Comfort For Those with Troubles (2 Corinthians 1:1-11)

St. Paul, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1657

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the church of God in Corinth, together with all his holy people throughout Achaia:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 

For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.

But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many. (New International Version)

You probably didn’t sign-up for trouble.

Although varying from person to person and from group to group, all of us experience trouble in this world.

The Apostle Paul experienced a lot of trouble throughout his Christian life:

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 

Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move.

I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 

I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:24-28, NIV)

Why didn’t Paul get cynical or jaded by his awful troubles?

What was the secret to Paul’s incredible resilience in the face of such trouble?

How did Paul get through all of that nasty trouble?

Paul, in my opinion, was the consummate Christian. He is the model missionary, mentor, pastor, and caregiver. Yet, it wasn’t his superior giftedness or dogged personality which got him through the tough times.

The Apostle persevered through trouble without succumbing to despondency by receiving help.

Let’s be honest: Most people would rather give than receive – and that is a good thing. Yet, what isn’t a good thing is continual caregiving without yourself receiving care.

We cannot expect to help others without accepting it ourselves. 

The caregiving Christian needs to be vigilant about practicing selfcare and understanding their limitations. One must not pretend to be super-spiritual, with unlimited super-strength and super-compassion, extended to others 24/7 with super-skill. It’s neither realistic, nor smart. 

Caregivers, and not only care recipients, need to accept comfort from both God and others.

“We must accept our vulnerability and limitations in regard to others.  We cannot expect to help others without accepting it ourselves.”

Mother Teresa

The word dominating today’s New Testament lesson is “comfort.” It’s used by Paul ten times in these verses. Comfort involves both speech and action, words and deeds. For comfort to happen, someone comes alongside another and helps them with both loving actions and encouraging words.

We can only give what we have – which means that if we want to continue helping and caring for others, there will need to be continual healthy rhythms of receiving comfort yourself. We provide for others from the largess of grace given to us by the God of abundance.

Sometimes people get stuck in their grief. The troubles have caused such a change and loss that they need help getting out. And the way people get unstuck and resolve their troubles, is through telling their story – which requires someone else to listen. 

St. Paul, by Rembrandt, 1630

Through my own experience of trouble, as well as helping others through their trouble (and sometimes being a troublemaker!) I have developed a checklist of things to do, to allow, and to keep in mind as a caregiver:

  • Live a balanced life. Live in the tension between caring for others and caring for self – without assigning any judgment, shame, or guilt to any of it.
  • Learn to trust other people. You aren’t the only person on earth who can care for the people you care for. Let them contribute so that you can take have a respite.
  • Make a list of needs and concerns. Do this both for yourself and those you care for. Delete those needs that you personally cannot meet. Of the remaining needs, determine the ones for which you are primarily responsible, then, decide which ones are the most important.
  • Contact your Pastor. That’s what he/she is there for. Reach out. You aren’t in a John Wayne movie or an episode of the Lone Ranger. By the way, you know they’re fictional characters, right?
  • Carry your own backpack. Other people have their own backpacks to carry filled with troubles and responsibilities. Although you can help shoulder their load, taking the weight completely off is Christ’s job, not yours. What’s more, don’t fill your own backpack with rocks that leave you with a crushing weight. Be realistic and confident in what you can and ought to do, as well as what you cannot and should not do.
  • Listen to others. Trusted family members and friends usually see the signs of stress in your life before you do. When they speak up, give them your attention. They know what they’re talking about.
  • Accept help. The fast track to bitterness and burnout is refusing the assistance of others who can give you a break in your constant caregiving.
  • Involve others. There are individuals willing and ready to participate if you would just inform them as to what would be helpful.
  • Talk to a therapist. We all get overwhelmed in particular seasons of life. If caregiving has become a compulsion, then take one hour per week to meet with a good therapist or counselor to talk through things in your life.
  • Delegate. Delegate. Delegate. Then, delegate some more.
  • Recharge your soul. Find personal time for yourself daily. Engage in things that feed your spirit and energize your inner person.
  • Don’t waste your time and energy. Some people aren’t going to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it; and they don’t really want to understand. And it is not our job to make them understand.
  • Don’t manipulate others. A common temptation is to try and force family, friends, and faith communities to do what we want them to do, whenever we are heavy into ministry. Instead, focus on your own responsibilities and don’t worry about everybody else’s.

