The Uncomfortable Comforter

“The human heart and mind are deep. But God will shoot his arrow at them; they will be wounded suddenly.” —Psalm 64

I’ve been thinking about the two verses in John (14:26 and 15:26) that, in the KJV, describe the Holy Ghost as the “Comforter.” I think I even knew from reading the Bible Dictionary as a kid (yes, I know…) that the Greek behind this word was parakletos, often rendered in English as “paraclete.” The Greek means something like “called alongside,” and I think that “Comforter” is a lovely way of thinking about the idea of a companion. So is “Advocate,” which is how the NRSV translates it.

The Spirit has often brought me comfort, so I’m not at all writing against that idea, but recently I’ve most valued the Spirit as a companion in discomfort. I don’t mean that the Spirit was there to make the discomfort easier to handle; rather, the Spirit is what helped me to get properly uncomfortable. I have things that I’m trying to work through right now (as do we all, no doubt), and that means cracking open some of my comfortable habits and ways of seeing. Like most anyone, I enjoy being comfortable, and I’ve got loads of built-in defenses that are, I’m pleased to report, excellent at keeping uncomfortable truths nicely out of sight.

Tracy has written powerfully about the Spirit as a faithful companion in the darkness, but I believe that the Spirit can also be our companion as we venture into the darkness of our own souls. For that matter, I don’t believe that we can make those journeys without the Spirit. At least I can’t. Honestly, the fear is too much. I need the Spirit to help me be afraid, to help me feel the fear without being completely overwhelmed by it. All of my defenses are designed to prevent that, but fear is the gatekeeper of my innermost heart. If I want to get to that place, the ground of my own self, the only path lies through what, at the moment, terrifies me the most. I need the Spirit’s companionship, but not to make me feel better or escape from the torrent of negative emotion: I need the Spirit to show me the way past my defenses and into existential terror, because it turns out that my own healing redemption lies on the other side.

It’s worth considering how frequently the scriptures repeat this message: don’t be afraid. And yet we are afraid, in more ways than we’re usually willing to acknowledge. There’s a vital difference between not doing something because you’re afraid and not doing something based on a prudent assessment of your own vulnerabilities. Decisions of the latter sort are grounded in courage, not fear. Fear can lead you to say No when you should say Yes, or vice versa. Living a life of integrity takes a lot of courage, and finding that courage means coming to terms with our fear: not vanquishing it, but accepting it. Can we have the courage to pray for such a journey?

I realize that my privilege is speaking here, because that kind of terror turned out to be something I could sit with and hold myself open to. It may not work that way for everyone; in fact, I know it doesn’t. Sometimes, the Spirit really does need to be the Comforter, and I believe that it’s important for us to be on that errand, too, as often as we’re able. The need for comfort in this world is profound, and we should give it every chance we get.

Sometimes giving comfort demands very little of us. Small acts can prove deeply meaningful, at very little cost to those who do them. At other times, though, comfort is much harder to give. Human loneliness and longing often run deep, the truths that fuel them hidden away because the quest to find someone both willing and able to hear them has not yet yielded another soul worthy of that trust. We try one another with our smaller truths, in hopes that someone will be able to see us, but at some point most people fail to make the cut. Yes, sometimes we just need to have the courage to be vulnerable, but on the other hand it’s hardly wise to be that vulnerable in the face of signs that the other person won’t be able to handle it. And, honestly, it’s hard to be that vulnerable with ourselves most of the time.

Part of the challenge here comes from the relationship between kindness and vulnerability. Being kind is not the same as being nice, which tends to stick to surfaces and ultimately works as a way of avoiding vulnerability. Kindness, though, addresses another person’s vulnerable self, and that makes it, well, uncomfortable. A friend told me recently that anger and stupidity from other people are easier to deal with than kindness. We know how to handle those. Check your Twitter or the comments section on anything mildly controversial: we snark, we rebut, we swear, we mock. But when someone is kind it lays us bare, with nowhere to run, and it’s usually easiest just to put our defenses back up in embarrassment. The raw vulnerability that kindness exposes has the potential to open us up to the healing we seek, but healing turns out to be a frightening prospect. I almost want to ask: can one comfort without being kind?

Comfort and discomfort end up working together, then. If healing is going to require working through some discomfort, sometimes we need a whole lot of comfort before we’re quite able to summon the courage for that process. And if we want to be truly able to give that kind of deep comfort to others, it’s going to require traveling through the discomfort without which our hearts will never have the capacity to receive their truths.

I think that many of us are often too comfortable for our own good, and we need the Spirit to disrupt our ease and steer our souls into the winds of fear. Comfort that rests on a latent fear is not the work of the Spirit. When our comfort rests on unnamed exploitation and suffering, crediting it to the Spirit is nothing less than blasphemy. How can I buy my ease at the cost of someone else’s cross? How can I offer genuine comfort to anyone when my fear steers me away from the risks of contact, or, deeper still, when I have not yet had the courage to encounter the way that my own comfort both shields me from and probably contributes to their suffering?

So, when we partake of the sacrament each week, remembering the abyss of discomfort to which Jesus descended and receiving the promise that the Spirit may be with us, perhaps we might pray for the Spirit to grant us the gift of discomfort. Perhaps with the aid of that uncomfortable comforter, we might at last become the body of Christ, living together in a way that brings the torn-up bread back into the one loaf from whence it came.

 

Comments

  1. Beautiful, true, and cuts like a freaking knife, Jason. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Kristin Brown says:

    Beautiful. Perfect to prepare us for this weekend. Like the simple children’s story repeats over and over again, “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it, gotta go through it”. It is also the only true way to become holy. The irony is the discomfort of the journey eventually makes us more comfortable. Only the brave even try. Maybe that is why we are not asked to go it alone, but are given a Companion.

  3. There’s a lot of truth in that children’s story.

  4. In a youth SS lesson this week, we talked about the song Amazing Grace, which we dont sing much in our church. One of the youth caught the following seeming contradiction which led to a great discussion: ’twas Grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved. I think you’re going down the same track here, that we need to be deconstructed before being put back together in His image.

  5. Yep. I’ve always loved that verse of Amazing Grace.

  6. Jason K. —
    “Perhaps with the aid of that uncomfortable comforter, we might at last become the body of Christ, living together in a way that brings the torn-up bread back into the one loaf from whence it came.”
    Don —
    “Amazing Grace…’twas Grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.”
    The emotions are running amok and my Divine Nature is telling my body that it has been exposed so some of the most truthful of discussions (resulting in tears from this body).
    This Article really needs a reprint into the Ensign where more can benefit. Too many of us LDS live with our sacrosanct opines, including me, steer too clear of BCC because of its Anti-LDS leanings precisely from things identified by your wonderful article.
    Truly The Lord descended below all things so that He might overcome and with His Love this “torn-up bread [that houses my Eternal Spirit can come] come back into the one loaf from whence it came”. Thank you Jason K.
    Your article is one I need to read once daily until its full import truly is made visible in me —

  7. Carey F. says:

    Thank you. Personally very timely.

  8. melodynew says:

    Well, this brought me to tears. Thank you for your gifts and your willingness to share: words and light.

  9. Conversations with you helped me along the road to writing this. We’re all in it together.