One of the difficult and challenging things about being a pastor is when you’re invited into people’s adversity, into their heartache, their challenges. As a pastor you are invited and brought into people’s deepest, darkest moments, and you’re expected to know what to say, yet you don’t always know what to say.
Many of you have been there with your friends and family. You’re expected to know what to do, and in the midst of tragedy and loss, there’s really nothing you can do. You’re expected to have answers to questions, and the truth is, all of us have the same questions. You’re expected to help navigate people through their deepest, darkest moments, and even the best of us are at a loss because again, there really aren’t instant answers. There’s no quick fix.
I remember early into ministry, about three months in, I got a devastating call from Maurice and Pat, members of my first appointed church. They asked if they could come to my office as they needed their pastor. I could tell it wasn’t good. A few minutes later, they arrived and told me the news that their 16 year old granddaughter had been in a horrific car accident and was hit directly on the driver’s side of her car while she was pulling out of a gas station. She was in critical condition, and they didn’t know if she was going to survive.
I had not met their granddaughter at this point, but my heart broke for them in that moment. I didn’t know what to say that would help their broken hearts. I didn’t know what to do that might ease their devastating pain. The only thing I knew to do was to hug them. So the three of us hugged and held each other while we prayed and cried together.
Shortly after that, I took a trip to Hershey hospital with them to see their granddaughter. I had not met her parents yet either, so as I arrived, I met them and saw a room full of family and friends who had gathered to support them. Her father asked me to come pray over his daughter. It was the ICU, so technically only two people could see her at a time, but they gave me some grace since I was a pastor, and I went back with her father and grandfather. I remember vividly the many tubes and wires hooked up to her. She laid there unconscious as I searched for the right words to pray. Should I pray for her survival even though it looked like that wasn’t going to happen or should I pray for God to take her home so she wasn’t suffering anymore. I prayed for God’s will, whatever that may be.
This was an absolutely, heartbreaking, devastating time for this family and a heartbreaking challenge for me. But that’s just the nature of being a pastor. And let’s be honest, that’s the nature of being a friend, isn’t it? You don’t know what to say, and you don’t know what to do. It’s a little bit awkward, but there you are. You’re in one of what we’re calling an in-the-meantime moment. What do you do when there’s nothing you can do?
I thought back to moments when I was in a devastating, waiting times like when I sat in the hospital with my sister for three days waiting and knowing that the baby she was having was not going to make it. I remember our pastor sitting with us all three of those days, all day long, only going home to shower and sleep. He didn’t have all the right words either, but he was there. I thought about when my father passed when I was only 19 years old and how family sat up with my sister and I late into the night as we tried to wrap our minds around what happened.
Pat and Maurice’s granddaughter did thankfully and miraculously survive that accident, but not without many challenges and difficulties, and some that she’s still facing today.
I didn’t know what to say in those moments, and I still find myself in moments like that where I search deeply for the right words. But there’s one thing I absolutely know for sure. There’s something called fellowship of suffering. The fellowship of suffering is a natural, automatic bond between those who have suffered deeply and similarly. You don’t even have to know their name. They don’t have to know your name. But there’s a bond between people who suffer deeply, or who have suffered similarly.
If you’re the pastor, the friend or family member you can say some things, you can do some things, you can try to be there. But when a person who is suffering deeply meets someone who has suffered in a similar way, there’s just something special that happens that goes beyond education, beyond spiritual knowledge, and beyond theology. It’s a fellowship of suffering.
Because you see, those who have suffered are uniquely qualified to comfort those who are currently suffering. I’ve seen this a thousand times, and so have you. When those who have suffered in the past, those who have had what we’re calling those in-the-meantime moments walk into the room to comfort someone who is in their own in-the-meantime moment, something very, very powerful takes place. It goes beyond pastoring, beyond friendship, even beyond the depths of family.
The other thing I’ve learned in terms of fellowship of suffering is that comfort from those who’ve been in an in-the-meantime moment is life-giving to those who need it. It’s not just sympathy. It’s not just empathy. It is actually life-giving. In other words, when someone who’s in a deep, dark place, or facing something they never thought they’d face, suddenly they’re thinking, “I’ll never be happy again and there’s nothing good that could come from this. I don’t know how I’m going to go on.”
When they are eye to eye with someone who’s been there, who has survived it, it’s energizing. It’s life-giving. It goes beyond comfort the way we use the term “comfort”. It’s hopeful. It’s “You can do this. You can do this because I did.” It’s a fellowship of suffering. It’s powerful. It’s almost tangible.
