Paul wrote the letter we know as 2 Corinthians right on the tail end of an experience of severe suffering. Here’s how he described it:
We do not want you to be unaware, 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. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)
Paul doesn’t specify what his affliction was. He didn’t need to, since the letter’s carrier would have briefed the Corinthian believers on the painful details. From the surrounding context (2 Corinthians 1:3–11), it sounds like he suffered persecution nearly to the point of execution. But in the merciful wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we don’t know for sure. And this is a mercy because it encourages us to apply what Paul says in this section to “any affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
But it’s important that we note the degree of Paul’s suffering. This great saint, who seems to have had a much higher-than-average capacity to endure affliction, felt “so utterly burdened beyond [his] strength.” He thought this affliction would kill him.
It didn’t kill him (his lethal affliction was still eight to ten years in the future). But it did accomplish something else:
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. (2 Corinthians 1:9)
Paul’s suffering brought him to the end of himself: not just to the end of his bodily strength, but to the end of his earthly hopes and plans. He was staring death in the face. What could he trust at the end that would give him hope? The God who raises the dead.
God of All Comfort
Knowing the severity of Paul’s suffering and what it produced in him helps us better understand the comfort he testifies to in his opening words:
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. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4)
Although we know that Paul was delivered from this particular “deadly peril” (2 Corinthians 1:10), the deliverance from death wasn’t the primary comfort he received from God. Nor was it the primary comfort he wanted to give to others in their affliction. The primary comfort was that at the very end, when death finally approaches, and there is no more hope of prolonging earthly life, there is one, great, death-defying hope for the Christian: the God who raises the dead.
We know that Paul is speaking of the comfort of resurrection hope because he goes on to say, “for as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:5). Christ suffered death “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2), the comforting joy that he would be raised from the dead, and through him all who believe in him (John 5:24). And he was raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20), and therefore everyone who believes in him shall be as well, even though they die (John 11:25).
Comfort in Any Affliction
But which of our sufferings qualify as sharing in Christ’s sufferings? If the affliction Paul experienced in Asia was indeed persecution, it’s easy to make that connection. But what if our afflictions don’t fall into that category?
I believe the answer lies in Paul’s point that the “God of all comfort . . . comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). All and any are comprehensive words.
We know just from this particular letter that Paul had other kinds of suffering in mind than just persecution. There’s his list of various dangers and deprivations he endured (2 Corinthians 11:25–28), and there’s his “thorn . . . in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), which I take to be some kind of physical malady or disability.
But the Bible’s category of afflictions extends far wider. Just a sampling would include the affliction and grief of illness and death (like Lazarus in John 11 and Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25–27), the anguish of what feels like spiritual desertion (Psalm 22), the disillusioning confusion when circumstances appear as if God is not keeping his promise (Psalm 89), the disorientation of undergoing serious doubt (Psalm 73), or the agony of prolonged and dark depression (Psalm 88).
All of these experiences and more are forms of suffering — many of which Jesus himself experienced, and all of which he cares very much about. What makes “all our affliction” a sharing in Christ’s sufferings is that when they befall us, we turn in faith to “him [on whom] we have set our hope” for the deliverance he intends to provide for us (2 Corinthians 1:10).
On Him We Have Set Our Hope
That’s actually one of the most important outcomes that God intends for “all our affliction” to produce: “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9). It’s not the only outcome. As John Piper says, “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.” But when it comes to our ultimate joy and comfort, few are more important than weaning our trust off ourselves and placing it onto God.
In fact, that’s why sometimes our afflictions come as God’s unexpected answers to our prayers, and therefore at first unrecognized. When we ask God to increase our desire for him and our faith in him and our love for him and our joy in him, we imagine how wonderful the answers would be to experience. But we don’t always anticipate what the process of transforming our desires and trusts and affections and joys will require.
Sometimes, it requires afflictions to reveal ways we rely on ourselves or idols or false hopes instead of God. In and of itself, God does not enjoy afflicting his children (Lamentations 3:33), but when necessary, as a loving Father, he will discipline us (Hebrews 12:7–10). But God’s purposes in such discipline are always for our good, even though at the moment they are painful, because they ultimately produce profound hope and joy (Hebrews 12:11).
This is why Paul, who during his affliction had been “so utterly burdened beyond [his] strength that [he] despaired of life,” ended up exulting in his heavenly Father as the “God of all comfort.” As a result of his suffering, he experienced a more profound reliance on the God who raises the dead, which brought him a comfort that nothing else in the world affords.
Whatever it takes to help us experience this comfort, to help us set our real, ultimate hope on God, is worth it. It really is. I don’t say this lightly. I know some of the painful process of such transformation. I’ve received some of the unexpected answers of God to my prayers. But the comfort God brings infuses all temporal comforts with profound hope. And when all earthly comforts finally fail, it is the one comfort that will remain.