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Comforted Comforters

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.

After his customary greeting, these are the first words the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians. They contain profound truths about God and about the nature of Christian ministry.

God is “the Father of mercies” and “the Father of compassion”. Our Father is the source of all compassion. When we feel compassion towards another person, our heart is beating with his. He is also “the God of all comfort”. Our Father’s compassion is not static and unmoving. He does not watch our suffering from a distance, aloof and unresponsive. He brings comfort to those he loves.

How does God, our Father, bring us comfort? We may instinctively say that he does it through his powerful promises. The apostle Paul would certainly agree. In Romans 15.4, he speaks about “the comfort of the Scriptures”. God gives us comfort through his Word. But that is not Paul’s focus in 2 Corinthians 1. Here, he speaks about the experience of God’s comfort in the midst of suffering. This is the Word lived out. It is the presence of the Promiser.

What, then, is Christian ministry? Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1.6, “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.” This definition is not comprehensive—preaching and teaching are surely also important—but it is certainly a vital aspect of it.

Christian ministers suffer alongside people in a way that reminds them of the comfort of God.

As we walk with suffering people, we represent God to them. Literally, we re-present him. We present him again to them. We help them see how the promises and presence of God bring comfort in suffering. As Paul describes his own suffering, he does not hold back. He says, “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” (2 Cor 1.8) Had Paul asked me to edit his letter (scary thought!) I think I would have said, “Now Paul, I think we need to tone that down a bit. Take the edge off. You don’t want them thinking you were a complete ‘basket case’”. My apostolic namesake would undoubtedly have rebuked me, and led by the Spirit, he would have left his words exactly as we read them in our Bibles.

Paul did not hide his suffering. He did not pretend it was less than it was. He put it out there for all to see. Why? Because his aim was to help the Corinthians follow his lead, to learn what he had learned through his experience. To “rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead”.

This aim works in two ways.

  • Those we care for need to learn to rely on God rather than on themselves.

  • They also need to learn to rely on God rather than on us.

The apostle Paul did not want the Corinthians to be dependent on him rather than on God. His appropriate self-disclosure about his own weakness was part of ensuring they wouldn’t. As ministers, we must not give a false impression that we are strong, thereby encouraging people to trust in our strength. Put more bluntly, we must remember we cannot raise the dead! Only God can do that, so anyone putting their confidence in us is bound to be disappointed. You might conduct a nice funeral and people might appreciate it. However, the God of whom you speak at the graveside is the one who will reverse death itself. He is the one who will raise a believer to life in an imperishable body. That’s the compassionate Father who delivers us from deadly perils and carries us tenderly in his arms. Even when deliverance comes through death, the God of all comfort will hold us. This is our hope for those we pastor, and, like Paul, this hope is unshakeable.

Leadership goes wrong when we encourage people to depend on us instead of guiding them towards a greater reliance on God. It goes wrong even more profoundly when we turn those entrusted to our care into a source of our own comfort. We feel insecure and so we feed on others’ need of us. We need to be needed. We like to be liked. Paul’s openness can help us guard against this tendency too. The comfort we need is not found in an admiring congregation, but in our great Father. As you care for others, seek your comfort in the God of all comfort.

At the same time, Paul models to us a healthy two-way relationship between a minister and a congregation. He will not feed on the Corinthians, but he does ask them to pray for him. (2 Cor 1.11) He knows further trials await him down the road. He knows that God will deliver him. Yet he also knows that God works through the prayers of his people to bring blessing to others.

Paul’s confidence in prayer should challenge us as leaders too. The greatest thing you can do for people in your community is pray for them. That is not to say that sitting with them, listening to them, giving guidance and at times caring for their material needs is not important. Of course these things matter, but they must all be underpinned by prayer. When we intercede for others, we reveal our ultimate source of hope in the God of all comfort. “Spiritual love”, writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “will speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ”.

Of course, this works both ways.

The greatest thing your community can do for you is pray for you. So, it is right to ask your congregation to pray for you. At Living Leadership, we pray for you too. If you would like us to do that by name, please email us. If you would value being part of a praying group, why not join Refresh Network Online? Or if you would like one of our Associates to walk with you and pray for you, then request support.

Ministers of the gospel, remember you are comforted comforters.

You are not worthy of the task to which you are called, but that is not a source of shame. Absolutely not. Your weakness and your lack of ability to provide all comfort is the whole point. You are dependent on God and you are helping others to see their dependence on him too.

As your Father comforts you, bring comfort to others.


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