A Word from Bob: You’re reading Part 7 in my blog mini-series on Half Biblical Ministry to the Suffering. The series was prompted by a yet-to-be-published work in the biblical counseling field that highlighted truth-telling for people who are suffering, but de-emphasized relationship building with those who are suffering. Based upon my biblical study and my study of the history of how the church has engaged with suffering brothers and sisters, it is my conviction that truth-telling and relationship-building must be combined for any counseling that desires to be considered comprehensively biblical. Here are titles/links to my first 6 posts:
- Half Biblical Ministry to the Suffering
- Counseling Without Loving Compassion
- Mingling Our Sufferings and Sorrows
- Job’s Miserable Counselors: How Not to Counsel
- Climbing in the Casket: Rich Soul Empathy
- 5 Marks of Compassionate Biblical Counseling
The More Important Matters
In my book, Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ, readers learn and practice five biblical counseling competencies for comforting—helping people to face their suffering face-to-face with Christ. However, we have to remember that competencies apart from Christlike character are like working on the outside of the cup and ignoring the more important matters of the inside (see Matthew 23:25-26). Or, as I say in Gospel Conversations:
Competence without Christlike Character is like one corpse practicing cosmetic surgery on another corpse.
That’s why we each need to prayerfully ponder the question, “What type of person do I need to be in order to offer Christ’s sustaining comfort to others?
Characteristic # 1: Powerful Comforters See God as Their Comforting Father
Paul uses the Greek word for “comfort” ten times in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7—do you think this may be the theme of these verses? He begins developing his theme by presenting a crystal clear image of God.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
All comfort is ultimately sourced in God. The flip side of that is to say that worldly comfort—comfort not sourced in God—is ultimately empty, vain, hollow comfort.
God is the God of comfort and of compassion. The Greek word for “compassion” means to feel another person’s agony. People in Paul’s day used the word to signify sympathetic lament. God laments our pain (Isaiah 63:9). He is the Father of compassion. Is that our image of God when life is bad?
The word for “comfort” pictures God fortifying us—He gives us His strength to draw a line in the sand of retreat from hope. Paul and others used the word to picture a lawyer advocating for a client, of a mother wrapping her arms of protection around her child, and of a solider standing back to back with a comrade in danger. Even when I am tempted to turn my back on God, He stands back to back with me fortifying me in my suffering. He is the God of all comfort. In the midst of our suffering, is that our image of God?
Characteristic # 2: Powerful Comforters Admit Their Own Helplessness
Sustaining comfort always starts with the person in need being willing to call out for aid, summoning help, beseeching rescue. Paul alerts us to our neediness when he tells us that God comforts us in all our troubles (2 Corinthians 1:4) “Troubles” literally means to press, squash, squeeze. It’s used of the pressures of life that squeeze the life out of us, that crush us—that bring us to a faith point—either we cry out to God or we retreat from God.
In a similar way, Psalms 34:17-18 tells us:
“The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” The world says, “God helps those who help themselves.”
The psalmist and Paul say, “God helps those who admit they can’t help themselves. He comforts those who humbly cry out, ‘I can’t handle my suffering on my own. I need your help, Father.’” God invites us to verbalize our suffering, our neediness.
Notice how facing our helplessness relates to comforting others. “Who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4, emphasis added). When we are weak—admitting our powerlessness to God, crying out for His comfort—then we are strong—empowered to empower others. God comforts and empowers us in our weakness so that we can comfort and empower others in their weakness.
Characteristic # 3: Powerful Comforters Face Their Own Suffering Face-to-Face with Christ
There’s a third important comforting principle tucked away in verse four. We tend to think, “For me to help another person, I must have gone through the same situation or the identical trial.” For instance, we think, “For me to help someone struggling with alcoholism, I must have battled alcoholism in my life.”
That’s not what this verse teaches. Notice it again.
“Who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4, emphasis added).
Whatever my trouble is, if I’ve taken that trouble to Christ, then His infinite comfort in my life supplies me with the power to comfort you with any trouble in your life. My ability to help you is not based upon what I’ve gone through; it is based upon my going through suffering face-to-face with Christ.
Because God is infinite, I do not need to experience the same situation or soul pain as you. I need to have experienced the same comforting Father in my suffering.
Paul develops his thinking further in verse 5 when he says:
“For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.”
Only comfort-receivers spill over and overflow into comfort-givers.
When we’re the type of person who turns humbly to God in our suffering, then we become the type of person who tunes into others. We become Jesus with skin on. Then we offer small tastes of what it is like to be comforted by Christ. Of course, as we do this, we don’t point people to ourselves, we point people to Christ who is the Ultimate Comforter.
Characteristic # 4: Powerful Comforters Apply the Truth that Shared Sorrow Is Endurable Sorrow
Notice what happens when the body of Christ offers Christ’s comfort to one another.
“For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. 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 sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:5-7).
Together we are empowered by the fellowship of Christian endurance. Or, as I write in Gospel Conversations:
Shared sorrow is endurable sorrow.
Do we believe that for others but not for ourselves? Do we encourage others to be open with the body of Christ about their struggles, but we keep our battles and wounds hidden from others? Powerful comforters not only turn to Christ, they turn to the body of Christ to stop their own retreat.
Paul describes the result as patient endurance. It is the Greek compound word, hupomeno, meaning remaining under. We can remain under pressure without giving into pressure. The word has the sense of resilience—the ability to turn setbacks into comebacks.
It is more than just patience as we think of it. It is courageous endurance. It has the active significance of energetic successful resistance. It is spiritual heroism in the face of pain, the firm refusal to give in or give up, the brave determination to stop retreating and to start forging forward.
The heroic Christian is not the person who never asks for help. Instead, the heroic Christian and the effective comforter is the person who knows that they can only endure sorrow by inviting others to share in their sorrows.
The Rest of the Story
In our next post on comprehensive and compassionate biblical counseling, we’ll take a look Gospel Listening. Listening—biblical, theological, relational listening—is the bridge between joining people by caring like Christ and encouraging people to invite Christ into their journey.
More of the Story
Today’s principles from God’s Word come from my book, Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ.
Join the Conversation
Which of the following characteristics do you sense to the need to develop in dependence upon Christ?
- Characteristic # 1: Powerful Comforters See God as Their Comforting Father
- Characteristic # 2: Powerful Comforters Admit Their Own Helplessness
- Characteristic # 3: Powerful Comforters Face Their Own Suffering Face-to-Face with Christ
- Characteristic # 4: Powerful Comforters Apply the Truth that Shared Sorrow Is Endurable Sorrow