Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of 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. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
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. But that 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. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.
(2 Corinthians 1:3-11 ESV)
When I think of God’s comfort I don’t generally think I’m talking about the same thing Paul is here. I look at the affliction he faced when he was in Asia, and it immediately takes me to Acts 19. Which affliction is Paul talking about? What burden was he bearing that was so overwhelming he almost despaired of his life?
It could have been the overwhelming manifestation of God’s Spirit experienced by the disciples when he first arrived in Ephesus (Acts 19:1ff). Is that a burden? You try to manage a group of 12 people who have all just discovered that they are the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit! Or maybe it was the overwhelming burden of preaching for three months. We’re not talking about someone who preached on Sunday and played golf when he wasn’t doing sermon prep. This man preached daily, probably at great length, for ninety days straight. When it became clear that the Synagogue was no longer a welcoming place, he moved his daily discourse to a nearby public building called the Hall of Tyrannus. He preached there daily for another two years. That’s 790 days straight of preaching. That’d be enough to kill anyone. Or was it the burden of being so well known that people came with pieces of cloth to touch to Paul and take back to sick people in hopes they would be cured. Finally, it could have been the burden of knowing Paul was the cause of a great civil disturbance (the Riot in Acts 19:28-31).
Whatever the affliction was, the comfort of God was there with Paul in a very powerful way. I think maybe this is what Paul is talking about in Philippians when he says, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content. I know how to abound and I know how to be abased. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-12)
There is also a great deal of comfort that comes from knowing someone else is “in this” with you. Note that while Paul is writing to a church with whom he has a considerable beef because of some of their licentious practices, he never doubts that they too have been experiencing tribulation. They too are suffering. They too badly need the comfort of the Holy Spirit far more than they need the “manifestations” of the Holy Spirit.
I’d love to be able to snap my fingers and see all my problems suddenly disappear. But God doesn’t work that way. He lets me know by his actions that he is “in this with me.” He lets me know that his Spirit will be there both literally and in the form of people to walk the road together with me, and that is a great comfort.