Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.2 Corinthians 1:3-4
There’s a prickly principle in this text, beneath the mercies and comforts. It addresses the emasculation of sympathy, otherwise known as, “Fighting sin with a dull blade.” I’ll explain that later. First, let me explain the principle that flows from Paul’s reasoning.
- God comforts His people in every trouble. You will not be able to contrive a single affliction in which God will not encourage the Christian.
- This enables Christians to comfort others. The uncomfortable become the comforted, and the comforted become the comforters.
- A Christian’s ability to comfort others suites any trouble. The scope of Point 1 applies to Point 3. There is no affliction in which God cannot comfort you, and there is no affliction in which you cannot then comfort your brother.
So, am I only able to comfort those who are suffering what I have suffered? No. Paul says that when God comforts you in tribulation, you are then equipped to comfort anyone in any kind of trouble. This is because the qualification for comforting is not my suffering, but the comfort of God in my suffering.
I am not called to comfort other people with my suffering. My suffering is not the answer to the world’s problems. There is One Who suffered, and by His stripes we are healed – but my suffering is not like His. Paul teaches us that we are not to comfort others with our suffering, but with the comfort of God. Suffering does not equip me to help others. God’s comfort equips me. This is even clearer at the end of the verse: “…that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (v.4). The comfort of God is the comfort. If I am not offering that to the one afflicted, then I am offering nothing of consequence.
Now, it is common for people to look for comfort in the suffering of others. There are sadists, but I’m talking about solidarity, empathy, etc. The idea is this: I’m not able to help someone in tribulation if I haven’t been through what they’re going through. If I haven’t grown up in America as a black man, then I have no business speaking to a black man’s predicament. If I’m not a woman, and if I’ve never lost a child, then I have no business trying to help a mother through a miscarriage. If I’ve never been sexually abused, then I have nothing worth saying to victims. The only thing I can do is express solidarity and shut my mouth. Or, perhaps I need to suffer more to bring myself down to their level of tribulation so that we can both be together in trouble.
But people don’t need your suffering. People don’t need your feigned solidarity. You are not the ultimate answer to people’s problems, especially when they are suffering.
Paul says that we do comfort others. We are the body of Christ, and members of the body serve one another with great love. Being a harbinger of comfort is different from being the comfort itself. We come to encourage the afflicted with the grace of God. We come to lift-up the wounded with the balm of Christ. We bring sufferers to the Healer, and we leave our home remedies out of the equation. We bring them to God.
The proximity of dear friends, the taste of mint chocolate chip ice cream, the thrill of a Bourne movie – these things can abate symptoms and provide escape from pain, but they do not answer tribulation. When someone is under great tribulation, they need God. There is no substitute for the Triune Creator. People need God’s grace; they don’t really need your empathy. Sometimes love means crying with someone while they are in shock from horrible news. But if it is really love, then it will at some point (sooner rather than later) push and pull the dismayed to God. It will quickly move beyond simple solidarity and actually try to help.
Trying to comfort people with suffering is comforting without comfort. It is unhelpful. It is unloving. Whatever it is, it isn’t comfort. Sympathy is a good thing, when you have compassion on someone in affliction and seek to help them. The call of solidarity, that school of empathy, wants me to castrate my sympathy. I am to take away the potency of comfort and sacrifice it on the altar of Critical Theory. The fad right now is to dull the blade of repentance by taking away any notion of offense and controversy. That’s fine – just don’t expect to see any dead sins lying around. They’ll be alive and well-to-do in American culture.
That may be a prickly principle by today’s standards, but substantively, it is cool water on a parched tongue. The question is, do you want to look like you are helping people, or do you actually want to help people? Do you want everyone to think you are comforting the afflicted, or do you actually want to comfort the afflicted?