The Question of Comfort

Loyd said, “I like that verse, the one about comfort. It’s, uh … comforting.”

            Our Bible study group had just read 2 Corinthians 1:3 and 4: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

            This was a key verse, we agreed. When needing comfort and encouragement, this one seemed to serve the purpose quite well. It affirmed us, that we were on the right track.

I asked, “So how does he do that? I mean, just how does God comfort us? How does he actually bring that about?”

            Janet said, “Maybe we should take a look at comfort itself, at those things we experience as comforting?” 

            “Good thought. Maybe start with our senses, seeing that’s where a lot of comfort occurs?”        

That was a good starting point. Our inventory began with things we see that calm our spirits. Nouns fell like maple leaves in Autumn. “Nature. Smiles. Colors. Dogs. Cats; well, some cats. Attractive, even pretty food. Family (Yes!). Sunsets. The beach. Forests. Rain; soft rain, not the stormy stuff. Green growing things, especially in the Spring, like flowers and fields of grain. Birds, like the little ones that hop around, foraging for seeds and stuff – sparrows, chickadees, juncos. A nice fire in the fireplace on a wintry day. Fall leaves. Children at play. Fireflies. The desert – it’s calm, peaceful. A babbling brook.”  

We looked at each other. No one spoke.

“How about stuff we feel?”

More nouns. “Clean sheets. Swimming in the ocean; warm ocean, that is (Mike and Janet were Florida transplants to coastal California and had better experience here than us natives). Jumping in a pile of leaves. Warm sand. Petting your dog. Or cat. Holding hands with a loved one. Hugs of any kind, all kinds. Holding a baby. Warm blankets. Cards and letters (Yeah! Those are good).”

My question, “Are we agreed on these?” elicited nods of affirmation.

“How about what we hear. What comforts us?”

“Ocean waves. Bird song. Soothing music. Poetry. Well, some poetry. Purring cats. Soft breeze in the trees. Laughter. Children at play. Crickets. Frogs, sometimes. Snow fall – well, the absolute quiet of snow fall. Waterfalls.”

Quite again.

“Shall we move on to taste?”

Nods. Smiles. This was fun.

Unanimous and loud, “Chocolate!. Ice cream. Fresh-baked bread. Butter. Rich, well-cooked stews and soups. Pasta with really good meat sauce. Mac and cheese, better yet, chili mac. Garlic – well, not too much. Really good wine. Salt air, you know, like along the seashore when there’s a light breeze. Tree-ripened peaches. Vine-ripened tomatoes, too. Warm milk. Better, warm milk with chocolate.”

“Okay. Now, how about some ways our spirits are comforted.”

Nouns and adjectives abounded. “Singing. Reading Scripture. Reading about someone else’s experience with God. Answered prayer. Giving thanks. Finding something that was lost after praying about it. Peace in the midst of chaos. The 23rd Psalm – ‘specially the verse, ‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me’. Taking deep, calming breaths. Being reassured of our salvation. Giving care to someone in need. Receiving care when you’re in need. Doing things together. Redirecting your thoughts, focusing on God. Jesus. Knowing the Holy Spirit is present.”

            In the moments of quiet that followed, we were like a brood of chicks basking in the palm of God’s hand.

            Mike said, “You know, thinking about comfort changes our focus. Like it accumulates and redirects our thoughts to God.”

            “It’s all so affirming,” said Carol. “Reassuring. Warm. Comforting in itself.”

            Debbie asked, “Is there anything in the lists we’ve made that does not come from God?”

            “Don’t think so,” said Janet.

            Jeri Beth said, “All of this is how God comforts us. Sort of answers the question, now, doesn’t it.” 

            We talked for a while, agreed that we’d made a reasonable beginning on the subject, then ended our time in prayer. Everyone departed with some sense of satisfaction at having been challenged, and at having learned something.

            Me? I wasn’t done. The next day, decided to dig into the Bible to see where comfort had come into play.

First there was Lamech, who, when naming his son Noah, said, ‘He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed.’[1]

            Mmm. That wasn’t very comforting, not to me and I daresay, not to Lamech.

            Next, I read when Jacob got word from his sideways sons that his favorite, Joseph, had been taken as a lion’s lunch, he ripped his clothes, put on his martyr-ish suit of sackcloth and refused to be comforted and uttered something like, ‘Nay, nay, I will mourn all my life long, until I join Joseph in the grave.’[2]

            Mmm. Not much comfort there, Jacob.

            Ephraim, another son Jacob and a tribal leader, found Jacob’s example of stubborn mourning worthy to emulate when two of his own sons, Ezer and Elead, were killed. It seems rustling cattle from the Philistines was frowned upon, so much so that the penalty was severe and permanent.[3]       

            Job: This is the oldest story in the Bible. Most everyone has read the account where Satan dickers with God about the sincerity of faith of all those grubby little earthlings that supposedly worship Him. Satan says they believe in you, God, because they’re afraid of you; God says no, they believe in me because I love them and they love me.

‘Prove it!’ Satan says.

