As Paul writes to suffering and potentially discouraged Christians in Corinth, he reminds them that God is the God of all comfort. And one way that God comforts in trials is by letting us know that every pain in our life is allowed there for a divine purpose or, more accurately, for at least three purposes!
Affliction Encourages Others
“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 1:4).
There is a sad old saying that “misery loves company.” But this is not what Paul means here at all. We might better say “courage loves encouragement”! It is a blessing to know, Paul reminds the saints at Corinth, that when we are ourselves hurting, this means we will be able one day—maybe even soon—to comfort others.
We do not comfort them merely by saying, “Yes, I’ve been there too, I made it through, and you can too.” This kind of bland, slap-on-the-back optimism doesn’t go far. Because how do you know that the person you are speaking to will survive cancer just like you did, or will be saved from bankruptcy just like you were, or will have their children eventually come back to church just like yours did? The fact is, their trial may go deeper, or last longer, or be more widespread than yours!
No, Paul says, we comfort others with the same comfort that we ourselves received from God in our times of affliction. God didn’t promise you that you would survive cancer, or escape financial ruin, or have repentant children. Rather, God promised you that He is working for your good and His glory, even in the darkest of times!
Paul writes in Romans 8:28 that “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
What a sweeping, staggering claim this is! And yet Paul says we can know for certain that every detail of our lives are working together for our good, as believers in Jesus Christ. How do we know this?
First, Paul points out that if you love God, then your love itself is the result of God’s purposeful working in your heart and life (remember the same cause-and-effect in John’s first epistle: “We love him, because he first loved us”).
So the astonishing implication of Romans 8:28 is that God’s bringing you into a relationship of mutual love with himself, through Christ, is just the first in a comprehensive chain-reaction of events, of connections, of a network of life circumstances that God is working for your good (in both directions, past, and future)! According to His infinite wisdom, God is working all things together for the spiritual (and therefore greatest) good of those whom he has brought into a loving, justified, reconciled relationship with himself through Christ.
God does not just comfort us in “some” of our afflictions; God comforts us in “all” our tribulation. Not by offering us platitudes or empty optimism in the face of ravaging illness, personal loss, or relational agony; but by assuring us that nothing happens to us without first passing through the loving, wise, omnipotent hand of our heavenly Father. He can and will overrule every sorrow for our ultimate joy, for Christ’s sake.
This transcendent, eye-opening, everlasting comfort, Paul says, is not only what comforts us in our own times of tremendous uncertainty and pain; it is also how we can then turn and give meaningful, personal, gospel-centered comfort to others who are likewise going through times of difficulty.
Affliction Conforms to Christ
“As we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:5).
Simply put, the Bible clearly teaches that your trials are working for you. Of course, Paul is not suggesting everything we encounter in life will immediately or plainly result in our own comfort, emotional happiness, or pleasure. No, Paul is clearly thinking of a greater, deeper, more lasting benefit from our trials — our trials are working to wean us from this world and make us more like Christ. When we suffer as Christians, we know that we are only experiencing a fraction of the pain that our Savior suffered for us. But what a joy, even so, to know that when we suffer it is ultimately “Christ’s suffering” abounding in us!
In fact, this is exactly what Paul goes on to say in the very next verse of Romans 8, as well. After making the astounding claim that God is working all things together for our good, he gives a further explanation verse 29: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” Suffering makes us more like our suffering Savior. Suffering allows us to personally know the utter dependence upon God that utter helplessness brings since even Jesus Himself was utterly dependent on his Father. As Paul Miller points out, in his excellent book A Praying Life:
“When Jesus tells us to become like little children, he isn’t telling us to do anything he isn’t already doing. Jesus is, without question, the most dependent human being who ever lived (John 5:19, 30; 8:28; 12:49). Because he can’t do life on his own, he prays. And he prays. And he prays.”
Similarly, when we face trials that we cannot overcome with our own strength or cunning, we are reminded of what it means to be helpless without our Father, which should cause us run to our Father in prayer. When we are constantly, helplessly relying on our Father is when we are must like Christ.
Affliction Consoles to Salvation
“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” (2 Corinthians 1:6).
When God saves us, through faith in Jesus Christ, He saves for keeps. The only real salvation is an eternal salvation. Anything else is just putting off the inevitable; damnation procrastinating. God’s salvation is forever.
However, the way that God eternally saves is not by making us independent, or eternally autonomous, creatures. Any salvation that is apart from a relationship with God Himself would be no salvation at all, since. it would be the same everlasting torment that is reserved for the devil and his angels — which is a description of hell.
God saves His people by drawing them to Himself, through Jesus Christ, in the first place. He also continues to draw them to Himself, through Jesus Christ, every day after and throughout all eternity. Thus, as Paul reminds the Corinthians believers, God uses suffering in the lives of His saints “for your comfort and salvation.” As we are reminded of our need of God and run to Christ yet again, this is sanctification. And sanctification is our salvation begun, though not yet consummated in glorification.
Thus, as Paul says, we receive comfort from God in “all” our tribulation. There is not a pain we experience here, and now that does not have an eternal promise attached to it. It consoles our hearts to be reminded that we are most like Christ when we are most dependent on our Father, that this process of sanctification is the fruit of the eternal salvation we have in Christ, and that we now have a real and powerful consolation to share with others as well.