How Should I Comfort Others When I Can’t Sympathize?

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We are sometimes told that unless we have experienced the same trial as someone else, we are unable to give that person genuine sympathy and encouragement. For example, only a parent who has lost a very young child can really sympathize with parents who lose a child who is born prematurely.

Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 1:4, however, show that sentiment to be false.

The small Greek adjective pas is common in the New Testament. When it is used with the Greek definite article (English “the”) in the singular, it means “all” or “the whole of.” But when it stands alone with a singular noun, it means “every” in the sense “any you might think of” or “any you care to specify.” The first use points to totality, the second to comprehensiveness.

These two uses of pas are found side by side in 2 Corinthians 1:4 in reference to “distress.” Paul first describes the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ as the compassionate Father and the God who always gives comfort. Throughout 2 Corinthians the verb “comfort” (parakaleō) does not denote some weak sympathy but rather refers to strengthening, consolation, encouragement, and even intervention to deliver (see Isa 51:9, 12).

Paul then proceeds to affirm that God comforts and encourages in “all [pas] our distress (regarded as a whole).” But there was a special divine purpose when God dispensed his comfort—it was so that Paul might always be able to bring comfort and encouragement to those in “any kind [pas] of distress.” Paul’s own affliction was specific to him but his experience of divine comfort equipped and obligated him to mediate God’s comfort to those in any and every imaginable kind of distressing circumstance.

The crucial issue, then, is whether we are open to experiencing the divine comfort that qualifies and obligates us to bring God’s comfort to others. Sometimes we gain God’s comfort through prolonged meditation on the Scriptures, other times through reflective prayer. Perhaps on occasion it comes through direct divine intervention, as when Paul was taken up into the third heaven and paradise (2 Cor 12:2, 4; see part 2, ch. 30) in order to strengthen and encourage him for his constant apostolic suffering (see 2 Cor 6:4–10; 11:23–27). 

Significantly, God’s comfort very often comes to us by way of the words and actions of fellow believers. In 2 Corinthians 7:6, Paul recalls with gratitude that “God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus,” who brought good news about the spiritual state of the church at Corinth. Paul himself had been depressed (this is clearly implied) about the Corinthians’ spiritual welfare, but Titus’ safe arrival with reassuring news about Paul’s converts had the effect of replacing the apostle’s dejection with unbridled joy (2 Cor 7:7).

From Murray J. Harris, Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament (Lexham Press, 2020).

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This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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Written by
Murray J. Harris

Murray J. Harris, professor emeritus and author, is well known for his commentaries on 2 Corinthians. He has written several books, including Navigating Tough Texts.

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