‘Go ahead, test ‘em,’ God says. ‘Take my main man Job, test him any way you want to with this one reservation – don’t kill him. And we’ll just see wins this debate.’

            Satan starts off with a bang, kills all of Job’s cattle and children, destroys their homes, leaves Job with an affliction of boils, a bitter wife, a handful of dust and a heart full of grief. Job sits on the garbage dump.

Three of his BFFs, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, hear about his dilemma and come and deliver cold comfort to Job by telling him he brought this all on himself because he’s got a ton of unconfessed sin and God is really ticked off at him.

Job responds, ‘Bosh! My so-called friends, you’re a flock of cuckoos! There’s no sin in my life. I will maintain my righteousness and never let go of it! This is not about my sin. Something entirely different is going on here! Moreover, my faith in God does not waver because I know my redeemer lives!’

From out of a whirlwind, God enters in with a monologue that corrects their perspective, concluding with a promise that because of Job’s faith, the folly of his detractor’s will not receive due punishment. Instead, God says, Job will pray and you foolish friends will be spared. Then God blesses Job with more than he ever had.

Okay, now we’ve got some comfort working here. Although God allows us to experience strife and trouble and loss, he will redeem and heal and restore. Good. Very good.

So far.

David’s got a different take: ‘God, your rod and your staff comfort me so greatly that when I walk the darkest of valleys, I am not afraid[4]. ‘God, although I have seen great troubles, they are nothing compared to the comfort you bring for my relief[5]. ‘Your promise, Lord, comforts me in my suffering … your Law, O God, comforts me in the face of evil[6].

David clearly sees God’s hand upon his life, protecting, blessing, providing. Comforting. Encouraging.

The prophets, however, offer a mixed bag of comfort, much of it brightly promising the Lord’s restoration of Israel, others stirring a soup of dust and ashes. ‘Comfort, comfort my people … speak tenderly to Jerusalem … I have seen her ways but I will heal them … I will guide and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners … her sin has been paid for … I will restore the gardens of Eden proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God to comfort all who mourn … provide for those who grieve for Zion, bestow on them a crown of beauty … the oil of joy … and a garment of praise … As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you[7].

‘Young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well, says Jeremiah … I will turn their mourning into gladness … I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow[8]. Jeremiah renders God’s assurance that He will at some future time restore Israel with plentiful grain, new wine and olive oil; lambs and kids will gambol in the fields and Israel will celebrate and sing songs of praise. Comforting stuff … but mostly for some time in the future.

Lamentation turns a corner, however. Comfort finds mention only five times and not once offers a mustard seed’s worth of it. Perhaps Jeremiah had one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day when he wrote this.

Nahum? Not much help here. He mentions comfort only once and in the negative.[9] He must have read Lamentations before he wrote this. No help here.

Hopeful, I turn to the New Testament. Jesus is there and there will surely be comfort.

Jesus teaches there is precious little comfort to be had in wealth,[10] but there is reward a-plenty in loving one’s enemies, doing good to those who hate you and blessing those who curse you. Pray for them, he says.

Really, Jesus? Hmm. Not what I expected.

Time to circle back to 2nd Corinthians, where we started: For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.[11]

Now, the words of the Prophets become clearer; the mournful dirge of Lamentations comes into focus.

Suffering is part of the package.

Cursed, the ground will produce thorns and thistles and you will toil painfully to take your food from it.[12] You will not fear the terror of night nor the arrow that flies by day nor the pestilence that destroys at midday, says the Lord, for if you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent.[13]

In this world, you will have trouble, Jesus tells us – but take heart, for I have overcome the world![14]

Distress, suffering, pain, frustration, all travel the same pathway, lead to the same destination. Open-armed, Jesus waits for us at the end of the road – the source, the provider, the dispenser of our real comfort.

Like a budding rose, comfort blooms from the assurance of God’s love, grace and compassion for his many, many children who strive and search the world over for some sort of relief from the trials of life. Jesus, the author of our salvation,[15] is likewise the author of all comfort that, once we have cried out, once we have sought the Lord’s face and heart, makes its way into the deepest reaches of our hearts.

Sure, mac and cheese are great. Sunsets are wonderful. Children’s laughter is a blessing. But these things are temporal. They come. They go.

Like a blade of light, the comfort we receive from Jesus cuts through the murk of our doubt to answer our eternal question once and for all: Am I worthy to be loved – even by the creator of the universe? The thunderclap answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’

Yes, for The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in His heaven –

All’s right with the world.[16]

Even you. Even me.

He does not leave us as orphans,[17] ever.

Comforting, indeed.

[1] Genesis 5

[2] Genesis 37

[3] 1 Chronicles 7

[4] Psalm 23

[5] Psalm 71

[6] Psalm 119

[7] Isaiah 40, 51 & 57

[8] Jeremiah 16

[9] Nahum 3:7

[10] Luke 6:24

[11] 2 Corinthians 1:5-7

[12] Genesis 3:17

[13] Psalm 91:5-6, 9-10

[14] John 16:33

[15] Hebrews 2:5

[16] Pippa’s Song; Robert Browning

[17] John 14:18