Man Suffering

If you have ever flown, you know the pre-flight safety presentation that always includes this: “In the event of a sudden loss in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will automatically descend from the ceiling. Grab the mask, and pull it over your face. If you have children traveling with you, secure your mask before assisting with theirs.”

That passing little blurb is a just-in-case designed to protect you, and children on board. First comes getting help yourself, then you’re able to offer help to others.

This week’s Scripture is the biblical equivalent. You can think of it as God’s pre-flight presentation on where to find hope for the hurting. What airlines’ pre-flight safety talk is to crisis in flight, today’s Scripture is to crises in life.

So open your Bible or Bible app to 2 Corinthians chapter one. While you turn there—2 Corinthians chapter one—it’s crucial to catch its backstory. Let me suggest a Bible reading plan for this week: read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Try to picture what it would be like to be part of that church, given the things Paul addresses in his first letter.

The ‘movie in my mind’ as I read first Corinthians is a disaster flick. If Paul’s first letter was a flight out of Corinth, one engine is on fire. A fist fight has broken out between passengers in class and economy. All the little booze bottles have been drained and all the meals have been eaten but only half the passengers got any of it. Behind the cockpit door, you can make out a heated argument over who gets to handle the controls and set the plane’s heading. The whole thing reads like a disaster movie.

And that shouldn’t surprise us. 1st-century Corinth was widely known to be a mess. To call someone a Corinthian was a highly offensive insult, fighting words.

And so in turn it shouldn’t surprise us that the mess outside the church came into the church as people trusted in Jesus and began following him in community with fellow Christians.

So like a father at his best—and this is what we talked about last week—in Paul’s first letter he pleads with them to straighten out and fly right. The whole letter stings like when a father has to sternly correct a rebellious, out of control child. That’s first Corinthians.

By the time Paul pens the letter we’re about to crack open, they have listened. They have changed their ways. They’ve done the right stuff, but they’re hurting from the sting of that first letter.

So Paul restarts the conversation with a dramatically different tone and message. And in what he pens, we discover hope for the hurting. If you want to take notes, we’re going to make this personal and practical. Here’s where he starts:

I can find hope in who God is for the hurting.

Paul begins on a note of praise and worship, his pen singing…

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort…” 2 Corinthians 1:3

When a Dad has to discipline his child and that child feels genuine sorrow and changes their attitude and actions, a good Dad then comforts his child. No discipline is pleasant. But when it prompts sorrow and needed change, a father’s role has to then pivot to comforting his child, affirming their response.

That’s precisely what Paul does here, shifting from firm rebuke, to lifting their eyes to God’s compassion and comfort. Praise God, he is compassionate toward us when we turn from sin and refocus on honoring Him.

He holds out comfort for the hurting. A lot of people are hurting right now. And so a question looming large is, “Where is God?”

Let me suggest a better question: Who is God? Speaking to people who were hurting, that’s where Paul begins. God, who Jesus came to show and tell to humanity, is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.

This is who God is—He cares about the myriad pains that rock this world and sometimes your world. You are not alone.

I hope you get to know John Perkins while he’s still with us. When John was 17, his older brother Clyde died in his arms, clubbed and shot by a local deputy marshal who thought Clyde was being too loud while waiting to get into the black section of the local movie theater. Clyde had fought honorably against Germany in WWII, getting wounded several times in battle. He had made it safely back home only to be shot to death in his own hometown.

John’s parents urged him to flee, fearing for his life, too. John vowed to never return. But along the way he came to faith in Christ, and at the age of 34, John returned and started a Bible institute while his wife opened a day-care center from their home.

Initially convinced that all his peers needed was to hear the gospel and learn the Bible, over time the realization grew within him that while those are essential, Jesus did more than meet merely spiritual needs.

So John began to add to evangelism and Bible teaching community improvement initiatives like supporting voter registration for his peers. He enrolled his son in a previously all-white local high school. Those changes were not welcomed.

A sheriff arrested John, and state police beat him within an inch of his life in the local jail. Black students who had been arrested with John cared for him throughout that night, convinced he was about to die.

In his autobiography Let Justice Roll Down, John recounts how even while suffering severe pain from the abuse, he began to find hope in who God is for the hurting. He writes…

“I began to see with horror how hate could destroy me—destroy me more devastatingly and suddenly than any destruction I could bring on those who had wronged me. I could try and fight back, as many of my brothers had done. But if I did, how would I be different from the whites who hate? And where would hating get me? Anyone can hate. This whole business of hating and hating back. It’s what keeps the vicious circle of racism going.

