It was an early Sunday morning when I passed a scruffy, weary-looking young man carrying a dirty backpack, a sign hanging at his side. I looked him in the eye and greeted him with a weak “good morning” and an even weaker smile.
As I passed by, he sputtered spitefully, “I hope your friend doesn’t die today!”
My heart’s comfort alarm began to squawk a Walk Faster alert. A desire for emotional comfort would typically have been enough cause for me to bolt. But that day? That day I said no to comfort’s siren cry. I chose to face my fear of being uncomfortable by turning back and asking why he would say something so harsh.
He got news that a friend didn’t wake up that morning; she had died in her sleep. He needed money to attend her funeral, states away. I asked more questions, about his friend, his name, his pain. All this engagement sounds good on paper, doesn’t it?
But my heart tells another side of the story, for it was full of thoughts like these: Was he telling the truth? Did a friend really die? Was this his sob story to gain my sympathies and some cash? How long do I need to listen before it’s okay to move on? Do I have to give him money? What if he just wants drugs or alcohol?
The reality is his story could have been a scam—desperate situations push people to desperate measures. But behind these commonsense arguments, beyond the raging suspicions and doubts, I could hear something else: My heart’s contemptuous refusal to care about this guy. I wanted to remain aloof, frozen, asleep, careless.
Refusing to step into the pain of another isn’t new to me or even to our society. For centuries this spiritual condition of malaise has been referred to as “acedia.”
Acedia is our heart’s response to the world’s pain, a way to check out and detach when things get too emotionally risky. When confronted by sorrow, acedia tells us to retreat to our comfort zones where we don’t have to get too involved in the suffering of others.
Acedia was beckoning to me as I listened to this man’s story. But for some reason I can only attribute to God, I did the opposite. I chose to care. Once I did, something miraculous happened: my heart surged to life. I was immediately overcome with compassion for this young man and his loss. I allowed myself to identify with him: I too have known heartache.
I too have known darkness and pain and hopelessness. In my own moments of grief, the presence of Jesus has made all the difference. Did he know Jesus? Did he have any inkling that Jesus loved him, died for him, longed for him to be restored to the Father? Offering this man Jesus was the best I had, so I asked him if I could pray. He agreed, so I gave voice to the parts of my heart that were now teeming with life and actually feeling my feelings, and I lifted it all to God.
Prayer placed the two of us on level ground, equal footing before God. Our needs were different, but we were both desperately needy. We were the same at heart.
Acedia’s fog dulls this reality. And to be honest, we don’t really want to know the extent of need before us or in us. Doing so means we have to feel uncomfortable feelings and face brokenness all around and within. It means we have to be present in pain that won’t simply go away.
You see, my prayer did not deliver travel money to this man’s feet. It did not stop his tears. It did not bring his friend back from the grave. It did not solve his homeless situation. It did not usher in repentant faith in Jesus (at least not that I know of). I wanted all of that for him. I wanted him to have a shower and clean clothes. I wanted him to have hope, joy, and purpose. I wanted him to know that Jesus was near to the brokenhearted and loved him beyond measure. I wanted him to know Jesus could reconcile him to Father God. That’s what happens when your heart starts to engage: you want everything to be set right.
But everything isn’t going to be right in the life, even if we engage. Our need to be comfortable is at odds with the redemptive work our Comforter God is calling us to. He isn’t calling us to set everything right in the world or to make sense of suffering. He’s calling us to desperately needy places—where suffering abounds and sorrow resides. We can’t get there, however, without detoxing from pseudo comforts that keep us from knowing and passing along the true comfort of God.
Here’s how knowing God’s comfort frees us to be present in these uncomfortable places:
1. You Don’t Have to Fix It
If we are going to be God’s comfort agents—being present with others in their pain—we need to come to terms with the mysteries that God chooses not to resolve. Are we willing to stand in faith, engaged in the brokenness that is shredding the world, and proclaim that God is still God, even when life doesn’t change and hurts refuse to heal? Being an ambassador for Christ in the middle of brokenness takes a willingness to sit in the mystery for the long haul with someone whose hurts keep on hurting. It is a willingness to feel the full weight of what can’t be explained away. We are not called to heal or fix and make everything good as new. Only God can do that.
2. You Don’t Have to Explain It
When people are in pain, it’s tempting to give a little morsel of wisdom and a pep talk and send the suffering on their way. One of the worst platitudes is the notion that “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” In essence, we are telling people a) their pain isn’t so bad and b) God hands out trouble based on our ability to handle it. We cannot adequately explain the mysteries of suffering with platitudes. Attempting to do so diminishes the very real anguish and calls God’s goodness into question.
3. You Just Have to Be Present
Right where you are, your life intersects with countless people who need someone to come close in the hour of suffering. It could be a lonely neighbor, a homeless man, an angry teen, a stressed-out mom, a doubting saint, a searching soul. People in your midst need someone to be brave enough to sit with them in their sorrow, to share the load by choosing to feel and choosing to trust God’s promises. We cannot stop the suffering in the world, but we can make sure no one suffers alone. God invites us to be his comfort agents, to manifest his presence so people know our God sees us (Genesis 16:13) and is with us (Matthew 1:23) in our suffering.
This article is an adapted excerpt from Comfort Detox: Finding Freedom from Habits That Bind You by Erin Straza. Used with permission from InterVarsity Press (ivpress.com). Read more at erinstraza.com or on Twitter @erinstraza.