Wednesday, October 21, 2015

On Comfort, the Comforter, and Being Uncomfortable

Just before going to Gethsemane, the Lord Jesus Christ reminded his apostles of an uncomfortable truth that they had yet to fully understand and accept. “I go unto my Father” (John 14:12), he said, in one of many warnings that his mortal ministry was fast drawing to a close. But if his disciples were discomfited or shaken by this truth, the Savior offered a compensatory promise, reassuring the eleven, “I will not leave you comfortless” (John 14:18). That promise of comfort in an hour of need and of the Comforter, who “may abide with [us] for ever” is operative here and now, just as it was anciently, so that we never have to endure the olive press alone, as he did that night (John 14:16). 
            Whatever our trials and temptations, we have been assured that the Savior can and will succor the faithful. “Sometimes,” Elder Oaks recently taught, “His power heals an infirmity” or removes a stumbling block, “but the scriptures and our experiences teach that sometimes he succors or helps by giving us the strength or patience to endure our infirmities,” the strength to make stepping stones of our stumbling blocks.
Because we associate the word comfort with its cognate, comfortable, we may misunderstand the Christ’s promise of comfort and a Comforter as an assurance of ease or relaxation, but the English verb comfort means “to strengthen,” and strength is of little use to those reclining in the shade of life. The psalmist thanked God that “thou hast girded me with strength unto the battle” (Psalms 18:39), and the people of Nephi “did all labor, every man according to his strength” (Alma 1:26); strength is for labor and for battle as we serve under the “Sun of righteousness” (Malachi 4:2). We can do “all things through Christ which strengtheneth” us (Philippians 4:13), but receiving that strength may be discomfitting. The Savior’s promise to Moroni and its conditions apply in our lives as well: “if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27). With that increased capacity comes an expectation that we will do all things, that we will be perfect even as our Father in Heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Our God will never leave us comfortless—but his desire to stretch us “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13) also means that he will never leave us comfortable.
Neither the Christ nor his Comforter ever inspires or sanctions complacency; instead, it is Satan who seeks to make us comfortable in a mortal world increasingly at odds with the doctrines of the gospel. It is Satan who invites us to “Eat, drink, and be merry” (2 Nephi 28:7). It is Satan who would pacify our souls and “lull [us] away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well. . . . Therefore, wo be unto him that is at ease Zion! Wo be unto him that crieth: All is well!” (2 Nephi 28:21, 24-25). Wo be unto those of us who are comfortable in our own righteousness. Wo be unto those of us who are comfortable watching degrading movies, listening to profane lyrics, or otherwise ignoring our covenants to always remember the Savior of the world and his selfless sacrifice on our behalf.
            The call to “deny [ourselves] of these things, wherein ye will take up your cross” is not an invitation conducive to comfortable living (3 Nephi 12:30). There was nothing comfortable about the Atonement, when the Savior of the world “fell on his face” in the dirt “and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). There was nothing comfortable about his interrogations before Caiaphas and Pilate, his scourgings, or his eventual crucifixion, when they nailed his body to the cross. There was nothing comfortable about his ministry, when he was “despised and rejected of men” and homeless (Isaiah 53:3); as he told his disciples, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). There was nothing comfortable about his work and grand sacrifice on our behalf, and so there can be nothing comfortable about our discipleship, as we accept our “holy calling” to minister “in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son” (Alma 13:5).
            The devil would lead us “by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth [us] with his strong cords forever” (2 Nephi 26:22). The Savior, by contrast, invites us to “Take my yoke upon you” (Matthew 11:29). Satan’s leadership is, at first, far more comfortable than the Savior’s; his flaxen cord is light and soft and loose. A wooden yoke, by contrast, is relatively weighty and awkward and inconvenient. But the key difference between these two alternatives is that Satan would precede us, sprinting out ahead until his slipknot around our necks is stranglingly tight, while the Savior offers to walk with us, bound to us by the yoke of consecration—both his consecrated service and our own—until we learn strength by his side. The Greek word paraklesis, which is often translated as comfort in our English Bibles, means “to call near, or to call beside,” and so being yoked beside the Savior is quite literally the very definition of comfort; he calls us near so that our fears might be quieted and our efforts magnified by his abundant grace.
            To comfort is to strengthen and console, but I love an alternate and now obscure definition of the word: to make fast, secure, or support. When John Wycliffe first translated the Bible into English, he drew on this definition of the word comfort in translating the forty-first chapter of Isaiah. There, the Savior comforts his people with these reassuring words that are the basis of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation”: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” (Isaiah 41:10). In Wycliffe’s translation of Isaiah, the Lord is like a carpenter who fastens the weak and the weary to his side: “He coumfortide hym with nailes that it shulde not be moued” (Wycliffe, Isaiah 41:7). That beautiful phrase, inviting each of us to be comforted with nails, is a reminder of the true source of all strength and consolation, a reminder that only in and through the Atonement can we forgive and be forgiven. Only in and through the Atonement can our salvation be secured, as the keys of his priesthood bind us back to God. Truly we are and ought to be comforted with nails, so that we will never be moved from our faith in God’s goodness, grace, and mercy.
