What do you think of when you hear the word “comfort”? I think of a flannel shirt I bought twenty years ago (and still sometimes wear!), the world’s softest feather pillow, or the elusive first-class seat I never get to enjoy on an airplane.
What about the verb “comfort”? What comes to mind when you hear this verb in a sentence such as: “She comforted her child”? What do your English-speaking ears hear in that sentence?
In my ears, that sentence evokes a child crying because he fell down and hurt himself. His mother wraps her arms around her precious child and soothes him. The English verb “comfort” in such a sentence means “to soothe someone who is hurt or sad.”
That image, I would suggest, highlights the misunderstanding most of us encounter when we read 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. Notice that “comfort” (both as a noun and as a verb) is the most important word in the paragraph.
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. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (2 Cor. 1:3-7 ESV)
The meaning of the entire paragraph hinges on the word “comfort.” Currently, all major modern translations render it the same way, with the English word “comfort.”
It is worth pointing out, however, that “comfort” is not the normal way that verb gets translated in the New Testament. Most often, this extremely common verb, parakaleō, gets translated one of three other ways: “encourage,” “exhort,” or “urge,” but only rarely as “comfort.” The related noun paraklesis is similar, most commonly translated as “encouragement,” or “exhortation,” only occasionally as “comfort.” I am happy to grant that one possible translation of parakaleō is “comfort.” This word, like most words, allows for a range of possible uses. And proper translation of a word depends upon the context in which a word is used. But that’s not what this word most commonly means in the New Testament.
The point I want to make certainly is not that all these meanings adhere to every use of this word (either the verb or the noun). Piling all possible meanings onto a single use of a word is an exegetical fallacy. But there is still something here worthy of our attention. In light of the very narrow way we normally use the English word “comfort” (focusing on soothing-ness), we are likely to miss part of what Paul seems to be communicating in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. His point is not merely that God soothes us when we experience hardship. His point seems to be that God spiritually strengthens us in the midst of our affliction.
Since spiritual strengthening (think of the common translation “encourage” and “exhort”) is conceptually present in most every other place where both this noun and verb appear in the New Testament, Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 is probably focused on that, rather than on soothing.
So let’s retranslate the first two verses of this paragraph to make Paul’s likely intention clear, replacing the English word “comfort” with something else to bring out the appropriate nuances (see bolded words):
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all encouragement, who spiritually strengthens us in the midst of all our affliction, so that we may be able to spiritually strengthen those who face any affliction, with the encouragement with which we ourselves are strengthened by God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
I am not suggesting — at least not in this blog post — that we change the way we translate these verses in the future. “Comfort,” after all, represents one part of the semantic range for both this verb and noun. But I would encourage, exhort, and urge you to remember one thing the next time you read this passage: Paul is probably not simply asserting that he gets soothed by God during hard times so that he can soothe others when they face hard times. Paul is saying that God spiritually strengthens and encourages him in the midst of affliction so that he will be prepared to spiritually strengthen and encourage others in the future who face similar hardships.
Are you facing affliction right now? Is hardship dogging your steps? One of God’s purposes in allowing you to pass through whatever you are experiencing is that you will be able to bring spiritual help, strength and encouragement to others in the future who face affliction. Not merely comfort…
Extra note: Murray Harris notes that the English word “comfort” used to mean something closer to internal strengthening than it currently does. Compare the Old French word conforter and the Late Latin word confortare. Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005), 143 n. 27.
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