Give me an S.
Give me a U.
Give me a C.
Give me a C.
Give me an E.
Give me an S.
Give me an S.
What does that spell? "SUCCESS."
Success—that's what many of us strive for. Success—that's what the world values.
We remember winners, not losers. We remember gold medal Olympians like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. We don't remember the 10,000-plus Olympians who failed to receive a medal. We remember champions, valedictorians, CEOs, celebrities, the rich and the famous, those at the top—not those on the bottom.
We live and breathe in a culture that celebrates success.
And sometimes, if we're honest, even in the church what we secretly value is success over faithfulness. I was thinking about the most recent National Preaching Conference held here on our campus this fall. What if we advertised Pastor George as the headliner: a rural pastor in a small town in Texas whom nobody has ever heard of but who has faithfully served his congregation of 127 members for 20 years? Would anyone still sign up for the conference? It's a sobering thought, isn't it?
We love winners. We scorn losers. We love success.
But how do we feel about that word that also begins with an S? It begins with the first two letters in "success" but then it takes a drastic turn: S-U-F-F-E-R.
"Suffer." Ugh. We don't like that word very much. We often speak to each other about our successes, but how often do we share our sufferings?
The truth is that many, if not all of us, are suffering. My wife took counseling classes at Denver Seminary while I was a pastor there. In one of her classes, the professor told her a profound truth: "People's pain is people's pain." Everyone has pain in their lives, whether we consider that particular pain painful or not. Some of us are suffering physically, spiritually, emotionally, relationally, financially, and the list goes on and on.
What did the apostle Paul have to say on the subject of suffering?
As we know from Acts 18, Paul spent one and a half years in Corinth, teaching them God's Word. His time there was not without conflict and suffering. Paul writes his second letter to the Corinthians from Macedonia and begins with his usual greeting in verses one and two. Then he picks up in verse three.
Praise the God of all comfort
(Read 2 Corinthians 1:3-11)
God comforts us in all of our troubles. Paul's first words are "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort …" (v. 3) Isn't it strange that Paul would begin his letter with a message of comfort? To begin with comfort would naturally mean there was some type of suffering, trial, or difficulty in his life and in the lives of the Corinthians. And he begins by praising God for who is God is. He is the God of all comfort.
The repetition of the word "all" here is not unintentional. Paul uses the Greek word pas three times to emphasize "all." The word "all," which is pas in Greek, means "all" whether it's in English, in Korean—mo doo dah—or in German—alles. It still means all! All means all! God does not bring comfort only in certain arbitrary situations. Rather, Paul reminds us that in all of our troubles, God is still the God of all comfort.
What kind of comfort are we talking about? Comfort means encouragement, assurance, and strength. In these several verses, Paul uses the word "comfort" eight times. The word has less to do with a short-term relief of sadness and much more to do with finding lasting encouragement, strength, and assurance in God alone. As Bible scholar David Garland says, "God's comfort strengthens weak knees and sustains sagging spirits so that one faces the troubles of life with unbending resolve and unending assurance." The comfort that God provides for the people of God is one of courage and strength.
Why did Paul need such a comfort? He reminds us in verses eight and nine.
What kinds of suffering are you enduring today? In what ways do you need God's comfort?
How are you suffering today? Financially, physically, relationally, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, or perhaps someone you love is suffering—will you take a moment to think about your suffering?
Some of us may think we are exempt from suffering. If anyone should be exempt from suffering, certainly it would be the Lord Jesus, as well as Paul. Paul had every human right to be exonerated from suffering. He planted several churches and produced countless converts and disciples. He wrote half of the New Testament. Acts 19:11-12 tells us that "God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them."
If we're honest, sometimes we believe God should exempt us from suffering, as well—especially those who have offered their lives in full-time service to God. But the truth is none of us is exempt from suffering.
I think of Joni Eareckson Tada, the well-known Christian author and speaker who became paralyzed in a diving accident in her late teens.
I think of Nabeel Qureshi—the New York Times-bestselling author and a convert from Islam—who wrote several apologetics books on how we can reach Muslims for Christ. Qureshi was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer in his early thirties. We wonder why. Why him? Surely someone like him would be exempt from suffering. He's someone with so much potential to bridge relationships between Christians and Muslims.
I think even of myself. If I can be transparent for a moment, I used to think I should be exempt from suffering. I've given my life for the Lord. I've relinquished many treasures in this life to serve God. And yet suffering has come to me as well.
I had various sufferings in pastoral ministry, but nothing out of the ordinary. But after transitioning here to Gordon-Conwell, I suffered a concussion playing basketball and the dizziness still has not gone away, nearly four years later. Every day, for more than 1,000 days, I have woken up every morning and have gone to bed each night dizzy, with my brain feeling like it's floating up and down and side to side, tossed by the waves in the ocean. In seeking to find out what was wrong with me, the doctors later diagnosed me with glaucoma, which potentially, at some point later on in my life, may take my vision.
But nothing prepared me for what happened almost one year ago. I learned the shocking and horrific news that my younger brother, Tim, who was living and working in the Philippines, was brutally murdered. Nothing prepared me for the suffering of seeing his dead body lying in a casket in Manila. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about him and weep: Why, God? Why did you allow them to take his life? He was celebrating his 36th birthday on the night he was murdered. He had so much future ahead of him. Why, God?
While many of you have suffered various other trials and are suffering specific afflictions, Paul reminds us that we are to praise God because God is the God of all comfort. Yes, God can even comfort me in Tim's death and every form of human suffering.
