The God of All Comfort
Series: Words For This Moment
We all want to fix suffering, but what happens when you face a suffering for which there is no known solution? You can get bitter, or you can patiently endure suffering. In this passage, Paul shows us how to patiently endure suffering.
We’re doing a series of sermons called “Words for this Moment,” and one of the things this moment is doing is forcing us to face things that were actually always true, but we could usually get away with living as though they weren’t. Like, it was always true that there are diseases out there that sometimes result in death, for which we don’t have a cure; most of them just aren’t as new or don’t spread and go undetected like COVID-19, but if you get them, we can’t fix them. There are some forms of sufferings we cannot fix. We try, we hope to move the ball forward so maybe we can fix it in the future, but what happens when you’re facing the suffering you can’t fix? That’s what Paul, the author of the passage we’ve just read, was facing. He was facing persecution for preaching the Christian message. Now, of course he could have “fixed” that by stopping, but he served Jesus as Lord, not people or safety. Tempting though it is, disobeying Christ to alleviate our own suffering is not an option for Christians. So what do we do instead? Get bitter? No; in this passage, God presents another option, an option through which we can actually experience comfort during suffering: Patiently endure suffering. How? Bless the God of all comfort, and rely on the God who raises the dead.
Bless the God of all comfort
Our passage begins in verse 3 with the words “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort”. These words both tell us who God is and call us to treat Him as such. One of the great hymns addresses God as “Most blessed, most glorious, the ancient of days.” In Himself, God is infinitely blessed with all perfection from all eternity. So how do you bless the one who is already infinitely blessed? You can’t add to His blessedness, but you can adore it. You take what is true of Him and you say it back to Him and to one another; in fact, it’s so good you often sing it. And Paul tells us what is true of Him: He’s the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction. He’s the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which tells us that Paul particularly has in mind here God the Father, the first person of the Trinity. He’s also the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. Mercies are kindnesses, and what makes them mercies is they are administered to people irrespective of their worthiness. He’s kind to us because He likes to be, not because something in us requires him to be. And, He’s the God of all comfort, not just some comforts, all comfort. Note the expansiveness here: He’s the Father of mercies, plural, as in, He has a lot of them, and He’s the God of all comfort.
God is an infinite, never-ending ocean of mercies and all comfort, and, verse 4, says, He comforts us in all our affliction. He doesn’t beat us down when we’re afflicted; He comforts us! Pliny the Elder, a first-century Roman naturalist and Stoic, wrote “that a supreme being, whatever it be, pays heed to human affairs is a ridiculous notion.” And God could have taken all His mercies and comforts, poured them out on His Son, and been infinitely blessed forever, but He chooses, unlike the gods of Stoicism, just because it pleases Him, to pay heed to human affairs, to comfort us, sinners, totally undeserving, in all our affliction. A.W. Tozer said what comes into your mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you; is this what comes into your mind when you think of God? Father of mercies, God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions. That’s who He really is! Take a break from filling your mind with news, entertainment, and self; fill it instead with thoughts of God as Father of mercies, God of all comfort, comforting you in your affliction, and then bless Him in response: Say it back to Him in prayer, sing it back to Him in praise, and comfort one another with the comfort you’re receiving.
That’s where our passage goes next: Look again at verse 4. God 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. In any affliction you face, the God of all comfort is comforting you so that you might be able to comfort others. Paul then goes on to say in the second half of verse 6, that we experience this comfort when we patiently endure suffering. The comfort God gives is not freedom from suffering; it’s coming during the suffering. We could even say God comforts us, and through us comforts others, while we’re uncomfortable. So you can also be confident, as Paul is in verses 6-7, that God will use the same comfort He’s given you to comfort others as they patiently endure the suffering you and they can’t fix.
