by Brett Helquist

Brett Helquist

Like spaghetti and meatballs, comfort and rest go well together; unlike spaghetti and meatballs, however, comfort and rest can’t often be served on a nice dinner plate. More fleeting and mysterious in nature, comfort and rest resist definition and therefore law. (For more details on the Sabbath/Law fiasco, see Mark 2.) Even in contemporary churches, Sabbath (and therefore rest) remains touchy. Given that rest is good (Gen 2, Mark 6) and that comfort lends to rest, it’s worth prying deeper into the nature of comfort.

We’re all familiar with discomfort: We often define ourselves by the amount of discomfort we allow in our lives. For example, loud complaining is fashionable among college students: “I’ve been up all night writing all these papers.” For parents, the same applies: “I had to drive my kids from school to karate to baseball to a sleepover; didn’t even have time to pee.” Artists love heartbreak, marines love pain, middle-schoolers love drama, moms love gossip. We keep discomfort close to our hearts, but every now and then, by the grace of God, we slam on the brakes, exhausted, and the absolute necessity of comfort snaps into perspective. What, then, is comfort? And by extension, what is rest?

According to one of my favorites, Madeleine L’Engle, rest looks like this: “I sit on my favorite rock, looking over the brook, to take time away from busy-ness, time to be. I’ve long since stopped feeling guilty about taking being time; it’s something we all need for our spiritual health, and often we don’t take enough of it.” Hashtag preach. If anyone else drools at the thought of “being” time, know you’re not alone. And while L’Engle’s words are true and good, words that I deeply admire, they are also only the beginning of the conversation. Practically speaking, it’s totally possible to find a favorite rock, a babbling brook, and weeks of free time but still feel restless. To be in paradise, but—not.

Exhibit A: This past week, my last collegiate winter break ended. Here in Virginia, winter break lasts almost four whole weeks. Not enough time to get a job but enough time to either spend a lot of money traveling or sit at home and spoil. I’m guilty of both. (Disclaimer: For the most part, I enjoyed a blessed, fantastic break, thanks to all who made it so merry. I’ll rave about all the good things for years to come. Still…) I had plenty of days when I was comfortable to death. These were days when nothing afflicted me, nothing provoked me. Which is another way of saying I could have fallen asleep at any moment. I sat next to a nice fire in my childhood home reading great books, wearing new wool socks, spending quality time with loved ones. And while my family was at work, I occupied my favorite space and took some time to just be. Unthinkably restlessness ensued.

On one such restless day, I came across A Series of Unfortunate Events on my old bookshelf. Detailing the dismal lives of three orphans, Lemony Snicket reminded me of a very important lesson: that external comfort does not necessarily lend to internal rest. He explains how the orphans feel when they walk into their new home:

The library was a large room, and it was filled with elegant wooden bookshelves and comfortable-looking sofas on which to sit and read. On one wall was a row of windows, which let in more than enough light for reading, and on the other wall was a row of landscape paintings, perfect for resting one’s eyes. The Baudelaire children stepped inside the room and took a good look around. But they did not feel any better, not at all.

After the orphans lose their parents and two loving guardians to the clutches of the unscrupulous Count Olaf, no amount of cheerful interior decorating can raise their spirits. Needless to say, they find no rest in this “comfortable-looking” place, in episode four, The Miserable Mill. Luckily, my circumstances were considerably more fortunate.


With no affliction tiring me out, I could no longer sleep. I stayed up till 3AM listening to New Order and Depeche Mode, somersaulting around my older sister’s ex-bedroom. I was so comfortable that I had out-slept myself until there was ultimately no utility in a good night’s snooze whatsoever. Sleep itself became the object of discomfort and restlessness. Breakfast in pajamas, lunch in pajamas, dinner in pajamas. I didn’t shower, because I didn’t exercise, because I was resting, duh.

And what a bummer, to squander such a gift, because I really had been looking forward to this season of free time. Even now such time seems enviable. No checklists. No obligations. All license, all to myself. I was in a comfortable place, yet something inside me prevented complete satisfaction. Diagnose me with some disorder if you must; and I’ll hold fast to these words: “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them” (Mark 14b-15). I’d say that’s universal.

Another favorite book on the old shelf caught my eye: Dave Eggers’ What is the What. Here, I recovered a second important lesson: that the “desert” is inescapable, even in a place as prosperous as America. Here, “desert” is a stand-in for pain and struggle. What is the What relates the story of Valentino Achak Deng, who, after escaping the Second Sudanese Civil War, sought comfort in America, only to be faced with armed robbery among other life-threatening challenges.

Along the same lines, this beautiful advent song (it’s never too late for this, really) boasts the lyrics, “Oh lift me up from this hell called home, where the blood of children speaks of the wars we’ve made, of the lives we trade for this desert of prosperity.”

I can’t count the number of students who return from a four-week break that was “eh,” professing, “I could have rested better.” A friend recently passed along a prayer request that she might “rest well” during her own free time. A noble request, really, especially given the willy-nilly license I took with mine. My only reservation is that I don’t see how fearing “bad” rest is any different from bad rest itself. We begin spinning: If only I could have a more comfortable pillow, then I could rest well; or if I held a tighter grip on my schedule, or if I bought a sleep number mattress. But for me, the truth was that I could never find real rest simply through of a lack of obligations and an influx of free time. Rest often exists completely outside the clutches of circumstance. Sort of like grace.

Even though I got too comfortable, ungrateful, lazy, et al, I somehow found rest in unexpected places, too: Spending time with friends who know the worst of me but hang out with me anyways. Backing into another car and hearing the owner say “Don’t worry about it.” Sitting in a sharp wooden pew in a chilly stone church reading 2 Corinthians 12:9. I somehow get the vibe that oftentimes real comfort, real rest, arrives undercover alongside discomfort. And in the current absence of any reliable how-to-rest handbook, there’s yet hope for the typical weary soul, because even Israel, bending heels over head for the Law, crumbling under Rome’s oppression, irreparably scarred by exile, found rest, inexplicably, when my real favorite rock on which to sit arrived on the scene and promised that his yoke was easy and his burden was light.