“The God of All Comfort”

This post is not actually about 2 Corinthians 1, from which the title phrase is taken, but rather about 1 Peter, which I was reading recently.

Peter is writing to Christians scattered throughout what is today Turkey to encourage them because “is necessary for a little while now that you be grieved by various afflictions” (1:6), whose faith was being tested (1:7).  He praises their faith and counsels reverence for God and holiness in life.  He describes their relationship to God with some amazing language which bears repeating: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, so that you may declare the excellent qualities of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light, you who once were ‘not a people’ but now are God’s people, who had ‘not received mercy’ but now have received mercy” (2:9-10).

And he simply assumes that Christians will be hated and will suffer because they are Christian:

1 Pet 2:12:  “Keep your way of life good among the outsiders, so that when they slander you as evildoers…”

1 Pet 2:20: “For what kind of fame is it if you endure when you sin and are punished?  But if while doing good and suffering you endure it, this is grace from God.”

1 Pet 3:9: “not repaying evil for evil or insult for insult…”

1 Pet 3:13-15: “And who is the one who will harm you if you are zealous for good things?  But if you might even suffer for righteousness, you are blessed.  ‘Do not fear what they fear, nor be disturbed, but sanctify the Lord’ Christ in your hearts…”

1 Pet 3:17: “For it is better, if God’s will should wish it, to suffer while doing good than while doing evil.”

1 Pet 4:12-16: “Beloved, do not think strange the burning among you which has taken place for a test for you, as if something strange were happening to you, but just as you have participated in Christ’s sufferings, rejoice, that also in the revelation of His glory you may rejoice and be glad.  If you are reproached for Christ’s name, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God has rested upon you.  For no one of you should suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler, but if as a Christian, he should not be ashamed, but he should glorify God in this name.”

1 Pet 4:19: “So then even those who suffer according to God’s will should entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing good.”

And in fact, this suffering is not incidental to the Christian life, but makes sense by connection with Christ’s sufferings, which Peter discusses at great length throughout his letter:

1 Pet 2:21-25: “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you a pattern so that you may follow in his footsteps,  who ‘did not sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth,’ who, when he was insulted did not insult back, when he suffered did not threaten, but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.  He ‘himself bore our sins’ in his body on the wood, so that we, having died in sins, may live in righteousness.  ‘By his wound you people were healed.’  For you were ‘like sheep going astray,’ but you have now turned back to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”

Nor is this unique to Peter; Paul wrote the opening to 2 Corinthians, from which the title of this post was taken, to express God’s ability to comfort believers when they suffer.

Now, I don’t know about you, but this is not my experience of being a Christian.  Sure, some people react negatively when they learn I’m a Christian.  Some people reacted negatively when I became a Christian.  But nothing I would describe as a “fiery trial.”  I’ve never been beat up for being a Christian, or tortured, or even (so far as I know) passed over for a job or a promotion.  And I’ve lived in some contexts in this country which are generally known for being very antagonistic to Christianity.

I suspect my experience is not unique.  Suffering such as Peter describes is the experience of the Christians of Mosul, but generally not  that of the Christians of North America.  I’ve heard evangelism-minded Christians of various denominations (including Roman Catholics) speak about the need to make friends with non-Christians and be liked by them in order to bring them into Christianity.  (It is true that Paul required church leaders to have a good reputation among non-Christians: 1 Tim 3:7.)  And I’ve heard many Christians justify our innate human desire to be liked by those around us by saying they wished to make Christ attractive.  And I’m not saying they’re wrong.  I’m just saying that we would certainly regard a “fiery ordeal among us” as strange, to say the least!

A sobering anecdote: in the late 4th C, as a newly legalized Christianity was rapidly growing among the various classes of the Roman Empire, a young Christian orator named Jerome read with pleasure the works of Cicero and other pagan authors, admiring their exquisite style more than the rough translations of the Bible into Latin.  One Lent, he became severely ill, and in that illness he had a dream in which he faced Christ on his judgment seat.  Asked what he was, he replied, “I am a Christian!”  The divine response struck him dumb: “You lie!  You are a follower of Cicero and not of Christ.  For ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be also'” (Matt 6:21).  When he awoke, he swore off all pagan authors entirely, and the account can be read in his Letter 22, section 30.

I doubt many of us are tempted to worship Cicero rather than Christ, but how many of us worship comfort instead?  I know nothing makes me grumpier than infringing upon my creature comforts (meal times, tasty food, ability to use my time how I want).  Oh, sure, there’s fasting and such, on occasion, and when I choose, because I really know that Christ is important and all that.  But if I’m forced to miss a meal because some friend needs me urgently, what is my response?  One might respond with gratitude for the opportunity to help.  Or one might look for ways to incorporate food into helping the friend, or think about how quickly one can reasonably excuse oneself.  Our responses reveal what we really think to be important.  And this is just missing a meal, not actually suffering for the name of Christ!

I am not proposing we go to the other extreme and attempt to provoke martyrdom.  Some early Christians did this (as well as some medieval Franciscans who went to preach to Muslims in the most offensive way they could imagine), but on the whole the Church has taken a dim view of this approach.  And rightly so; God may call us to die, but he does not call us to kill ourselves.  Provoking others to kill us may be outsourcing suicide, but it seems unnecessary.

The response to the idolatry of comfort is not (at least for most of us) to forswear all comfort.  “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:4).  The response to the idolatry of comfort is to worship God instead of ourselves.  How do we do this?  We can pray for God to guide us to fulfill the first and greatest command, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Mark 12:30).  We can reflect on his goodness in creation and redemption, and in particular consider Christ’s sufferings on our behalf, to increase our love and gratitude for him.  We can recognize and repent of places where we have prioritized our comfort above serving God.  We can challenge our false beliefs about the relative value of avoiding suffering versus serving God.  And we can encourage and support one another as we face various sufferings, to keep our eyes on God.

God is good, and eminently worthy of all our worship, all our praise, and any sacrifice or suffering we may undergo on his behalf.  The problem is not comfort, per se, but selfishness and cowardice.  For as we worship God more fully with our lives, he will use us to further his redemptive plan in the world, for his glory and for our good.  And if what Peter wrote is anything to go by (and of course I think it is, since it is Scripture), then we can expect to suffer for it.  But that’s part of imitating Christ, who suffered and died, who rather was raised from the dead and lives and reigns eternally with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

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