The Oddity of Comfort

Comfort is a concept that holds pride of place in the gospel. We learn that an important part of our baptismal covenants is the promise to “comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” Elsewhere, we learn that one of the reasons for Christ’s suffering and atonement was so that he could “know how to succor his people.” This leads to the question: Why is comfort important?

The easy answer to this is psychological. People seem to desire and crave comfort and they feel better if they are comforted. However, there is a sense in which this answer is question begging.

Suppose that I am being battered by some tragedy in my life: I have been in a car accident and suffered a terrible injury, for example. My current distress is caused by a state of affairs in the world. What precisely does comfort do for me in this situation. I believe that it would be important. I imagine that facing terrible injuries without sympathy or support would be worse than facing them with sympathy or support. I am not entirely sure why this should be so, however. Afterall, the sympathy and emotion support doesn’t change any thing about the world. The state of affairs that gave rise to the tragedy — accident and injury — remains the same regardless of whether or not I am comforted. Why then is comfort so important and potentially powerful?

10 comments for “The Oddity of Comfort

  1. John
    August 17, 2004 at 12:34 pm

    Good questions, Nate.

    I’ve often wondered how I would comfort someone like fourteen-year-old Helen Mar Kimball, who struggled greatly when her father gave her to Joseph Smith as a wife. It was a great struggle for her and caused her a great deal of pain.

    My own thoughts are that I would probably want to remove her from this situation. I’m interested in hear others thoughts.

    Read more about Helen Mar here:

  2. Nate Oman
    August 17, 2004 at 1:11 pm

    John: It is not clear to me that comfort is a matter of removing one from a situation. Comfort becomes a difficult issue theoretically (for me at least) precisely when it does not involve changing states of affairs in the world. My feeling is that such comfort is nevertheless important. I am just wondering if there is any way of justifying this intution other than bland and circular appeals to psychology.

  3. August 17, 2004 at 1:25 pm


    You use the example of a car accident and the physical injuries that might result from the accident. We also know that car accidents (or whatever process causes physical injuries) can also cause psychological trauma. I would guess that comfort is useful in such situations because people need to be healed of psychological/spiritual wounds as well as from the physical wounds. Just as one might provide dressing and medications for physical wounds or maladies, comfort/empathy might help to soothe the soul.

  4. August 17, 2004 at 1:50 pm

    I am just wondering if there is any way of justifying this intution other than bland and circular appeals to psychology.

    Oops… I might have fallen into this approach with my previous comment. Nate, maybe I need to examine more closely what you are looking for. Your post and the example you used meant something to me because the clinic where I work has a lot of patients who come in for PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) as a result of car accidents — they not only suffer from multiple traumas (physical) but from psychological disorders, driving phobias, etc. I know that a car accident was only an example you were using to make your point … but I often see people coming through this clinic who desperately need hope and encouragement (comfort) as much as they need medical attention. As a result, the clinic here has a psychologist available as well as the medical doctors.

  5. Rusty
    August 17, 2004 at 2:02 pm

    danithew: I tend to agree with your logic. We have this dual nature as spiritual and physical beings, both of which would need to be healed.

    One predicament in which I continually find myself is not being a very comforting person by nature. When my wife is dealing with a problem, my natural instinct is to solve the problem or eliminate it (like John suggested). That, of course, is not what she needs at that point. Rather she needs me to say, “I understand” and comfort her. I always just assume that if the world is changed, that the psychology will change, but from my own experience I know that’s not the case. Interesting question Nate.

  6. Dan Richards
    August 17, 2004 at 5:06 pm

    Nate: I tend to think of comfort as something that *does* change the state of affairs in the world. Classic Sunday School example–a member of the ward suffers injuries in a car accident, the Relief Society provides meals for the family, the family is relieved of the burden of cooking during a stressful period. Needs are met, comfort arrives in the form of a casserole. If you insist on an a priori definition of comfort excluding anything other than psychological comfort, don’t be surprised if you get psychological justification for it.

    I can’t remember any specific words of comfort spoken to me when my father died, but the cumulative effect was unforgetable–hundreds of people admired this unassuming man enough to travel to the frozen wastelands of eastern Utah to pay their respects. This affirmation of the value of his life made his untimely death (at 57) easier to bear, perhaps because it lessened my sense that some injustice had taken place. And lots of people brought food.

  7. August 17, 2004 at 11:55 pm

    Life involves being in an imperfect world and experiencing trials. The question could be phrased “since we can not escape trials, should we be without comfort and the knowledge that God is with us?”

