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Uniform 08.03.2014: The Consolation of Prayer

2 Corinthians 1:3-11

“Please pray for me.”
“Your family is in my thoughts and prayers.”
“I’ll be praying for you.”
“Would you pray with me?”
“Say a prayer for those who are suffering.”
“Please. Please pray for me.”

What is prayer? Depending on the circumstances, it can take various forms. Prayer is conversation, praise, or intercession. It’s a request (sometimes a demand!), a lament, or a rejoicing. It’s public and formal; it’s private and personal.

For many people—whether they are strong believers or not—prayer is a common activity during tough times. “I’ll be praying for you” is something we recite when someone shares a burden with us, even if we have no intention of actually talking to God about the situation.

In 1996, popular contemporary Christian singer/songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman released a song titled “Let Us Pray”. His point is that there’s no reason to wait to pray. We can pray right here, right now, in whatever way feels comfortable—out loud, silently, formally, personally, in song or in speech or in thought. And, Chapman adds, “Just because we say the word ‘Amen,’ it doesn’t mean this conversation needs to end.”

Prayer is a common activity in the Bible. According to Scripture, prayer took many forms centuries ago, just as it does today. In our text from 2 Corinthians, Paul mentions his “affliction.” You don’t have to read much of Paul’s writings to realize that the man was definitely afflicted—with persecution, sickness, sin, need, imprisonment, accidents at sea, etc. I think one of the most interesting parts of our focal Scripture is that Paul doesn’t say God removed these terrible things once and for all. God didn’t cure him for good. God didn’t put a shield of protection around Paul and keep him safe from harm. Instead, Paul says God “consoled” him. The sufferings are not past; they are still taking place. His present-tense verbs in phrases like “sufferings are abundant,” “are being afflicted,” “are also suffering,” and “share in our sufferings” (vv. 5-7) prove that he is still enduring tragedy and difficulty.

The other interesting part of our text is that, right there with the suffering, we find the constant “consolation” of God in these phrases: “consoles us,” “are consoled by God,” “consolation is abundant,” “are being consoled,” and “share in our consolation” (vv. 5-7). What does it mean to console? Synonyms include comfort, reassure, cheer, solace, soothe.

What is the power of prayer? Does it take away our pain? Does it produce a miracle? Does it turn our situation around?

Not always. Not even often.

It seems that the power of prayer is found in a connection with God that brings consolation in spite of our circumstances and equips us to face them. I think that Heather, one of my best friends, said it best: “My understanding of God is not that God’s a genie who grants wishes as we ask for them. Instead I understand God to be like a parent who hopes, rejoices, and hurts with me. If my soul sings, God sings with me. If my soul cries, God cries with me. Most days I go through the motions of life forgetting that God is with me, but on this day I feel God’s presence by my side, and for that I am grateful.”

God’s presence consoles us within our afflictions. Aren’t we grateful?

Source: Steven Curtis Chapman, “Let Us Pray,” Signs of Life, 1996, Sparrow Records.
Lyrics: http://stevencurtischapman.com/home/wp-content/uploads/Let-Us-Pray.pdf.

Discussion

1. How often do you say the words, “I’ll be praying for you”? How often do you follow through on this promise?
2. When you pray for others, do you think it makes a difference in their lives? How can you tell?
3. How often do you ask people to pray for you? Why do you ask this? How do their prayers help you?
4. What do you think is the power of prayer in people’s lives? What is its power in your life? Why should we pray?
5. What is your relationship with God like? Do you expect God to be more like a genie or like a parent? Is there some other role that God fills in relation to you?

Reference Shelf

At v. 3 Paul, in the fashion of Greco-Roman letters, offers a prayer. Most often Paul utters a prayer of thanksgiving in his letters, but here he prays a Jewish-like blessing on God. Paul blesses God because God is the father of oiktirmos (mercy or compassion) and the God of all paraklΣsis. ParaklΣsis is a wonderful Greek word that can be translated into English as comfort, consolation, encouragement, or advocacy, among other things. This word, or its verb form (parakalein), appears ten times in vv. 3-7 and fourteen times in the rest of the letter. If we transliterate these two words in 1:4, the verse tells us about God “who parakalein us upon our every affliction with the result that we are able to parakalein others in every affliction through the paraklΣsis with which we ourselves are being parakalein by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so also through Christ our paraklΣsis abounds.” Clearly comfort/consolation is a significant theme of this letter.

This verse and the ones that follow, vv. 5-7, introduce us to another key idea of the letter, that of affliction (thlipsis). We should be clear that Paul is speaking of affliction that is the result of his work for Christ in the world (not as a result of tsunamis or illness or because he’s been a jerk, etc.). Also clear is that Paul regards such suffering as inevitable. Whenever he and his coworkers enable people to leave the kingdom of Caesar behind and give their loyalty to the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Caesar fights back. Rather than a “haven’t got time for the pain” mentality or seeing his suffering as a signal that something is amiss, Paul believes it is a sign that he is fulfilling his call. But we should be clear that this inevitable suffering is not a call to a sick martyrdom (i.e., people who want to suffer because it makes them look heroic). Nor does it justify the encouragement of passive suffering on the part of those who are being oppressed and exploited. “Suffering is inevitable” texts such as this one have been used throughout our history to tell women and other minority groups to “accept their lot” quietly, trusting God to make things better in “the great hereafter.” But Paul’s words here cannot be used legitimately for such a purpose because he is not passive! He is suffering precisely because, as a member of a minority group, he is actively resisting Rome’s power to determine people’s lives. This resistance gets him into trouble.

Furthermore, Paul’s affliction is not the whole story. His experience in the midst of such suffering is that God has consoled/comforted (parakalein) him, that God is the God of all consolation/comfort (paraklΣsis). Indeed, when his suffering for the work of Christ intensified, the paraklΣsis from God also abounded. Because such has been his experience, he can share paraklΣsis with others who are resisting Rome’s power on behalf of the gospel. He can say to them, “God has been with me, encouraging me, comforting me, holding me up. I believe God is with you too. So keep on with your gospel work.” Paul first emphasized power revealed in suffering and weakness (as humans define it) to these saints in 1 Corinthians 1–4. It will be a key theme in this letter also. So Paul can say that whether his affliction or his paraklΣsis abounded, both are for the paraklΣsis and salvation of the Corinthians (v. 6). If he spreads Christ’s gospel (even while suffering for doing so), that is good news for them. If they see God’s paraklΣsis abound in him in the midst of affliction, they find the encouragement to risk the same work on behalf of Christ’s gospel, and that is good news. They are partners/sharers (koinønos), then, in the suffering and in the paraklΣsis (v. 7b). Thus, Paul says, his hope for them is unshaken (v. 7a, which may be a bit overstated, as we shall see).

Resource

Mitzi L. Minor, 2 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 27-28.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum since 2001. She is a member of West Highland Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading and writing fiction, spending time with her husband and two daughters, and watching British television shows. Her goal for 2014 is to learn to play the piano.

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