As of today we are halfway through the month of December. Many people love December in Michigan, and what other place can compare? Whether it’s waking up to a beautiful layer of clean, pristine snow or it’s enjoying an incredible day of sunshine, Michigan in December can be gorgeous. But it’s usually not. It is the month in which we have the fewest days of sunshine. February, with three fewer days than December, averages three more days of sunshine than December! It’s usually overcast and gloomy—but at least it’s cold. This is why many people experience “seasonal affective disorder”, also known as “the winter blues”. For many it’s not merely seasonal. Life can be harsh and brutal and often brings suffering our way. In this, however, God is at work in often unseen ways. Consider Paul’s words to the church in Corinth.
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. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 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. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.2 Corinthians 1:3–7 ESV
Paul’s words here to the church in Corinth are a bit tangled. He says that God is the God of all comfort. He is the one who is always comforting us when we are afflicted. The tenses Paul uses emphasize the ongoing nature of God’s comforting of his people. There isn’t a time when God is not actively comforting his people—even if we’re not aware of it when it’s happening. Paul says the outcome of receiving comfort from God is that Paul is able to comfort others with the same comfort he has received.
The reason we need comfort is because we share in Christ’s suffering—not sparingly, though! He says we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings. He’s not referring to the sufferings of Jesus on the cross, but to the suffering that we experience in relation to being his people. We suffer because of our association with him. Paul turns this around again and says that if he is afflicted with suffering, it is for the Corinthians’ comfort and salvation. The trials and tribulations that Paul experiences are, in part, designed to bring comfort and salvation to them. If he is comforted, it is for their comfort when they endure the same sufferings that Paul endures.
Paul is demonstrating here the unity and connectedness we feel as followers of Jesus. We are united in our confession that Jesus is Lord and so when one member rejoices, the others rejoice and when one member is hurting, the others hurt as well. He’s indicating that part of God’s purpose in allowing suffering is that we might comfort one another with the same comfort he gives us in our suffering. This is why Paul can then say that his hope for the church remains unshaken, for while they share in Paul’s sufferings, they also share in his comfort.
Paul is not offering a cheap-shot therapy session here. He’s not giving them a drive-by platitude designed to distract them from their suffering. Instead, he’s giving them a bit of perspective. Yes, this life is filled with suffering. Yes, that suffering is difficult. Here’s the real hope he has: that suffering is not sovereign. It is not all-consuming. It will not last forever. It will end. To show them how this is true he reveals to them the depth of his own suffering.
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 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. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.2 Corinthians 1:8–11 ESV
Paul isn’t sure if the Corinthians know the depth of his most recent experience of suffering. While in Asia he was burdened beyond his strength. His suffering was so great there was nothing he could do about it. So much for those who claim God will never give you more than you can handle! Paul had more than he could handle! He says things got so bad that he despaired of life itself. He would have welcomed death at that point, such was the grief and pain he was enduring. With time, however, he has gained a better perspective on his suffering. He says that it was allowed, at least in part, so that he would not rely on himself. That seems obvious given that he was burdened beyond his own strength. If you can’t handle your burdens, obviously you can’t rely on your own strength—except it’s not that obvious when you’re in the midst of it. With time, however, he has come to see his suffering differently, from God’s perspective. Notice what he says. It was to make him not rely on himself, “but on God who raises the dead”.
Paul points them to the good news of Jesus: he has defeated sin and death. The same God who raises the dead will give Paul—and the Corinthians—the necessary strength to carry on the midst of severe hardship. They will face things that are too great for them to handle, but the truth is they will never face anything that God cannot handle. How do we know? He raises the dead. If God can raise the dead, what is there that he cannot do? And the promise is sure: he will raise the dead. All suffering has an expiration date. It may not be the date that you and I want it to have, but it will expire. The day is coming when suffering simply ceases to be a thing. By pointing them to God who raises the dead, the apostle is reminding them of their real hope in Christ. He is coming again and when he does, he will end suffering for all time. When that day comes, never again will followers of Jesus face suffering and pain. The promise is that God will wipe away every tear. He will heal every wound.
Paul is not giving them the happy-clappy platitudes that we all despise, the shallow, superficial “don’t-worry-be-happy” mantra. He doesn’t point to God who raises the dead as a band-aid designed to make their booboos feel better. Those sorts of responses are actually designed to minimize your suffering, to make you think your suffering is not nearly as bad as it is. Such platitudes don’t come from faith; they come from optimism, the general disposition of seeing things from a positive light. Optimism isn’t a bad thing; it’s just not the same as faith in God. Paul acknowledges the very real suffering he and the Corinthians experience. He doesn’t minimize it but says that he even despaired of life! He didn’t wake up one day while in the midst of this despair and say to himself, “Bah. It could be worse, and it’ll get better.”—and suddenly it was better. Instead he acknowledges that God delivered him from his despair and did you catch what he says next?
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.2 Corinthians 1:10 ESV
Paul fully expected to be in that situation again! God rescued him from despairing of life, and God will rescue him from despairing of life again! Isn’t that remarkable! The apostle, the very one appointed to his office by Jesus himself, the one who had seen the resurrected Jesus in his glory, would once again despair of life, and was trusting in God who raises the dead to deliver him once again. He is not saying that the next time he will have the strength to handle it. He expects the next round of suffering to once again be beyond his strength and to despair of life itself. He also expects the same God who raises the dead to give him the strength and the comfort necessary to endure. Paul knows he cannot do this alone, so he pleads with the Corinthians help him through prayer so that many will give thanks to God for getting him through.
You may be going through immense suffering right now. Keep trusting in the one who raises the dead. He will be faithful to uphold you, to give you the necessary strength to endure. Or you may soon go through immense suffering. Know that when it comes, God who raises the dead is right there with you, offering you comfort and the strength to carry on. Yes, it will get better. As DA Carson once said,
I’m not suffering from anything that a good resurrection can’t fix.Don Carson
Whether your suffering is physical or emotional, God will be faithful to uphold you. How do I know? He delivered Paul from it. Multiple times. He’s delivered me from it, again, multiple times. He will be faithful to deliver you from it as well—multiple times.