Sometimes we all need a little bit of comfort. Comfort comes in all shapes and sizes for different people. Where do you find comfort in life? In playing a sport? In getting a hug? In eating a particular food? In the presence of friends and family? In drinking a cup of coffee? In your relationship with your spouse (Gen 24:67)? In receiving forgiveness from a brother (Gen 50:21)? In a good long sleep (cf. Job 7:13)? In a tidy house?
Finding comfort is particularly important for us when life is tough. Sometimes we need a bit of comfort just to stay sane—to keep going in the face of whatever stress is bearing down on us and causing us grief or loss.
The words of Isaiah spoke a message of great comfort to the people of Israel: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isa 40:1). The prophet was addressing a nation in exile here—a nation that had been torn from their homeland, treated as slaves in Babylon and stripped of all that they held dear—a nation living under the judgement of God. They cried out for an end to their plight, so God sent them a message of comfort. And where was their comfort to be found? Where were they to look for the end of their warfare and judgement?
A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.
(Isa 40:6, 8)
Israel was told to look not to human solutions, but, instead, to the promises of God. Their history taught them that the powers of this world that look so strong (Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, etc.) would all ultimately crumble. Only God’s promises—his promises of forgiveness and glory for Israel—would stand forever. Only God’s promises are reliable. Israel’s comfort lay in the promises of God. Isaiah then went on to speak of the coming of a suffering servant—one who would be afflicted, and yet whose afflictions would bring about the end of God’s judgement for his people and the dissemination of God’s glory in the world (Isa 42, 49, 53). Here lay the comfort of Israel—the promise to which faithful Israelites pinned their hopes (cf. Luke 2:25).
Hundreds of years later, Paul, an Israelite, wrote a letter to comfort a predominantly Gentile church in Corinth. It was a church that was grieving—a church that had given him personal grief—a church with whom he had had a very rocky relationship personally—a church which was disappointed and hurt by his actions. It was a church that needed comfort. Paul discerned that the comfort the Corinthians needed was exactly the same comfort that he received from God:
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. (2 Cor 1:3-4)
What was this comfort that Paul received and which he passed on to his troubled church? It is the same message of comfort that God spoke to Israel through Isaiah—that the suffering of the suffering servant leads to the fulfilment of God’s promises, that God will fulfil his promises of salvation despite (and, indeed, through) suffering (2 Cor 1:5-7), and that all the promises of God find their fulfilment in the Son of God, Jesus Christ (vv. 20-22).
This is important to remember in a world that seeks to find its ultimate comfort in the things of this world. It is good and right to enjoy the good things of this world, and find some measure of comfort in them (sport, hugs, food, drink, friends, family, coffee, love, sleep and houses—1 Tim 4:1-5). But in all this, we must remember that our final comfort—our ultimate comfort—does not lie in these things. These things are merely flesh: they are like the grass that withers and fades. Only the promises of God will stand forever. And so only the hope of everlasting life—of forgiveness—will give us comfort in our suffering.
If your life is reasonably comfortable now, I want to urge you to practise finding your ultimate comfort in the promises of God first, before things get tough. We need to practise finding comfort in Jesus’ death for us and in the hope of glory through suffering. We need to do this in the good and easy times so that when the dark and hard times come, we are in the habit of seeking our comfort in the only place it can truly be found. If we build up a lifelong habit of seeking our first comfort from the things of the world, when the hard times come (and they will!), we will most likely (and even naturally) run to these things before we run to God. But they will not deliver for us. Indeed, they will disappoint and even enslave us. But if we find our true comfort in the great promises of glory and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel, we will have joy even in suffering.
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people
and will have compassion on his afflicted.