Of all the letters Paul wrote, Second Corinthians is the most autobiographical. In it the great apostle lifts the veil on his private life and allows us to catch a glimpse of his human frailties and needs. You need to read that entire letter in one sitting to capture the moving emotion that surged through his soul.
In this letter Paul records the specifics of his anguish, tears, affliction, and satanic opposition. He spells out the details of his persecution, loneliness, imprisonments, beatings, feelings of despair, hunger, shipwrecks, sleepless nights, and that “thorn in the flesh”—his companion of pain. How close it makes us feel to him when we see him as a man with real, honest-to-goodness problems, just like ours!
It is not surprising, then, that he begins the letter with words of comfort, especially in verses 3 through 11. Ten times in five verses (2 Corinthians 1:3-7) Paul uses the same root word, Para-kaleo, meaning literally, “to call alongside.”
This word involves more than a shallow pat on the back with the tired expression, “the Lord bless you.” No, this word involves genuine, in-depth understanding . . . deep-down compassion and sympathy. This seems especially appropriate since it says that God, our Father, is the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions” (1:3-4). Our loving Father is never preoccupied and/or removed when we are enduring sadness and affliction!
There is another observation worth noting in 2 Corinthians 1: No less than three reasons are given for suffering, each one introduced with the term “that.” Quietly, without a lot of fanfare, the Holy Spirit states reasons we suffer: “That we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction”; “That we would not trust in ourselves”; “That thanks may be given” (1:4, 9, 11). Admittedly, there may be dozens of other reasons, but here are three specific reasons we suffer.
- Reason 1: God allows suffering so that we might have the capacity to enter into others’ sorrow and affliction. Isn’t that true? If you have suffered a broken leg and been confined to crutches for weeks, you are in complete sympathy with someone else on crutches even years after your affliction. The same is true for the loss of a child, emotional depression, an auto accident, undergoing unfair criticism, financial burdens. God gives His children the capacity to understand by bringing similar sufferings into our lives.
- Reason 2: God allows suffering so that we might learn what it means to depend on Him. Doesn’t suffering do that? It forces us to lean on Him totally, absolutely. Over and over He reminds us of the danger of pride, but it frequently takes suffering to make the lesson stick. Perhaps that has been your experience recently. Don’t resent the affliction as an intruder. Welcome it as God’s message to stop trusting in your flesh . . . and start leaning on Him.
- Reason 3: God allows suffering so that we might learn to give thanks in everything. Now, honestly, have you said, “Thanks, Lord, for this test”? Have you finally stopped struggling and expressed to Him how much you appreciate His loving sovereignty over your life?
Well, there you have it. How unfinished and rebellious and proud and unconcerned we would be without suffering!
May these things encourage you the next time God heats up the furnace!
Adapted from Charles R. Swindoll, “Suffering,” in The Finishing Touch: Becoming God’s Masterpiece (Dallas: Word, 1994), 434-435. Copyright © 1994, Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.