What does it mean to experience the comfort of God when we are facing trouble or affliction? Think about that before we move on…. What does God’s comfort feel like to you? For me, as I have faced some dark times in my wrestling match with pancreatic cancer, God’s comfort has often come in the form of a freedom from fear through trusting in his providential care. God’s comfort has also shown itself by an awareness of his presence and the overwhelming sense of peace that such an awareness brings. It’s like my soul says, “God’s got this bro, go have a good meal.”
The Lord has also comforted me through the care and encouragement of others—their prayers, cards, letters, emails, texts, just letting me know they were thinking about me or praying for me. I remember when I was guest preaching at a church (back in the day when you could do that sort of thing) and a group of about 20 people gathered around me after the service to pray for me—guess my sermon was really bad (just kidding). They laid hands on me and prayed for my healing and spiritual well-being.
In another church, a smaller one, the entire congregation prayed for me just before I gave the benediction. I could give you example after example of how God has used others to comfort and encourage me—like many of you reading this post. Thus, when Paul in 2 Cor 1:4 calls God “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our troubles,” I understand what that means, because he has comforted me and continues to do so.
However, that is not all Paul says about God’s comfort. In v. 4, he continues “who comforts us in our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” This reminds me of Psalm 67, where the psalmist asks that God would bless and be gracious to him and his people, “so that your ways may be known on the earth and your salvation among all he nations.” God blesses us so that we can bring the blessings of the gospel to others.
And so it is with all of God’s gifts; they do not stop with us. We are to love others “as I have loved you;” we are to forgive one another as “God in Christ has forgiven you;” we are to be generous in the use of our wealth, because we “know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Therefore, God’s comfort is not designed to make us comfortable, but to make us a comfort to others, like some of the examples I gave above.
There is one more thing that Paul says about comfort in v. 6, “If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same suffering we suffer.” It seems like Paul is saying that whatever trouble or affliction he suffered, it would have an impact upon others in whom God was working to develop their faith. It all sounds very theoretical until you go through it and then it makes sense.
I remember that not too long after my diagnosis (which, by the way, was 3 years this past Good Friday) when I didn’t want a lot of people to know I had cancer. It was humbling to admit and it made me feel weak and vulnerable. It was my oldest daughter who sensed my hesitation and challenged me to let people know, so they could be praying for me. Then she said (at least this is what I remember), “Dad, we are going to be watching you, because how you handle all of this is going to set a pattern for your children and grandchildren.” The same thought was expressed to me by two other unrelated people in my church; the fact that they were watching how I was handling all this.
Wow! What a powerful thing to recognize that our afflictions do not take place in a vacuum. Other people are drawn in and are effected directly or indirectly by what we suffer. To personalize this—I know that I do not suffer alone (although sometimes I feel that way when I’m having a pity-party). There are more people than I can imagine who have been pulled into my world through kinship and friendship, and who are impacted by my affliction. And that is true for you as well. How you deal with your troubles can bring tremendous comfort to others whose faith is untested in certain areas.
It can be a great encouragement to their faith to see an example of someone who is not embittered against the Lord or constantly whinging about the hand they’ve been dealt. Instead, they see on display a very ordinary human being, simply trusting, hoping, and enduring because s/he believes that God is good, in control, and will never leave nor forsake. I guarantee that such an example will be of inestimable value in their spiritual development and will strengthen the muscles of their faith especially to have the privilege of praying for you during your affliction. Don’t be afraid of letting people know of your need, which is very humbling at first, but after awhile it becomes very freeing. Not only that, but God will bring you comfort and healing through those prayers. God’s comfort comes full circles back to you.
So, if you are suffering affliction today, may you experience the comfort that only the God of All-Comfort can give to you. May you also look for those within your sphere of influence whom you can comfort in some way, with the comfort you have received from God. Finally, may you recognize that though you wish for anonymity in your suffering, you are on display before family and friends, who will be greatly influenced by your simple faith and trust in the Father. Let them know how they can be praying for you and allow yourself to receive the comfort and blessing that it will bring.
