God’s Comfort Zone
2 Corinthians 1:1-11
People are becoming very inventive in order to avoid discomfort. There is a billboard along an Interstate Highway advertising a new car with cooled seats. Cars have been available for some time with heated seats. Cooled seats are one more way to avoid dis-comfort in hot weather as heated seats avoid discomfort in cool weather. It is now possible to drive from an indoor climate controlled garage at home to one at work in a climate controlled car that isolates the driver from all discomfort along the way. The car, the home and the office can be covered with “all risks” insurance to minimize losses in case of accident. TV’s have remotes that allow viewers to instantly switch off bad news and suffering in other parts of the world. Discomfort and suffering has even gone out of funerals. Many of them are now “celebrations.” We are insulating ourselves from suffering.
“Suffering is bad and should be avoided at all costs,” seems to be the view of society. But is this really a good objective? My goal today is to convince you that not all suffering is bad, that, in fact, some suffering is good. We need not, and probably cannot, avoid all suffering. Some suffering has purpose. God can even redeem and use “bad” suffering, the kind of suffering that comes from sin. Suffering can even teach us. My job is to convince you that some suffering is good and that you should enter into Jesus’ suffering voluntarily. It is part of following Him. My job is to show you that with suffering God provides comfort. We can leave our comfort zones and enter God’s comfort zone. My job is to help you think about your suffering in a new way and to suggest ways that an inventory of your suffering will enable you to help others.
Let’s begin with God and His people. God is no stranger to suffering. It has been part of the lives of many of His people. In the beautiful passage that we just heard, Paul mentions affliction and suffering eight times (2 Corinthians 1:4, 5, 6, 7, 8). Paul has been suffering some afflictions. He refers to his experience in the Roman province of Asia where he “despaired even of life; indeed we had the sentence of death within ourselves” (1:8-9). Though Paul does not tell us the exact details of his experience, he was in Ephesus when a riot occurred because the gospel of Christ threatened the profits of those making shrines of Artemis (Acts 19:23-41). In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul also tells us that he “fought with wild beasts at Ephesus” (1 Corinthians 15:32). The word Paul uses for afflictions refers to trouble, tribulation, oppression, affliction, particularly from outside as opposed to illness. He gives an amazing list of his external threats in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, and says, “Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches” (11:28). Paul had enemies in Corinth. Part of his purpose in writing is to defend his apostleship and show how God cares for him.
Why would Paul suffer so much? Paul was motivated to suffer for God because of what Jesus had suffered for him. Jesus is, of course, the ultimate example of suffering in the Bible. No body suffers more or suffers more unjustly than Jesus. He suffers misunderstanding, loss, betrayal, and the most brutal form of punishment and death. He does this voluntarily, vicariously, valiantly, and victoriously. In his Gospel, Mark portrays Jesus as the suffering servant Messiah who calls His disciples to follow Him and suffer for Him.
In the world today, perhaps one reason people want to isolate themselves from suffering is because there is so much of it. In his book, No Place for Truth, David F. Wells observes that in previous generations individuals processed the suffering of themselves, their families, and their communities. Now, people are attempting to process the suffering of the world that the media brings before them. The suffering of the world can be overwhelming.
It helps to define suffering. Suffering is the experience of pain, anguish, loss, death, misfortune, or calamity. To suffer means to endure these experiences, to go through them. There are different kinds of suffering:
There is the general suffering of life and death, it comes with the territory. Some suffering is accidental. Some is the result of losses, everything from jobs to possessions to life itself. Paul suffered the loss of all things to gain Christ. Suffering can be a result of giving up ourselves for others. Much suffering is the result of sin, our own and others. In a way, suffering entered the world because of sin. This kind of sin is cyclical, sin leads to suffering which can lead to more sin. Suffering is one of God’s tools for education and discipline, for our learning. Some suffering is unjust, a result of the sin of others. Some, like Jesus, suffer voluntarily, vicariously, valiantly, and victoriously. In time, suffering can be acute, for the short term, or chronic long-term suffering, like those who suffer through their whole lives with a disability. Whatever form it takes, we must deal with suffering.
The good news is that we are not alone. God is acting to help us deal with our suffering. Let’s take a look at what God is doing in the Bible. Paul writes to the church of God (1:1). His people belong to Him (vs. Paul, Cephas,, or Apollos). They are not in this alone. He has a stake in all of their affairs. Notice what Paul says in 1:3, “Blessed be God (cf. where we get word “eulogy:”). We usually say, “God bless you.” Paul blesses God. We saw a bumper sticker that read, “America, bless God.” Psalm 103:1-2 begins this way. Why can we bless God? Because, in our suffering, He is the father of mercies (NIV “compassion”). As Father he is the source of mercies. He has an endless supply. This part of the very character of God. In Exodus 34:6, God describes Himself as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness (steadfast love) and truth.”
He is the God of all comfort. This is the same word that Jesus uses to describe the Holy Spirit as comforter. He is one who comes along side to help. God breaks into our affliction to help us. Note that for the eight times Paul speaks of affliction and suffering, he speaks of comfort nine times in 1:3, 4, 5, 5, 6, 7. To comfort means to encourage, to console, and to give solace. God is the God of all comfort.
God comforts us in all our afflictions (1:4). He has a purpose beyond our own comfort. We in turn can comfort others in any affliction “with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Here is a beautiful principle: God comforts us so we can comfort others. We may in fact suffer some things for the very purpose of helping others.