Real practically, here’s something you can do with this: Take time to consider how God is comforting you in this season, whatever afflictions you’re facing, and then pass that comfort on to someone else. He’s the God of all comfort, so that comfort can come in a lot of different shapes and sizes. For example, there’s a couple at Citylight Center City who enjoyed the comfort of hot cross buns on Easter, so they made extra, then came by our house and while maintaining social distance, delivered some to us in a tupperware, a tupperware I subsequently disinfected, and then my wife and I were comforted by the hot cross buns. Another couple texts us every time they go to the grocery store and asks if there’s anything they could pick up for us. I spoke to a guy who’s in the process of becoming a member at Citylight CC who tested positive for COVID-19 and was under quarantine for over 2 weeks; he mentioned one of the ways God comforted him was through a member of Citylight who checked in him with him regularly over the phone.
Now, not all comfort is transferrable. One of the ways God has comforted me in this season is through my son, who’s enjoying the bliss of ignorance. But what about people who don’t have kids? I can’t just loan them my son. We can’t transfer all of our specific comforts, but we can transfer the God of comfort. So for example I got a call this past Saturday from one of my neighbors, who I estimate is in her 80s. She called me to see if there was some way she could watch the service recording on Sunday. I’d already been in touch with her and discovered by talking to her granddaughter that it was basically impossible: She doesn’t have a computer, smart phone, or anything of the sort, and she’d be a very high risk of severe symptoms if she contracted COVID-19. At the time, I couldn’t think of a way for her to safely access the service recording. So the service recording couldn’t comfort her. I couldn’t comfort her by saying, “Well enjoy some time with your cute son”; she doesn’t have a cute son in her house. She can’t even do a video call. What could I comfort her with? We chatted for a bit, and then we read a passage of Scripture that God had been comforting me through over the phone, and we prayed. She said, “Thank you so much Reverend Mike (That’s what she calls me), that was just what I needed.” The call took 8 minutes. I didn’t have any special words or insights for her; I promise. I had God’s Word that had comforted me, and you have that too. The God of all comfort could certainly use you to comfort someone else like that, whether they already believe or not.
On that note, I want to remind you of something Pastor Andy mentioned last week: Discipleship Groups. These are smaller groups of 2-3 same-gender individuals that meet regularly to care for one another, discuss the Bible or a theological book unpacking the Bible, and pray for one another. They’re a great space to minister the kind of comfort to one another that we’re talking about here, and now would be a great time to get into one. Visit citylightphilly.com/discipleship for more info.
Finally, before I move on to the second and last point, a word to those of you who aren’t feeling comforted by God in this season: Verse 4 tells us that God does comfort us in all our afflictions, but He does so the same way He does everything else: Sovereignly. There are times according to God’s wisdom and shepherding of us that He chooses to withdraw a sense of His comfort; I’ve experienced those seasons in my Christian life; most Christians do at least at some point to some degree. What do you do when you’re in them? Don’t spend your time evaluating whether you’re really comforted enough or why you aren’t more comforted. Spend your time blessing the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, trusting by faith in who He is, and in His timing, He will bring the sense of His comfort. One of the things God is always doing in affliction is not only comforting us so that we might comfort others, but teaching us to rely on Him in new ways, even when we may not sense His comfort. So let’s look at that next.
Rely on the God who raises the dead
Paul goes on in verse 8 to recount an affliction he experienced in Asia. He doesn’t give the details, but going on in verse 9, Paul says, “We felt we had received the sentence of death.” In other words, they thought they were going to die. At various times during this pandemic, people have felt that way, some reasonably, some less reasonably. For a less reasonable example, I’ll use myself: A couple weeks back my dad sent me an article about a 33-year-old baseball coach in New Jersey with no pre-existing conditions who died from COVID-19. I thought to myself, “Geez dad, why don’t you send me an article about a 32-year-old pastor from Philadelphia who died from COVID-19?” One of the things I’d been telling myself was, “I’m young and in good health; I should be fine,” in other words, I’d been relying on myself, but now it hit me: “I could die from this,” and I felt anxious. And yes, I’m aware that the odds of me actually dying from COVID-19 are incredibly low, but they aren’t zero, and sometimes that’s enough to stir up some anxiety.