I was reading the account of Jesus’ public reinstatement of Peter (John 21:15-18) after his three-time denial. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Three times came the sad but earnest reply, “yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Gone, however, was Peter’s loud bravado and proud comparisons. When Jesus used the word for love, it was agapao (full, unconditional love). James Boice called it 100% love. However, when Peter answered Jesus, he used the word phileo, meaning the love of friendship or fond affection. Boice called this 60% love. Perhaps Peter was not so sure that his love would not fail again.
After each question and response about love, Jesus commissioned Peter to the task of feeding and caring for those who would become followers under his ministry. I learn from this that ministry to others flows out of our love for Jesus. How can we help people grow to love Jesus if we do not? As important as this lesson is, I am amazed and baffled about something else in this interchange with Peter; that Jesus would want our love in the first place.
Thomas Watson weaves these two themes of love and service together, writing:
Love makes all our services acceptable, it is the musk that perfumes them. It is not so much duty, as a loving-duty, God delights in; therefore serving and loving God are put together. Isa 56: 6. It is better to love Him than to serve Him; obedience without love, is like wine without the spirits. O then, be persuaded to love God with all your heart and might.
It is nothing but your love that God desires. The Lord might have demanded your children to be offered in sacrifice; he might have bid you cut and lance yourselves, or lie in hell awhile; but he only desires your love, he would only have this flower. Is it a hard request, to love God? Was ever any debt easier paid than this? Is it any labour for the wife to love her husband? Love is delightful. Love must by definition be sweet — Bernard. What is there in our love that God should desire it? Why should a king desire the love of a woman that is in debt and diseased? God does not need our love. There are angels enough in heaven to adore and love Him. What is God the better for our love? It adds not the least cubit to His essential blessedness. He does not need our love, and yet He seeks it. Why does He desire us to give Him our heart? Pr 23:26. Not that He needs our heart, but that He may make it better…
Our love to God is a sign of His love to us. We love him because he first loved us.’ 1John 4: 19. By nature we have no love to God; we have hearts of stone. Ezek 36: 26. And how can any love be in hearts of stone? Our loving Him is from his loving us. If the glass burn, it is because the sun has shone on it; so if our hearts burn in love, it is a sign the Sun of Righteousness has shone upon us. (Thomas Watson – The Ten Commandments 2. Introduction Love)
Jesus took a repentant Peter and accepted the love he had to offer—then put him to work. And as Peter continued to live for Jesus, his love grew to 100%. We know that because many years later he was able to die for Jesus and not deny him. We don’t know the circumstances surrounding his death. Tradition says that he was crucified in Rome under Emperor Nero, and that he asked to be crucified upside down because he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Jesus. Apocryphal? Perhaps . . . but it sounds like something 100% love would do.
Jesus says to you, “Do you love me”? What is your response?
All four gospels record the three-fold denial of Christ by Peter. Mark claims that the rooster crowed twice, while Matthew, Luke, and John imply once. When you deny the Lord Jesus, who really cares how many times the stupid rooster crows, just as long as it crows!
Lord, what is the purpose of all this horrible evil taking place in your world? Why don’t you step in and stop it? The Jews asked the same question during the Holocaust? What was your answer then? I don’t remember. I know that Satan is the prince of this world and that he comes to plunder, steal, and destroy. But you, Lord Jesus, have come to give us life—life more abundant. But why are you allowing all of this death? Are people really turning to you or are they learning to trust in science?
Even your church is struggling with this, along with all the other hardships connected with this pandemic. Our family members have gotten sick from the virus; some of them have died and we are grieving; some are locked away in nursing homes or hospitals and we can’t even visit them; some have personal and emotional issues and are without personal support; some have lost their jobs and can’t pay for the mortgage or rent. Some of us are among the most vulnerable and may not have long to live; we cannot even hug our children and grandchildren. The future is so uncertain. Will we ever see the light of day?
I know there are no answers for these complaints, Lord—I’m just venting and lamenting. But I do know this: you want us to trust you. I remember (not that I was there) when you heard that your friend Lazarus was sick and you stayed where you were 2 more days. It looked like you actually waited for him to die before you went him. After all, you told your disciples “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (John 11:15) That is hard to understand and your delay sure must have been tough on Mary and Martha, not to mention Lazarus. But looking back on it, you knew that raising your friend from the dead would have more impact on building the faith of your followers than (merely) healing him—they had seen that before.