God always has a listening ear. The Lord knows grief better than all of us. Jesus understands trouble. In Christ, hope is kindled, care is received, and comfort abounds.

May you, by faith, enter into abundant life – despite the circumstances – so that your overwhelming trouble is transformed into overflowing comfort. Amen.

Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 – I and Thou

I pray to you, Lord God,
    and I beg you to listen.
In days filled with trouble,
    I search for you.
And at night I tirelessly
lift my hands in prayer,
    refusing comfort…

Our Lord, I will remember
the things you have done,
    your miracles of long ago.
I will think about each one
    of your mighty deeds.
Everything you do is right,
and no other god
    compares with you.
You alone work miracles,
and you have let nations
    see your mighty power.
With your own arm you rescued
your people, the descendants
    of Jacob and Joseph.

The ocean looked at you, God,
and it trembled deep down
    with fear.
Water flowed from the clouds.
    Thunder was heard above
as your arrows of lightning
    flashed about.
Your thunder roared
    like chariot wheels.
The world was made bright
by lightning,
    and all the earth trembled.

You walked through the water
    of the mighty sea,
but your footprints
    were never seen.
You guided your people
    like a flock of sheep,
and you chose Moses and Aaron
    to be their leaders. (Contemporary English Version)

“A person becomes whole not in virtue of a relation to oneself only, but rather in virtue of an authentic relation to another.”

Martin Buber

We all have experienced what it means to be in distress. Whether it is physical pain, financial stress, mental agony, spiritual duress, or emotional overwhelm, the feeling of being distressed is inevitably a part of the human condition.

Questions abound whenever we are in throes of distress: What do I do? How do I cope? From where does my help come? Is there hope? Will this ever go away? Why is this happening?

We don’t know what the psalmist’s distress was, but he was in trouble up to his eyeballs and as anxious as can be. His feeling of being trapped and caught between a rock and hard place was palpable. So, he looked for deliverance.

In 1937, the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber wrote an insightful book entitled “I and Thou.” Buber postulated how people exist in the world and how they actualize that existence. We engage the world through both monologue and dialogue. For Buber, “all real living is meeting.” In other words, to exist, to live, is to encounter another and relate to a “Thou.” We only have meaning in relationships. We only have our being in God.

The psalmist acknowledges there is a “Thou” besides his distressed “I” – that this Thou will hear, make a difference, and open a way of deliverance. There are four actions the psalmist decides to do in his distress, actions which put him in a vital dialogue with the divine “Thou.”

I pray

Prayer, at its heart, is a dialogue with God. From the place of our spiritual poverty and bankruptcy, we beg; and God gives us the kingdom. To be a spiritual beggar, pleading for our needs to be met, knowing we have no way to repay, is a posture which God delights in.

Great blessings belong to those who know they are spiritually in need. God’s kingdom belongs to them. (Matthew 5:3, ERV)

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. (Matthew 5:3, MSG)

I Search

In the I and Thou relationship, the search works both ways.

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways….

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:1-2, 23-24, NIV)

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8, NRSV)

I Remember

The psalmist intentionally sought to recall the mighty works of God, especially in delivering the people from slavery and bringing them to the Promised Land. In our forgetfulness, we get lost in our troubles and our perspective becomes skewed. We cannot see beyond the end of our nose. Remembering, however, grants us a fuller picture of what is happening in light of the past. It brings us out of the lonely “I” and into the relationship of “I and Thou.”

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. 

Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. 

