If life isn’t hard, then we’re avoiding it.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 2 Corinthians 1:3-14
Troubles and struggles in life may discourage us because we think that God was us to be “comfortable”. But the truth is that God wants to comfort us in our troubles so that we will trust in Him more and share that trust with the people around us who need to learn that God cares about them and their struggles.
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
“Our Parents Were Trying to Kill Us”
If you came to the Associational Rally last Sunday evening, you heard a truly moving message about our need to reach the next generation. The speaker, Steve Parr, talked a lot about “comfort” (our main topic this week!), but had some humorous ways of getting us to understand his point.
One of those is our modern obsession with comfort and safety. How did you play growing up? Steve made me remember merry-go-rounds and super-high monkey bars and sheet-metal slides. Yes, they were dangerous, and we had a lot of concussions and lacerations at my school, but we had so much fun. That sent me on a research trip through the evolution of the playground. The short story is that in the early 70s, parents started suing playground owners for injuries, so play-grounds added safety features. But in the 80s and 90s, they started suing for everything, so playgrounds became designed by lawyers and no longer fun for kids with a sense of adventure or a desire for a physical challenge.
(Here's a playground in 1910. Need I say more?)
That sent me on a nostalgia trip, remembering how I would leave home on a no-school morning and ride my bike from friend to friend, jumping fences and playing in ditches and crossing major intersections, and coming home when it got dark. That’s not how it works anymore. We say it’s that the world is more dangerous, but the crime statistics don’t bear that out. We simply don’t want to chance an uncomfortable experience. The go-to article on the social aspect is “The Overprotected Kid” ("A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer.") in The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin (which sparked a lot of follow-up articles). I’m not a proponent of “adventure playgrounds” advocated, but the rest of the article is well done.
The point would be that people are more risk-averse today than in generations past. Like Steve did, I think you would lead from that topic to this next one . . .
But Comfort Can Be Good
Steve made sure to make the point that creature comforts and child safety are not bad! Talk about comforts we have today that they wish they had when they were younger. For me, I think about things like digital thermostats, remote controls, on-demand television and DVRs, satellite radio, front-loading washers, and Wikipedia.
I don’t think I want to go back to the days of no cell phones, no wireless microphones, no mp3 players, and no led bulbs. Advancements in medical technology, vehicle safety, and workplace management are good. When it’s 100° outside, I’m glad I don’t have to spend a fortune keeping my house cool. And after all, the title of this lesson is Enjoying God’s Comfort. So what’s the problem here?
It’s simple: our definition of “comfort” is not God’s definition of “comfort”. How do you define “comfort”? My guess is that many of you will focus on the noun usage and relate it to “being comfortable”. That definition is
“providing physical ease and relaxation” or “as large as is wanted”.
But then ask, “How do you define comfort as a verb?” My guess is that you will think about being there for someone in a time of sorrow. Which is right:
“to ease the grief or distress of” or “to console”.
That definition of “comfort” requires the existence of distress. Very different from the noun form! The Greek word this comes from, parakaleo, is the same word Jesus used to describe the ministry of the Holy Spirit, someone who comes alongside of to provide help. The Latin is “com-” (“with”) and “-fortis”) (“strong”). So, to com-fort is literally “to strengthen”. So, that would mean that the people who need comfort are those who are weak. Guess what? The Bible uses “comfort” in that verb sense. Comfort in the Bible has nothing to do with “creature comforts”; it has to do with being strengthened when times are hard.
Steve put this very well in his message on Sunday night. Churches are fine to provide creature comforts to their members. There’s nothing wrong with that. It only becomes wrong when those comforts become our goal and mission. No, our mission is to reach the lost. If that means giving up some of our personal comforts (like a certain schedule, a style of music, avoiding people who are hurting, welcoming kids who tend to be disruptive), then we give up our comforts in order to give comfort to a hurting world. Can you explain that balance? There’s nothing wrong with wanting to provide comfortable space to all of our members (that’s one of our goals in our Sunday School)! But being comfortable is not the mission of the church. Providing comfort to the lost and hurting is.
Our Context in the Corinthian Letters
Why did Paul start 2 Corinthians with this section on being comforted? That’s a great question, and it requires us to remember what’s going on with these letters.
Paul plants the church in Corinth (Acts 20) and stays there 18 months.
