Exercise is one of those things that I don’t realize how much I enjoy or need until after I get started—can I hear an Amen? It always seems like so much work for…what? Sweat? Aches and pains? No thank you. I’d like to pass. “I’ll take Bonbons and the Recliner for 200, Alex.” But being a grown-up I make myself get started and, lo and behold, I discover that I really do enjoy it after all. The sweat, the aches and pains, they’re signals that my body is working. My muscles warm up and I feel exhilarated (thank you, Lord, for endorphins) and I feel stronger and more able to do the grown-up things that “someone” has to do.
On Wednesday mornings I take part in an aerobic boxing class at the gym I attend. It makes me feel powerful and strong—though I have this feeling that if I were ever attacked, my right hooks and high kicks would do little more than knock me flat on my backside. Plus, my attacker would have to be standing stock still and in just the right position, not attempting to fight back. All mannequins beware—I can and will take you out!
Towards the end of the class, the video instructor says, “Now if you have any questions be sure to talk to your coach. They’re there to encourage you!” One of the women in the class laughed and turned to our coach, “Ok Connie, come on now. Encourage us! Make this easier!” We all laughed…or rather, we all made gasping, gurgling sounds that were intended to sound like laughter as we gracelessly fell in a heap on the ground in another burpee/jump-switch/left-cross combo.
Over the last several months, I’ve been a part of a Bible Study exploring first and second Corinthians. I wish you could have been there with me. (Shout out to Mandi Cornett and Cleanse. Fill. Pour. Ministries) I’ve so appreciated the teaching that has, in a very practical way, shown the father-heart of the Apostle Paul and the spiritual baby in all of us. In his letters, Paul addresses the people of the church in Corinth, people who feel themselves to be very mature and wise, but who—by their own behavior—have shown themselves to be spiritual toddlers. Paul loves these people deeply, in spite of their poor decisions, their childish attitudes, even in their slanderous tantrums! In second Corinthians 1:3-7, he writes:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
Isn’t that a wonderful phrase: “the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our troubles.” I rather wish Paul would have stopped there. That phrase makes me feel very warm and happy, that whatever trouble I face in life, God will just miraculously make it all go away if I ask Him just right. But Paul goes on: “so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” Ok. That’s not bad. Yes, I like being able to be the wise advisor patting my friends on the back and saying, “It’s ok! You’ll be just fine! Everything will turn out well, you’ll see!” Oh Paul, why couldn’t you stop there? But he continues “For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation….” Share abundantly in….suffering? Distress? Those are not comforting words. My warm and happy glow is fading.
The comfort I want in my trials and tribulations makes all the bad things go away and, most importantly, makes me happy! But the comfort God gives us doesn’t work that way. The comfort He offers comes from the Holy Spirit whispering peace during the midst of the storm. The storm may continue lashing around me, but the comfort at work within me is unafraid, leaning hard into the strength of Christ. Why? So that I can feel better about myself and my situation? No. So that others “May share in my comfort.” As my brothers and sisters around me face trials, as they watch me handling my own crises in the strength and peace of God, they will see Him in me and be comforted in their own storms.
This comfort of Christ was brought to mind during my boxing class, when my classmate was teasingly requesting encouragement from our coach. What she meant was “Make the pain stop!” Usually, when I pray for comfort during a crisis, under it all what I want God to do is “Make the pain stop!” In strength training I know that, truly, no pain equals no gain. Pushing myself to the limits of physical endurance yields a stronger body. In spiritual training, pain and trials yield growth, maturity. James writes: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (vv 2-4).
Was James a masochist? Was Paul? No. When a person is born again, he or she is born as a thumb-sucking spiritual baby. But we were never meant to stay that way. Just as I desire my children to grow up and be mature, our Heavenly Father desires us to grow up and be mature. Complete. Not lacking anything.
As we grow, pushing forward through the hard places in life in the power and peace of the Holy Spirit, we can comfort one another in patient endurance. This spiritual life isn’t just a sprint to the trophy finish, it’s a marathon. Long-term. Neither is it a singular, “I-can-do-it-alone,” hermit survivalist endurance test. Spiritual growth requires that we be diligent to the path in front of us, holding tightly to the Holy Spirit’s hand. It also requires that we not give up on one another or let each other fall when the storm winds blow.
“But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:13). Sin’s deceitfulness tells us “Just give up. It’s too hard. Sit back and rest awhile, you’ve earned it.” But the comfort of Christ says, “Keep going faithful one. I am here beside you, holding your hand. Don’t give up, don’t give in.” And when troubles come your way, ”Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). Then, pass it on.