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How the Holy Spirit Is a Comforter

In a passage commonly referenced during the festival of Pentecost, Christ promises to "give [his disciples] another Comforter, that he may abide with [them] for ever" (John 14:16). Note here that Christ talks about "another" comforter, which shows us that Christ himself is a comforter also. But in John 16:7, we learn that Christ had to go away so that this other comforter could come: "Nevertheless I tell you the truth," Christ said. "It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you." Christ is here, of course, talking about the Holy Spirit. But why does he call it a comforter?

This same Hebrew word is rendered as "helper" in some other translations. And it's also translated as "advocate." For example, in 1 John 2:1, John calls Jesus "an advocate with the Father" for those who sin. An advocate is a witness, one who justifies a person in a court of law. In John 15:26, Christ notes that the Holy Spirit testifies of him. In that sense, the Holy Spirit is a witness to us of Christ; by its presence, we know that Jesus came and that he was the Messiah. And indeed, that a witness performs one of the roles of a comforter, testifying to the truth of something so that we need not be anxious, but the full role of a comforter goes far beyond witnessing.

Comfort is something we usually think of as being needed in conjunction with a time of trouble or tragedy. Indeed, what was about to transpire when Christ talked of this comforter was his very own death (and then, shortly thereafter, his physical disappearance). His disciples, who had spent the past three and a half years with him, were going to be in need of comfort, in need of a comforter. And scriptures have numerous examples of people comforting others in times of grief. One such example is that given to us in the book of Job, which can be read as a book, essentially, about a man in need of comfort during a period of severe trial. Note how the book both begins and ends. Here, near the start, Job's friends come to be with him:

Now when Job's three friends heard of this evil that was come upon [Job], they came every one from his own place; Eliphaz the Temanite, and Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite: for they had made an appointment together to come to mourn with him and to comfort him. And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great. (Job 2:11-13)
Likewise, at the end, after the time of trouble has passed but Job's grief was still very much with him, his friends and family come to be with him: "Then came there unto him all his brethren, and all his sisters, and all they that had been of his acquaintance before, and did eat bread with him in his house: and they bemoaned him, and comforted him over all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him: every man also gave him a piece of money, and every one an earring of gold" (Job 42:11). What goes into the process of comforting people such as Job or Jesus' disciples? If comfort is a process of grief recovery, then these six things that a comforter does during such recovery have much to tell us about the role of the Holy Spirit. These six things that a comforter provides are as follows: remembrance, kindness, courage, hope, mercy, and wholeness.

First, a comforter brings to remembrance the things that we gained from a particular relationship. A comforter helps us realize--and appreciate--what we gained in our time together, even if apart now. So too does the Holy Spirit. Note, in John 14:26, what Christ says the Comforter will do: "But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you." The author of Hebrews talks of how God, through his Spirit, "will put [his] laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts" (Heb. 8:10). This law, being inside a person, is itself a comfort, as David notes in Psalm 119:52: "I remembered thy judgments of old, O Lord; and have comforted myself." So the Holy Spirit then comforts us in reminding us exactly what Christ has said to us and of reminding us of the words that are in the Bible and the law.

A second thing a comforter provides is kindness. When we are in trouble, when we are in grief, a comforter speaks kindly to us, the ones who have experienced or are experiencing a kind of loss. Likewise, the Holy Spirit talks to us kindly by bringing into our lives God's kindness for us. The Holy Spirit, in fact, is God's kindness.

A good example of human kindness occurs in the book of Ruth, when Boaz commends Ruth for what she has done for her mother-in-law. Note how Ruth speaks of Boaz's comments: "Then she said, Let me find favour in thy sight, my lord; for that thou hast comforted me, and for that thou hast spoken friendly unto thine handmaid, though I be not like unto one of thine handmaidens" (Ruth 2:13). Boaz's words to Ruth are here described as "friendly" or "kind" and, as a result, bring "comfort" to Ruth. So, too, God speaks to us through his Holy Spirit, and when he does that, he does it with kindness. Note how David says God's message affects him in Psalm 119:76. "Let, I pray thee, thy merciful kindness be for my comfort, according to thy word unto my servant," he says. God's words of kindness bring comfort. Another example of comfort being extended through kindness occurs in Genesis 50:19-21. In this passage, Joseph tells his brothers, who sold him into slavery and who have now returned, in poverty, to find Joseph in charge of a vast and rich country that holds their lives in the balance, "Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. Now therefore fear ye not: I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them."

