Back to series
Good morning, church. Go with me to 2 Corinthians, chapter 7. That’s the book of 2 Corinthians, chapter 7, and we’re going to start reading in v.4. We’ve been in a series since the summer began on the Holy Spirit, talking about the nature of the Spirit of God, his work in the world, and the gifts he gives to his church.
Two weeks ago, I preached on the wrath of the Holy Spirit, how the great wrath of God comes from his great love for his children, so when the sin and brokenness of the world causes suffering in the lives of his children, he responds with wrath against sin. And then last week, we talked about the conviction of the Spirit, how we, too, are bent and broken by sin. We’ve all made mistakes which we regret. And to sin in our own lives, the Holy Spirit responds with conviction, showing us the truth of our brokenness: that our sin is worse than we could possibly imagine, but that his grace for us and forgiveness is deeper than we could possibly imagine. We talked about the difference between worldly guilt, which only brings death, and spiritual conviction which brings repentance, forgiveness, and healing.
So wrath, conviction, and today we are going to focus on comfort. How the Holy Spirit, in his wrath against sin in the world, his conviction of sin in our own lives, brings comfort to us so we are able to bear through suffering and come out stronger for it, tempered, refined.
Read with me, 2 Corinthians 7, starting in v.4. [2 Corinthians 7:4-10]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly: Holy Spirit, I pray this morning for your comfort. Father, that you would show us your truth in your word this morning, because we know your truth will set us free. In the name, according to the work of Christ, I pray, amen.
The first thing I want you to see from our text today is in answer to the question I get the most from grieving people: where was God? Where was God when my love died? When he left, when I failed, when I was grieving? Our text today answers the question: The Holy Spirit is beside you in your grief. The Spirit is beside you in your grief.
The other day, our family went to the beach. Not the nice beach, with the white sands and the cabanas and all that. We went on a day trip to the Mississippi gulf public beach. Keeping a five-year-old inside is like microwaving something in a closed container, and after a few months we all kind of felt like we were going to pop, so we went to the beach, and at first it was very fun.
We were out swimming in the water, and AJ was practicing his swimming—he’s getting close to being able to go without floats. And then he just kind of reaches down to his calf and rubs it a little, kind of sighs. Then he starts crying and I can tell he’s really hurt, so I pulled him out of the water, and his leg is bright red. We didn’t know what had happened, but we decided to take a rest.
Then, on the way to the shore, Andrew sees what he thought was a really interesting round shell, kind of clearish like glass, and he bent down to pick it up. Then he starts howling in pain, drops the thing, and that’s when we figured out what was going on. Jellyfish. His leg, and now his whole hand had been stung all over, and poor buddy was in some serious pain, and there was nothing I could do at that point to take any of his pain away—mistakes were made; damage was done.
So I just picked him up and held him while he cried and literally spasmed with pain from the stings, and so we played out in miniature the roles of our God and his children in times of grief and pain.
In v.6 of our passage Paul refers to “the comforter,” which is a name used for the Holy Spirit throughout scripture, but especially in the New Testament. Paraklete, translated comforter, the one who comforts, helper, or advocates. The English is so broad because we lose something in translation. The word creates a picture of someone who stands beside you in a time of difficulty, suffering, or grief, who helps in whatever way is needed—argues your case, speaks words of comfort, someone who just sits with us, a person who is alongside.
So when you ask the question, where is God in my time of grief? By his very name, the Holy Spirit responds that he is beside you. He’s with you in the pain.
AJ asked me on the beach, how long the pain would last, and I told him, only for a little while. Wait just a little while, and it will pass. The world will be right again, and it was. The pain subsided eventually, and we had a great time. We figured out if we pulled the boogie board on the surf on shore, we could go as fast as I can run; we built sand castles and even ventured back out eventually into the water.
In holding him while the pain subsided, and in all the other times I’ve held him through little scrapes and pains through his childhood, I understand Paul’s sentiment here, in v.8, where he says, I don’t regret your grief—and then he contradicts himself and says, I mean, I do regret it. I never want my son to be hurt, but those moments when I’m with him through the grief, I know that those are moments upon which our relationship thrives. I’m going to miss the five-year-old who needed me to hold him through a jellyfish sting.
Every day we encounter little pains, the spiritual version of a scraped knee and a bruised shin, and the Spirit regrets the grief—only he doesn’t regret what comes out of it, those moments when we turn to God in our grief and let him hold us. He cherishes those moments with his children, even though he doesn’t want us to suffer. This is why you should never be afraid to go to God in prayer with your troubles, no matter how small. The scraped knees, the bumps and bruises—he wants to hear about them.
And within the church, I want us to learn to turn to each other with even small griefs. We need to learn to trust each other to care about even the little things, the growth pains, of our Christian lives—the times we struggle with understanding scripture, or we get offended, or God feels far away and we doubt. I hope we can share those small pains, because with the Spirit beside us, those pains will last for just a little while.
That’s the way of small griefs and pains. They pass, you move on. They are brief, and you forget them. But of course not every grief in life is small. Sometimes the pain is chronic. But even then, the Spirit is with us until the end of the age, Christ promises, and so the Spirit is with us for the long haul, for the pains that take years and lifetimes to pass. Even when friends and family go home, the funeral ends, you go back to work, and figure out how to live in a world filled with grief, the Spirit is still there. And we ask like AJ, how long the pain will last, and like me the Spirit answers, only a little while. I know it seems impossible, but this is a brief and momentary affliction. This too shall pass. If you stay awake in worry, the night seems interminable, but in the morning comes resurrection.
