“We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.”
“Comfort comes as a guest, lingers as a host and stays to enslave us”
Lee S. Bickmore
I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the expression “being comfortable”. We often speak of a comfortable home or job, perhaps a comfortable lifestyle or retirement. There is something both rather attractive about comfort but also rather unsettling.
What has highlighted my musings about comfort are some bedtime chats with my 4 year old son. He often asks me about my childhood and I have enjoyed digging back into forgotten memories of what it was like on our small farm in rural Suffolk. I look back at that childhood as a very happy time but one thing it wasn’t was comfortable!
Farmhouses in Suffolk in those days were very cold and draughty. We had an open fire in the living room and a stove (Rayburn) in the kitchen for cooking and hot water. All the other rooms were unheated unless we moved a portable electric heater into them. I can vividly recall waking in the morning in winter with my breath visible and ice on the inside of my bedroom window. On cold nights we’d get changed for bed in the living room then run upstairs and jump into bed.
What strikes me most, however, is that such discomfort did nothing to spoil my enjoyment of life. Life was no less fulfilling because we didn’t have a phone, or because our clothes were homemade or because our car’s only AC was to open the window. Being comfortable wasn’t important; we had loads of friends, relations and each other- and just enough clothes, shelter and food to get by.
The dictionary defines comfort as “a state of ease and satisfaction of bodily wants, with freedom from pain and anxiety”.
As believers we are actually promised comfort- God’s comfort, that is. One of the older translations of the word ‘paraclete’ describing the gift of the Spirit in St John’s gospel, is ‘comforter’.
And the same Spirit promises us peace, joy, a new family, God’s love and power, guidance and eternal life (for starters). As we follow Christ however we are also promised persecution, trials, danger, slander and ridicule.
What seems to be noticeably lacking in the Gospel is any promise of financial ‘security’, the quiet life, comfort, ease or ‘freedom from pain and anxiety’.
A health warning
Too much comfortable living can be seriously harmful:
It is spiritually unhealthy when it prevents us from taking risks, from stepping out in faith. Peter stepping out of the boat springs to mind. It’s comfortable in the boat but you’ll never experience the exhilaration of life and faith if you stay there.
It’s obviously physically unhealthy if we eat too much rich food, slouch too often in front of a TV or just find ourselves staying inert ‘in the warm’.
It can be intellectually unhealthy when we stay within the ‘comfort’ of what is safe and familiar with our circle of acquaintances, the newspapers we read or the issues we study. We end up simply being confirmed in our prejudices instead of being made to question them.
It becomes morally unhealthy as it immunises us from the suffering of the ‘have-nots’. If we hold on too tightly to our comforts we will miss the adventure of seeing changed lives. Lethargy and apathy quickly consign us to a mediocre existence.
A certain amount of stress is necessary for us to function well emotionally. If we structure our lives to avoid suffering, discomfort and danger we get to the point when the slightest difficulty derails us and we sink easily into anxiety or despair.
Holding on lightly to our comforts
So what is the balance? Warm clothes and homes, healthy food and relaxing holidays are all good gifts. We wouldn’t want to go back to the cold and unhealthy homes and Spartan lifestyles of previous generations.
So how can we protect ourselves from the dangers of becoming too comfortable without wearing a hair shirt, eating locusts and living in a cardboard box? Can we reap the benefits of some degree of comfort without losing our edge for life, for others and, ultimately, for God?
Here are a few suggestions that we may like to consider:
- Explore unfamiliar spiritual traditions.
There are immense riches in the wisdom passed down over the ages. ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places’ wrote Gerald Manley Hopkins; let’s humble ourselves and pursue the Christ where ever He has been honoured, loved and served.
From African Pentecostals, to Trappist monks through to the Russian Orthodox ‘startsy’ (mystics), Catholic thinkers, Celtic ‘Pereginati’ and Evangelical stalwarts; there are endless opportunities to light a fire in the heart, ignite the soul and awaken the imagination.
- Get out more.
Take up a new sport or hobby out of your ‘comfort zone’.
Develop a habit of going out in all weathers, even when it’s dark.
Find creative ways of meeting and serving people from completely different socio-economic, religious, intellectual or ethnic backgrounds.
- Start praying some uncomfortable prayers.
Prayers like- ‘Lord use me’, or ‘Lord change me’ or even ‘Lord please take me out of my comfort zone’ are prayers that God loves to hear and answer. Often the answers will not be lightning bolts but rather un-dramatic as the Lord eases us gradually out of our ease. Other times He pitches us headfirst into a whole new adventure.
- Give outside your comfort zone.
If you’re able to identify an object that encapsulates ‘being comfortable’ and has something of a grip on your heart find ways of letting it go. Let your church, your friends or street know that your car, your sports gear, your home (or whatever your weakness is) is available for others to use.
If you’ve got spare cash look out for opportunities to give or lend to others in a tight squeeze.
If your area of comfort is having lots of leisure time let others know that you’ve got time available to help with the kids, go shopping for the elderly or do DIY for single parents. Tell your pastor or vicar you’re available. Kiss goodbye to boring evenings watching telly!
- Rethink work.
If your present work is no longer stretching you consider switching roles, getting a new job or maybe even retrain for a different career.
Seek the Lord and try some doors.
Find a mentor who can help steer you through the process.
- Discover a rhythm of fasting and feasting.
If we have a ‘comfortable’ income we can quite easily get into the habit of ‘feasting’ every day.
The Biblical pattern is to enjoy periods of feasting but intersperse these with seasons of fasting. As we feast we celebrate the goodness of God with our communities, friends and families.
Similarly, as we restrict our consumption for a season we are preparing ourselves for receiving God’s grace, healing, forgiveness, guidance or empowering. Lent is an obvious time for this but we can always build fasts (from meat, alcohol or other/all foods) into our daily, weekly or monthly rhythms too.
Psychologists tell us that we all need to feel secure- this is one of our deepest emotional needs. But we can easily allow our consumer culture to tell us where to find that security- in jobs, bank accounts, possessions, investments and pensions.
But God’s solution to insecurity is not to give us ‘things’- he actually gives us Himself. And as we walk with the ‘God of all comfort’, we can walk free from any grip that being merely comfortable may have on us.
For in Christ we find our true home, our eternal security and deepest comfort.