The Spirit of God worked on me as I lay in that bed. An image formed in my mind. The image of the cross—Christ on the cross. It blotted out everything else in my mind. This Jesus knew what I had suffered. He understood. And he cared. Because he had experienced it all himself. This Jesus, this One who had brought good news directly from God in heaven, had lived what he preached. Yet he was arrested and falsely accused. Like me, he went through an unjust trial. He also faced a lynch mob and got beaten. But even more than that, he was nailed to rough wooden planks and killed. Killed like a common criminal. At the crucial moment, it seemed to Jesus that even God himself had deserted him. The suffering was so great, he cried out in agony. He was dying.

But when he looked at that mob that had lynched him, he didn’t hate them. He loved them. He forgave them. And He prayed [to] God to forgive them. “Father, forgive these people, for they don’t know what they are doing.” His enemies hated. But Jesus forgave. I couldn’t get away from that.

The Spirit of God helped me to really believe what I had so often professed, that only in the love of Christ is there any hope…After that, God gave me the strength and motivation to rise up out of my bed and return to Mendenhall… It’s a profound, mysterious truth—Jesus’ concept of love overpowering hate. I may not see its victory in my lifetime. But I know it’s true. I know it’s true because it happened to me. On that bed, full of bruises and stitches—God made it true in me.

God who will one day execute justice against all evil, is also, right now, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. Find hope in that, whatever hopeless situations you may face. John Perkins is still alive, at 90 years old one of the last surviving leaders of the civil rights movement. I highly recommend his writings, starting with Let Justice Roll Down. At 90 years old, John still has hope. Where he finds that hope is in who God is for the hurting.

This is where Paul begins: praising God that He is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. You are not alone in this pandemic. You are not alone in whatever stresses you’re experiencing. Our black neighbors are not alone in the struggle for justice still today.

Immediately on the heels of praising God for who he is for the hurting, Paul shifts to the extremely practical that:

I can hold out hope from what God does for the hurting.

Verses 4-7 Paul explains very…

“[God] 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.” 2 Corinthians 1:4-7

God comforts us, so that we in turn can comfort others. When I was a brand-new Christian, I thought the way God usually works is supernaturally: signs and wonders and healings and miracles. And He does do all of these. But now that I’ve been at this for a bit and have a firmer grasp on Scripture and history, it’s clear that the way God usually works…is through us, through his people!

That pattern is as old as the Bible itself. All the way back in Genesis chapter 12, you see God blessing Abraham so that Abraham and his lineage would be a blessing to others. All through Scripture Old Testament and New, including Jesus with the Twelve apostles, God’s strategy for bringing hope to the hurting….is to bring those whom he has comforted alongside those who are hurting.

The Father of compassion and God of all comfort comforts you, and then you are uniquely equipped to hold out the same hope to others.

None of your pain has to remain hidden or be wasted. What you’ve gone through, and how the Lord comforted you in it, uniquely positions you to come alongside someone else in their distress.

Dr. Helen Roseveare is one of the most powerful examples of this whom I’ve heard. A medical missionary in Africa, she found herself caught in violent fighting between warring groups. She was held against her will at gunpoint, repeatedly assaulted sexually, and placed in front of what turned out to be a mock firing squad…all elements that could provoke severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In time, Helen Roseveare became a powerful help to women and girls who, like she, had suffered sexual abuse. Far into her gray-haired years, she was able to point to verses like these and affirm them as powerfully true, that even amidst the worst evil in this world, God remains the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. He is for the hurting. He comforts us in all our troubles, so that we in turn can comfort others in their distress.

I felt very uncomfortable hearing Dr. Roseveare tell her story at a conference I attended. But her story wasn’t for me. It was for those who needed the comfort that she had received when she was hurting.

The core message of verses 4-7 is found in the eight-times-repeated verb translated comfort. If you scan verses 4-7, again and again you see this same action: God comforts us so that we can comfort others with the comfort we’ve received from God. Paul can’t let go of this action. Here’s why: the Greek word here is parakaleo, a compound verb literally meaning to call alongside.

What God does for the hurting…is He calls alongside you someone who has gone through a similarly painful experience. When you’re hurting, you need “God with skin on,” if I can say it that way. You need someone who understands.

And so what God does for the hurting is he nudges his children, he calls you to see, care, and come alongside. You don’t have to have experienced exactly the same pain to come alongside someone who’s hurting. You do have to remember what God does for the hurting, and join Him.

