St. Paul wrote a number of letters during the first part of the first century to the church in Corinth. Only two letters survive. Whenever I read the opening verses of the second of those letters—and I read them frequently—I am always moved. In these verses, Paul shares with the Corinthians that he and his traveling companion Timothy experienced “a deadly peril” in Asia Minor. He says, “For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” and “we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” Nonetheless, Paul writes, God “delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.”
Those are powerful words of hope in the midst of great suffering yet Paul never says exactly what had happened to him and Timothy. Whatever happened, Paul observes, “was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”
The opening words of the letter I find the most extraordinary. Paul writes:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
The logic of Paul’s argument reminds me powerfully that Paul lived in a world different from ours. Paul says that in our sufferings and difficulties we share in Christ’s sufferings. God comforts us in our afflictions so that we can share the comfort that God has given us with others who are suffering. So as we share in Christ’s sufferings we also share in the comfort that God gives us.
It seems to me that most people today regard any suffering or difficulty as bad in itself. When difficulties arise, we protest that they are unfair. Hardly anyone I know gives thanks for their sufferings and difficulties and almost no one regards them as a privilege as Paul seems to do. In his letter to the Philippians Paul indeed claims that our sufferings are a privilege. He writes, “For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well” (Phil. 1:29). In our sufferings, we learn how God comforts us, so that we can share the comfort we have received from with others. Without our own sufferings, then, we might not learn how genuinely to comfort others. Our difficulties and sufferings teach us how to be compassionate with others.
Compassion literally means to “suffer with” someone else. And in the community of Christ’s body the church, Paul reminds us, “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1Cor. 12:26). Compassion is something we learn in community and solidarity with others. That is why we all need to be involved in the life of the community of Christ’s body, the church—to learn genuine compassion for others.
Our suffering also reminds us also of how much we depend upon God. Awareness of our own suffering and of the suffering of others increases our love and the depth of our prayers for them. Paul does not tell us the nature of the afflictions he faced in 2 Corinthians, but he does ask the Corinthian church for their spiritual and material support: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”
As we move from Lent into Holy Week and our attention focuses more narrowly on the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross, remember that we too are blessed to share in his sufferings. That might be difficult for us to do given that we strive to avoid all suffering and difficulties in our lives. And when we do suffer, we are impatient with and wish it to end as soon as possible.
When Paul thought of Jesus on the cross through the eyes of resurrected faith he saw not despair or anger, but hope. When Paul looked at his own sufferings in the light of Jesus sufferings he saw cause for rejoicing. That might seem strange to us but there is much we can learn from him. In spite of the difficulties he faced or the sufferings, Paul endured Paul always experienced the love of compassion of God for him in his need. That compassion was also the source of his great love for the people to whom he ministered. That is why Paul could write these remarkable words:
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).