    Ok, I’m begging the question, because I’m rushed for time.

  8. XON
    August 18, 2004 at 12:08 am

    I seem to be able to rescue the question from circularity by pegging it to an absolute; to whit: Real Life (separate discussion as to definition. . .) is purpose-designed to take us out to our limits. The whole question of evil, and the several scriptures commanding us to endure to the end, and be not overcome create (as I percieve it) a spiritual situation analogous to temporal warfare.

    In each major military engagement since Grenada, there has been a great effort to identify equipment that is better than what is issued generally. Most of these efforts seem to produce a lot of suggestions for new cloting, i.e., boots, socks, t-shirts, sleeping gear, etc. . . Of course the new gear is inevitably described as more comfortable that the previous standard. While there are many explanations for this, I tend to reduce them down to this: True success/failure situations such as combat, or the true trials of faith that we are sent here to confront (the ones that the answers to will actually re-make our lives from that point forward) push us to the absolute ends of our resources. (I could probably illustrate this better with the joke about the two hikers and the grizzly bear, and the tennis shoes — “I don’t need to outrun the bear, I just need to outrun you. . .”)

    In these situations, where we are really at the end of either our physical or spiritual resources (the privations and stresses of combat, or those defining spiritual crises of life), it’s the small differences that determine the entire outcome. It might make all the difference that my shoes are better than my enemy’s if he is chasing me, or I am chasing him. The difference doesn’t have to be large. Small advantages, where the margins are small, become decisive.

    This is how I view the value of comfort. When I am pushed to the end of my resources by the ‘natural’ ebbs and flows of life, my children, my marriage, my faith, etc. . . one alternative that always presents itself is to give up, to abandon the draining efforts that leave me at the end of my strength. It is at precisely this point that comfort saves me. It gives me just enough space/breath/strength to ‘come off the victor’, where the very real possibility could have been my abandoning the Iron Rod because it just took too much from me.

    This view of comfort also helps me at points other than the very outer limits of my strength. I place a very high value on the small ‘course corrections’ that feelings of comfort help me to make that keep me from going down paths that might place me out there at the ends of my endurance. I mean the small battles that keep me from the large ones. If I’m fighting with my wife, and after one or two rounds I’m off fuming in my corner of the house, it is often feelings that I associate with this comfort of which we are speaking that salves over the raw feelings just enough that I can go back and try to make things right, perhaps somewhat humiliatingly, rather than yield to the temptation to ‘button down, lock-and-load, and charge back into combat one more time’.

    We always seem to successfully make up, but I have friends who didn’t, and it’s that small amount of comfort early in the process that keeps me off the path that I saw them take.

    I might not be talking about the same comfort that you are, but as I’ve laid it out, comfort is one of the most valuable, and ubiquitous blessings that I can receive from God.

  9. greenfrog
    August 18, 2004 at 10:35 am

    Comfort ye my people…

    Extending comfort, whether the psychological variety by holding the hand of a hospital patient, the physical variety by providing a warm coat to the cold, or the spiritual variety by extending atonement and forgiveness, is an act of compassion borne of empathy and purposed at alleviating suffering.

    Nate’s original question is focused on what the value is of psychological comfort extended to someone experiencing physical discomfort. In my experience, it is easier to bear suffering with another person close by and aware of my discomfort than it is to bear the suffering alone. Our minds and bodies are interconnected in many ways — so many that, IMO, trying to dominate one by means of the other is doomed to fail.

    Giving (and receiving) compassion is a practice that acknowledges the interrelationships between all people. I suspect there are dog owners who would insist that compassion is not shared solely among humans, so perhaps I should amend the prior sentence to acknowledge interrelationships between all life.


  10. August 21, 2004 at 7:39 pm

    The scriptures tell us of two Comforters, the Holy Spirit and Jesus himself.

    Moroni 8:26 says:
    And the remission of sins bringeth meekness, and lowliness of heart; and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love, which love endureth by diligence unto prayer, until the end shall come, when all the saints shall dwell with God.

    The Bible dictionary entry for Comforter says:
    The Second Comforter is the Lord Jesus Christ himself. “When any man obtains this last Comforter, he will have the personage of Jesus Christ to attend him, or appear unto him from time to time, and even He will manifest the Father unto him”

    I like this: “to attend him”. Comforting is not wrong. It is obviously important. The scriptures speak of the need for it and that it will be provided. We need comfort from each other as well. Unfortunately, we often fail at providing it even to other Saints let alone the rest of the population.

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