by Wesley C. Parker
It's become a classic moment in cinematic history now when Col. Nathan Jessep (played by the inimitable Jack Nicholson in the film "A few good men") bellows out to the courtroom, "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!"
It's impossible to say how it all started, but it seems that for many seasoned pastors seeking to comfort and encourage the next generation just cutting their teeth, the same motto as Col. Jessep applies.
Paul in the dock
After describing God the Father as, “the God of all comfort” in 2 Cor. 1:3, the apostle Paul goes on to share this rather depressing addition in vs. 5:
“For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (ESV)
… doesn't exactly sound like the yellow-brick road does it? And in fact, many of us would read those words and wonder if Paul couldn’t have painted a little more attractive, compelling picture of gospel service if he had just stuck to the stuff about how comforting God is.
As a new senior pastor with just 45 days under my belt now, I couldn’t disagree more.
The context of comfort
When you read on in 2 Corinthians, the picture only seems to get darker. In vs. 8-9a Paul writes, “For we do not want you to be ignorant 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.”
And when you read of Paul’s exploits in the book of Acts, you know that this is no exaggeration!
Still, we think: Dude, lighten up! Ok, so you had a hard go of it. That doesn’t mean you need to crawl out of the dentist’s office clutching your mouth and moaning; terrifying the rest of us who are about to go in for our appointments! Why not tell us instead about all the amazing things God accomplished through you; the people you healed; the debates you won at Mars Hill; the churches you planted everywhere? That would truly be comforting to me as I seek to minister in my own context!
And yet, as we read past vs. 9a, we see that it is only with the context of vss. 8-9a in view that vss. 9b-10 have any significance and power to actually offer us any comfort. Paul says, “But that [all that fear and anxiety and desperation he just described] 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.”
It is only as we know the context of the comfort that the greatness of it can actually be seen and understood.
The true offer of comfort
How many times have you been at a conference, an AGM, or maybe even just out for a coffee with a friend, and someone has asked you, “How are things going at your church?
Isn’t our initial, fleshly response often to want to defend our identity as a successful minister, by talking about all the amazing stuff God is doing; to highlight the successes and mountain peaks, and leave out all the valleys and ditches?
As a newly minted pastor, 45 days in and just beginning down this path, I can tell you: again and again what has been truly comforting for me to hear from seasoned pastors - alongside all the successes - is all that very same depressing, ugly, unglamorous stuff that Paul drags up in 2 Corinthians. I rejoice along with you to hear of how God is prospering your ministry now; just don’t leave out the gritty backstory of how you got there as you tell me about it. Tell me about the struggles and fights you went through to get approval from your board. Tell me about those families in the church who supported your vision at first and then turned on you and publicly told the congregation your vision was foolish. Tell me about the sleepless nights; the laboring to find joy in your sermon writing; and the daily offering of your resentment of God's people back up to Him.
Share it all with me, because just hearing how God has prospered you is not anywhere near as comforting and encouraging as knowing the context of what God had to carry you through to get you there. Tell me context of your present comfort and – rather than scaring me - it helps to normalize all the questions and fears that I’m feeling just starting out. Tell me the context of your comfort and - rather than souring me - I’m given fresh hope that there is a blessed end that God is bringing about through these early struggles and growing pains. Above all, tell me the context of your present comfort and – rather than depressing me – it only shines the light of God’s glory and grace all the brighter.
The next time someone asks you how things are going at your church - if you want to truly offer comfort - don't give them the Hollywood, polished up version of things. Just tell it like it is and, I promise, they will truly be comforted with the comfort with which you have been comforted.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all 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. 1 Cor. 1:3-4 (ESV)