Joseph's instructions to fear not bring us to a third thing a comforter provides, namely, courage. A comforter lets us know that we can get through troubling times. A comforter assuages our fears. Note what David says in the twenty-third Psalm. In this Psalm, he compares God to a shepherd, and himself to a sheep. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death," David writes, "I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me" (Ps. 23:4). David feels God's protection. He has no reason to fear because God is guiding him. We see this in the presentation of the rod and staff. The rod and staff keep the sheep in line. They are like the law that God has given us. And what enables us to keep that law? Why it is nothing other than the Holy Spirit. In this sense, the Holy Spirit comforts us by keeping us out of evil, by guiding us into obedience to God's law, and by helping us to see that God is with us. So, too, the promise of eternal life lends comfort to us by showing us we need not fear death, as is reiterated Psalm 71:20-21: "Thou, which hast shown me great and sore troubles, shalt quicken me again, and shalt bring me up again from the depths of the earth. Thou shalt increase my greatness, and comfort me on every side."

This lack of fear because of the promise of eternal life, brings us to the fourth thing a comforter provides: hope. It is not called the hope of the resurrection for no reason. The Holy Spirit, too, is an expression of that hope insofar as it shows us that God is true to his word. Because he has given his Holy Spirit as promised, we know then that most assuredly he will also give to us eternal life as promised. In addition, the Holy Spirit brings to remembrance the promises, the hopeful words, of Christ. Note how David describes the words of God in Psalm 119:50: "This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me." God's words raise David up. In the New Testament, Paul points to something similar, when he talks of the scriptures. Bearing in mind that it is the Holy Spirit, the comforter, that helps us remember God's word, we can see what that remembrance itself results in when Paul writes in Romans 15:4: "For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scripture might have hope." So the scripture--bringing it to remembrance--gives us hope, and that hope, in turn, provides us with comfort.

Hope in turn breeds yet another thing that a comforter provides, mercy in times of affliction. This mercy comes in the form of the "hope of the resurrection" of which the scriptures often speak. Troubles may loom now, but the future promises to be brighter, and that brighter future makes the present trouble bearable. The Holy Spirit reminds us of that brighter future; in fact, it confirms for us that the promise of that future is assured and real. In John 16:20-22, Christ makes a certain promise to his disciples. This promise comes in the form of a prophecy regarding the grief that they are about to experience at his death. "Verily, verily," Christ says to his disciples, ". . . That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you." Here, Jesus talks about his resurrection, but in a sense, he also talks about the results of that resurrection. And one of those results is that the Holy Spirit is sent and that Christ, now on the right hand of God, will also be in each of his disciples. As he says in John 14:17-20, he will not leave them: "Even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also. At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you." The fulfilling of this promise, as one can read about in Acts 2, in turn gives credence to the other promise, the one that states that Christ himself would return.

The words of John 16 don't just promise a resurrection, however; they promise joy--joy at the thought of such resurrection. This same comfort through joy is promised in the Old Testament scriptures about the resurrection and the establishment of God's Kingdom on earth. "Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance," Jeremiah 31:13 says, speaking of the millennial rule of Christ, "both young men and old together: for I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow." Isaiah 49:13 uses similarly comforting words: "Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains: for the Lord hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted." In both scriptures, comfort comes when sorrow is turned joy.

Another Old Testament scripture that talks of the comfort that arises in Christ's coming is Isaiah 40:1-3. In this scripture, the prophet Isaiah explains that it is Christ's death and life that enable comfort to be extended to people: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received the Lord's hand double for all her sins. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." Here, Isaiah notes that the comfort is extended not only in Christ's coming but in the result of that coming: the forgiveness of sin (and by extension the pouring out of the Holy Spirit). For as long as men were within sin, they could not be one with God, and could not have that Spirit, as Christ himself explained in John 14:17-20.

Christ's return, in the form of his Holy Spirit, his extension of mercy, brings us to a sixth thing that a comforter provides: wholeness. After a period of loss or of trouble, one who comforts helps bring a person back to a state where he or she feels like a whole person. Likewise, the Holy Spirit makes us whole, for without it, we are cut off from the spiritual component of our being.

