Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:3-5, KJV)
Paul had learned the precious lesson of the abundant comfort that we have through Jesus Christ.
So did Charles Spurgeon. He was a man who had great zeal for the purity of doctrine and great love for the doctrines of grace. But most of all, I think Spurgeon was a man who was commited to exalting and lifting up Jesus Christ.
He understood that there is a difference between studying theology to know theology and studying theology to know God. There is a difference between ritualistic praying and praying to commune with God. There is a difference between reading scripture lazily and carelessly and reading scripture to know the mind of God. And so it was that when Spurgeon preached the sermon, Jesus Christ Himself, he said this:True doctrine is to us priceless as a throne for our living Lord, but our chief delight is not in the vacant throne, but in the King's presence thereon. Give me not his garments, though I prize every thread, but the blessed wearer whose sacred energy made even the hem thereof to heal with a touch.
Of all the comforts that we find in this world, the greatest comfort we have is in the presence of Jesus Christ.
The prophet Isaiah described this presence as, "Immanuel, God with us." Today, when I think of this phrase, "God with us," I am filled with a joy that seems almost unimaginable for one so recently bereaved. How could it be that he who made the world, who holds the heavens in his hands, who establishes kingdoms and destroys armies, is in me and around me, surrounding me with his love, protection, and comfort.
For most of our lives, we are so filled with good things that we don't have room for the best. While the sun gleams brightly over the sea of our prosperity, making its gentle waters glisten like diamonds, we find comfort in many things. But when the storm comes, turning the waves into dark, frightening cliffs which threaten to take us under, we find the most precious treasure of all, "Immanuel, God with us."
No one draws near to the campfire during the heat of a summer day; we perceive no need for its warmth. But in the cool of the evening, when the sun has set and the air has chilled, the campfire beckons invitingly. I never dreamed that in this life, the comfort that I have received from Jesus could be so warm, so loving, so soothing, and so reassuring in the midst of days so chilled and darkened by the loss of our son and only child, Stephen.
Steve always looked forward to the carefree days of summer. During the intense heat of summer, the oceans, rivers, lakes, and pools beckon playfully. Teasingly they invite us. Compellingly, the balminess of the day pushes us towards them till at last, with childlike exuberance, we plunge into the cool, invigorating waters of summer, finding delight, refreshment, and relief. There, in the midst of our joy, we also have this: "Immanuel, God with us." However, in the abundance of good things, we take little notice of it.
Unexpectedly winter comes. Gently but compellingly, the good shepherd leads us through the piercing, numbing chill of the icy waters of grief and affliction. Against our will, we are made to plunge deeply into sorrow and loss. We entertain thoughts that even death would be preferable to this experience of pain and misery. Then, in the fullness of time, the shepherd leads us out of those waters, inviting us to come to his fire where we can be warmed. He entreats us to come sit by him and be comforted.
With anger and resentment, many grieving souls rebel against the good shepherd, despising his comfort. As the storm rages around them, they become cynical and bitter.
Some refuse to entertain any hope that the one who leads us through affliction might also bring comfort. They prefer a morbid contemplation of their own misery to fellowship with him.
Many rail against the good shepherd, abandoning all hope and faith, demonstrating and exposing their previously latent idolatry: that the one who has passed on was more beloved than the one who would save their very souls.
Others look up at the good shepherd, and, even though they understand very little, they say with Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life." (John 6:68, KJV) Thus, with hopeful hearts, they draw near to him.
The good shepherd invites these to draw near and to sit by his fire. There they find that even as the heat brings warmth to their bodies, the presence of the good shepherd brings healing to their souls. Here by the fire, they find the freedom to show the shepherd the deep hole that ripped through their very hearts when their loved one was taken. To their amazement, they find the good shepherd filling that hole with nothing less than himself. Seated by the good shepherd, they find joy in the midst of sorrow, comfort in the midst of pain, and consolation in the midst of great personal loss. They find a happiness that can never be washed away by the cold, icy rivers of winter, a joy that is rooted and planted in the abiding presence of the good shepherd, Jesus Christ himself.
