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What does the church in Minneapolis most need to know about God today? It’s been two days since the collapse of the I-35W bridge (August 1, 2007) and countless people are suffering both physically and emotionally in the aftermath of this devastating event. Some lost family members in this tragedy. Others’ lives were spared but they are hospitalized with a variety of injuries. Those not directly involved, but perhaps friends with those who were, are struggling to make sense of what occurred, asking questions like: “Where was God? Who is God?”

There are any number of answers to my initial question. Some in Minneapolis need to know that not so much as a sparrow falls to the ground apart from our Father in heaven (Matthew 10:29). They, therefore, being “of more value than many sparrows” (v. 31) may rest assured that this event did not catch God by surprise.

Others need to be gently and lovingly reminded that none of us knows “what tomorrow will bring” (James 4:14a). Indeed, “what is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (v. 14b). Instead, they and we “ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (v. 15).

And certainly everyone should stand with confidence and unshakable assurance on this glorious truth, that God orchestrates all things, both blessing and blight, both triumph and tragedy, for the ultimate spiritual good of those who love him and “are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

But perhaps most important of all, the church in Minneapolis and all the saints throughout Minnesota need to know what Paul believed the church “in Corinth” together “with all the saints” who were “in the whole of Achaia” needed to know (2 Corinthians 1:1), namely, that “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”, who is most worthy of the affirmation and proclamation “blessed”, is “the Father of mercies” and the “God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3) “who comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Cor. 1:4a).

Paul didn’t write this in some isolated and insulated ivory tower or from the perspective of a detached and out-of-touch theologian who himself never encountered pain and suffering and the confusion that tragedy so often elicits. He knew what it was like to endure “affliction” (2 Cor. 1:8) and to be “so utterly burdened” beyond one’s strength that the only option left seemed to be death (v. 9a). He had tasted the bitter dregs of “deadly peril” (v. 10) and was well acquainted with the darkness of depression (2 Cor. 7:5-6).

This is a man who had suffered the physical horror of being stoned by an angry mob (Acts 14:19) and had felt the relentless emotional pressure of responsibility for the welfare of others (2 Cor. 11:28). The counsel that I bring you today comes from a man who had endured “far more imprisonments” and “countless beatings” and was “often near death” (2 Cor. 11:23). Five times he had been thrashed with thirty-nine blows, three times was beaten with rods, not to mention having endured shipwreck and countless other dangers from both friend and foe (2 Cor. 11:25-26). He knew “toil and hardship” and sleepless nights, even hunger and exposure to the elements (2 Cor. 11:27).

So, when Paul the “apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (2 Cor. 1:1a) describes our heavenly Father as one who is the source of mercy and the fount of all comfort, we need to take heed, for he knows whereof he speaks.

I suppose some in Minneapolis might be inclined to curse God for what transpired on August 1st. But as counter-intuitive as it seems, Paul declares him “blessed” (2 Cor. 1:3), as one to be thanked and adored and praised! One would almost think Paul had read the book of Job: “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’” (Job 1:20-21).

There are two things in particular on which we need to focus in this passage. First, when Paul says that God is the “Father of mercies” and “God of all comfort”, he means more than simply that mercy and comfort come from God. Yes, God most assuredly dispenses these wonderful blessings, but Paul is more concerned to tell us something about God’s character, his personality, the disposition and inclination of his heart. In other words, we should read this passage something along the lines of: “the Father who is characterized by mercy” and “the God whose heart delights in giving comfort.”

Yes, of course Paul is describing what God does. But even more foundational is what he says concerning who God is or what he is like. This is his nature, says Paul, his personality, not simply his performance. What he does is a reflection of who he is, and he is above all else characterized by tender-hearted compassion and gentleness and love and a passionate desire to encourage and strengthen those who are suffering hardship and hurt.

The second thing to note is the comprehensive scope of God’s merciful and compassionate nature, for he is the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Cor. 1:3b-4a). The former phrase points to the fact that comfort of every kind comes from the heart of our Father. Whatever sort of comfort is needed, whatever its nature, you can trust God to be in plentiful supply. Murray Harris suggests that the word “all” may have a “temporal connotation, ‘ever ready to console’ (TCNT), ‘whose consolation never fails us!’ (NEB, REB); it may also denote the comprehensiveness of God’s compassion, ‘who gives every possible encouragement’ (NJB). In accordance with his limitless compassion (cf. Ps. 145:9; Mic. 7:19), God provides his people with never-failing comfort of every variety (cf. Isa. 40:1; 51:3,12; 66:13)” (142-43).

And just how does God do this? What could he possibly say to us that would have this effect? Perhaps he brings to mind David’s declaration: “I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you’” (Ps. 16:2). Or maybe Asaph’s affirmation: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Ps. 73:25). Or Paul’s promise: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword, [or collapsing bridges]? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:35,37).

I can’t begin to know what those in Minneapolis are suffering, and I certainly don’t intend to pontificate with pious words spoken from the comfort and safety of my own circumstances. But this I do know and can say with all confidence: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion [not physical life or health or wealth],’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (Lamentations 3:22-24).