For a more rational example, take Joe, the man at Citylight CC I mentioned earlier who tested positive for COVID-19. Joe’s 78 years old, with a history of asthma and diabetes. I spoke with him on the phone a couple times this week, and he said the first few days after getting that test result were really scary. He thought he might die from it, and reasonably so. So also in Paul’s case we can assume it was reasonable, but look at what he says next in verse 9: “But that was to make us rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead.” God had purpose in Paul’s feeling he was going to die. While receiving the sentence of death isn’t good in itself, God always intends it for good in the lives of His people, to make us rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead.
When you’re facing suffering you can’t fix, death you can’t avoid, that’s one of the things God is doing. We should always rely on the God who raises the dead, but you often don’t feel you have to rely on the God who raises the dead until you really face the prospect of death. What can fix that suffering? What vaccine is there for death? There isn’t one. I pray God gives us a vaccine for COVID-19, but even if He does, our only hope in death is in the God who raises the dead. Making me face that is why God ordained that my dad would send me that article. That’s one of the reasons Joe got COVID-19; it wasn’t the virus’ purpose, but it was God’s. And Joe told me as much. He said the first few days were really scary, but then he realized he could turn to the Lord with this, and he said, “Mike, you wouldn’t believe the way the Lord has been with me through all this. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Him.”
So notice how Paul experienced God’s comfort. He doesn’t just say in verse 9, “but that was to make us rely not on ourselves, but on God.” That would have been true, but that’s not all He says. He also doesn’t say, “but that was to make us rely not on ourselves, but on God who loves me.” That would have also been gloriously true, but he specifically says this: “That was to make us rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead.” Why “the God who raises the dead”? Because he thought he was going to die! When you’re facing death, you don’t just need to know God loves you; you need to know God raises the dead! So also in anything you face, just relying on some blank notion of God will only comfort you lightly. “I know I need to rely on God,” yes, but why? What is it about God that makes Him worthy of your reliance? Fill that in with what God reveals about Himself in Scripture. Maybe you aren’t worried about dying, but you may be worried about your finances. Rely on the God who supplies your every need according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus, Philippians 4:19. Relying not on yourself but on the God who _______, whatever the truth of Scripture that fits your situation is, is the path to comfort. Facing death, it’s the God who raises the dead.
And so Paul learned. He says in verse 10 that God delivered them from such a deadly peril, and he expresses his hope for the future: God will deliver them again through the prayers of His people, Paul says in verse 11. Prayer is the language of reliance; pray with confidence for one another’s deliverance. In this case, God delivered Paul from death. In the future, that may be how God delivers Paul again. As far as we can tell, that’s how God delivered Joe this time: He came out of quarantine today (that is, Thursday) with a clean bill of health. But remember, the God we’re relying on is not the God who keeps us from death; He’s the God who raises the dead. So the deliverance Paul is hoping in here, and the deliverance we must all hope in, is bigger than “God will heal me.” It’s even if I die, even when I die, when the persecution, the virus, the famine, the crime, the car accident, or whatever else God appoints as my way to go happens, even then God will deliver me, by doing what God does: Raising the dead.
And Paul especially knew God was a God who raises the dead because he once met a guy God rose from the dead. The risen Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him, only when He did, Paul was his enemy. In that moment, Jesus, truly God, had every right to judge Paul for his many sins, but here Paul is, receiving God’s comfort. God is good, and because He’s good, He’s not only the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; He’s a God of justice and wrath toward sin. There’s no way Paul or we could ever know Him as the Father of mercies and God of all comfort if He hadn’t freely chosen to send His Son to satisfy His justice and bear His wrath in Paul’s place and in ours, so that His mercy and comfort could flow freely to us. We can know God as the Father of mercies because on the cross Jesus Christ died without mercy in our place. We can know God as the God of all comfort because on the cross Jesus Christ cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” and received no comfort. God didn’t deliver Him from death, but only through death, rising Him from the dead, never to die again.
And so the Father of mercies and God of all comfort stands ready and willing today to receive whoever comes to Him by faith in Christ. Come and get this mercy. Come and get this comfort in all your affliction, bless Him for it, and comfort others with that same comfort. He will either deliver you from death or He’ll deliver you through death, but He will deliver you and bring you safely into His heavenly kingdom.