I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted.
“The Problem of Comfort”
I have a problem with pain. Thanks for your concern, but my problem isn’t that I am in pain; my problem is that I want to do everything I can to avoid pain! I’m sure one or two of you, if you’re honest, can identify with my problem. And as a pastor, I am also keenly aware that a lot of you really do struggle and suffer with the many faces of pain—physical, emotional, financial, or relational pain. One thing all of us seem to have in common: we consider pain and suffering to be one of our greatest enemies…something to be avoided at all cost.
In his fascinating book, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis recognizes that pain presents us with a spiritual problem as well. And so, he sets out to put pain in its proper theological place. What is Lewis’ “problem” with pain? Specifically, he wants to refute any argument that suggests our pain is proof that either 1) God is not truly “good” and “loving,” as we Christians claim he is; or 2) there is no God.
I’m sure the problem of pain continues to present obstacles to faith and spiritual growth—for both Christians and non-Christians alike. But I am equally convinced that there is another challenging obstacle for everyone, and that is the problem of comfort. Don’t get me wrong, comfort has its place—alongside celebration, joy, peace, and rest—in the faith-filled life. The “problem” of comfort arises when it becomes our obsession—our primary focus—declaring itself to be the GOAL of our life, or even the GOD of our life.
The writer of Psalm 77 begins his song with a lament. He is “crying out” for God to hear him and help him. It’s a familiar refrain in the psalms: things are bad…life is painful…HELP ME! “When in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands…” (vs. 2).The psalmist does everything right. He takes his problem to God in untiring prayer. But then he adds, “And I would not be comforted.” What? Notice he doesn’t say he could not be comforted; it’s not that he is inconsolable. Instead, he tells us that he would not be comforted…he refuses to be comforted…he rejects it completely! Why on earth would he do that?
I think the writer of Psalm 77 provides some wise and wonderful insight into the “problem” of comfort. Namely, what role does pain, suffering, frustration and longing play in my spiritual life and growth; and how does my tireless pursuit of comfort keep me from learning and growing through life’s uncomfortable experiences?
In an amazing article from 2000, German Sociologist and educator Tom Senninger presented what he called the “Learning Zone Model.” Senninger argues that we humans continually move between times of comfort and times of sheer panic, but neither of those places allows us to learn and grow as we are meant to. It is only in the “uncomfortable” place between—what Senninger calls the “Learning Zone”—that growth takes place…stuff becomes clear. Senninger offers us a helpful perspective on the problem of pain, AND on the problem of comfort!
Where was the “learning zone” for the writer of Psalm 77? It wasn’t in the panic zone of thinking God had abandoned him or that God wouldn’t or couldn’t help him. And it also wasn’t in the comfort zone of being free from the realities and problems of his pain. Instead, it was in that uncomfortable learning zone in between.
“Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand. I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”
The pain caused the writer to remember the past and pointed him toward a hope for the future.
The Apostle Paul understood as well as anyone, how pain works to produce growth and faith in the life of the believer. In Romans 5:1-5 Paul goes so far as to say that we can “glory in our sufferings!” Those circumstances are a learning zone for followers of Jesus. Paul tell us that “the sufferings of this present time are not to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). It’s a learning zone! Paul even gives us something we can do as a result of our time in the learning zone. He reminds us that God does indeed comfort us in our troubles, but He does it SO THAT we can bring comfort to someone else (2 Corinthians 1:3-7). The comfort God provides isn’t something we hoard or live in, it’s something to use and then give away.
Are you struggling with the problem of pain? Don’t panic! And don’t simply seek comfort and relief at any cost. Instead, be comforted that you are in the learning zone…and God is right in there with you! God loves you and He has a plan for your life. In John 16:33, Jesus gives us two promises: 1) in this world we will have trouble; and 2) Jesus has overcome the world. Take your pain problem to him…let him be the solution to your comfort problem as well. Jesus is the Living Water, always stay thirsty for him!