After he continues his missionary journey, he hears about sins that the church is tolerating, so he writes a letter (not preserved) telling them to stop doing that.
A delegation from Corinth finds Paul in Ephesus and tells him that things are not good with the church; Paul responds by writing First Corinthians.
Timothy goes to Corinth and finds that things have gotten worse, leading Paul to make a “tearful visit” (2 Cor 12:4) that did not go well.
Paul returns to Ephesus and writes a “severe letter” (2 Cor 2:3-4; not preserved) that strongly rebukes the church for their many sins.
Paul gets so concerned about how the church received his harsh letter that after the riot in Ephesus (Acts 19), he went searching for Titus to hear news; blessedly, the news is basically good—many church members repented—so Paul writes Second Corinthians to prepare them for his return.
Why the Weird Start to 2 Corinthians?
Talking about hardships and travel plans seems an odd way to try to start a mend-the-relationship letter. From our culture, it sounds like a pity party! There are a few ways we can interpret the beginning of this letter:
Paul has literally just been beaten and thrown out of Ephesus. If that’s the case, then a need for comfort is on his mind.
Paul has heard that the Corinthians have been grieving about his harsh letter, in which case Paul wants them to know that God will use it for their good.
The “good” Christians in Corinth have suffered from taking their stand against the immoral Christians, and they would need to know God is still with them.
I think it’s a combination of (1) and (2). The Christians in Corinth have just begun to learn that standing up for Jesus comes with a cost, and it is a shock to them. Paul then uses his own experience in Ephesus as an example to say that God can bring good out of even the harshest experience.
As for the travel plans (which we skip over), I think Paul’s enemies used his last-minute change of plans to say that Paul shouldn’t be respected (his credibility). It sounds like they also said that Paul’s bad experiences in Asia proved that God didn’t support him (his authority). It apparently swayed some church members because Paul comes back at them in force in the last chapters of his letter. So, yes, it’s a strange place to start a letter, but we have to remember that Paul already had a long history with this church—they would have known the background.
Part 1: Comforted (2 Corinthians 1:3-7)
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are afflicted, 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 that we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will also share in the comfort.
Through Paul’s visits and letters, the Corinthian Christians have gotten a taste of affliction. Their bad behavior had led to rifts in the church, a bad reputation with outsiders, and when some of them tried to repent, it led to persecution from within and without. It turns out Christianity isn’t that comfortable after all!
When someone becomes a Christian, that person may have been given the impression that following Jesus will solve all of their problems. (And it does—all of their eternal problems.) And then they become shocked and dismayed when they continue to suffer hardships. Paul takes a very different approach to them:
Christian suffering proves that God finds us mature enough to handle it
Christian suffering enables us to receive God’s comfort
Christian suffering prepares us to help someone else in similar affliction
Christian suffering brings us closer to God, the Father of mercies
Note that Paul doesn’t qualify what the suffering is for (like Peter does)—when we suffer, even if it’s our own fault, God still comforts us. What kind of “afflictions” do you think Paul has in mind? Based on what we know of Corinth (and also what happened to Paul at Ephesus), I’m thinking at the very least persecution, financial hardship, illness, loss of relationship, physical threat, societal corruption, isolation and loneliness, worry, and fear. That’s a list that would still be comprehensive today! God has not abandoned us in those times; rather, God draws closer to us then than ever.
How does God give His children comfort? Certainly, there are the promises of His Word, and there is the ministry of the Holy Spirit (literally “Comforter” John 14:16). But here, Paul focuses that God primarily comforts us through one another. Paul takes an incredibly selfless and mature look at human suffering, one that I have heard many of our church members echo: “when I suffer, I know that God will bring good out of it for someone”. It’s not “God will eventually make me comfortable” but “God will bring someone into my life I can help because I have suffered this”. That’s amazing and powerful. Paul looks at his whole life that way. When he is afflicted (tried or troubled), he knows that means someone will be inspired to stand firm in trials. When he is comforted, he knows that means some-one will be encouraged to wait on the Lord.
In what way does Paul’s affliction produce salvation? Most scholars believe Paul is using the word “salvation” to refer to the entire process of justification and sanctification. It’s possible that Paul has in mind that his experiences will help non-believers take more seriously his message and come to faith in Christ.
Aside: “Sufferings of Christ”?
