Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Toward a Biblical Perspective on Depression: 2 Corinthians 1:3-7

In my last post I wrote about how we may be encouraged through trials – even such trials as depression – that God's purposes in our lives are being accomplished as we see his glory being revealed in and through us and thus increase in our confidence that our future glorification is assured. In this post I want us to focus on how suffering through our own trials also enables us to better minister to others in their trials. This can be seen in Paul's teaching on suffering in 2 Corinthians:
NKJ 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort [paráklēsis], 4 who comforts [parakaléō] us in all our tribulation [thlípsis, affliction, distress, oppression, trouble], that we may be able to comfort [parakaléō] those who are in any trouble [thlípsis], with the comfort [paráklēsis] with which we ourselves are comforted [parakaléō] by God.”
In his epistle to the Romans Paul teaches that “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (8:28). Here in 2 Corinthians he teaches us that one way in which God works all things together for good is that He comforts us in our troubles so that we may be able to comfort others in their troubles. In other words, He uses our trials or troubles – which would include depression – in order to make us more useful ministers of His own comfort to others.

Thomas Constable, in his Notes on 2 Corinthians, ably highlights the importance of the Greek word translated comfort in this passage:
“Comfort” (Gr. paraklesis) is the key word in this section (vv. 3-7) occurring 10 times as a noun or a verb [parakaléō]. It also appears in 2:7, 8; 5:20; 6:1; 7:4, 6, 7, 13; 8:4, 6, 17; 9:5; 10:1; 12:8, 18; and 13:11. Thus 2 Corinthians is truly a letter of encouragement. This Greek word means much more than mere sympathy. It communicates the idea of one person standing alongside another to encourage and support his friend. The same word describes the Holy Spirit ("Paraclete") who strengthens and guides us (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). Christ, too, provides encouragement and support as our Advocate (1 John 2:1) and Helper (Heb. 2:18). Here it is the Father who comforts and consoles the afflicted.
Notice also the emphasis Paul places on the words all and any in these verses. He says that God is the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort [paráklēsis], who comforts [parakaléō] us in all our tribulation that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” As the God of all comfort, our heavenly Father is able to comfort us in all of our troubles, and we are thus able to comfort others in any trouble they might face.

Thomas Constable is again helpful in driving home the point, when he writes:
Nevertheless God does not intend this encouragement and strength to end with our personal benefit. Its further purpose is to enable us to become God's agents in extending God's comfort to others in their afflictions. As God comforts us in all our afflictions, we are to comfort others in any and every one of theirs. (Notes on 2 Corinthians)
There are several important implications that follow from Paul's teaching here:

First, there is the implication that we gain the experience we need to comfort others by going through the kind of troubles that necessitate that we ourselves seek comfort from God.

Second, there is the implication that the more troubles we go through, the more useful and capable we will be in offering God's comfort to others. This means we should not despise our troubles as we are often tempted to do, but rather see them as opportunities to become better conduits of God's comfort to others who are suffering as we have suffered.

Third, there is the implication that we become more like God, who is the Father of all comfort, the more we experience His comfort in our troubles and are thus able to more fully comfort others.

Sadly, all too many Christians see their troubles through the wrong lens, perhaps as a sign of God's displeasure, when in reality they are a part of His plan to make us more like Himself, and to make us more like Christ, that we might ultimately be glorified together with Him. As Paul wrote to the Roman believers, if we are God's children, then we are heirs, “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together” (8:17b).

Ed Welch is helpful in applying the point of Paul's teaching in 2 Corinthians 1 when he writes:
Depression is hard. It doesn’t leave without a fight. But there are good reasons to enter into the fight. Changes are guaranteed (Phil. 1:6). You are in the presence of “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles” (2 Cor. 1:3, 4). Do you believe that? Think about it. When you consider that the Father sent His Son — His beloved, only Son — to die for us when we were still His enemies, there is no reason to think that He will be stingy with His love and compassion now that we know Him as Father.