            I also love the words of the twenty-third psalm, that teach us of Christ’s role as our Good Shepherd: “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” (23:4). Like the nails of his cross, his rod and his staff might comfort us, but their application is never comfortable. The crook of a shepherd’s staff is said to have been used to seize the legs ofsheep or goats when they ran away, keeping them with the flock. With the application of this comforting staff we sheep, like the Savior in Gethsemane, are likely to stumble and fall on our faces in the dirt. The “rod of his mouth” is used for reproof (Isaiah 11:4); “a rod is for the back” of children in need of chastening (Proverbs 10:13), for calling a wayward son or daughter to repentance in love (Proverbs 13:24). This chastening, like the crook of a shepherd’s staff, calls us nearer to the good shepherd and draws us to his side.
His rod and his staff comfort, but they are not comfortable. Being comforted with nails and glorying “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world,” will not be comfortable (Galatians 6:14). Taking on the Savior’s yoke will not be comfortable. Becoming perfect, even as our Heavenly Father is perfect, will not be comfortable.
Shortly before the conclusion of his mortal ministry, the Savior offered a final commandment to his disciples: “when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:32). Prophets ancient and modern have taught this principle repeatedly: after we have received his comfort or strength, it is our covenantal duty to comfort and strengthen others. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that we worship “the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). When we make baptismal covenants, we promise “to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places” (Mosiah 18:8-9). Those responsibilities, to mourn, comfort, and witness, are interrelated. President Eyring recently taught, “We lighten the loads of others best by helping the Lord strengthen them. That is why the Lord included in our charge to comfort others the command to be His witnesses at all times and in all places.” As we are comforted and strengthened, we must comfort and strengthen our brothers and sisters: it is what the Savior has asked, and one of the key reasons he has blessed us with the constant companionship of the Comforter.
As we rely on the Comforter to teach us how we can best comfort others, we will learn to see others through the eyes of our Heavenly Father. In his first General Conference address after being called to the apostleship, Elder Dale G.Renlund wrote of a realization that he came to early in his ministry, “that in the Church, to effectively serve others we must see them through a parent’s eyes, through Heavenly Father’s eyes. Only then can we begin to comprehend the true worth of a soul. Only then can we sense the love that Heavenly Father has for all of His children. Only then can we sense the Savior’s caring concern for them. We cannot completely fulfill our covenant obligation to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort unless we see them through God’s eyes. This expanded perspective will open our hearts to the disappointments, fears, and heartaches of others. But Heavenly Father will aid and comfort us.” Learning to see others as our Heavenly Father sees them may not be a comfortable experience; that process might entail acknowledging our own prejudices and pettiness. But we “can and must be an important part of Hisgiving comfort to those who need comfort”; we are his hands and the means by which his purposes are most commonly accomplished. He will not send angels if he can send home teachers; he will not send apostles if he can send neighbors. As we are converted—an uncomfortable process of growing and stretching to the full measure of our potential—we will naturally reach out to strengthen our brothers and sisters because we will see them through his eyes and love them as he loves them.
If strength seems slow in coming, we must not be discouraged. Remember the promise of Isaiah: “the Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody” (Isaiah 51:3). Transforming a spiritual desert into a flourishing garden is necessarily a slow process; when heavy rains fall in the desert there is a danger of flash floods that can sweep away young and tender plants, eroding loose soil. Our Father in Heaven would like nothing better than to irrigate our arid souls with the water of life, but his comfort comes line upon line, precept upon precept, as we are able to bear and act upon it. If comfort comes more slowly than we had hoped, we must be patient. If we trust in his timing as well as his strength, someday we will see, as the prophet Joseph has seen, that our afflictions were “but a small moment” (D&C 121:7) and have been “for thy good” (D&C 122:7).

If we will only draw nearer to the Lord Jesus Christ, he will bind up our broken hearts; he will liberate us from the captivity of compulsions and addictions; he will comfort our waste places and give beauty for ashes (Isaiah 61:1-3). We will be comforted with his nails, with his yoke, with his staff. That process may be uncomfortable, but it will leave us, like the many Jesus healed during his mortal ministry, whole.