Very few of us like to be alone. Sure, some of us are introverted; we enjoy spending a few hours alone reading, or in the garden. But, I suspect that very few of us like to be alone for extended periods of time.
Seldom have I come across a person who desires to be alone when they are suffering. When we are sad; when we are sick; when we have been hurt by others; our natural tendency is to long for the company of others.
And while it may genuinely be the case that we feel lonely, the Bible tells us that God’s children are never alone.
What the Lord said to Joshua applies to all of God’s people, “I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. . . Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:5, 9).
This, my friends, is a theology of comfort, and I reckon that theology is not superfluous information that merely flitters about in our brain. I reckon that sound theology possesses the unique ability to comfort us in the day of trial. Yet, I must also confess that there are times when our grief and suffering is so intense that nothing short of a physical manifestation of God’s grace will do.
There are moments when what we need more than anything else is a hug from another human being.
Now, I have no idea if the apostle Paul was ‘a hugger’—my mother-in-law is a ‘hugger’, but we have no idea whether Paul was the sentimental type. What we do know, however, was that Paul longed for the comfort that comes from human companionship.
Paul writes to the Corinthians, "I am filled with comfort. I am overflowing with joy in all our affliction. For even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within. But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus"(2Cor. 7:4b-6).
Unless we are familiar with all that Paul has been through, we will miss the impact of his statements, “I am filled with comfort. I am overflowing with joy” (2Cor. 7:4).
'Paul, how can you say this? You have been beaten up. You have been shipwrecked, you have been whipped, and you have been stoned and left for dead. Paul, by your own admission, your body has had no rest. And, in addition to your outward afflictions, you also talk about your "fears within." How is it that you are "filled with comfort" and "overflowing with joy"? Paul, what is your secret?'
The secret to Paul's comfort is revealed in verse 6; Paul worships a God "who comforts the depressed". The Greek word for depressed here, literally means, "brought low". One is brought low when the pressure becomes too great. But here is the good news: we worship a God who comforts the depressed.
How does God do this? How does God comfort and strengthen us when we are suffering? Paul, speaking from his own experience, writes, "God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus".
God comforted Paul by the coming of Titus and He means to comfort you and I by the presence of our Christian friends. Suffering then, should drive us to seek out Christian fellowship; it should drive us to seek out Christians who can incarnate God's comfort for us.
Now, we need to realize that there are two sides to this coin. On the one side is Paul, who is afflicted and in need of God's comfort. On the other side is Titus, the Christian that God has chosen to work through in order to bring comfort to Paul.
Sometimes we will be in Paul's shoes, in need of comfort, and at other times, we will be called upon to be a Titus for someone in need. Either way, we can learn something important from both of these examples.
From Paul, we learn the necessity of seeking comfort. To see this, we have to flip back to chapter 2, verses 12 and 13, where Paul writes, "Now when I came to Troas . . . I had no rest for my spirit, not finding Titus my brother, but taking my leave of them, I went on to Macedonia."
Paul sought out God's comfort, and he looked for it in the presence of his good friend, and brother in Christ, Titus. And until he found Titus, Paul spoke about having "no rest for (his) spirit". This is noteworthy because not everyone seeks after comfort.
Foolishly, many people refuse the comfort that God offers through His people. We see this even in the Bible. When Jacob thought that his son Joseph had been killed, we read that "all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort (Jacob), but he refused to be comforted"(Gen.37:35).
We are not meant to face suffering alone. God purposes to always be present with us. And, thankfully, God often purposes to be with us by sending us a Christian brother or sister. God, who comforts the depressed, comforted Paul by the coming of Titus.
At this point, we may be curious to ask, 'What exactly did Titus do, or say, that brought such comfort to Paul?'. It is interesting that Paul does not mention anything that Titus said or did, but only that he was comforted "by the coming of Titus".
From this, I conclude precisely what Philip Yancey has concluded: "It is not our words or our insights that (hurting people) want most; it is our mere presence"(Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts?, 177).
Christian author, Tony Campolo, tells the story of going to a funeral home to pay his respects to the family of an acquaintance. By mistake he ended up at the wrong funeral parlor. It held the body of an elderly man, and his widow was the only mourner present. She seemed so lonely that Campolo decided to stay for the funeral.
At the end of the service, Campolo finally confessed that he had not known her husband. "I thought as much," said the widow. "I didn't recognize you. But it doesn't really matter." She squeezed his arm so hard it hurt. "You'll never, ever, know what your presence has meant to me."
C.S. Lewis, in a journal he kept after his wife's death, confessed that God, who had always been available to him, suddenly seemed absent. Lewis felt fear, and abandonment, but in the end it was a community of Christians who helped to restore him.
I am thankful that I too can say, from Scripture, and from personal experience, that God's grace does indeed come to us in human form.
I suspect many members of St. Giles Kingsway are quite unaware of some of the challenges this congregation has faced over the past year. I admit that I have certainly felt the weight of these challenges and have been, at times, overwhelmed by these challenges.
Was I alone in these challenges? Had God forsaken me? No. I was not alone. I was never alone.
As a result of these challenges, I think I better understand what Paul means when he speaks about “conflicts without” and “fears within”.
How did I endure? Did I simply dig in my heels? Did I simply grit my teeth and press forward? No, I moved forward on the shoulders of some loving members of this church, and I will not soon forget the support shown to me by the Session of St. Giles Kingsway.
I will not soon forget that, following a particularly difficult meeting of Presbytery, two of my colleagues came to St. Giles Kingsway to pray with me, and for me.
It would have been comforting enough to have the assurance of God’s presence in the midst of difficult times. But, to also have the benefit of supportive Christian friends, is, as Paul says, to be “filled with comfort” (2Cor. 7:4).
Beloved, some of you are currently suffering. Some of you are grieving; some of you are ailing physically; some of you are struggling with a relationship; some of you are struggling with your faith. My desire is that St. Giles Kingsway would be a place of comfort for you. The staff and the Session of St. Giles Kingsway want to pray for you, and walk with you, through difficult times.
No person need ever be alone in their suffering. God has provided us with His Spirit, His Word, and His people. And, as the hymn reads, “That soul, though all hell should endeavour to shake, I’ll never—no, never—no, never forsake!” Amen.