There are so many passages that talk about the Holy Spirit and his comfort, his standing alongside us, but I chose this one for the wisdom of verse ten, and the choice we all have between worldly and godly grief. That’s my second point for today: worldly grief brings death, but godly grief brings salvation. Worldly grief brings death, but godly grief brings salvation.
Again, in v.10 Paul writes, “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” The past two weeks have brought out important distinctions for us in our Christian lives—God’s anger vs. human anger, the Spirit’s conviction vs. worldly guilt, and now we need to make a distinction between godly and worldly grief and comfort, because one brings death and the other brings salvation.
In his book Exclusion and Embrace, theologian Miroslav Volf deals with his experience of the aftermath of the Serbian genocide in Croatia. He writes, there are only two ways to move forward from such grief and pain. The first way is a way of exclusion and revenge, allowing your grief and your pain to focus itself on the person you feel caused your suffering. But this, he argues, leads only to death. In his homeland, it was literal death, violence begetting violence, all in the name of revenge, but there’s no end to it. There is some of that here in New Orleans, violence motivated by a need to be hard, to let other know not to mess with you. But even if you don’t own a weapon, we exclude people, cut them out of our circles, ignore their griefs, which causes the death of its own kind in our relationships with each other—across racial lines, across the political aisle—and death in our relationships with God, where we turn our backs, exclude him. That’s worldly grief. It causes exclusion. It leads to death.
The other way forward, he calls embrace: to open your arms and open yourself to another, to wait for their honest response, to close your arms and come together, then open your arms again in recognition that you are, in fact, different. The ultimate expression of this embrace is Christ on the cross, his arms spread as if to embrace the very soldiers and crowds in front of him, the very people who were responsible for his death; ultimately to embrace us, who placed him there in our sin.
The grief of Christ on the cross is immense, and as he bears the sins of humanity, he faces death. But in the power of the Spirit, Jesus was raised; through the comfort the Spirit brings, Christ’s death leads to salvation. By his wounds we are healed.
So for us today, what will we choose? Will we choose a worldly grief that brings death, inch by inch, into our lives, that severs our relationships, even our relationship with God. Or will we choose to grieve in such a way that we turn to the people around us and embrace them, share our pains with them in openness and community? Will we turn to God in our grief and lay our anger and our frustration on him, children running to a father, who is not glad of the pain, but glad of the chance to hold his child?
You can recognize worldly grief by the self-centeredness of it. People become obsessed with making sure other people know about their suffering. It becomes the excuse for any behavior, the emotion behind every argument, the justification for every exclusion. Worldly grief can very easily occupy your whole identity as a person. You become a person who has suffered, and you seek out the darkest parts of others—pain seeking pain—to the point where you become willing to create pain in someone else’s life just so you can console yourself that someone now understands the depth of your pain. This is the truth behind the saying, “misery loves company.”
Worldly grief rejects the comfort the Holy Spirit would bring, because if the wound is healed their identity as a wounded person disappears. But—we talked about this is small group on Wednesday—God is able to change your identity, your name, to where instead of pain you can be defined by the joy of Christ, and this new identity in Christ doesn’t make you less like yourself, but more alive and more human. It’s the old you, the one that was mired in grief and pain and refused to be comforted, that was the lie. Life in Christ is real life. Life lived in grief is more death than life.
You can recognize godly grief by the fruit of it, by the results, and by the others-focus of it. I’ll never forget, when we first started here at the church, and then shortly after when the pandemic started and we had to close the church, all of the people from across the country, and Tom and Greg, and other pastors of other churches, making it a point to reach out to me, to call and talk about how strange these times are, and how difficult it is to lead a church through this, and to let us know they were praying for us as a family. Godly men and women, facing this incredible difficulty, and their reaction is, who can I help, who can I encourage through this.
Godly grief is the spouse who reaches out after the blow-up fight to say they’re sorry, that they can’t stand being angry, and what can they do to make it right again. Godly grief is the person who crosses that racial, political, or socioeconomic line—regardless of how much people across that line have offended them—to make a friend and offer the Spirit’s comfort in conflict. Godly grief is the father watching and waiting for the return of his prodigal son, and running up to embrace him. It’s the speaker at the AA meeting willing to relive a time when they were low, if only they might be able to help someone who’s in the same place. Godly grief is the person willing to go and sit beside someone else who is grieving, just to share the load, because you’ve been there, and you know something of how it feels.
And you can recognize godly grief because it leads, as v.10 tells us, to repentance and a salvation without regret. The grief of God, himself, at the brokenness of the world he created caused him to leave his throne and come to earth, to die in our place, so we don’t have to. And because he loved the world in that way, anyone who believes in him has eternal life. His grief brought about the opportunity of repentance and salvation for the whole world.
We are able to participate in grief like his, by the comfort of the Spirit. The spirit is able to take all of the suffering and pain you’ve experienced, and make those dark times in your life the places where his light shines most brightly, all of the death in your life turned toward resurrection and life.
And we are able to participate in the comfort the Holy Spirit brings, like Titus in our passage, who brought the comfort of the Spirit to Paul in a time when he was afraid. We can be the helper, the advocate, who comes alongside someone who is suffering, just to sit with someone in grief. To be a friend when every other friend is gone.
My prayer for you this morning, church, is that the Spirit would come alongside you, take your case, and turn your suffering into a godly grief that is able to build up the people around you, able to bring salvation and resurrection in its wake. I pray that as we see people who are grieving as a church, that we would follow our God, the Spirit, to come alongside them until their mourning turns to laughter, even if it takes years, or a lifetime, or to the end of the age.
Pray with me.