Quick recap:

We can find hope in who God is for the hurting.
We can hold out hope from what God does for the hurting.
And finally…

I can spread hope by praying for the hurting.

As I read verses 8-11, I want you to picture a rioting mob coming to kill Paul—which happened more than once. In your imagination, see those who beat him up, who betrayed him and his teammates, who lied about them and maligned them, who threw rocks at them and plotted to murder him. All of that is in Paul’s mind as he writes…

“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.” 2 Corinthians 1:8-11

The only thing that kept Paul and his teammates going was fellow Christians praying for them. Prayer made the difference between giving up and pressing on. And so it is today.

For many people around the world, we find ourselves facing things that bring us to our knees. The issues are many and complex. The levels of enemy-making and violence are something most of us haven’t seen before. The political vitriol is an absolute dumpster fire. And all while we’re in the middle of a pandemic.

What can we do? Here’s what you can do: throw up your hands not to quit but to pray. Pray for the hurting. Pray with empathy. Ask the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort to call us alongside those who are hurting right now.

Pray for health care workers who are risking their lives to care for COVID-19 patients. Many are exhausted. Some already show signs of PTSD. Others have committed suicide, overwhelmed with what they’re seeing. Pray for them. Ask God to do for them what he did for Paul and his teammates. He says they found “hope that [the Lord] 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.”

Some day people are going to thank God and praise God because you prayed for them. So let’s do that.

Let’s pray for our black neighbors. Clearly, something was ignited with George Floyd’s death. It’s been smoldering for a looooong time. Now it’s a flame burning for justice, which is one of the strongest themes throughout the Bible.

One of the most powerful things we can do for our black neighbors right now is pray for them. Ask the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort to comfort our neighbors as they labor for justice. We can spread hope by praying strategically.

The International Justice Mission is a Christian organization that works to rescue victims from slavery and sexual exploitation. A few years back, International Justice Mission’s staff experienced what Paul testifies to in this passage.

As you can imagine, working for an organization that’s combatting human trafficking and sexual slavery could wreck you mentally and emotionally. There’s no end to that kind of work.

But because of that, IJM regularly sets aside time to pray together, asking God to bring breakthroughs. So in March of that year, a thousand staff and friends of International Justice Mission gathered in a hotel ballroom for a weekend of prayer for the most urgent needs they were aware of.

They prayed specifically for the end of bonded labor. I wasn’t familiar with ‘bonded labor,’ so I looked it up. It’s a modern-day form of slavery in which the wealthy take advantage of desperately poor families by signing them to high-interest loans. There’s no way they can repay it, so the entire family has to labor at extremely low wages for years, sometimes generations, children held in slavery due to a loan their parents signed on decades back.

Praying for an end to that seems like an impossible request, just as impossible as it would have been in 1840s America to pray for an end to legal slavery here. Yet everyone in the room that night dared to ask God that bonded labor be eradicated.

One month later, incredible news reached the International Justice Mission. In a village near Chennai in South India, a local official found the courage to organize a police-led raid against a brick kiln where more than 500 people—including more than 140 families—were being held as slaves.

They freed the laborers, commandeered a local high school to provide them with health care, and arrested the owner of the kiln. On that day hundreds of men, women, and children who had been robbed of their God-given dignity were set free. Where did that local official get the courage to initiate the raid? The only explanation that makes any sense, since he had known about the kiln but not acted before….is that Christians prayed for them. They prayed for the hurting, and God who is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort acted. He poured out the answer to the prayers of many, just as he had for Paul and his team.

Adapted from Andy Crouch, “Playing God” (InterVarsity Press, 2013), pp. 208-209

We spread hope when we pray for the hurting. Let’s do that right now. I’m going to lead in a prayer written by a Christian missionary named George Appleton. George worked with the local church in Myanmar and India for almost 20 years before pastoring in London, then Australia, and finally in Jerusalem. We conclude today with his prayer that God will make us people who spread hope for the hurting. Receive this prayer, friends:

Grant us, O Lord, understanding hearts,

that we may see into the hearts of your people, and know their strengths and weaknesses,

their hopes and their despairs, their efforts and their failures, their need of love and their need to love. Through our touch with them and our prayers for them, grant comfort and hope and the assurance

that now life begins at any age and on any day, redeeming the past, sanctifying the present and brightening the future with the assurance of your unfailing love and grace brought to us in Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen!

Adapted from George Appleton in the Oxford Book of Prayer. Christianity Today, Vol. 32, no. 16.

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