There is a modern religious parable about a man walking with God along a sandy beach. The shoreline serves as an allegory for the trials of the man’s life. At the end of the walk, the two of them turn back to look over his story. They see both their footprints in the sand, but only one set of footprints marks the times when his life was most afflicted. The man had felt abandoned in those troubles and had questioned God’s faithfulness. But the parable ends with God comforting the man, assuring him that he was not alone in those times because God had carried him through them.
Paul’s version of that story might have gone a little differently. In Thessalonians, he uses heartfelt, personal words to support his friends and tell of his own troubles in reaching them. Twice, Paul tells them of how he longed to be with them, and when he could not, he sent Timothy, who was like a spiritual son to him, in his place. From Athens, he anxiously awaits for Timothy’s return and news of the church in Thessalonica. Deeply encouraged by their growth in Christian love and faith in the face of persecution, he writes to them, declaring, “Indeed you are our glory and joy!” (1Thessalonians 2:20).
The growing community of believers in Thessalonica were walking with each other in their trials, sharing in one another’s suffering and in one another’s comfort. That is how the Church works, both then and now. Paul says that the Father “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2Corinthians 1:4). His Spirit is our greatest comfort because He shared in our affliction and understands our suffering, though He Himself never sinned (Hebrews 4:15).
Comfort does not always mean an end to suffering, but the Church can be a relief in the midst of suffering. Look at grief as an example; the loss of a brother or sister in Christ is not undone by comfort. But when a church community comes together to grieve, the burden of suffering and the relief of joy are shared. The weight of individual suffering becomes lighter when shared in community, when sorrow turns to hope (Lamentations 3:19, 21–22). The hope of all is the hope of one.
The Church offers that support, from the saints in Paul’s day to the congregations we are a part of now, both locally and globally. Above all, we have with us the love and mercy and comfort of the Father, the suffering Christ, and the Holy Spirit, who guides and kindles the Body of Christ.
So, if Paul were telling that story about footprints in the sand, yes, the man would certainly see the footprints of the Father and His Son. But he’d see Paul’s, too. And Timothy’s. Yours and mine. That whole beach would just be filled with the footprints of fellow believers.