The longing for comfort has never been more urgent. Living with pain, sorrow and uncertainty is never easy. Being lonely and isolated, cut off from loved ones, can be devastating. People dying surrounded by strangers, their loved ones unable to be at their bedside or say goodbye to them, is a new kind of trauma that the world has perhaps never seen before. For some, even the solace of a funeral at which to mourn those they have lost and celebrate their lives has been impossible.
In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul reveals his heart, emotions, and above all his sufferings. In opening, he speaks of God as “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Ultimately, it is God’s very nature to bring succour and help to His afflicted people. The short passage (v.3-7) resounds with the word “comfort” – repeated nine times and interwoven with words for suffering and affliction seven times. Paul derives great comfort, strength and reassurance from knowing that God Himself is the source of all his comfort, albeit channelled to him through Christian brothers and sisters.
The Biblical meaning of comfort
But what does “comfort” mean? Some English words have changed their meaning dramatically. Today the word “comfort” has a “soft and fluffy” feel to it, but in the fourteenth century, when John Wycliffe was translating the Bible, it was a robust and powerful term. Most of its broad range of meanings have disappeared, leaving little but the idea of soothing and consoling with sympathetic words. It has become a mundane, everyday word, with little substance.
In order to understand the word “comfort” in the Bible, we must banish modern ideas from our minds. We must not think of reassuring blankets, cosy armchairs or easy lifestyles.
The “fort” part of the word “comfort” comes from the Latin fortis, which has two meanings (1) physical strength (2) courage and steadfastness. So, the old meaning of “comforting” someone was to make them strong and brave to endure. Wycliffe even translated Ephesians 6:10 as “Be ye comforted in the Lord” which to him meant “Be empowered in the Lord.” William Tyndale, in the fifteenth century, first gave us “Be strong in the Lord.”
Comfort, comfort my people
The Bible was not originally written in English, so to better understand God’s Word to us, we must look at the meanings in Hebrew and Greek later translated as “comfort”.
The most famous use of the word “comfort” in the Old Testament is surely the command:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2).
Based on this text, “comfort” resounds thrillingly as the first word of Handel’s magnificent oratorio Messiah.
The Hebrew word is nachămū from which the names Nehemiah and Nahum come. Its literal meaning is “to cause to breathe again”, letting one’s breath out in relief. It is an emotionally charged word that certainly includes the idea of consolation in grief (Genesis 37:35; 1 Chronicles 7:22; Jeremiah 31:15). But it means more. It also describes a process of learning to think differently about a situation. A rabbi explains: “Comfort begins when we can reframe the immediate pain of a loss in a larger, more encompassing picture or story.” 1
The source of Job’s true comfort
Job’s sufferings – his excruciating agony of spirit as well as body – are recounted vividly in the Old Testament. Before long his wife was revolted by him, most of his friends and relatives abandoned him, his servants refused to obey him and little children mocked him (Job 19:13-19). However, there were three friends who stood by him and tried, in a misguided way, to comfort him, although in fact only making his mental torment worse. But Job tells us that he did have one source of true comfort – the fact that he had not denied the words of the Holy One. (Job 6:10 NKJV)
The Friend and Helper who is always with us
In most English New Testaments, occurrences of the word “comfort” are concentrated in 2 Corinthians 1, where the Greek parakalein, and words from the same root, appear nine times in five verses (v.3-7). Literally meaning “to be called to the side of”, the idea is of summoning someone to come and help in time of need. This root gives us the noun parakletos (one who is summoned to be alongside), used by Jesus to describe the Holy Spirit (John 14:16; 14:26; 15:26; 16:7).
The early Church fathers sometimes took the meaning to be “consoler” and sometimes “advocate”. Some English translations, reluctant to diminish the rich variety of meanings by selecting just one of them, put “Paraclete” where Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit. Wycliffe decided to use the word “Comforter”, conveying the thought that the Holy Spirit fills us with courage and strength to cope with whatever comes our way.
Our Advocate and our Consoler
“If anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” We must remember that when Jesus spoke four times of the Holy Spirit as the parakletos, His role as our advocate was part of the meaning, along with being our counsellor and consoler, our friend and ally who fights for us in spiritual battles. He is our encourager who urges us to stand firm and face our perils and difficulties with courage.
What a holy mystery it is that Jesus’ going away was for our good, so that the parakletos, our friend and helper, could be alongside us (John 16:6-7) for ever (John 14:16). This is how Jesus fulfils His promise to be with us to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20).
The God who always comforts us in all our troubles
Let us now turn to what Paul wrote to the Corinthians about parakalein. It was unusual for Paul to begin a letter by pouring out his personal anguish as he does in this one. But he had just come through a time of terrible suffering and the wonderful message that he gives to the Corinthian believers is that God the Father is “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”.
(2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
The God of all parakleseos (v.3) is the God who is always there as our parakletos. The God of all comfort does more than sympathise. He strengthens us and inspires us to endure. He encourages us to face troubles boldly and bravely. If it is not irreverent, we might even say He is the God who cheers us on.
We can depend on our heavenly Father’s comfort for it will never fail. His comfort is abundant and overflowing (v.5). He comforts us in all our troubles (v.4a). We also know that He comforts us in any kind of trouble because we learn from Him how to do that for our brothers and sisters (v.4b).
What kinds of troubles are these?
Paul uses the word thlipsis in this passage and, later, the stronger term stenochoria. Literally, thlipsis is a crushing weight or pressure, and stenochoria is confinement in a small space. Both can be used to describe real physical suffering. Centuries ago, English law had a punishment that consisted of placing heavy weights on a person’s chest until they were crushed to death. The torture method of confining people in a box or cage so small that they cannot stand, sit or lie down has been used in many countries throughout history.
Metaphorically, we all know the feeling of pressure as troubles of various kinds become a burden, weighing us down. We can feel there is no escape from our problems. Paul’s words cover the wide spectrum of troubles that we may face. His message is that God is alongside us in them all, giving us strength and courage and enabling us to pass the breaking point without breaking.
Comforting others – a complete cycle of blessing
Our suffering can equip us to be “an agent of God’s bountiful comfort”2 for others in distress. Paul tells the Corinthians that God comforts us so that we can comfort others in trouble with the same comfort God has given us (1:4).
For when we came into Macedonia, we had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn – conflicts on the outside, fears within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. (2 Corinthians 7:5-7.)
The Corinthians comforted Titus, Titus comforted Paul – and then Paul comforted the Corinthians, making a complete circle of blessing.
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. (2 Corinthians 1:6)
The result of Christian comfort is a change in attitude, not a change in circumstances. The new attitude is neither unfounded optimism nor permission to wallow in self-pity. It is a “patient endurance” that is triumphant, even joyful – it is not about holding on through gritted teeth. Nourished by a fresh infusion of divine power, we are comforted by a renewed inner experience of God’s grace, our spiritual muscles are strengthened and we have courage to cope.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo
International Director of Barnabas Fund
1 Rabbi Julian Sinclair, “Nachamu”, The Jewish Chronicle, 15 August 2008, https://www.thejc.com/judaism/jewish-words/nachamu-1.4503 [accessed 3 January 2021].
2 Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary of the Greek Text, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans and Milton Keynes, Paternoster, 2005, p.137.