Sometimes, however, we have our own definition of compassion. Compassion might mean “to take away misery, quickly.” Instead, you have to believe that God’s love and compassion exceed even our imagination, let alone our understanding. He is up to something good. He wants to shower you with grace and make you look more and more like Jesus.

So don’t give up. You have a purpose. God is on the move. You are a servant of the King, a child who represents the Father, and you will soon have the privilege of comforting “those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Cor. 1:4). The body of Christ needs you. (Words of Hope for Those Who struggle with Depression, Journal of Biblical Counseling, Vol. 18, No. 2, Winter 2000, p. 45-46, CCEF.org, website of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation)
Do you want to love the body of Christ as Christ himself does? Do you truly want to be more like Christ in this regard? If so, then you will be willing to walk the path of suffering even as He did. If not, then you need to ask God to make you willing. Remember what Peter said, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). Or remember what Paul said it to the Philippians, “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (1:29).
NKJ 2 Corinthians 1:5 “For as the sufferings [páthēma] of Christ abound in us, so our consolation [paráklēsis] also abounds through Christ.”
Here Paul makes it clear that all our troubles that are designed to make us better conduits of God's comfort are actually the sufferings of Christ. It is important to remember that, in the context of 2 Corinthians 1, only such sufferings are in view. Paul does not say, for example, that we may regard suffering for our own sin and disobedience as the sufferings of Christ. Peter also communicates such a distinction when he writes:
NKJ 1 Peter 2:19-21 “For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. 20 For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. 21 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps ….”
But here in 2 Corinthians Paul also makes it clear that, as these sufferings of Christ abound in us, so also our comfort will abound through Christ. Once again, then, we see that the more sufferings we endure the more comfort we may experience. And, viewed this way, sufferings – including struggles with depression – are once again seen as opportunities. As the ESV renders verse 5, “as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” Do you want to share abundantly in the comfort of God? Well, then, it is crucial to consider that you might only be able to experience such abundant comfort through abundant suffering.
NKJ 2 Corinthians 1:6 “Now if we are afflicted, it is for your consolation [paráklēsis] and salvation, which is effective for enduring the same sufferings [páthēma] which we also suffer [páschō]. Or if we are comforted [parakaléo], it is for your consolation [paráklēsis] and salvation.”
David Guzik offers some helpful comments on this verse:
Significantly, Paul writes of the same sufferings. It is unlikely the Corinthian Christians were suffering in exactly the same way Paul did. Probably, not one of them could match the list Paul made in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28. Yet, Paul can say they are the same sufferings, because he recognizes that the exact circumstances of suffering are not as important as what God is doing, and wants to do, through the suffering. Christians should never get into a “competition” of comparing suffering. There is a sense in which we all share the same sufferings. (Commentary on 2 Corinthians)
Here Paul simply tells the Corinthians that he and his fellow ministers view their own sufferings the same way that he is telling them to view theirs, as opportunities to better be used of God for the comfort of others. Paul sees no such thing as wasted sufferings in his life, at least not so long as he knows they are the sufferings of Christ. This is the lesson he desires us to learn as well.
NKJ 2 Corinthians 1:7 “And our hope for you is steadfast, because we know that as you are partakers of the sufferings [páthēma], so also you will partake of the consolation [paráklēsis].”
Here Paul derives hope for the Corinthians from his own experience of God's comfort in his sufferings. This is because he knows that God will do for them what He continually does for him. But what about you and me? Do we sometimes forget this when we see the troubles and sufferings of our brothers and sisters in Christ? Do we sometimes lose hope when we see them suffer? If so, this is probably just an indication that we ourselves are inexperienced in receiving God's comfort in our own sufferings. And it probably also means that we will not be of much use to others who are suffering. It just isn't likely that we will have hope that others will experience God's comfort in their sufferings when we have not experienced it ourselves. But when we become experienced in receiving God's comfort through various sufferings and troubles, including trials such as the deepest depression imaginable, then we will also have a steadfast hope for the believers we see suffering around us. And we will be able to communicate this hope to them even when they feel hopeless themselves.

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