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Hebrews 10:32-36, NIV)

I Meditate

Pondering and thinking upon God’s deeds enables praise to arise from us. It fosters the I and Thou relationship, bolstering and buoying our faith through life-events which produce our distress.

I lie awake thinking of you,
    meditating on you through the night.
Because you are my helper,
    I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 63:6-7, NLT)

Thou Art Worthy

The psalm ends with no resolution to the personal distress of the psalmist.

Whether there is a happy ending, or not, isn’t the point. It’s the process, the journey of moving through our troubles and discovering lessons from both the presence and the absence of God, which makes all the difference. We learn to pray, search, remember, and meditate because of and despite our troubles. We learn to relate to God and proclaim that Thou art worthy.

Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. (Revelation 4:11, KJV)

Amen.

Psalm 124 – Help Is Here

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side
    —let Israel now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
    when our enemies attacked us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive,
    when their anger was kindled against us;
then the flood would have swept us away;
    the torrent would have gone over us;
then over us would have gone
    the raging waters.

Blessed be the Lord,
    who has not given us
    as prey to their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird
    from the snare of the hunters;
the snare is broken,
    and we have escaped.

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth. (New Revised Standard Version)

As a church pastor, many Sundays I begin the worship service with the ancient confession of faith that “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” It is a call to worship the God who is above all and sees all – and can do something about the adversity and trouble we face in the world. 

With each new day, our attention needs guidance toward the positive acknowledgment that the eternal and ever-present God is ready and vigilant to skillfully and lovingly direct us through our waking hours. 

There is no biblical reference anywhere in Holy Scripture that God helps those who help themselves. The Lord is indiscriminate in providing aid for all without prejudice. All we need do is ask for it. Whereas we can certainly make positive choices and advocate for ourselves with effective help, our supreme and ultimate help is in the Lord. 

Our fears about the future, our insecurities of what will happen, and our anxieties about all the upcoming stuff we must face can be transformed with the biblical perspective of acknowledging our great need for divine intervention. 

The Lord is our most prescient support. The virtual meeting you have been dreading; that conversation you have been avoiding; a deadline that has been looming over your head; the ongoing health issues which seem to never end; these, and all situations, can only find their proper perspective in light of the God who helps.

I am a believer in making daily affirmations of faith in God. Early in the morning, I deliberately affirm and profess my firm beliefs in the Lord, even if I don’t feel like it, each and every day so that some solid robust theology is at the forefront of my mind, and the attributes of God sink firmly into my heart. 

I rely on such rituals because faith does not simply come through checking-off a list of orthodox beliefs, then moving on as if those beliefs have no connection to daily life. Rather, faith arises as a response to the recognition that God is good – all the time – and that the Lord helps those who intentionally and constantly seek divine help and enablement.

There are a lot of things we do not know: What will happen tomorrow? How will that situation shake out in the end? Will this relationship flower or wither?… a million questions can weigh down our hearts with anxiety. Yet, there is a sure and certain truth we can count on right now and for every minute into the future: God is with us.

God’s ever-present help remains the constant ballast in a sea of changing circumstances.

“If God is on our side, can anyone be against us?… I am sure that nothing can separate us from God’s love—not life or death, not angels or spirits, not the present or the future, and not powers above or powers below. Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord!”

Romans 8:31, 38-39, CEV

Not even the graveyard can limit God. With the Lord, death is defeated. Resurrection is a reality. The enemy is flat on his face. Evil’s power is weakened. We are only in danger if we let ourselves go near our old toothless foe. And even then, we have the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit, and the shoes of peace.

The dangers of water and fire, traps and snares, enemy armies and spiritual foes are all undone by an almighty God. The maker of heaven and earth personally advocates for and helps us. Indeed, the Lord is on our side.

Creator God, you are the ever-present One who provides everything I need for life and godliness. I need your help today and everyday so that I can confidently do your will.  I stand with full assurance of faith because I serve the Lord Jesus, who is benevolent and always does what is right and just. Amen.