But here’s the surprise. All that I’ve just said is interesting, but you don’t need to write that down. You’ll experience it someday if you haven’t already. Unfortunately, we all will. But here is the surprise observation, and this is what I want us to talk today. Comforting is life-giving to the comforter as well.
Being in the roll of the comforter actually brings life to the person that’s giving the comfort. When you have walked in the very, dark place and you have the opportunity, or you find yourself thrust into a circumstance where you walk in and you recognize here’s somebody who is facing what I have faced, here is someone who is dealing with what I am currently dealing with, it’s life-giving not only to the person that’s being comforted, but also to the comforter because in that moment that thing that you would never wish upon anybody else, that thing that you would never choose for yourself, suddenly has a purpose.
Suddenly there is a sense of something good can come from this because whereas the pastor can say a prayer, and the pastor can share a verse, and the pastor can sit quietly while the family talks, when you walk in the room, you bring a sense of credibility, of trustworthiness. You understand the purpose of pain and suffering.
So that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Now if you haven’t been with us, you’re probably thinking, “That’s the heaviest thing I ever heard in my whole life. Can we just say amen and go home? No, I’m sorry we can’t, but let me catch you up real quick.
The name of this series is “In the Meantime,” and we’re answering the question, what do you do when there’s nothing you can do? What do you do when you find yourself in a season of life or a situation, and there’s no way forward and there’s no way out? You find yourself with what you would call a “new normal”. You’re not going to get any better. The marriage is just what the marriage is. Your son’s never going to… You’re daughter’s never going to… Those dreams are not going to come true. You’re not going to get into the school of your choice.
In other words, you look into the future and the future is not what you hoped it would be, and there’s really nothing you can do about it. What do you do when there’s nothing you can do?
But here’s essentially what we’ve said throughout this series. One thing to remember in the midst of an in-the-meantime moment is that God is not absent, God is not apathetic, and God is not angry. God is not angry with you. And we looked at the life of Jesus to discover that.
Second thing we talked about is that we have the opportunity to receive adversity as a gift. We can receive adversity as a gift with a purpose and a promise. That there’s a way to receive adversity as a gift, that cuts down our striving and our angst with God. You may not know the purpose yet, but we do the promise. God’s grace is sufficient for you.
We also talked about how there is a secret to contentment. We saw this through the Apostle Paul personal story of his thorn in the flesh. There is a way to find contentment in every single kind of adversity, in every kind of circumstance.
And if you go back to just before this series started, we talked about how to persevere through sufferings. That God is at work even in the midst of difficult circumstances. God is at work in you to mature you. We don’t love this principle, but endurance builds our faith. It’s like we exercise our faith muscles.
And the reason that I would even tackle a series like this and talk about it for so many weeks is not because of the credibility I bring with my own life. I mean, we all have our stories, but however my bad my story is, there’s always someone whose story is worse, someone whose difficulty is deeper, whose loss is greater.
But some awesome witnesses behind all these principles are the authors of the New Testament. This is one thing I hope you never forget. The men and women that bring us the story of Jesus, the men and women that bring us all of these principles we’ve talked about for these past few weeks, were not men and women who lived wrinkle-free lives. These were men and women who were faced with all kinds of adversity, and yet believed God anyway, yet trusted in Jesus anyway. And to top it off, their messages survived the temple system, the Roman Empire, the first few centuries, and the last 2,000 years.
So today, I want to talk specifically about the role of comfort in your life and the role of comfort in the lives of the people around us because this is part of the answer to the question, what do you do when there’s nothing you can do. And it answers the question of why in the world would we continue to believe in a God that allows the kinds of things that many of us have experienced, and many of the people that we love have experienced.
So we’re going to the book of 2 Corinthians; a simple letter that was written by the Apostle Paul which has again survived all this time. The Apostle Paul stepped into the pages of history as someone who hated Christians. He then became a Christian himself, and felt called to take the message of Jesus outside the confines of Judaism to the rest of the world. He planted churches all the way up the Mediterranean rim.
In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that we are here today worshiping and celebrating Jesus as a church because of the work of the Apostle Paul who took the message of Jesus outside the boundaries of Judaism to the rest of the world. So he’s a big deal, and it’s part of the reason why he’s one of the primary authors of the New Testament. But in this little letter that he wrote to first century Christians in the ancient city of Corinth, he says something about the subject of comfort that I feel we need to explore.
