Lean on Me
by Pastor George Van Alstine

In this opening paragraph from the Apostle Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, one word is repeated ten times:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7)

Do you get the feeling that Paul wanted his readers to think about the importance of consolation?

If you are familiar with the traditional King James Version, you will remember that the repeated word is translated by “comfort.” In other New Testament contexts, the translators have chosen “exhortation,” “encouragement,” or “advocate” as an English equivalent. The fact that the Greek word can have such diverse connotations is probably a clue that there is no one word in English that has exactly the same force.

The Greek word in question is paraklesis, which is a combination of kaleo, “to call,” and para, “alongside.” So the root meaning is “to call someone alongside” of you. For what purpose? To soothe your feelings? — in which case the best translation may be “comfort” or “console.” To give you added strength?—in which case the translation could be “encourage” (imparting needed courage). To argue on your behalf? — in which case the word used might be “advocate,” even “lawyer.” To prod you into action? — in which case “exhort” could be the best translation.

One prominent New Testament use of this word is in reference to the Holy Spirit. Four times in Jesus’ final message to the disciples in the Upper Room (John 14:16, 14:26, 15:56, 16:7), he promises that his departure by death will not leave them alone, for he will send the “Comforter” (King James Version), “Counselor” (New International Version), “Advocate” (New Revised Standard Version), “Helper” (Good News Bible). An adequate translation has been so elusive that some scholars have created a new word, based on the Greek, calling the Holy Spirit the “Paraclete.”

In his modernized translation, J.B. Phillips tried to avoid all the limiting nuances by rendering this reference to the coming Holy Spirit as “Someone to stand by you.” Maybe Phillips was onto something: that the common thread running through all the ways in which the word paraklesis is used in the Bible is the powerful need we feel to be sure that someone is standing with us in our times of trouble and trial. A longing deep within us is always calling out for companion’s presence, not necessarily to do some particular thing, but to be there with us.

As Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, he was keenly aware that he had this need as much as his readers did, for he had just come through an awful period of “affliction” when he was “so utterly crushed” that he “despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8). During this time, he was especially sensitive to his need to know that his readers “joined in helping me by your prayers” (verse 11), that they were standing by him.

Later in this letter Paul returned to the “consolation” theme:

God, who consoles the downcast consoled us by the arrival of Titus, and not only by his coming, but also by the consolation by which he was consoled about you . . . . In addition to our own consolation, we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his mind has been set at rest by all of you. (2 Corinthians 7:6-7, 13)

It’s striking how assuring it was to Paul that Titus was physically present, actually standing alongside him.

That’s the kind of paraklesis we need to be for each other!