by Paul McQuien
Recently I watched a television documentary titled “Ten Homes That Changed America.” One of the houses it featured was Thomas Jefferson’s famous Virginia mansion, Monticello. The authority commenting on this historic house pointed out Jefferson’s emphasis on comfort in designing every aspect of Monticello. He observed that this term had little meaning to people of the 18th century and before, most of whom enjoyed very little personal comfort, especially by modern standards.
Yet the term appears quite frequently in English versions of the Bible, such as the NIV, although it hardly ever means personal or creature comforts. Instead it usually has the connotation of relief or refuge. In fact, one of the few uses of “comfort” in the modern sense of the word is applied negatively in Jesus’ condemnation of the self-centered rich, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (6:24 NIV).
Job had quite a lot to say about comfort as relief from suffering, or the lack thereof, from his three comforters. But the Book of Psalms usually gives it in a more positive emphasis, for example in the familiar Psalm 23, where David found refuge in the Lord’s rod and staff: “they comfort me” (v. 4). In his concluding chapter, Isaiah prophesied God’s eventual refuge for his chosen people by writing, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem”(66:13).
The term is not used as extensively in the New Testament as in the Old, but it does appear predictably in the context of Jesus’ ministry. In his Lazarus parable Jesus explained to the condemned rich ruler why Lazarus was “comforted here and you are in agony” (Lk. 16:25). He came with other Jews to the home of the real-life Lazarus in Bethany “to comfort [Martha and Mary] in the loss of their brother” (Jno. 11:19).
Jesus also spent a lot of time and effort comforting his twelve chosen disciples (and by extension, all Christians) in John 14-17. He especially promised to send them the “Comforter” (the Holy Spirit) in 14:16 and several other verses throughout this section. Admittedly, the term “Comforter” is used only in the KJV, the ASV, and perhaps some other versions. The RSV uses the term Counselor, and the NIV uses “Advocate,” a legal term going back to the transliterated Greek word “Paraclete.”
But no passage in the entire Bible emphasizes the term as extensively as the Apostle Paul did in the passage from 2 Corinthians 1:3-7, where he used some form of the word nine times! Paul was experiencing a great deal of trial and tribulation, not only in his missionary journeys, but with the troubled Corinthian church itself, which resulted in three or four letters, including the two that are recorded.
Paul later recounted in Chapter 11 several beatings, stoning, shipwrecks and other hardships that he endured as Christ’s emissary (vss. 25-26). Yet he was able to praise “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” (1:3-4).
Unfortunately, the word “comfort” generally lacks this profound connotation of spiritual relief and refuge for us in the 21st century. We want comfortable retirements, comfortable living (and worship) conditions, comfortable—even luxurious—vehicles. When I look at the parking lot of my home congregation on a Sunday morning, I can’t help but notice a large number of these kinds of cars, including mine (If one finger is pointing outward, three are pointing inward).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that modern Christians have to deny ourselves all the comforts of prosperity. What I am saying is that we need to use the many resources available to us to provide material relief and especially spiritual refuge (the scriptural meanings of comfort) to those who so desperately need them in our own communities and beyond.