Can you praise God today for his comfort even in the midst of suffering?
Put your hope in God and receive his comfort
Not only does Paul praise God for being the God of all comfort, but he encourages the Corinthians to put their hope in this God.
Just as Christ suffered, Paul suffered greatly in his ministry—but his hope and comfort in God were greater than his suffering.
There is great suffering, but there is even greater comfort that comes from Christ. The Greek word in verse five for "overflows" or "abounds" relates to the idea of profit and surplus. A commentator explains that in this ancient culture, the locals used this word in reference to a financial balance sheet with two columns. One side represented the sufferings of Christ, and the other represented comfort through Christ. The commentator says: "Ministering in this present evil age brings him [Paul] a surplus of suffering that becomes almost unbearable. But the consolation column also shows a surplus, and it more than balances the suffering." Paul suffered. We are suffering. And the comfort we have in Christ is greater than the suffering we are experiencing now.
In any circumstance, we can receive Christ's comfort. In verse six, Paul reminds them that he is suffering on account of not only their comfort, but also their salvation, since he was the instrument to bring them the gospel. This comfort they have received would produce in them endurance, because they would, like Paul, suffer the same things. But, as we know, the Corinthians didn't want to suffer, and they lived in a culture of comfort and affluence.
But God's comfort comes from Christ's sufferings, and we must receive this comfort. In verse seven, Paul's hope comes from sharing in Christ's sufferings and sharing his comfort, which means we must receive this comfort. In your place of suffering, have you received God's comfort? Since suffering and comfort go hand in hand, we are encouraged to receive suffering as well as the comfort God's provides in verse four. Suffering is inevitable, but will we receive God's comfort?
In the Old Testament narratives, King David received his comfort from God. David was a man on the run. He had countless enemies, including King Saul. Even his own son tried to kill him. David suffered greatly, and you may remember 1 Samuel 30:6: "But David found strength [or, in other words, comfort] in the Lord his God." In the same way, Paul reminds us to receive God's comfort, his strength, his encouragement, and his hope.
Oftentimes, we put our hope in others, first seeking their comfort. But people can say the strangest and most hurtful things when we are suffering.
After my brother was murdered, my mom—who is a people person—called others to try to receive comfort from them. One of her close friends said to her, "It's been more than two months now. Why don't you just get over it?"
In times of loss, you may have heard or even said phrases like "I know he's in a better place" or "It was God's plan." But as much as we want others to validate our suffering and comfort us, the greatest comfort and hope come from the Lord.
Others may seek comfort in other temporal pleasures. In her book Counterfeit Comforts, Robia Scott says that many people seek temporary relief and comfort in things or activities like shopping, eating ice cream, watching television, and more. But, Paul says, God can give us the kind of comfort we really need.
Hope and comfort come from God. In his suffering, Paul was reminded that "this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead" (v. 9). There is no greater hope than God raising Christ Jesus from the dead. Paul continues: "He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us …" (v. 10). If God can raise Jesus from the dead, surely he has the power to comfort us in all of our suffering.
Comfort all with the hope you have received from the God of all comfort
Put your hope in God and receive his comfort. In suffering, Paul reminds the Corinthians to praise God, who is the God of all comfort. Secondly, he reminds them to put their hope in God who is the God of all comfort and to receive it.
Finally, the suffering and comfort do not start and end with us. There is a relational aspect to this comfort and an invitation to comfort others who are suffering.
Comfort does not end with us, but we are to comfort others. We are called to comfort others. But how?
First, comfort comes from prayer, as seen in verse 11: "as you help us by your prayers." Christians are called to pray together and lift each other up in times of suffering.
But, as we see in verse four, comfort also comes from those who have also suffered: "[God] comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God" (v. 4).
Some of the first people I called after Tim's passing were Peter and Grace, because I knew they would understand my suffering. Peter and Grace were a couple I ministered to when I was in Colorado. Their third child was diagnosed at 1.5 years of age with a rare genetic disorder called HLH, which ultimately led to all of his organs failing. Six months after the diagnosis, he died right before his second birthday. Not long ago, Grace's younger brother was driving on the highway when he suffered a massive heart attack and died. Peter and Grace know what it means to suffer.
As I called Peter, he comforted me with hope in the God of all comfort. He quoted me Scripture verses regarding God's faithfulness and character. He consoled me by reminding me who God is. He shared with me how God worked in his life through his suffering and how God comforted him. In the following weeks, he continued to text me Bible verses to comfort me. He told me he would continue to pray for me. Although I ministered to them in their time of suffering, they in turn ministered to me in mine.
Paul is right. Yes, only God can give true comfort, but sometimes he uses others to be his channel of comfort.
Ultimately, all this suffering and all this comfort leads to thanksgiving in verse 11, as the people of God see fellow Christians comforting each other. My prayer for us today is that this will be a community that celebrates not just our successes, but our sufferings. Can we be a community that can be real with each other? Can we share our sufferings with each other and intercede for each other?
Many people here in this room and across our campuses are hurting in different ways. Paul wants to remind us of a simple truth, and it's this: Comfort each other with the hope you have received from the God of all comfort. Will we do that? Comfort each other with the hope you have received from the God of all comfort. Amen.
Matthew D. Kim is Professor of Practical Theology and the Hubert H. and Gladys S. Raborn Chair of Pastoral Leadership at Truett Seminary, Baylor University.