Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Cor 1:3-5, RSV).
When this (very timely) passage came up in our prayer group a few days ago, a difference in translations caught my attention—where one had “comfort” another had “encourage.” In my mind, at least, there is a definite distinction there. I read comfort as soothing, calming—saying, “it will be okay.” Encourage could include those meanings, but goes farther, pushing the hearer to have courage to do something, to act on their situation.
Clearly, our world is in need of both meanings right now.
But the difference made me curious—what led the translators to choose one word over the other? And out came the Greek books and commentaries on Paul, all quite dusty and all of which Marie Kondo would have had me “tidy” away long ago. My digging turned up a few interesting things. The word used (repeatedly) here is parakaleo, the simplest meaning of which is “to speak to” or “to call (by name).” And just as we use “speak” or “say” with a myriad of connotations, parakaleo can involve exhorting, comforting, encouraging, teaching, beseeching, consoling, and more.
If all this Greek looks oddly familiar, that’s because there’s another word connected to this one that you’ve probably heard recently—Paraclete. I kept searching and found there were other uses of parakaleo in the New Testament, most often meaning “beseech,” but also as “comfort” in Matthew’s Gospel. He uses it both in the Beatitudes—Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Mt 5:4), and when he quotes Jeremiah concerning the Massacre of the Innocents—A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more (Jer 31:15).
I stopped cold when I saw that because this is exactly what we are watching on the news every day now—Rachel weeping for her children. And not just her children, but brothers, grandmothers, cousins, great-uncles, generations back. There are so, so many to mourn.
Which brings me back to 2 Corinthians. We Christians have been consoled, both by the Spirit directly and by other human beings working in accord with the Spirit. And we mothers have had plenty of practice. It is our daily ministry to comfort little hurts and big heartaches, as well as to encourage our children to live up to God’s plans for them. It is time for us to use the gifts of our experience to console those in affliction. And this is why all the details about parakaleo are important. It is not just about comfort, about holding hands and cups of tea. It is about encouragement, and being called by name. How does a word that means “to cry out” also mean “to comfort”? Because our world needs us to do both.
So let us beseech (parakaleo) God to send us his Holy Spirit (Paraclete), not just for our comfort (parakaleo), but that we may not be complacent, and that he send the encouragement (parakaleo) and strength we need to cry out (parakaleo) until those who mourn are comforted (parakaleo).