Think about all the people you know who are suffering in one way or another. You may be among them yourself.
There are things about our circumstances that we can’t control, and there’s the inner turmoil that such circumstances can stir up within us. Paul uses words for both as he describes to the Corinthians what he endures daily as an apostle. He must correct a misperception on their part, and perhaps ours: suffering is not automatically a sign of divine displeasure. Quite the contrary, it can be a mark of following in the footsteps of a crucified Jesus.
Paul’s point in the opening of 2 Corinthians is not to answer questions about the existence of suffering and the goodness of God; nor is he writing a context-free lesson about any and all things that will trouble Christians in this life. And he’s not saying that every Christian will necessarily suffer as he has. In context, when he says, “if we have trouble, it is to bring you comfort and salvation” (2 Cor 1:6a, CEB), he seems to be making a case for why apostles must suffer: it’s for the good of the church. When apostles suffer and are comforted by God, they can pass that comfort along (vs. 4), creating a community of comfort, a partnership in both the suffering of Christ and the comfort of God (vss. 5-7).
Unlike Paul, we no longer live in the day of apostles commissioned face-to-face by Jesus to preach the gospel. But like Paul, we live in the post-Pentecost reality of a church that has been given the Holy Spirit, that we might minister to one another. And it’s instructive to reflect on what that might look like even today, given what Paul writes here.
We noted in the last post how Paul mentioned some terrible ordeal he suffered. Here’s the rest of the passage:
God rescued us from a terrible death, and he will rescue us. We have set our hope on him that he will rescue us again, since you are helping with your prayer for us. Then many people can thank God on our behalf for the gift that was given to us through the prayers of many people. (2 Cor 1:10-11, CEB)
This is more than just, “Hey, folks, just wanted to let you know that we’re going through some really hard times out here, so we’d appreciate it if you’d keep praying for us.” He’s not saying, “Help! Please pray.” Rather, he assumes that they are already praying, and uses that fact once again to build a sense of partnership. I know you’re praying for us. Thanks. It’s like you’re walking alongside us, encouraging us, helping us to hang onto our hope in the God of comfort and salvation. And may it be, as we partner together in this way, that many people will come to praise God for who he is and what he’s done!
Paul began the section with words of praise for the God of compassion and comfort (vs. 3); by the end of the section, he comes back full circle, with a vision of that same praise on the lips of many, who have all witnessed the comfort and salvation of God.
And in the middle is Paul’s honest testimony about his own suffering and his hard-won confidence in God.
When we gather as Christians, we often have prayer requests, stories of situations that are trying and troublesome. We want help, and ask our brothers and sisters to beseech God on our behalf. And sometimes, we also have stories to tell of what God has done, stories of answered prayer and unexpected grace.
All of this is well and good. Let’s take it one step further, and remember why we do this. It’s not just to get the help of others, as if needing to borrow a spiritual cup of sugar. We come alongside one another to be a community of comfort, for that is part of our calling as a church. And the goal of telling our stories, ultimately, is to spread the praise of God.