HORIZONS BIBLE STUDY 2014-2015
Reconciling Paul: A Contemporary Study of 2 Corinthians
“God will use this so that you can help others.” I can’t say that I appreciated the remark at the time. I was suffering. I wanted sympathy. I wanted to hear that I was going to make it through the waves of blind grief. Instead, my colleague told me about how God would use my pain. Her comment was true but not welcomed. It is, however, the one comment made during that time that I still remember. That my suffering could be used for God’s purposes became a consolation to me.
Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, puts his suffering in the context of the greater good for which his suffering can be used. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we are consoled by God” (1:3-4).
The word “console” is very important to Paul. He uses it, in one form or another, 10 times in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. What images come up for you when you hear the word “consolation”?
Christian consolation is a gift from God and can take many forms. Consolation is God’s unexpected visitation in prayer — a tender moment of connection. It is the strength that comes from others praying for us. Consolation is having friends with whom you can be honest, who won’t try to “fix” you with unwanted advice or easy answers. Christian consolation is being fed by hymns and Scripture or being challenged to keep on holding fast to the teachings of Jesus.
For Paul, consolation is that which gets down in the pit with us and lifts us up to God. Paul knows the reality of the power that comes from Christ. It is a power to endure, to see God’s hand in what is happening, to understand that the prayers of the faithful make a difference. Christian consolation is being reminded that love is never wasted and can always be used for God’s purposes in the world. Christian consolation is being fortified to do the will of God. It is knowing that the living Christ is with us and that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:35-39).
The strength of God’s consolation comes to Paul and Silas in singing hymns in prison, giving thanks to God for the spread of the gospel, being upheld in prayer by those communities and putting his life into the context of serving Christ. In Asia, he and his companions were so utterly, unbearably crushed that they despaired of life itself (1:8). But again, Paul understands his suffering as a purpose, allowing him to trust more in God and not rely on his own strength (1:9).
Recently, Mary lost a deeply loved aunt suddenly to a stroke. It was a visceral blow to Mary’s whole being. Her aunt was fun, warm, outgoing, funny — a person of inspiring faith and commitment. Mary’s grief continues, and will for some time, but she has also been drawn into a deeper level of Christian understanding. She says that she can now better understand loss and empathize more fully with others. She is also aware of her own desire to be her aunt’s living legacy of faith and dedication to Christ.
Paul shares intimately about his own affliction, experience of Christ and love for the Corinthian community. This keeps him in relationship with these Christians so that they can weather the conflict have been, and still are, experiencing.
The intimate sharing of Paul in 2 Corinthians is astonishing. We as individuals and churches tend to become less open and vulnerable and more defensive and blaming in times of disagreement. We fear that being open will leave us open to being wounded. Paul is able, because of the grace of God, to disagree, even vehemently at times, and still affirm his love for his friends in Christ. Paul pours out his love for these believers and gives thanks to God for them.
What would it be like to follow Paul’s example when we argue in our families or disagree in our churches? We would have to pry our hands off our delicious delight in being right and focus on God’s great blessings to us in Jesus Christ. We would have to pray for the ability to listen and that God would break our addiction to outrage and complaint about other people and points of view. Through the grace of God, we would need to be prayerfully focused on how Christ can use us for his purposes, even in suffering or disagreement.
ROSALIND BANBURY is associate pastor for adult ministries at First Church in Richmond, Virginia.