I’m going to pick apart the passage piece by piece, then we’ll read it straight through so that it will make more sense.
2 Corinthians 1:3-7
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,
Okay, so he says that God is the Father of compassion, and He is the source of all comfort.
Now, the reason I want to emphasize this statement is because about 12 chapters later in this same letter, Paul tells us that the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort allowed him to have a thorn in his own flesh. We don’t’ know what that was, but it was something that was so painful, humiliating, debilitating, and permanent.
Maybe this something you get stuck on too. That is trying to believe in a good God that allows bad things to happen. How can we trust that God is the God and Father of compassion when we experience things that are so far from compassion and think ‘God if you’re really the God of compassion you would do something about this.”
But here’s the good news. When you read the New Testament, you need to understand that the authors of the New Testament and the Apostle Paul in particular, understood that dilemma. Because the same guy who says, “God allowed something bad to happen to me with a purpose”, is the same guy who says, “But I continue to believe and I continue to trust that God is the God of compassion and God is the source of all comfort.”
The word comfort that he uses throughout this passage is not just sympathy. It’s not just a pat on the back or a Hallmark card. This is like an empowering, empathy. It’s comfort that brings courage. It’s comfort that brings change. It’s comfort that gives a person the will to continue on.
Paul says, “That’s the kind of God I serve. In the midst of all the things I’ve faced, in the midst of all the things that God has allowed to happen to me, I continue to believe that God is still a God of compassion, and I continue to receive comfort from Him in spite of the fact that He chooses not to change my circumstances.”
So when you find yourself wrestling with this. Every Christian I’ve ever met wrestles with this by the way. So when you find yourself wrestling with the bad things in the world and a good God, understand the men and women that bring us our world view of God, understood that tension and they continued to believe anyway. Which means there is a way forward, that the pain and the tragedy in this world does not mean you must abandon faith in a good and compassionate God.
So Paul says,
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles,
When you’re having trouble, do you pray for comfort? Just think about this for a moment. When you’re having a bad time, do you pray for comfort? No, you don’t pray for comfort! You pray that the trouble will go away!
You don’t say, “God, now this is awful so please comfort me.” No, we think the pastor can comfort us. We need God to do something the pastor can’t do. We need God to make this go away. We need God to change this We need God to heal somebody, give us a job, or get us into school after all.
We don’t pray for comfort. We pray for miracles. We pray for change and as we’ve seen throughout this series you have permission to do that. You can ask your Heavenly Father anything, absolutely anything.
But here’s what Paul is saying….that God is the God of all comfort. And in the circumstances that He changes there will be comfort, and in the circumstances that He chooses not to change there’s one thing you can count on, the comfort of God.
He goes on,
4 so that (meaning there’s a purpose) we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
That little word “can” means that we will be empowered to do something. That God will give us the ability to do something. And that something is…to comfort those in any trouble. How? With the comfort we received from God.
So yes, God comforts us in our trouble and that’s nice and wonderful, but it’s bigger than that. He comforts us in our trouble so that we will then have the ability to turn around and comfort other people in any or all kinds of trouble.
The Apostle Paul who loves God, who believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, that He rose from the dead, he believes that Jesus performed miracles, this very same Apostle Paul says “You need to understand, there are times when God is not going to deliver you from your situation. Instead, God’s going to deliver you through it. And when He delivers you through it, He’s doing something in you that you can then pass along to other people.
So God comforts us so that we can comfort others. Let’s all say that together, even if you’re watching at home. “God comforts us so we can comfort others.”
Then Paul goes on…
5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also (or in the same way) our comfort abounds through Christ.
Let me explain what this means. The phrase “sufferings of Christ” could refer specifically to the actual physical sufferings of Christ at the end of His life, but most theologians understand this to mean the sufferings that Christ suffered just because He was human. In other words, it was everything He suffered. He got hot, He got cold, He got lonely, He got left out, He got abandoned, He got betrayed, He lost a loved one, He worried about the future, He faced a dark night of something ahead of Him that He wished He could get out of.
When you think about whatever it is that you suffer with or that you face, in some similar way, Jesus suffered with that too. So the Apostle Paul says, “For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, in the same way, our comfort abounds through Christ.”
Now, what that actually means is this. That our capacity to comfort other people is determined by the degree to which we’ve suffered. This is why if you’ve ever have been in a dark, dark place and people are saying all kinds of kind words, they’re sending you emails and texts and letters and flowers, and they’re just doing their best they can, but you’re thinking, “You don’t understand. You just don’t understand.” And you’re right, they don’t understand.
