“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” Isaiah 40:11
“Store up comfort. This was the prophet’s mission. The world is full of comfortless hearts, and ere thou art sufficient for this lofty ministry, thou must be trained. And thy training is costly in the extreme; for, to render it perfect, thou too must pass through the same afflictions as are wringing countless hearts of tears and blood. Thus thy own life becomes the hospital ward where thou art taught the Divine art of comfort. Thou art wounded, that in the binding up of thy wounds by the Great Physician, thou mayest learn how to render first aid to the wounded everywhere. Dost thou wonder why thou art passing through some special sorrow? Wait till ten years are passed, and thou wilt find many others afflicted as thou art. Thou wilt tell them how thou hast suffered and hast been comforted; then as the tale is unfolded, and the anodynes applied which once thy God wrapped around thee, in the eager look and the gleam of hope that shall chase the shadow of despair across the soul, thou shalt know why thou wast afflicted, and bless God for the discipline that stored thy life with such a fund of experience and helpfulness.” (Streams in the Desert)
“God does not comfort us to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters.”
More times than I can count, I’ve asked church groups and classes of students which biblical character they would choose to be if they could go back in time. It may surprise you to know, as it has me, that rarely does anyone select the apostle Peter. Peter, of all people—spokesman and passionate leader of the Twelve, one of Christ’s inner circle, head of the Church following Christ’s ascension, the “Rock” for Pete’s sake! As I consider possible reasons for this anomaly, the best explanation I can come up with is that believers are, for the most part, an unforgiving lot—not primarily of others but of ourselves. We cannot bear to admit our uncanny resemblance to a beloved friend of Jesus who betrayed him when stakes were the highest. It is hard for us to get beyond the courtyard scene with accusations and sparks flying, Peter swearing, and cock crowing. We fail to acknowledge his stricken heart, grieving and repentant spirit, and dogged determination to never again fail his Lord.
Wounds have a purpose; suffering is an effective tool for remaking us into the image of our Maker. Resurrected Christ-followers do more than look behind wistfully or forward longingly. In a very real sense, Jesus folds aside the grave clothes and rises triumphantly each time a fallen sinner limps into his arms. Unfortunately, many reach down for those same macabre bandages and do their best to hide behind them. The struggle for believers is not finding divine mercy, but forgiving themselves. Herein lies the grand lesson from the Apostle’s experience: we do not live in the shadow of the cross, we thrive in hope emanating from an empty tomb. No one stands or stumbles beyond the reach of grace. Peter struggled with and never fully recovered from his own denial, but the brokenness he lived with in its wake forged a graceful spirit. Near the end of his life, grace and love became his theme, exhorting other believers to believe in God’s mercy, grace rolled off his tongue as easily as cursing did before. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10, NRSV). It is possible to forgive one’s self while remaining sensitive to the conditions that led us astray to begin with. Mercy and memory are suitable companions for disciples.