I don’t recall where I first heard this principle, but after 20+ years in ministry, I believe it is true: in every seat in every sanctuary is a person with a sad story or heartache.
Talk to anyone for any significant length of time and ask the right kinds of questions and you will find sorrow in their lives. It may be ostracism and persecution from family members because of their faith in Christ, or it may be sudden and catastrophic illness and death, or broken relationships or lost jobs or unmet expectations and disappointment with life. It may be from living in a fallen world, or it may be from sin (their own or others), but there will be difficulty and affliction.
Now we believe in the sovereignty of God. So what is the value of affliction? Since God really is sovereign, why does He not eradicate all difficulty, particularly in the lives of His followers? Wouldn’t He still receive glory if He did that? Even greater glory than keeping us living in this difficult world?
Paul offers a partial answer in 2 Corinthians 1. God keeps us in affliction so that we can receive His comfort. And once we have been comforted, we are to point others to that same comfort. Using himself and those with him as an example, Paul makes a point that initially seems to be off-target: if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort, and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort (v. 6).
But Paul is not confused. He is asserting that if he is afflicted, he will also receive comfort from God and that comfort will lead to his comforting others (particularly with the gospel). And if he is comforted — whenever and however he is comforted by God (whether for affliction or otherwise) — that also will lead to his comforting others with the purposes and graces of God. In other words, in every situation, as he receives encouragement and exhortation from God (which is what the word “comfort” means), he will pass on that same encouragement and exhortation to others, thereby multiplying God’s grace in his life.
Now a question might arise, “What, then, is the comfort of God?” — How does God comfort us in our afflictions?
At the end of the chapter, drawing on his own experience, Paul offers seven comforts (encouragements and exhortations) that come from God through our afflictions. Notice that these are primarily indicatives — realities that God has accomplished for us, so they are not primarily something to do as much as they are to believe (and when we do not believe them, we are to confess them as sinful unbelief). We are comforted by God when we trust and meditate on these truths even in the midst of the hardest afflictions:
- We don’t trust ourselves, but we do trust God (v. 9)
- God has delivered us from death (v. 10a)
- God will deliver us (vv. 10b-11)
- God is faithful (v. 18)
- God’s promises are sure (v. 20)
- God establishes us in Christ (v. 21)
- God has sealed us and given us the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of the promises to come and our security in Him (v. 22)
So affliction is good. It is a grace of God in our lives through which we come to know and understand His comforts in ways that we could not otherwise know.