This is a strange comment: “the sufferings of Christ overflow to us”. A lot of self-identifying Christians over the years have taken that to some bizarre New Age-y end in which the closer we get to Jesus, the more we begin to experience the pain of the cross. This goes back to an old Catholic superstition called the stigmata, in which some saints were blessed to take on the actual wounds of Jesus. Frankly, that’s blasphemy. Paul believed that the cross/Christ’s atonement was a once-for-all, “it is finished” event (Rom 5:8-10), so this can’t have anything to do with Jesus’ physical suffering for our sins.
The answer is actually quite simple. Jesus said that anyone who would follow Him must take up their own cross (metaphorically; Matt 16:24), and must expect to be persecuted (John 15:20) because “no servant is greater than his master”. The sufferings “of Christ” are those things suffered as a result of following Christ. Indeed, the more we read Paul, the more we realize that we should expect to suffer for Christ; in fact, if we do not suffer, then we are not following Christ as we should. (Remember that “suffer” and “comfort” have specific meanings).
There is one other idea for this phrase that is worth mentioning: Paul is using the suffering of Christ to refer to His body, the church. In other words, these sufferings refer to that of the worldwide group of believers; Christians suffer around the world, and we should thus expect those things to affect us eventually. I’m not sure Paul ever pressed that analogy to this end, but it is certainly true that the persecution Christians face somewhere affects us here.
Part 2: Tested (2 Corinthians 1:8-11)
We don’t want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of our affliction that took place in Asia. We were completely overwhelmed—beyond our strength—so that we even despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death, so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a terrible death, and he will deliver us. We have put our hope in him that he will deliver us again while you join in helping us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gift that came to us through the prayers of many.
Honestly, we don’t know exactly which incident Paul is referring to. “Asia” refers to what is now the western part of Turkey, which includes Ephesus, which is why many scholars believe Paul is talking about the incident in Acts 19. Whatever is was (and we know Paul came close to death many times in his ministry), it was a life-threatening situation, one in which Paul really believed they weren’t making it out alive. Lots of movies use that trope to send the audience on an emotional roller coaster. To Paul, the situation was such that he knew if they lived it would only be because God intervened. Note that the word for “sentence” is not from a judicial context but a diplomatic one. A judge did not sentence them to death. Rather, the word means that they had “sent a request” to an ambassador (prayed to God) about their release and had gotten an unfavorable response. They were ready to be martyred. But Paul believe that God did that to them so that they would trust only in Him and not in their own abilities to play the system. And when God did in fact deliver them, they could do nothing but give glory to God and deepen their trust in Him.
Now Paul wanted to share that experience so that the Corinthians would also have a deep trust in God. (Daniel 3 is another great illustration of this truth.) He also wanted to thank them for their prayers. Paul believed that prayer made a difference in his life. The phrasing here at the end is tricky, but it essentially means that when a bunch of people have been praying for something and it comes about, they are encouraged and God is glorified.
Part 3: Accepted (2 Corinthians 1:12-14)
Indeed, this is our boast: The testimony of our conscience is that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you, with godly sincerity and purity, not by human wisdom but by God’s grace. For we are writing nothing to you other than what you can read and also understand. I hope you will understand completely— just as you have partially understood us—that we are your reason for pride, just as you also are ours in the day of our Lord Jesus.
Paul concludes with the strongest but hardest argument available for true, godly ministry: his conscience before God. People, even in churches, tend to look on the outward things (see Saul vs. David). Physical appearance, winning verbal debates, “success” in building a church, those are the things that impress us. But Paul knows that we will all stand before God and answer to Him for our actions and attitudes. When Paul does, he will have a “clear conscience”, meaning that in his heart he knows he did all he could as best he could. As for these other “super apostles” that were getting the attention in Paul’s churches, Paul didn’t think that Judgment would go well for them. Paul knew that this would be hard for the Corinthians to understand—it goes against everything they believed as a culture (that success and comfort in life are signs of divine favor)—but he also believed that as they grew in Christian maturity, they would come to appreciate it.
Here’s how everything ties together. Paul believed that his patiently enduring afflicting and persecution helped him grow as a Christian, it built his credibility as a Christian, and it made him better equipped to care for the new Christians in these churches he was planting. He may have been tempted to cry out against God along the way or to manipulate things and get out of the trouble he was in, but he did not. He endured, and when God rescued him, God received the glory. Like-wise, when we suffer in this life (and it will happen), we can be tempted to take matters in our own hands and try to handle things in a way that God would not approve. No! We should (1) trust that God cares about us, (2) believe that there is a way to get through our struggle without compromising our faith, and (3) trust that God will help us use our experience to help others who go through a similar struggle.
