This is chapter 2 in my “Learning Leadership Lessons from 2 Corinthians” that you can find here.
2 Corinthians contains more references to “trouble” and “tribulation” that any other book in the New Testament. But it also contains more in it about God’s “comfort” than any other. While the term “tribulation” is used 9 times, the term, “comfort” appears 29 times! There must be at least three times as much comfort available to us as there is trouble awaiting us!
The first thing we learn about comfort is that God doesn’t comfort us in order to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters! This is particularly true of spiritual leaders. It is crucial for a leader to model and teach how a person receives comfort from God in the middle of difficulty. Paul is telling us that the leader has to suffer so he can access the help of God, and thus be able to mentor others in how to access that same help for himself. The leader whose closest contact with personal pain is what they read in a book won’t very well be able to help the hurting!
I recall a painful rejection of a very close friend and colleague. I went out to one of my favorite prayer spots along the railroad tracks among the broccoli fields overlooking the ocean. At one point I just sat down on the tracks and wept over the experience. Prior to that, I hadn’t ever really taken particular note of the Psalm that says, “God is close to the brokenhearted.” But at that moment of pain, the Holy Spirit brought those words to me, and I took comfort in them. How often, when consoling other brokenhearted people, I’ve drawn on that verse, and the experience that brought the truth of it to my attention. He comforted me in my troubles, so that I could comfort those in trouble with the comfort I myself had received from Him!
Some leaders are always either whining or winning. They’re always either complaining about how hard life is or carrying on a façade of victory and triumph. Neither of those extremes is therapeutic nor helpful to others.
“Strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” Hebrews 12:12-13
Another version translates it: “Take a new grip with your tired hands, stand firm on your shaky legs, and mark out a straight smooth path for your feet so that those who follow you, though weak and lame, will not fall and hurt themselves but become strong.” In other words, ‘Access God’s help with your painful circumstances so that the weak and lame who follow you will have a good example to follow on how to proceed in their difficult lives. Otherwise, they’ll fall and hurt themselves even worse!’
When Paul wrote about problems that were “beyond their ability to endure so that they couldn’t rely on themselves, but on God”; he’s saying that leaders have to go through times like those in order to set an example. You can only learn rely on God instead of on yourself by being in circumstances where it’s necessary.
My friend Dan and I coined the phrase, the “Sufferers Club.” We came upon it quite by accident one day when we were identifying with each other’s pain. We realized that we had a bond that we hadn’t had in the first 25 years or so of our friendship. He had lost his two daughters to a drunk driver and I had lost my wife and health. We had spent lots of time together over the years, but now we were connecting on a level we hadn’t before. We’ve always had things in common – we like baseball, Jesus, and classic rock. But now we’ve entered the world of pain and loss. We don’t like it, we wish things were as they had been – but here we are and we’re together.
Dan says that we’re limping on opposite sides. He lost his daughters, but still has the love of his great wife, Lynn. I lost my wife, but still have the love of my fantastic kids, Luke and Rebecca. Maybe that’s a key component in every good friendship; that we limp on opposing sides.A few weeks ago I heard a young woman speak to her church on the topic of suffering. In my humble opinion, she did an excellent job. She’s quite gifted, very sincere, and wise beyond her years. But I wondered if she had suffered. I wondered if she was a member of “the club.” She might be. I don’t know her that well.
These days when reading a book or hearing someone talk about humans in misery, I wonder if they’re in the club of sufferers. Are they speaking to me from their experience or from what they’ve read in a book somewhere? Do they sit across from me in the cell of agony, whispering their encouragement in the dark? I’m not saying that it’s illegitimate for someone who hasn’t suffered to try to speak to sufferers about how to handle their pain. I myself have given many good messages on the theme (the main points all rhymed, there were introductions and conclusions, and all the Greek words used were pronounced correctly), but until these last two years, I’ve never known suffering personally. I think it makes a difference in how we talk about it and how we relate to others experiencing it.
You might object to the exclusive sound of this club. Well, I object to being in it! You can have my membership any time you want. I paid dues to get in, but against my will. I’m fully aware that everyone has some pain in their lives and that others have suffered much more than I can even imagine. It’s not a competition – it’s a fellowship.
Jesus, the President of the Sufferers’ Club and history’s greatest Sufferer is at the head of the table of fellow sufferers and from there offers a blessed interaction with him (see the next chapter) as well as a unique fellowship among those who are at the table with him. As members of the fellowship, we appear to have a deeper communion with others who have walked through some of the same shadowed valleys. Victims of abuse, divorcees, cancer survivors all seem to have a dimension of fellowship with each other that others don’t have. They tend to enjoy a closeness, a shared ground for relationship. They seem to have the ability to comfort one another at the table in a way that others may not.
This may have been the problem with Job’s “comforters” – they hadn’t suffered. They hadn’t sat at the table with fellow sufferers and therefore had no idea about what Job needed or what God wanted. Their analyses and solutions to Job’s problems were off-base because they had little-to-no pain to cope with in their own lives. The way they began is the way they should’ve continued in their “ministry” to Job. “They sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” If only they had stayed there on the ground with Job.
Contrast this with what Paul says about genuine empathy that flows between members of “The Club”: “The God of all comfort comforts us in our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort that we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows… we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” 2 Corinthians 1:4-7
Let’s be practical
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how well do you model to others how to go through trials? In what ways could you improve?
- Are you currently struggling with a personal difficulty which might be an opportunity for you to better learn how to access God’s help, and then pass that help on to those you lead? Ask God to work in this trial in such a way as to make you a better servant-leader to others.
Do you have a friend or spiritual leader (not that those are mutually exclusive) that’s suffering right now that might benefit from this topic? Why don’t you share this with them and invite them into a conversation about it.
ps I recently started a podcast that might interest you.