And so, I guess you are doing the same thing with us— desiring to increase our faith in all that is happening around us which we have never before seen. But Lord, please, you have to help us in this. Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by things that our faith fails us, like it did our brother Peter. We move away from you instead of toward you; we act in ways that cast doubt on whether we even know you. Then the rooster crows once or twice and we are abruptly reminded of our frailty and brokenness; of our empty boasting about how faithful we have been in following you. And at that moment, when we’ve let you down, we see you looking at us, as you looked at Peter. That look which sends us running into the night to be alone and to weep bitterly.
Perhaps the rooster (and the look) is the Holy Spirit calling us back to you and your mercy; preventing us from becoming like Judas who was filled with suicidal remorse, but did not repent. No, Lord, in spite of the evil that is so invasive in the word today and the overwhelming nature of related situations which cause me to act so erratic and squirrely, I will not run away from you into the night! I will cling to you in the middle of what I do not understand, and I will hope in you even though the mountains seem to be sliding into the midst of the sea. I really have no one else to turn to, Lord—you alone have the words of eternal life. Please help me—please help your Church—please help our world! Amen.
One of my readings this morning was Hebrews 10:4-39. The main message of this text is that Jesus Christ is both our Priest and the final Sacrifice for our sin, through his suffering and death on the cross. Thus, our salvation is finished —done, and nothing more can be added to it. The writer then makes a call for his readers to persevere in their faith by using three “let us” statements, which are insightful:
10:22 “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” This is an encouragement for us never to hang back in coming before God because of the guilt of our sin. We have in Jesus Christ a great high priest whose sacrifice dealt once and for all with our sin and cleansed even our consciences of guilt (9:9) before God. (The part about our bodies being washed is probably a reference to baptism.) Let the certainty of what Christ has done for you draw you to him everyday. Never stay away from Jesus because of your sin—that is why he died. In this way, you will persevere in your faith.
10:23 “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who has promised is faithful.” The writer is addressing those who were being persecuted for their faith, but the call can also address any situation in which our faith is being tested. It can address you and how you are dealing with the emotional, physical, and economic impact of COVID-19. It can address those of us who are facing another round of chemo today. It can address those who are suffering from the continuing impact of abuse, or grief, or situational confusion. Hold fast to the profession of your faith without being shaken by these trials. Nothing has changed about Jesus, your great and faithful high priest who ever stands making intercession for you. Nothing has changed about God’s faithful love for you or his ability to care for you. Nothing has changed about the faithful promise of eternal life that you will one day inherit. Though circumstances have changed, and will continue to do so, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever! In this way, you will persevere in your faith.
10:24 “Let us consider (brood over, think deeply about) how we may spur (provoke, arouse, excite to action) one another on toward love and good deeds.” In the midst of our own hardship we should also be thinking of how we may encourage other believers to persevere in the midst of theirs. When we suffer, we can become curved in upon ourselves and forget the needs of others. Instead, a call to persevere also includes a call to help those who are facing difficulties that might cause them to lose their grip on faith. In v. 25, the writer indicates that this encouragement can be done through the regular meeting together of the church. While this option has been taken away from us at the moment, we can use other means in order to do this. The lost art of letter writing, as well as phone calls, emails, texts, FaceTime, What’sApp, Zoom, etc., can all be vehicles for such provoking encouragement. Think about who it is among friends and family that might need such an encouraging touch from you. I have and this is why I’m writing this and all my blogs—not to hear my self think out loud, but to encourage you to persevere in your faith and not to swerve from it, just as I’m striving to maintain my own faith. In fact, helping you persevere helps me persevere.
Let me conclude with Hebrews 10:36, 39…”You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised….But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.”
Friday is Good, but Easter is better!
Here is another installment from my messages at a recent Men’s Retreat (Advance), just before they closed the camp due to COVID-19. The overall theme of the Advance was “Every Square Inch.” I post it now because Easter is coming. Hope it is helpful and stay safe.