How does He do this? God comforts us 1) directly by a) His Word and b) His Holy Spirit. He also comforts us through others. Notice that in 2 Corinthians 2:13 Paul is distraught over the absence of Titus. In 7:5, 6, and 13, he shows us that “God who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus” (7:6). Here depressed means those who are humble or brought low with grief. God restored Titus to Paul who saw God’s hand of comfort in this restoration.
What Paul says next gets to the heart of the God of all comfort: “For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ (NIV overflows). Hey Paul! I thought that Jesus’ sufferings were over on the cross. Hebrews 7:27 and 9:28 teach us that “He died once for all,” and “Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation with out reference to sin, to those who eagerly await for Him.” There are several senses in which Jesus’ suffering continues. One writer has pointed out that because Jesus was completely innocent, all of His suffering is an overflow. Closer to home here though is that Jesus identifies so closely with His church that anyone persecuting His church is persecuting Him. This is what Jesus asked Paul on the Damascus road as Paul was on his way to persecute Christians, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4-5). Jesus told Ananias He had to show Paul “how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16). Paul took this to heart and made it a way of life. In Colossians 1:24, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body(which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” So also then, in a very real sense, the church Jesus’ body, is suffering for Him and His gospel. Some of pointed out that this suffering is part of the Messianic age. It is part of belonging to Christ. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Mark shows us Jesus, the suffering servant. This is part of His character, as Isaiah says, He was
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed. Isaiah 53:3a, 4a, 5
But as Christ’s sufferings flow into our lives, His comfort overflows (NIV). Jesus saw the joy beyond the cross. He saw the resurrection. Paul points to this in 1:9 where He says “God who raises the dead.” After He had risen, He returned to heaven and sent us the Holy Spirit as a comforter and guide.
Notice verse 1:6. Paul has a new perspective on suffering. His suffering leads to our comfort and salvation. It enables us to endure. We pass it on. We share Jesus’ salvation. Sufferings are something we share. (1:7) We don’t have to bear them alone. Comfort is something we share too that allows us to bear sufferings as we look ahead.
What does this look like in our lives today? As we consider the God of all comfort and His suffering servant Messiah Jesus, we can take stock of our lives and make an inventory that will help us help others. I’m confident that as we examine the suffering in our lives we will notice several things. We will be able to see God’s comfort. We will be able to see what God is teaching us, and we will be able to see how our experiences can help others. This works for all type of suffering. To help you take stock of how God has worked in your life so that you may learn to help others with the comfort you have received from Him, I have prepared an inventory that you can use. There are some on the table by the door for you to pick up as you leave today.
Lets look at some examples of how this can help us help others. Consider how God can redeem the “bad” suffering of sin and use it for good. This is the true story of Warren. Warren was a Christian who lead a double life. He has a wonderful family who loves him but he had another side to his life. Warren was into substance abuse, gambling, and adultery but his family didn’t know about his other life. He kept them separate. Warren’s family eventually found out about his other life. Incredibly, Warren’s wife stayed with him. He repented and got help to change. Warren thought it would be better to go to another church to spare his family and himself embarrassment. So they began attending another congregation. Soon, however, the children began to miss their former congregation and wanted to return. Warren agreed and went back to their home congregation. There his Christian family learned about his double life, his efforts to reform his life with God’s help and the help of professional counselling and support groups.
Several good things came out of Warren’s story that illustrate how God can redeem bad suffering and make good from it. First, Warren’s life demonstrates the love, grace and redemptive power of the cross. God redeemed Warren, God bought him back to Himself and through the blood of Jesus and the help of His people cleaned up Warren’s life inside and out. Second, Warren is now in a position to help and comfort others with the same help and comfort he received from God. Third, Warren’s church opened up to a new level of compassion and understanding as they saw Warren’s repentance, accepted him, and worked with him.
Another example of a positive outcome to the suffering of loss is the life of the Apostle Paul. He was a “big man” in Jewish circles in Jerusalem and Tarsus. He gave it all up. He gave up his assignment against the church, he gave up much of his knowledge, and he gave up a lot of prestige to suffer for Jesus. And finally, Jesus is the ultimate an example of voluntary, vicarious, sacrificial and victorious suffering for others.
Jesus, Paul, and Warren show us how in suffering we receive God’s comfort and consolation and how God prepares us to minister to others who are suffering. We receive God’s comfort and pass it on! We leave our comfort zone and move into “God’s comfort zone.” Sure, to get into His comfort zone we have to pass through sufferings. But God’s comfort zone is much wider than ours and empowers us to reach out to others without fear of abandonment and despair. He is there to comfort us when we suffer all troubles, especially those that we enter into voluntarily for the gospel. He is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort. Like Jesus, we learn obedience through the things we suffer (Hebrews 5:8). We become like Him and appreciate Him more. His sufferings flow into our lives but His comfort overflows! At the end of it all, His promise is a crown, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer....be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). Don’t be afraid. Move out of your comfort zone into God’s comfort zone. Say yes to Paul’s invitation from 2 Timothy 1:8, “Therefore, do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the good news according to the power of God!”
If you are not a Christian, see that because God raised Christ from the dead, He can raise Paul and us too. God is comforting Paul and His servants. God is answering prayer. God is using other people to comfort sufferers! He is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort. You can experience His comfort and salvation today by believing in His Son Jesus and His death for you on the cross, by turning from sin, confessing His name, and being immersed into Jesus in baptism and receiving the forgiveness of your sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s comforter here on earth for you.