Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
We live in an age of excess; more people than ever before have the power and freedom to do things previous generations found unimaginable. Yet so much of that power is directed toward reinforcing our personal comfort and maximizing our personal control. Not only does too much comfort disconnect us from meeting genuine needs, but it also creates a state of spiritual starvation when we are not willing to be discomfited.
Erin Straza’s new book, Comfort Detox: Finding Freedom from Habits That Bind You, describes how we can recognize the dangers of false comfort, “detox” ourselves from these hindrances, and embrace true comfort in God. Erin is well-known to the CAPC audience as the co-host of the weekly Persuasion podcast (my personal favorite in the entire CAPC lineup, in case you were wondering). In the book, she tackles this timely issue with the same insight and depth that she usually brings to her podcast conversations with co-host Hannah Anderson.Comfort Detox is focused on the intermediate steps between understanding the depth of need in the world and doing something about it.
The book opens with her recollections of a short trip to India several years ago, where she encountered jaw-dropping poverty and oppression as part of a visit to see firsthand what one of her writing clients was doing. Quoting Sheldon Vanauken, she describes her emotional pain at encountering enormous suffering as “a severe mercy” that transformed the way she approached her life and the question that had been nagging at her for a very long time: “What am I doing?”
Far too often, experiences like Straza’s push us to react, but we are often excessive even in our reaction to the excess in our lives. Some people can push themselves too hard with newfound zeal for doing good and then promptly burn out. On the other hand, we can just as easily be seduced into finding comfortable ways to respond to the world’s deep needs, whether it is through conspicuous consumption or ostentatious virtue signaling.
This isn’t a book primarily about what to do in response to poverty or injustices. There are plenty of other good books you can read about that. The task in Comfort Detox is focused far more on the intermediate steps that one takes in between understanding the depth of need in the world and doing something about it.
The answer to the question, “what am I doing?” often turns out to involve protecting our own convenience, safety, and perfection. Straza gives examples from her own life and others about how this often plays out before dedicating a whole chapter to “detachment” and the maintenance of boundaries that ensure we will never be tested or tried. What is particularly acute here is her invocation of acedia, the sin that maintains we must always keep a “safe minimum distance from the suffering.”
Straza summarizes the problem of comfort well: “I don’t think about pursuing comfort because I don’t have to pursue it—it’s already here, owning my every moment. But when I’m confronted with a decision that infringes on my comfort, it becomes painfully clear how committed I am to protecting it.”
Once we are willing to surrender that protection, what next? The book turns from here to the subject of the Comforter, exploring the role of the Holy Spirit in comforting us and the difficult places we might find ourselves in need of comfort. Receiving God’s comfort doesn’t just end with us, though—it is necessarily then shared with others. When we aren’t hoarding comfort for ourselves and constantly watching our back to make sure we won’t ever be inconvenienced, the comfort flows freely back and forth between God, ourselves, and others.
Having established a biblical and theological understanding of God’s comfort, Straza finally lays out new values to reorient and discipline ourselves for: compassion instead of convenience, trust instead of safety, and humility over perfection. All three reflect a genuine openness, a willingness to let our self-preserving instincts be disrupted in favor of allowing God to work in us. Their application will look different in everyone’s life, but pursuing these values will transform us and others around us.
Comfort Detox is a valuable stepping stone for people who are disquieted with their own excess but are not sure what to do next. It would also be an excellent book for those who feel continually dissatisfied despite constantly pursuing more and more comfort. Straza doesn’t harangue the reader about not doing enough, nor does she propose a course of radical action that feels unachievable. You can’t get to the virtues described in the book just by following a step-by-step process, but each chapter does end with steps that one can take to create space in your life for these virtues.
When we see incredible need throughout and have access to unprecedented affluence, it is not surprising that we would unconsciously gravitate toward the affluence. Comfort Detox is a book that helps us to see what direction we’re rolling in and describes the means by which we can start moving toward God’s goodness and then share that goodness with others. Best of all: unlike other detoxes, there are no weird diet things involved. Comfort Detox can be enjoyed with a Big Mac or quinoa, whichever you prefer!
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