Does this sound too good to be true?
I submit that we tend to undervalue the comfort that we have, as Christians, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We fail to recognize that the one who died for us gives us more than salvation from hell; he gives us his very presence. Perhaps we understand other benefits, such as the trustworthiness of the promises of scripture. Likewise, we console ourselves with the hope and promise of that better life in heaven. But there is more, much more. There is, here and now, "Immanuel, God with us." This is what we often fail to value and appreciate.
We think that the experience of "God with us" is like taking an aspirin for a migraine headache -- that it is better than nothing but not really very much comfort. So it is that we approach Jesus with much distraction. We are like a child who has been forced to come in from play to eat his supper. That child almost seems to inhale his food as he gulps it down. Then he rudely and abruptly rushes away to go back outside and play. Similarly, we see our devotional duties as sacrifices and inconveniences.
Some who are more fervent in devotion go after Jesus for quick gulps: a brief devotion in the morning and an occasional reflection and prayer at night. We go after Jesus the way one might take a vitamin, hoping to get just enough spiritual power to live the rest of the day without need of him.
Some approach God as if he were a thing rather than a person. They take great delight in the intricacies and mysteries of theology, but they have little personal experience with God himself. Certainly, it is good to study theology. We should know God as he reveals himself in the scriptures, lest we make for ourselves an idol. But God invites us into a relationship with himself.
Many regard God as one would any famous individual, that is, one who does not know them personally. While they regard God with great reverence and admiration, they imagine him to be too busy and distant to be concerned with their personal needs.
Against this backdrop of confusion stands the man, the God-Man, Jesus Christ himself, calling us, drawing us, inviting us to a constant, daily, on-going communion and conversation with himself.
You might ask, "How do we enter into such communion with God?"
Here I hesitate to impose my personal experience as some kind of generic framework for understanding what it means to abide in Christ. In fact, in this article I have chosen to address only one aspect of abiding in Christ, the pleasure and privilege that we have of engaging him often in conversation.
Before I lost my son, I tended to pray to God in big chunks. Rather than always being in an attitude of prayer, I restricted the bulk of my praying to those times in which I was more spiritually minded, lest I pray in vain. Now I not only talk to God all the time, but I talk to him about everything. When I feel rotten and sinful, I cry out to God in repentance. When I feel happy, I praise God in gratitude. When I slip into sinful thoughts, I talk to God about it. Even though embarrassed, I go to him anyway. Nothing I say will surprise him. Already, he knows everything. He also knows all about the details of my life. I go to him with computer problems, people problems, and farm problems -- all problems. This experience of constant communion, continuous dealings with the good shepherd, has done wonders to build my faith and trust.
There is nothing special or mystical about me. I have not seen God, and I have never audibly heard his voice. Sometimes I do delight in the felt experience of his presence. Other times, I delight in a presence that is apprehended by faith alone. In all this, I can honestly say that I am happier now than I have ever been.
Doesn't God promise as much? Doesn't he say that he will be a father to the fatherless and a husband to the widow? Is this promise to be restricted to heaven? In heaven, where we will enjoy the all-consuming presence of Jesus, will those who live there require spouses and children for their comfort? No, surely the promise includes this life. This promise is meant for you and me, here and now: that no matter what kind of loss we may have suffered, the delight of the fellowship of his presence is more than adequate consolation.
The Bible says that Jesus is that friend who sticks closer than a brother. He is! Without reservation, before all, let me say that there is nothing that can comfort the grieving soul like having the heart filled with Jesus Christ and being able to say, "I am His and He is mine." As proven out of the crucible of one of the worst nightmares that a parent can have, there is no greater comfort than this: "Immanuel, God with us."O taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him. (Psalm 34:8, KJV)Recommended reading: A sermon that was very helpful to me in understanding this subject was Go and Tell Jesus, by Octavius Winslow