February 14, 2013

How to comfort others

One of my favorite cooking magazines is called “Light Comfort Food.” Perhaps everyone has her own version of what foods are comforting, but so far, every recipe in this collection does it for me. (Maybe I just like all food!) 

When it comes to people who comfort, the Bible has some suggestions for a recipe. This one is in the closing of one of Paul’s letters and uses an unusual word for ‘comfort.’

Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. (Colossians 4:10–11)

The normal biblical word for comfort is one used for the ultimate Comforter, the Holy Spirit. It means to come alongside another person. However, this verse uses “paregoric,” like our English word for a medicine. In the Greek root, it seems to combine the idea of coming alongside someone with the use of consolatory speech, perhaps even a public scolding. (Only a very mature person would see that as a comfort.)

“Paregoric” in English refers to medicine that mitigates or alleviates pain. Paul said that his coworkers were like that. What I want to know is how did they do it? Being a “pain” to others is easy, but it is not so easy to be one who alleviates pain. In the context of Paul’s writing, he is not talking about physical pain either. More likely he refers to the pain of hard work, confusion, struggles, loneliness, feeling empty and being misunderstood.

Sometimes others give us that kind pain without intending it. They could even mean well. Actually, the same thing can happen with giving comfort. I have one friend who does that every time I talk to her, and I’m certain she is unaware that she is being like medicine to me. 

What did Paul’s fellow workers do to comfort him? The text does not say but there are a few hints in the rest of this epistle. Chapter one tells of Paul’s joy to hear about the faith of others. Who told him? No doubt some of those comforters in his life who were just as delighted to hear the same news. APPLY: Share with Christians good news about the faith of other Christians. Pass it on.

Then Paul said he rejoiced in his sufferings for his readers. He hints at being delighted with fellow workers who shared in his ministry and very likely in his suffering. They were like-minded and that harmony of heart was a comfort. If others reject our ideas and mission in life, and our dedication to that mission, there is no greater loneliness, but when we are supported and helped, it is like medicine. APPLY: Support and encourage spiritual leaders and workers. No matter how successful they might seem, Satan constantly tries to discourage Christians. All of us need the medicine of faithful supporters.

Also, Paul’s co-workers were actually alongside him, physically with him in what he was doing. They did not leave him alone in his efforts or say “I’ll pray for you” when they could be helping him. Being there is important. When anyone struggles with a tough job, or with life’s blows and others show up, those suffering often say, “Thank you for coming.” Having someone standing at our side is a comfort. APPLY: Be there for people.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. (Proverbs 17:22)

While I can discourage others without intending to do so, I can do the same with comfort — when I have a joyful heart. This is not my own doing but fruit from the Holy Spirit. Paul may have used a different word than the one describing the Holy Spirit, but He is the ultimate Comforter. He gives God’s people grace and courage to bear burdens, our own and that of others. He also gives His people a joyful heart and is behind all true support and encouragement. 

APPLY: Be filled with the Spirit. Listen to His prompting and obey what He says. When I do that, I will have what is needed to be good medicine and a comfort to others.

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