Paraklesis: a beautiful word (2 Corinthians 1)

The Daily Office reading for yesterday was the opening of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. A single word appears 9 times in verses 3-7: παρακλησις, which can be translated as encouragement, comfort, or consolation. You may recall that Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the παράκλητος (cognates as Paraclete) his speech to the disciples in John 14:16. In that context, the word is translated as intercessor or advocate in addition to comforter. So I thought it would be interesting to spend some time meditating on the meaning of παρακλησις as I find myself in a place of needing it right now.

The word is a compound of παρά (near) and καλεω (to call) so it means literally “to call near.” In its verb form, it can mean a variety of forms of calling near: not only comforting, but also exhorting, praying, inviting, entreating. So it can come from either side of a relationship. I can parakaleo when I see someone hurt whom I want to embrace and I can parakaleo to God when I need Him to give me a hug. It seems to inevitably involve a claim of intimacy. It is not the form of communication one would use with acquaintances or business associates of equal social status as it inevitably risks the loss of face.

It seems that the most poignant Biblical image of paraklesis is the old man picking up his skirts and running without dignity to embrace his prodigal son in Jesus’ parable. Paul describes God in precisely these terms as “the Father of mercy and the God of all consolation” (2 Cor 1:3). Paul describes this paraklesis as a chain reaction, saying that God “consoles us in our affliction so that we can console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which God has consoled us” (v. 4, I have never read another sentence with the same word used with such intense repetition).

Why would someone use that word so many times in such little space? Paul makes it clear in the next verse: “For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ” (v. 5). What a poignant way to capture the dignity that the cross gives us! Suffering by itself is meaningless. We do not earn anything or gain anything from it, but Christ’s solidarity in suffering on His cross gives us the power to rename our suffering and claim paraklesis in the midst of it when we have no other reason to do so.

This is why it’s so important to recognize that the cross is not reducible to an abstract transaction between Jesus and His Father as it is represented in so many popular accounts of penal substitution. Whenever Paul talks about the dignity that Jesus’ cross gives to his suffering, he is expressing the aspect of its atonement that is God’s solidarity with people who have been crucified by the world. It’s not surprising that this side of the cross has seldom been explored by the theologians of Western Christendom, but what Paul writes here suggests that Jesus’ solidarity on the cross is the foundation for the paraklesis we receive from God which we can then share with others.

Paul’s next verse is fascinating in its claims: “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 endure patiently the same sufferings that we are also suffering” (v. 6). Recall that paraklesis is about intimacy; it’s a form of embrace. It’s not “consolation” in the shallow, sing-songish sense in which we use the word: “Well, if it’s any consolation, I’m suffering too.” It is entirely the opposite of that!

First of all, why does Paul’s affliction have anything to do with the salvation of the Corinthians? Given the context in which Paul is describing a direct relationship between his suffering and the paraklesis that the Corinthians receive, I don’t think that Paul is saying his affliction is merely incidental to their salvation (like traffic that you have to drive through to get to the evangelism rally where your sermon generates a dozen “decisions” for Christ). Paul seems to consider his suffering itself to be causally related to the Corinthians’ salvation, which only makes sense if we recognize a broader range of meaning in σοτερια, the word for salvation, than merely the moment at which your resume moves from the bad pile to the good pile on St. Peter’s desk in heaven.

How can I receive salvation/healing/deliverance from others’ suffering? Perhaps if they teach me how to suffer with dignity so I can receive the genuine paraklesis of God through enduring it with patience. It really seems like the form of salvation/healing/deliverance that the Corinthians receive in verse 6 is paraklesis itself. Perhaps the reason Paul’s suffering is directly related to their salvation/healing/deliverance is because He is learning how to carry the cross so He can teach them how to carry theirs. Somehow through the crosses we carry, Jesus calls us near to Himself.

I know that some people are put off by any perception of romanticized suffering. I’ve been corrected by other Methodist clergy whenever I’ve said God put me through my decade of depression so that I could be vocationally equipped as a pastor. What I will say is that Paul’s suffering does call me near, reading his words 2000 years later. I haven’t gone through anything like he has. I needed paraklesis today because I’ve been confronted by the fact that I pretty much suck at everything except for writing this blog. Somehow I can own that inadequacy as part of my discipleship; somehow it becomes part of how I am saved since I am forced to call God near and hope that He will once again deliver the power that deigns to manifest itself amidst my filthy weakness.

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