We can find a physical allegory for this wholeness in food or nourishment. In the U.S. South, natives talk of "comfort food"--food that brings a person back home, that comforts a person in time of need, or food that's offered even at the end of a funeral. Humans take solace in food. This metaphor is present in the Bible as well. Take, for example, this passage in the book of Judges: "And it came to pass on the fourth day, when they arose early in the morning, that he rose up to depart: and the damsel's father said unto his son-in-law, Comfort thine heart with a morsel of bread, and afterward go your way" (Judg. 19:5). Food here becomes a source of communion with others and of salvation for the saddened person (in this case, leave-taking kin). In the New Testament, Christ even goes so far as to compare himself with food, as he does in John 6:35. "I am the bead of life," he says, "he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst." Christ is not only our bread, our food, but he is a kind of food that nourishes us forever and ever so that we'll never be hungry or incomplete again.

While food is a good physical metaphor for the wholeness that a comforter brings, the kind of completeness that a comforter offers ultimately revolves around one's healing, which in turn revolves around one's faith that, in the end, all will be--or is--well. Throughout New Testament scripture, Christ is noted as the one who heals us--through the power of his Holy Spirit. Note how Peter puts it when talking with a cripple in the city of Lydda in Acts 9:34: "Aeneas, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole: arise, and make thy bed." That wholeness restores Aeneas to a state where he is able to do exactly as Peter here commands. Jesus Christ also compares his healing of people's physical ailments to the process of making those people whole. In Matthew 9:22, for example, while talking to a woman who touched him in order that she might be healed of an issue of blood, Christ said to her, "Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole." He says something similar in this passage involving a blind man: "And Jesus stood still, and commanded him to be called. And they call the blind man, saying unto him, Be of good comfort, rise; he calleth thee. And he, casting away his garment, rose, and came to Jesus. And Jesus answered and said unto him, What wilt thou that I should do unto thee? The blind man said unto him, Lord, that I might receive my sight. And Jesus said unto him, Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole. And immediately he received his sight, and followed Jesus in the way" (Mark 10:49-52).

Healing, though, is yet another physical analog to what the Holy Spirit ultimately does for us spiritually. That is, the Holy Spirit as a comforter ultimately makes us whole in that it is a sign of our redemption. When we repent and are baptized (Acts 2:38), we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit as a sign of our oneness with God, our redemption, in Christ. Isaiah 52:9 ties redemption into comfort this way: "Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the Lord hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem."

We've now seen what it means to be a comforter--namely, that a comforter provides remembrance, kindness, courage, hope, mercy, and wholeness. Indeed, if this is what comforter does, it is an appropriate name for the Holy Spirit, which does these things in the absence of Christ's physical presence on earth. But how exactly is the Holy Spirit's presence manifested? How does it accomplish its role as a comforter? That's where we, as followers of Jesus Christ, come in. The Holy Spirit dwells in us, and as such, the Holy Spirit does its work, its comforting, through us. Paul describes the process like this, in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: "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." God comforts us in trouble; we comfort others in their trouble; in turn, we are comforted by God (through others).

The New Testament provides numerous examples of ways in which this comfort occurs. These comforting methods include such things are refreshment, edification, and visitation. An example of refreshment bringing comfort occurs in 2 Corinthians 7:13, where Paul tells the Corinthian church that he rejoiced to hear of another who was refreshed by a visit to the congregation. "Therefore we were comforted in your comfort," Paul writes, "yea, and exceedingly the more joyed we for the joy of Titus, because his spirit was refreshed by you all." Paul's instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:11 provides an example of edification as comfort: "Wherefore comfort yourselves together," he writes, "and edify one another, even as also ye do." The power of visiting one another is established again by the example of Titus in 2 Corinthians. "Nevertheless God, that comforted those that are cast down," Paul writes, "comforted us by the coming of Titus; And not by his coming only, but by the consolation wherewith he was comforted in you, when he told us your earnest desire, your mourning, your fervent mind toward me; so that I rejoiced the more" (2 Cor. 7:6-7).

Because Christ lives in us, we carry with us the comfort that Christ offered to mankind through the gift of his Holy Spirit, which allows man to reenter the covenant with God. Without Christ's sacrifice, that relationship could not have been restored and thus no lasting comfort--in the form of the Holy Spirit--would have been possible. Indeed, it is that Spirit in us that allows us both to experience comfort in the form of remembrance, kindness, courage, hope, mercy, and wholeness, and to provide that comfort, in these same forms, to others. It is that Spirit that enables us to carry Christ's message and Christ's example of comfort to the world around us. In this way, thereby, the Holy Spirit truly is a comforter both to us and to others.

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