“But God, who comforts the downcast . . .” (2 Corinthians 7:6).
It is an amazing thing that God comforts the downcast, and that he tells us this so clearly. The idea of God’s comfort isn’t religious folklore, nor is it some spiritual platitude to pull out when we can’t think of something more specific to say. This is a truth read explicitly in the words of Scripture, and pervasively narrated throughout.
But how exactly does he comfort us? This is an important question. Comfort, in order for it to be real comfort, must be as palpable as our pain. Theoretical comfort won’t do. The idea of comfort won’t satisfy. Therefore, in what ways might the “God who comforts” actually comfort his people?
The Deep Well of God’s Comfort
According to Scripture, the predominant means of God’s comfort comes in his life-giving promises (Psalm 119:50, 76); which is, of course, the foundation of God’s healing, restoring mercy (Isaiah 57:14–19; Jeremiah 31:13; Zechariah 1:17). In fact, as Jason Meyer explains in a recent sermon, the phrase that Paul uses — “comforts the downcast” — is a quote from the Greek version of Isaiah 49:13, “For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.” Considering the context of his section in Isaiah, the means of God’s comfort has to do with his eternal, saving rescue. God comforts his people by removing every obstacle that keeps them from everlasting joy in him. He comforts his people by forgiving their sins and effectively making them his people — a people restored to dwell in his presence forever. The picture here is pure gospel. It is ultimate, deep, wondrous.
And we might expect Paul to say something like that in 2 Corinthians 7:6, except he doesn’t.
Titus Showed Up
Paul writes, “But God, who comforts the downcast . . .” — and at this point we’re prone to think that he’ll follow with some profound theological truth similar to Romans 8:28 or perhaps a short devotional anthem like in Philippians 1:20–21. But instead, to our surprise, Paul continues, “But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus” (2 Corinthians 7:6).
God — the God who comforts the downcast — comforted Paul by sending his friend.
But not only did God comfort Paul by sending Titus, he also comforts Paul in that Titus was himself comforted by the Corinthian Christians. There are layers of comfort here — comfort from the God who comforts. And they come through layers of human relationships. Meyer comments,
God is the source of comfort, but people were the face (means) of comfort. . . . God is behind all comfort, but he uses others to do the comforting, which means that God is in the business of building relationships. We depend completely upon God, and he often uses people to meet our needs.
Ordinary people, with all their attendant circumstances and variables, are the means by which God comforts his apostle, so says the apostle himself.
We should not be too surprised that a messenger of Jesus would talk this way, not if we understand the sanctity of relationships at the heart of gospel ministry.
Remember what Paul tells us earlier in 2 Corinthians: His spirit was restless when he visited Troas because he didn’t find Titus there, even though a door was open there for him to preach (2 Corinthians 2:12–13). Remember how the Galatian churches caused Paul great trouble (Galatians 1:6; 6:17); and then how all the churches (we’d expect certainly the Corinthians) caused him daily anxiety (2 Corinthians 11:28). But then Paul also says that the Thessalonian believers were his “hope and joy and crown of boasting” (1 Thessalonians 2:19). And the apostle John says in 3 John 4, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”
For good or ill, the emotional health of these gospel ministers, at least in part, was bound up in other people (that is at least one reason why the gospel minister must be humble: the task demands this kind of vulnerability). People might be the cause of worry, or they might be the means of comfort — real comfort from the God who comforts the downcast. But either way, one thing we learn is that people play a big part in our lives.
Gospel ministers are reminded, as we’re so busy in the midst of all this ministry, that people really matter. And I mean real people — people with faces and families and toenails. People with fragile emotions and quirky personalities and shoes that have dirty pink bubble gum stuck on the bottom. These people matter — what they think, the decisions they make, the words they speak. They matter.
The question then becomes, for gospel ministers in the line of Paul, whether we grasp this indispensable fact. Might it be that too often we buy into the trend of popular media that focuses more on how things are heard than the people who hear them? Do we find ourselves wrestling with how to craft our next tweet more than we find ourselves burdened by the circumstances of our friends? Do we let people affect us the way they affected Paul? Are we as passionate for those in the work as we are for the work itself?
Now, would Paul have been okay if something bad happened to Titus? Would he have made it if the Corinthians stiff-armed him and wanted nothing to do with the collection for the saints? Sure, he would have persevered through that. But like Aslan told Lucy, what might have been is not really for us to know.
What we find in the words of Scripture is that Titus did show up and the Corinthians did come around to him. It is for these relationships and their outcomes that Paul testifies to the comfort of the God who comforts.
And if we’re to be ministers who imitate Paul (Philippians 3:17), it must mean that at some point, by means of someone, we can say something like he did.