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Learning the Secret

December 1, 2021



 

“In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth — only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.”

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

 

Every now and again in a church group or at a conference, usually in a group of other men, I’m asked about my biggest temptation – the particular bait and hook that easily draws me away from the life of faith.

I generally wait for others to answer first. Like other things in my life, I’m often the odd one out with what I say, and from past experience, I know how this will go:

First, those most tempted by material things in the group start talking openly about struggles with envy, greed, and not tithing. These are the sins that in our culture are most openly accepted, the so-called “desires of the eyes” (1 John 2:16; ESV).

Since speaking about these matters is a courageous act for most men, I know it’s going to get harder from here on.

Next, those tempted by the “pride of life” (1 John 2:16) share reluctant admissions of seeking power or fame, overworking, acting rebelliously, wanting too much control, not going to church enough, and not wanting to do more for their faith or for others. These struggles also are generally emotionally safe for men to discuss with others.

Finally, if there’s enough trust or courage in the group, those tempted by the “desires of the flesh” (1 John 2:16) shamefully and hesitantly follow up about hungry, bodily things – food, alcohol, drugs, and sex. Often, these sins are segregated – those struggling with them feel safe to talk more in parachurch groups, like the various kinds of Anonymous meetings, rather than within church groups.

 

WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST TEMPTATION?

When it’s my turn, to everyone’s confusion, I say that my biggest temptation is seeking too much comfort in this life.

I explain that the prevailing temptation for most of my life is to avoid pain and suffering and seek the perfect state of comfort in this world rather than seeking God’s peace in the midst of this fallen world. I want to find my own comfortable Eden, to find the path of least resistance rather than the path of Christ.

If I have pride issues, it’s mostly to control the world around me to avoid pain. If I have temptations of the flesh, it’s mostly to minimize the pain I might be feeling (often using food or media consumption). If I am tempted by the “desires of the eyes,” it’s to purchase something that will raise my comfort level just enough.

And because of this, I prevent myself from growing in my faith.

Cue the confused looks and group leader moving on to the next question. Every now and again, though, I see understanding and identification in someone else’s eyes.

 

WHY CAN THE PURSUIT OF COMFORT BE A TEMPTATION?

I’ve learned that the temptation of comfort is one that often flies under the radar, even for those for whom it is a core, guiding principle of their lives. Many Christians who understand that material success can be bad find it hard to believe that we shouldn’t overly seek comfort and stability. Of course we should want to avoid pain. How can that be misguided?

The problem occurs when we seek material, physical, and emotional comfort as a poor substitute for seeking God’s peace. Rather than the peace “which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7; ESV), we accept its counterfeit – comfort that fosters no growth. Instead of seeking contentment and even joy in Him, we settle for the world’s lesser version – happiness. We do this with many of our true spiritual needs – secular success rather than spiritual flourishing, disordered love rather than real love, optimism rather than hope.

We tend to think of sin as mostly doing the opposite of what it good, of seeking the bad, but much sin in our lives (in the sense of “missing the mark”) happens when we accept and seek the lesser good – the world’s incomplete version of good rather than God’s full version.

Like other prolific temptations in American culture, such as greed, envy, and pride (often in the guise of control, rebellion, or freedom), comfort has a large social sanction. In the secular world, the pursuit of comfort is a prime virtue. A person seeking comfort isn’t hurting anyone by wanting too much – they just want enough – enough pleasure, money, food, friends, family, yearly vacations, and stuff to be happy. Not even overjoyed, just happy.

And in the Christian world, this means enough fellowship, enough service, enough church, and enough God to feel safe. Comfort seekers don’t need the full promises of earthly blessings of the prosperity gospel. They just want a nice soft church that challenges them to do more without actually pushing them to do it.

Maybe an apt term for this is Goldilocks Christianity. For much of my life, I know I looked for spiritual porridge that was “just right.” I avoided Bible verses like 1 Peter 4:12-19, Luke 14:27, and Revelation 3:16. I believed that if I were a good enough person, a good enough Christian, a good enough worker, and a good enough friend, that I would be blessed with, and even deserved, a life of comfort.

 

THE PRICE OF COMFORT

Unfortunately, avoiding pain, especially psychological and spiritual pain, comes with its own Faustian price. As Lewis mentions in Mere Christianity, in the end, the comfort-seeker only finds despair (quote at the beginning of this piece). When the storms came, I became increasingly frustrated that I didn’t have the comfort I believed I deserved. After enough hits, I became depressed and lost hope.

In the economy of pain avoidance, fear is the gold standard currency. Fear predicts what might be painful so you can not apply for that job, see that counselor, have that conversation, get involved in that group, read that book, or pursue that friendship… you know, you don’t have to grow. Because growth and change are painful.

But when those avoidance tactics don’t work, and pain inevitably comes calling at your door, the resulting thought “I don’t deserve this” turns first into anger and sadness and then into long term issues of anxiety and depression. Ironically, as Lewis intimates, by running from pain, you create situations where often worse suffering results.

How many of us get caught up in refusing to grow in purpose, character, or faith because we are afraid to do the things that we know will lead to such growth?

On an individual level, this is hazardous to spiritual health. On a societal level, this can be dangerous. In a time of culture war, it’s easy for people to feel that their comfort is threatened when politicians of both parties, the media, and others constantly stir up those fears.

If your house is built on the sand of worldly comfort, and you are constantly told that your enemies are coming with a bulldozer to carry away that sand, then you are ripe for the Enemy to work on those fears, a tactic he’s very familiar with. When the security of comfort-tempted Christians is attacked, it is easy for us to behave towards the world in decidedly non-Christlike ways in the name of Christ.

 

“AIM AT HEAVEN”

As Lewis says in Mere Christianity, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”

Rather than pursuing earthly comfort – a counterfeit of a higher peace and contentment in the Lord – we should accept that we live in a world of uncertainty and change, but one with God as sovereign.

Uncertainty on earth is the regular state of things. Our ideas of a fixed plateau in this life where nothing goes wrong are illusions. We are meant to feel the heights of joy and also the depths of sorrow. We are made to hope, to wonder, to love, to lament, and to die. And in the midst of all that, we are “born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 7, ESV).

Ultimately, comfort in the Christian life is best as a verb and not a noun – as an action to help others in the midst of sorrow and suffering and not an achievable state of stability and painlessness.

Let us all endeavor to leave our comfort zones of fear and anxiety to serve God further and to become like the apostle Paul, when he says

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13; NIV)

 



The featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and used with her kind permission for Cultivating. 



 

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  1. Jordan Durbin says:

    Great barrels of codfish, Steven! This is amazing. Thank you.

  2. Steven Elmore says:

    Thank you, Jordan. I very much appreciate the kind words! (and I’m now picturing those great barrels of codfish, haha). 🙂

  3. Emily says:

    I’d be one of those nodding in understanding & recognition. ‘Comfort is best as a verb and not a noun’ is going to be written in a visible place in my home!!!

  4. Steven Elmore says:

    Thank you for your note, Emily. So glad you found the article meaningful. Bless you and Merry Christmas.

  5. June CAEDMON says:

    This one is getting tucked into the pages of my journal for further reading. Not a “comfortable” read, but in my case, a necessary one. Thank you.

  6. Steven Elmore says:

    Thank you, June. So glad this is useful to you. Bless you and Happy New Year!

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