Psalm 121 – The Divine Helper

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
    from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
    he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
    he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time on and forevermore. (New Revised Standard Version)

Not a one of us gets off this planet without needing help – a lot of help! Even people who are in helping professions or who identify themselves primarily as helpers need help themselves.

There is no such thing as complete, total, and irrevocable independence. We as humans are hard-wired by our Creator for community. We only find our greatest fulfillment within interdependent relationships, and only discover our highest happiness in a dependent relationship to God.

To need others, and especially God, is not a weakness. It’s a sign of sage awareness and confident strength whenever we assess that help is needed. Only the fool goes it alone, believing they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. “God helps those who help themselves,” was originated by Ben Franklin, not Holy Scripture.

So, the real question is: To whom and to where do we go for help? Who do we consult? With whom do we collaborate?

The most important step any of us can make is to realize that our own personal resources are inadequate, and that we admit, “I need help with this.” The next most important step is to go to the right source for that help.

The psalmist insists that the Lord is our helper, our keeper. Keeping is a large part of helping. God as our Divine Keeper means that the Lord watches over us, guards our lives, and seeks to preserve us from harm, wrongdoing, injustice, and oppression.

The very identity of God is wrapped up in being a Protector, Guard, and Watchkeeper. The Lord shields and shelters us, much like a mother hen over her chicks. God watches over us, just as a watchman keeps guard over a city at night when the residents are sleeping. And since the Lord is everywhere present, there is a continual divine presence in all of our life journeys. The dangers of both the day and the night are no match for the God who is our Keeper.

The promises of safety in today’s psalm are not meant to suggest that those who walk in the shelter of God will never endure harm or that nothing ill will ever befall them. The Psalter knows all too well that the wicked are everywhere and that they thrive unjustly.

Rather, these divine promises are general promises—they are blessings God does for those who rely on the Lord, call upon God’s name, and seek divine help. We are to have a continual awareness of God’s presence in this world. Although we are not inoculated from pain, God is always with us in our hurt and bewilderment.

It can be hard to ask for help. Our pride, stubbornness, and independence might cause us to experience harm rather than seek assistance.

Be specific about the help needed. The following are some “helpful” ways of approaching God by answering some basic newsgathering type questions. The goal isn’t to convince the Lord to help us, but rather to enable us in connecting with what we truly need and being specific about God’s assistance for us or for others:

Who? 

Who needs help? Clarify if the help is for yourself, another, or a group of people.

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. (Matthew 8:5-8, NIV)

How? 

How will God’s action help? God is an expert listener. Tell the story of what you have tried already and where you fall short.

Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:21-24, NIV)

Why? 

Why are you soliciting God’s help? Explain what’s going on and the reasons why you believe the Lord is the One to help. Mention the divine attributes and actions of God, as well as your own personal connection.

Then Asa called to the Lord his God and said, “Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. Lord, you are our God; do not let mere mortals prevail against you.” (2 Chronicles 14:11, NIV)

Where? 

Where is the help needed? Is it a geographical location, a specific spot in the human body, or a place such as a building or home?

Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her. So, he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them. (Luke 4:37-39, NIV)

When? 

When do you need help? Immediately? Tomorrow? At a specific time?

O Lord, God of my salvation,
    when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
    incline your ear to my cry.

For my soul is full of troubles,
    and my life draws near to Sheol. (Psalm 88:1-3, NRSV)

What? 

What, exactly, is the need? Spell out what you want in detail, holding nothing back. Don’t be concerned about the words or saying it right. Speak in your own plain language.

Help, O Lord, for the godly are fast disappearing!
    The faithful have vanished from the earth!
Neighbors lie to each other,
    speaking with flattering lips and deceitful hearts.
May the Lord cut off their flattering lips
    and silence their boastful tongues. (Psalm 12:1-3, NLT)

May you find the help you need today and every day, in Jesus’ name. Amen.