When I hear the word comfort, the images that come to mind are macaroni and cheese, recliners, and powerful air conditioning. Comfort food and comfortable surroundings are concrete manifestations of comfort. But of course that is only one kind of comfort, a temporal, surface comfort.
“Comfort” is a word with two definitions so different that it verges on being a contronym, that is, a word with two opposite meanings (such as “cleave” or “oversight”). “Comfort” can mean “a state of physical ease and freedom from pain” or it can mean “consolation for grief or anxiety.” And while these definitions may have a common root, these two varieties of comfort rarely coexist on this earth.
The incompatibility of comfort of circumstance and comfort of soul is on display in an absurd little video called “Martyrs Read Joel Osteen Tweets!” While a power of positive thinking theology is appealing to those whose primary aim is a comfortable life, it falls far short when death hangs over you in the form of a sword!
In Hodges Chapel at Beeson Divinity School, we have busts of six 20th-century martyrs, one for each inhabited continent. The artist who created the busts chose to portray each martyr with a smile on his or her face. They range from the very slight smile of May Hayman of Australia to the confident joy of Janini Luwum of Uganda to the open-mouth laugh of Rómulo Sauñe of Peru. I love looking at these martyrs during worship because their smiles are a picture of the joy they know now. They are not experiencing perpetual martyrdom, but rather the reward promised to those persecuted for Christ’s sake (see Matthew 5:11-12). We look to them for inspiration because they died for Jesus, but we trust that they have now been comforted.
When a person’s soul is grieving, comfort of body is no comfort at all. It is only spiritual comfort that will do. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) asks, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” The answer to this question is not “excellent hospice care and pain management.” No, comfort in death has nothing to do with physical comfort and everything to with whether there is joy set before you. The Christian’s only comfort in life and death is “that I am not my own, but belong body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” We don’t have to be martyred to know this kind of comfort. But if we spend all our energies seeking comfort of circumstance, we won’t know where to find the abiding comfort that could be ours at the end.