But then you meet someone who understands, and it’s different, isn’t it? There’s something about being eye to eye with someone who has been where you are. And when someone who’s been there, walks in to your world while you are there, there is a strength, there’s a level of comfort, a level of understanding and support that you won’t get any other way.
And the Apostle Paul points to this. He says God is the God of all comfort and is going to comfort you directly, or God is going to bring comfort to you through other people, but the purpose of that comfort isn’t simply so that you can be comforted. The purpose is so that you can take that comfort, because from time to time you’re going to be the person that walks in to someone’s house, office, hospital room, and you’re going to be able to look them in the eye and say, “No words are necessary. I know. I know what you feel. I know what you’re going through. I understand your fear. But here’s what else I know, there is life on the other side. So fear not, despair not. Do not give up hope.”
And I’m not just saying this because I’m pastor. I’m saying that because I’ve been there. But your capacity and my capacity for comfort is limited to the degree to which we suffered.
6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort,
He says, “Me and my team, we’re going through a real hard time. We keep getting kicked out of towns. I’ve gotten stoned, they thought I was dead. Yet I wasn’t so we kept going.” I mean, Paul went through all kinds of stuff, then he’s got some really bad eye problem, let alone, he has some other kind of painful, humiliating thorn. And Paul says, “Look, all the stuff we’re going through, all these times we’ve had to say, ‘God give us strength, give us endurance’, all of that is for your benefit. All of that is so that we can say to you, “You can make it. You can do this. Don’t give up. Don’t give up hope and faith. We’ve been comforted so that we can bring our comfort to you.”
6 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. 7 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.
Now, I know that’s a lot of deep thinking in a little passage. So let’s put it all back together and talk about what this means practically.
But before I do, let me say this. Some of you right now, even if you don’t read the bible, even if you’re not sure about Jesus, some of you need to go home and read and study these verses because these are going to be life giving words to you because you’re going to find the initial purpose for your pain.
This will be a step in discovering why in the world God would allow this, and why God didn’t answer your prayer? And it’s because God has designed comfort as something to be received and passed along. So here’s what he says when we put it all together.
2 Corinthians 1:3-7
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 6 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. 7 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.
And again, this is often the very first place in which many people find purpose for their pain. So to summarize this whole principle, in the meantime comfort those who need comforting with the comfort you have received.
If you’re a single mom fighting struggles almost daily, if you’re caring for a loved one, if you’ve lost a child or a spouse, if you’re a widow or a widower, if you’ve had cancer, if you’ve been married a long time, you are uniquely and supremely equipped to bring new life into someone.
Why? Because you know the comfort that someone else needs. If you’ve been there, you are uniquely qualified to comfort those who are still there, and this will bring purpose to your pain and it will instill life in your soul as well as theirs.
So if you’re in an in-the-meantime set of circumstances, let me be really clear. You’ll be tempted to believe that you’ll never be happy again, that nothing good can come from this and there’s no point in continuing, and none of those things could be further from the truth.
You can be happy again, something good can come from this, and there is a reason to continue living. In one of Paul’s other letters to the Christians living in Philippi, he had a very specific promise that he made them, and it’s a promise God makes to you as well.
Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
Part of that good work for many of us, includes some in-the-meantime seasons. The difficulty that you’re facing, the adversity that you’re facing did not surprise God, it only surprised you. God is using it to work in you, and He will continue to be at work, so you do not need to give up hope. And for everyone of us, regardless of what you face, you are now uniquely positioned and equipped to take to someone else the very comfort that God has given you.
Heavenly Father, thank you so much for preserving these ancient texts and for preserving these words of Paul. Thank you for the men and women who’ve been willing to bring their pain and bring the comfort they’ve received into the lives of other people. And thank you, most of all, that we worship a Savior who is not unacquainted with suffering, but just as He suffered for us, we have the opportunity to suffer for the sake of the Gospel. So, Father, please give us eyes to see this the way that you would have us see this. Give us ears to hear. And Father, for the man or the woman, or the teenager, the single adult, the single mom, the single dad, whoever it is that’s just on the edge of giving up, on the verge of giving up, on the edge of walking away and saying “There’s no point in continuing”, I pray that you would give them the courage to trust you even if it’s just for one more day. And I pray that you would be for him or her the God of all comfort right now. We pray all of this in the matchless name of Jesus our Lord. Amen.