A number of years ago, I came across a beautifully written, pastorally helpful, spiritually enriching and heart-consoling, little volume by Arthur. W. Pink, published by Baker Books, entitled 'Comfort for Christians'. What caught my eye, and lured me like a bee to honey, was the sweetest four-page entry on 'Our Light and Momentary Troubles': at that particular time this was health to my bones and balm of Gilead to my soul.
That chapter, of course, was a moving exposition, from Paul's letter to Second Corinthians, which I began to study afresh, yesterday morning, with much profit. In this sacred epistle the apostle handles many subjects, one of the chief of which is the suffering of the believer and corresponding divine consolation. In the very first section, he leads us with cords of kindness to the "Father of all mercies" and "the God of all comfort". It is to this God of Grace, and the comfort found in Christ, that I want to lead your soul for refreshment of the heart.
Before I begin to pin down some principles, with private and pastoral applications, I just want to make a few comments on the text itself.
First please note, that while 'comfort' in the bible can be used to convey encouragement, clearly, in this context, it is the antonym of affliction. Perhaps we could say that the 'comfort' supplied, whether designed to spur us on, put an arm around our heart, listen to our tearful prayers, heal our wounds when broken, or lift us up when fallen down, provides exactly, from God, precisely what the afflicted need in any stressful situation.
Second, observe helpfully, that 'mercies' or 'compassions' is both a deeply visceral word which emphasizes 'gut-wrenching, sympathetic, pity', and also a Semitic plural form which intensifies the expression. "My heart goes out to you" captures the flavor of this term. If we picture a Father who runs to a bruised and bleeding child and tenderly picks it up, we will not stray too far from the sense.
Having said that, since this OT background term is closely associated with the LORD, we should not miss the fact, that these blessings are grace procured by the Mediator's blood, and conveyed to the believer, by another comforter, God's Spirit. The oh-so-tender mercies, then, flow from the heart of the Triune God to a people He loved, for nothing in themselves, though sinfully ill-deserving, with everlasting covenant love.
Third, the term 'affliction', signifies pressure and distress. Paul illustrates the sense for us, in the following paragraph, 2 Corinthians 1.8 "For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself." The mighty apostle could not see through gloom or envisage any possible way forward! He was so crushed and distraught, he thought he just could not go on - but he was wrong of course, for divine mercies were more than a match!
Having set the scene, and enjoyed a taster of the text, let me just ask you a some questions as we embark on this brief attempt to unpack the treasures of these depths:
Have you despaired of life? Can you see no way forward? Is the pressure just too much? Are you despairing of relief? Is your soul encased in gloom? Do you know someone in this state? Are they on the verge of giving up? Many of my readers, doubtless, can or could often answer 'Yes!' Let me direct you, brother, sister, with all the tenderness of Christ, to reflect on some of the principles and applications, that I've spotted in this text, of 2 Corinthians 1.3-7, which at present, or in the future, should prove a source of encouragement to strengthen sagging faith.
All comfort that comes to the afflicted necessarily comes from God - ordained by the Father, obtained through the Son, and administered by the Spirit, through the Word, from the heart of compassion of the Triune God. It is purchased by blood, in the Covenant of Grace, so seek it from Him.
All comfort we receive from God is at least symmetrical (if not abundantly surpassing) when placed alongside any and every affliction that you face. If Christians are afflicted greatly the comfort they receive will also be abundant.
Since believers are often afflicted, they often require comfort. It is their private duty to seek consolation from God with confident expectation that it will be met. It is also the pastor's responsibility to lead the flock, especially when afflicted, to the comfort that they need which can obtained from God.
Pastors and preachers, themselves, particularly frequently and intensely, are afflicted and require comfort for their own hearts. These experiences of 'miry pits', 'fiery trials' and 'deep, almost overwhelming, waters' that 'come up to the neck' are, in the first place, for their own growth, discipline and sanctification. In the second place they are also part of their pastoral training as under-shepherds of God's flock; so deeply harrowing and painful though they are, God has permitted them wisely, in His sovereignty, not simply for themselves, but to benefit their hearers - these are heaven-sent graces to help you serve better those for whom you have a charge. A wise, elderly, minister once counseled a young, outstanding, preacher, who had temporarily, but painfully, lost his own assurance. He encouraged the brother, now cast down in a pit: 'Brother, preacher, this is not for you, it is for you people! God has given you this, not for yourself, but for them. This is to help you understand your folk so you supply their needed help!'
Such afflicted pastors and preachers must comfort the flock with the comfort they have received from their own personal experiences of affliction and comfort. That does not mean we have to say 'I know how you feel' or 'I see where you are coming from' or 'I was once afflicted', though of course, Paul himself, relays to Corinthians his own, firsthand, experiences. It does mean, however, however frank and vulnerable we choose to be, that having found the source of bread, that we lead them by the hand, to find their needed food. In other words, if we are going to comfort others we, first of all, must receive affliction and comfort ourselves. It is then we will know how and where God's comfort is to be sourced and obtained.
Comfort is a mercy which we do not deserve, for as hell-deserving sinners we deserve nothing from God. Yet, in His grace, God fills our lap with kindness and abundant consolation. All comfort, therefore, should be a source of thanks and praise, as gratitude pours out in our comfort and relief. Or as Paul puts it memorably "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Mercies and God of all comfort."
God wishes to be known by His children as the Father of Mercies and the God of all comfort.