People in your group have been through struggles and trials. Ask them to share how God has used their experience to help others, or how God has used it to bring them closer to Him. Much like Paul used his near-death experience in Asia to encourage the believers in Corinth, we can do that today for one another. And then push it to the extreme: “are any of you struggling right now with trusting God in a difficult time? Chose right now to trust God and His faithfulness and to rely on His strength.” The follow-up question would be “that sounds great, but how do we do it?” The truth is that trusting God doesn’t necessarily mean sitting back and waiting for God to intervene miraculously in your life. We still have our part to play. This is where the experiences previously shared by other class members come into play: ask them to share how they trusted in God. What did they do? How did they decide on a course of action? End by praying for one another.
Aside: What's This Talk of Boasting?
Paul talks more about boasting in 2 Corinthians than anywhere else, and considering how much he scolded the Corinthians for boasting about their spiritual gifts (1 Cor 4:7, 5:6), it might seem really strange that all of a sudden Paul seems to be essentially doing that same thing here.
The best way to understand this is to skip to the end of the letter, chapters 10-13. Apparently, more than a few church members believed that power and social status went hand-in-hand. They wanted an apostle who looked good, spoke well, dressed nice, and impressed people. Paul was anything but. Short, apparently not much of a speaking voice, scarred from his stonings and beatings, some sort of major physical malady (“thorn in the flesh”) like blindness, not the best in personal confrontation—anything but an impressive figure. And there were these “super-apostles” walking around who were very impressive.
So Paul uses “boasting” in two ways.
Totally ironically. The super-apostles boasted in their great qualities. Fine, Paul will boast in his weakness and frailty. It’s almost sarcasm.
As a redirection. The super-apostles boasted about themselves. Paul will boast about his friends in ministry and the act of God.
The church in Corinth had an issue with being prideful; that was the culture they lived in. Paul used that against them to show them just how ungodly their attitudes were. If Christians “boast”, it can only be in what God has done for us. (Note that some Christians have made the opposite mistake of actually boasting about how much they have suffered for Jesus.)
Bonus Aside: What Is "Conscience" in the Bible?
“Conscience” is a Greek concept. We think of it as a moral awareness (an “inner voice” that guides our behavior, or a cricket). There’s really nothing like it in the Old Testament—human inclination is toward sin, so God gave the law to tell the people how to be-have. There are seeds of the idea of “conscience” (see 1 Sam 25:31), but “conscience” as we know it comes from Greek philosophy with its emphasis on the mind. The vast majority of references to “conscience” in the Bible come in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, which has led some to conclude that Paul learned about this idea of a “conscience” during his time in Corinth. It is compatible with Christianity—the idea that we have some inner part that is examining our behavior—only inasmuch as we remember that we have been created by God for a purpose.
Closing Thoughts: How Do We Share Our Comfort with the World?
I found this in the Quicksource resource for this passage, and I thought it was well worded:
The Corinthian church was dysfunctional and filled with hurting people. The church needed to know God’s nature. In times of trials and storms, God’s presence was with them. God’s comfort equipped those suffering for ministry. Trials and storms serve as theological classrooms for God’s people. There are several points to internalize from Paul’s writing:
Hardships don’t play favorites. You can love God and face storms. Jesus’ disciples faced an epic storm one night on the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41). The disciples realized that Jesus was in the boat with them. That’s an amazing lesson to learn. If you’re in a storm, whether self-inflicted due to sin or brought on by outside circumstances, Jesus hasn’t abandoned you.
God comforts for a reason. As the disciples lamented their impending deaths, Jesus was in the stern asleep (v. 38). What woke Jesus up? Was it the sound of the waves crashing into the boat? Jesus’ eyes opened when He heard the voices of His followers. As you face trials and storms, allow the Lord to hear your voice, asking Him to comfort you.
People need your empathy. If you’ve battled cancer, divorce, the death of a child, or an addiction, and you’ve been touched by God’s comfort, other people need to hear your story. Your words have power and relevance. You can speak to others from experience. That’s an amazing platform for ministry!
As you face trials and storms, remember that you’re in a theological classroom for a divine reason. And always remember, the Lord comforts and uses broken people.