jack.
I didn't want to hear any voice—even my friend's. I just wanted to cover myself with darkness. I knew he'd be asking if there was anything he could do, and I didn't know what to tell him. It turned out he'd already done it.
"I'm in Chicago," he said. "I took the first flight this morning. I know you probably don't want to see anyone. That's alright. I've checked into a hotel, and I'll just sit in the room in case you need me to do anything. I can do anything you want, or I can do nothing."
He meant it. He knew the best thing he could do was to be present in the same town. So he sat there—until I gathered the strength to say I needed him. Then he sat with me and knew I did not require conversation, did not welcome chatter, did not need anything beyond the knowledge that he was there … Then he helped me with things no man ever wants to need help with. He brought food for my children. And he got me through those days."
Bob Greene wasn't going to find the comfort he needed by lying in bed a while longer, or by taking a walk, or going back to work. He needed someone to bring it to him—to show up, and to help him.
It's wonderful to have friends like that when life hurts, but there's only so much a human comforter can do. Friends eventually have to go home. Their strength runs out. They have their own hurt and heartache to deal with. The best friend to have in times like that is God himself. He never leaves, and his strength never runs out. That's why Paul says in verse three, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort."
God is the Father of compassion.
I find it interesting that Paul twice identifies the Heavenly Comforter as "Father." We never really outgrow the need for a parent to come alongside us when we're hurting. Mom's Band-Aids always made us feel better. Dad could fix anything. Paul reminds us that God is a heavenly parent—the Father of compassion.
That's an interesting expression. When you were a kid and you were hurt or in trouble, would you typically go to your mom first, or your dad? We always went to mom first. She had the softer touch; we could count on her to be sympathetic. Dads generally take a different approach; they aren't always known for being compassionate. Still, Paul tells us that God is "the Father of compassion." Not the Father of Justice or the Father of Righteousness. He certainly is just and righteous. But when we're hurting, we can count on him to be compassionate. As Robert Lewis has said, one of the primary responsibilities of a father is to fill his child with strength. Not just to use his strength to help the child, but to build up the child's own strength. Remember that's what comfort is all about—gaining strength. That's what fathers do.
In the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, Derek Redmond of Great Britain was favored to win the gold medal in the 400-meter race. As the runners entered the backstretch, Redmond was leading the pack, but suddenly he was sent sprawling by the ripping pain of a torn hamstring. As he lay helpless on the track, the runners blew past him. He struggled to his feet in excruciating pain and began hopping toward the finish line. The crowd agonized for the young man. Suddenly, a figure bounded out of the stands, pushing past the security guards—it was Derek's father. He ran onto the track and threw his arms around his son. Choking back his own tears, he whispered, "Come on, son, let's finish this together." The crowd cheered and wept as the older man helped his injured son down the stretch and across the finish line. That's comfort. That's compassion and strength. That's what our Heavenly Father brings to us, and it's always enough to get us through. In fact, it's more than enough.
God gives us enough to give away.
Paul realizes that the hardship he has endured and the strength he has received enable him to strengthen others in their time of distress. In fact, one of the primary ways God delivers comfort is through people who come alongside us. In other words, when God gives you comfort, he doesn't just give enough to get you through; he gives you enough to give away.
Verse 4 tells us that we jars of clay can never be so broken that there's nothing left inside us. The more freely Christ flows out of our lives, the more freely he flows into our lives. There's a never-ending supply. No matter how many times we get banged around or knocked over, the life and strength continue to flow. In fact, the more we get knocked around, the more people are blessed by what flows out of us.
As I grappled with these ideas this week, I sensed that I needed to talk to someone who had lived through this kind of heartache and experienced the comfort of God. A woman named Pat gave me permission to share her story. Quite a few years ago, after 26 years of marriage, two awful things happened at almost the same time. Her husband was stricken with cancer and then announced he was leaving her for another woman. She experienced sickness, loss, and betrayal all at once. Their two sons, 23 and 26 at the time, went into a tailspin. There was no one in her family she could turn to, so she turned to the Lord, and he provided her with everything she needed to get through. She was part of a prayer group that rallied round her. One of the members became a mentor to her and called her every morning to help start her day. She went to the Scriptures and found they came alive for her like never before, particularly the Book of Psalms and the story of Joseph. Looking back, Pat says, "it was the worst time in my life, but it was the best time in my life, because the Lord became so close and real to me. He pressed into my life moment by moment, day by day." Day by day she gained strength; so much strength, in fact, that before she had even emerged from her own grief, she found herself caring for others. She became involved with the grief share group at church, which she still facilitates to this day. "I used to be afraid of people with cancer and people who were suffering. I kept my distance. Now I'm not afraid anymore." Most people coming through an experience like that would want to get as far away from it as possible. But when God gives you comfort, it's not just enough to get you through, it's enough to give away.
Comfort is not about feeling better; it's about getting stronger. And when God gives you comfort, it's not just enough—it's more than enough.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.