There is no end to the infinite, eternal, supply of mercy and comfort, purchased by Christ, for the afflicted children of God. It is the suffering of the Cross, and the affliction He endured, which is the basis for every blessed benefit we get. These comforts in time were ordered in eternity. Since they are purchased by the Son they are therefore guaranteed in blood.
We need to stop doubting. We ought to start seeking.
Comfort does not come to us mystically or magically but as we attend to the means of grace, in public and private, as the Spirit of Christ, grants inward illumined faith: it is by this faith we embrace the promises of comforts which God has given in His Word. The mercy and compassion promised in God's Book must be sought through loud cries and tears.
God's abundant comfort will help pastors and people endure the most severe, prolonged and taxing trials, if they rely upon it. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1.9-10:
_ "Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On Him we have set our hope that He will deliver us again."_
Church leaders must not give in to a Spirit of complaint, but allow themselves to be trained, through prayers and pain, to endure hardship for the Gospel: it is vital that preachers embrace affliction in their own lives, as a means to becoming better, effective, understanding, experienced, leaders.
Congregations must be told the truth about the Christian life - it is, at heart, one of affliction, conflict and trouble. Churches, elders, ministers and people must not pursue 'success' at the expense of 'the Cross!'
Affliction leads to identification with, and deeper appreciation of, the sufferings of Christ, which was caused by our own sins. This will increase our love for Him, and encourage us to go to Him, whose infinite affliction was endured for our pains. Knowing that He endured, in sinless humanity, unimaginable and indescribable affliction, ought to encourage us, as the Spirit grants us light, to come to a more than fully resourced and merciful High Priest. He has an abundance of all the grace and strength we need, to not give up, but to patiently persevere, and gladly bear each 'cross'.
Those who have suffered most, all other things being equal, make the best, most sensitive, understanding, helpful, pastors and spiritual counselors. Those who have endured little are unlikely, as yet, to be of great help to afflicted believers, all other things being equal. Are you suffering some great affliction? Brother or sister, you can be of great help to the brethren!
Think of the many practical ways you might offer comfort to those afflicted whom the Lord brings across your path - the following are only illustrations of the kind of thing you might prayerfully do or sympathetically suggest:
- Tell them how you and other Christian are often severely downcast
- Explain how you too have at times despaired of life, or circumstances, or solutions to problems
- Tell them what things you have found to be of help when the 'the chips seems to be down'
- Remind them to expect little comforting providential acts which God supplies along the narrow way - tell them you found them to be little mountain refuges, when the road was rough and steep, when you were cast down in a pit, and they will find the same.
- Tell them God also placed people across our path who, at the darkest hour, came to us with relief, to bring help in dire need, and encouraged us to press on; and how these interventions were just at the right time, when we believed we had run into what looked like a brick wall.
- Remarkable evidences of God’s loving care and providence for us in particular, all arranged and decreed, before the foundation of the world, are often unfolded when all hope has been extinguished, either of temporal relief or human help: these are unforgettable episodes in our walk with God, and to be often recalled, privately, to the glory and praise of God, and the comfort of our own hearts. Tell them love and wonder, at the ways of God, will pour forth from joyful hearts at moments like these.
- Show them how we took to the Bible and found help as we read from the apostles, about their affliction and comfort; or something we had learned or been taught years before (which we thought was irrelevant), now becomes the very means of comfort in distress.
- As we read of Christ and His infinite sorrows, joyful commitment, and final glory, know that whatever we face in this life, the glory of the next life, when rewarded by our Savior, will more than compensate. Tell them also how, it was only in deep pain, that you discovered the heights of joy. Explain that instead of talking about Scripture you started to live Scripture, as the sufferings of Christ, like the lowest, outer hem of the Man of Sorrows' garment, began to overflow into your life, to help you grasp His work, and commune with His heart.
- Direct them to the Psalms of David, like Psalm 35.3, which was the text preached at your licensing as a minster of the Gospel. Recount to them how, as the preacher said almost nothing except "Say to my soul 'I am your salvation,'" you wondered, in all honesty, how a preacher could ever produce such a repetitive, threadbare, sermon. Then explain, how in extremis, you came across this text, and how it proved the perfect antidote, in the circumstance into which you had been cast. Explain how you now thank God for that wise godly minster - that dear saint who has now departed to glory, who had much more sense than you, in your arrogant inexperience - who caused you to ask that night, many years later, as you knelt beside your bed, totally overwhelmed with grief, and then rejoicing in the peace: ‘Why did I wait so long to read that text again that was used at my licensing sermon?’ Or perhaps, for you, it will be some other memorable Word, that you make your reference point - as Calvin said the Psalms of David are an anatomy of all parts of the soul - doubtless the prayers of David's suffering in Psalms 1-72 will be of particular help to every suffering saint. Tell them to sing and pray these songs of the heartbroken, afflicted, soul, when tempted to despondency.
- Explain to them, how in dark, troubled, times, when you were buffeted by temptation or surrounded by persecution, you retired to your room, in blackness of soul, and cried to the Lord, day after day, on your lunch or dinner-time break, and yet obtained relief.
- Tell friends, how, when the news was all bad, your were cheered by a Word, of leading someone to the Lord, or of having profited from a sermon your preached but had long-since forgotten.
- Explain how, when danger was all around, in some remarkable way, you were delivered from the snare.
There are many other ways, as we reflect with how God has dealt with us, which will profit other believers, who need comfort in affliction. It is my prayer that something I have written will be of help to you, so that you, in times of trouble, will be enabled to help others, as you draw on the comfort of the Father of Mercies.