Scriptures: II Corinthians 1:1-7; Joshua 1:6-9
One of the informal book groups in our church has been reading a book by Kate Bowler, a professor of religion at Duke University. It’s called Everything Happens for a Reason, And Other Lies I’ve Loved. It is a fascinating book. Kate had always been a faithful, devout, believing Christian, even while doing scholarly research on American religion. But suddenly at the age of 35, with a husband and young child, she was diagnosed with incurable stage 4 cancer. As she waited for surgery she prayed, “Lord, take this cancer away. Save me. Let me be a wife and mom and professor who loves you and lives to tell of your glory” (p. 53). She kept going over the same questions in her mind: God, why is this happening? What does this suffering mean?
Her friends tried to console her. They too were believing Christians. They said things like, “It will be okay, Kate. Everything happens for a reason.” Or “God is writing a better story for your life.” Or even worse, “At least you have your son. At least you have had an amazing marriage,” which, of course, were the two things causing her the most anguish: the thought of her son growing up without a mother and husband raising him without a wife. Sometimes the things we say to console people only makes it worse. I will come back to Kate in a moment.
If you were counting as I read the scripture, the words “console” and “consolation” occur ten times in this scripture—ten times in 7 verses. They translate the Greek word paraclesis, which means literally to call someone alongside you, to bring someone next to you. You can see why it is translated by the word “console”—to bring someone alongside you, to put your arm around them.
But in this case I don’t think console is the right word. When I hear the word console, I think of patting someone on the back and trying to help them feel better. But Paul has something deeper in mind. In other parts of Corinthians where Paul uses the word paraclesis it is translated “encouragement,” which means literally to give courage. Paul is not talking just about consoling people to make them feel better. He is talking about giving people courage to face what comes next and to do what they need to do.
I am going to read part of our scripture reading again, but this time instead of the word “consolation” I’m going to put in the word “courage.” Listen to how it sounds in verses 3-4:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all courage who gives us courage [that is the verb form of paraclesis] in all our affliction so that we may be able to give courage to those in any affliction with the courage we ourselves have received from God.
What helped Kate Bowler more than lame attempts at reassurance was to think about this question: What does her life mean now? What is she supposed to do now in this situation?
She was asked about this in an interview with Time magazine, and she responded by talking about parenting her young child. She said,
I think I thought you just create a beautiful, Instagram-y bubble for your kid, and then that’s parenting. And then I realized that I was going to be the worst thing that happened to him if it went badly. I couldn’t live with that. I decided that my new parenting philosophy is that I can’t protect him from the pain of the world, but I can show him that there is truth and beauty in the midst of it. And if I can make him that person, then I have won as a parent. (Elizabeth Dias, “Kate Bowler Talks About Her Cancer Diagnosis and Her Faith,” Time, February 5, 2018.)
What I find striking about Kate Bowler’s book is that Kate did not reject her faith. She continued to be a believing Christian. She continued to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and that one day God will create a new heaven and earth where death and suffering will be no more and God will wipe every tear from our eyes. But the strength to face her diagnosis did not come from these future reassurances. It came from remembering that Jesus also walked the path of suffering and walks it with us here and now.
In the book she tells a powerful story of taking her young son to church on Palm Sunday. As she carried him up the aisle with the other children waving palm branches, she realized that Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem was in effect a funeral procession. He was walking toward this death. And something about Jesus courage gave her courage.
That’s what Paul tells the Corinthians in verse 5: “For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our [courage] which is abundant through Christ.”
In the opening chapter of II Corinthians, Paul makes it clear that he has been through some difficult times. In verse 8 he says,
We do not want you to be unaware brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.
We don’t know what happened to Paul in Asia, but whatever it was, it was overwhelming, just like what happened to Kate Bowler. But that makes Paul’s words even more powerful. Again let me offer my own translation of verse 6:
If we are being afflicted, it is for your courage and salvation; if we are being given courage, it is for giving you courage, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering.
In the Time magazine interview Kate Bowler was asked “Did Christianity fail you?” She replied, “Sometimes it felt like that, in part because of the stuff people said using the Christian faith to be incredibly trite.” But then she said, “Christianity also saved the day. You really want a brave faith”—I was struck by that word “brave”—“you really want a brave faith, one that says, in the midst of crushing brokenness, that there is something else there, the undeniable, overwhelming love of God.”
The Christian faith is not about vague reassurances that everything will be okay. It is not consolation in that sense. It is a brave faith enabling us to face suffering with a courage born of love, a faith that does not try to explain suffering or justify it, but instead reminds us that we do not face it alone.
Now I am going to talk to our children, but you parents can listen in. Children, you have been drawing pictures of things you think are scary. I want you to take your pictures and fold them up so you can’t see them anymore, so that a blank piece of paper shows on the outside. Then on this blank piece of paper, I want you to write or your parents to write Joshua 1:9, the last verse of our first scripture reading. It says, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Courage comes from knowing you are loved by Someone bigger than anything that might make you afraid.