In Environment, Psychology, Theology by Keith Sanford1 Comment

Ocean is a song finding comfort in divine presence, yet still embracing some anxiety.
It draws images from a majestic ocean landscape and from the first chapter of Genesis to describe a unique type of comfort that is relevant, authentic, and meaningful.


Finding comfort in divine presence

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Words and music by Keith Sanford. Performance includes Keith Sanford on drums, percussion, keyboard synthesizers, and vocals.

Presence comfort versus power comfort

The song, Ocean, is about finding comfort in divine presence, yet still embracing some anxiety. What does it mean to find comfort in divine presence, and if we find this comfort, why would we still embrace anxiety? To answer these questions, we need to consider two types of comfort that people might seek or receive from God: power comfort and presence comfort. Power comfort is the type of comfort people often want from God, the type most preached about in churches, but presence comfort may be far more authentic and meaningful.

Power comfort is the comfort we receive from someone who has the power to fix a problem.

For example, people seek power comfort when they pray to God and ask God to do something, like to stop a pandemic, to heal someone, to stop a war, to provide employment, or to change someone’s attitude. People are referring to power comfort when they talk about the power of prayer and receiving God’s protection. When seeking this type of comfort, people are likely to describe God with words that suggest power, such as “mighty,” “lord,” “strong,” “king,” and “omnipotent.” From this perspective, God is viewed primarily as a being that can control events and that has the power to cause things to happen.

Presence comfort involves experiencing an awareness of a divine presence, and in this awareness finding comfort.

How are we aware of divine presence? One way involves perceiving beauty and goodness in the world. This could include finding beauty and goodness in companionship from other people, in acts of kindness and compassion, or in human creativity. Or, it could involve finding beauty in the complexity of life, in the intricate physiology that allows us to do something as simple as wiggle a finger, or finding beauty in a flower, or a mountain, or in the stars and galaxies in the skies above us. Also, as in the song, Ocean, it could involve finding beauty in the sea breeze and crashing waves of a grand ocean landscape. In all these examples, presence comfort involves experiencing an awareness and closeness of a divine goodness and beauty that is woven into the fabric of the universe.

As I discuss on the page, "What is progressive faith?" I primarily experience God as the presence of beauty and goodness, and I have a faith that this beauty is something bigger than myself, something more than a mere opinion or preference. I think of this beauty as something like the force of gravity that is present regardless of whether humans acknowledge or perceive it, something that we can seek and experience, yet also something that lies beyond full human understanding. It is this presence of beauty and goodness that provides meaning and purpose to life, and without it, beauty would be nothing more than a figment of our imagination, and goodness would be nothing more than a fleeting human opinion. When we catch a glimpse of this beauty and goodness, we can feel awestruck, we can feel inspired, and during times of stress, we can feel comforted.

Does comfort eliminate negative emotion?

An important difference between power comfort and presence comfort has to do with the experience of negative emotion. People seek comfort when they experience negative emotions such as grief, anxiety, or distress. With power comfort, God is sought to remove a problem, and once a problem is removed, it would eliminate these negative emotions. Thus, power comfort could be described as something that eliminates negative emotion. In contrast, presence comfort is something that can sooth negative emotion, or might help a person face negative emotion, but it certainly would not eliminate negative emotion. Simply being aware of beauty and goodness does not eliminate feelings of grief, anxiety, or distress.

To clarify this difference between power comfort and presence comfort, an analogy can be made with types of human comfort. For example, power comfort is like the comfort I receive when a doctor tells me that a loved one’s disease is easily curable. In this case, the doctor has the power to fix a problem that is causing me distress, and by eliminating the problem, the doctor eliminates my distress. In contrast, presence comfort is like the comfort I receive from the closeness of another person. For example, my young daughter cannot understand, let alone solve, many of the stresses I may face in my life; however, she often spontaneously decides to bring me a stuffed animal and give me a hug. If I were worried about the health of a family member, my daughter’s hug would not eliminate the worry. It would not cure any disease, and I would still feel anxious. At the same time, the hug is soothing, and it becomes easier to tolerate the anxiety. The hug is like presence comfort.

Which type of comfort is most authentic and meaningful?

Although it is certainly possible for people to seek both power comfort and presence comfort from God, presence comfort is something I find to be much more real.

One potential problem with seeking power comfort from God is that it can lead to troubling questions. For example, if God has the power to fix problems, why does it appear that God sometimes fails to do so? If God has the power to cause things to happen, does faith in God require one to hold beliefs in miraculous, supernatural events that conflict with current scientific understanding? Although it may be possible to provide satisfactory resolutions to these types of questions, they illustrate how the pursuit of power comfort can lead down a path of thorny issues.

In contrast, the type of comfort from God that I find most authentic and meaningful is presence comfort. Interestingly, this is also true when I think about the comfort I receive in relationships with other people. If I think back over my life, I can easily recall many situations where I experienced comfort from the presence of another person – times when I felt comforted because someone was with me during a stressful situation. In contrast, I find it difficult to recall situations where I experienced power comfort – times when someone had the power and took an action to eliminate a problem that was causing me distress. As a research psychologist, I have studied the ways that people provide support to each other, and I have noticed that when people describe the types of comfort they want to receive from an intimate partner, they mostly list types of presence comfort, and they rarely list examples of power comfort. Thus, there is something especially intimate and meaningful about presence comfort.

In general, then, the type of comfort I experience from God is presence comfort. This means that God is not fixing my problems or eliminating my negative emotion. At the same time, presence comfort can be soothing, and it can help when facing problems. If I am feeling anxious, presence comfort will not make the anxiety go away, but it could give me encouragement even as I feel anxious. If I am grieving over a loss, presence comfort will not make my grief go away, but it could make the grief more bearable and meaningful.

Embracing negative emotion

This is consistent with the idea that negative emotions are a part of what make us human, and sometimes, it is better to embrace or accept negative emotion than to attempt to escape from negative emotion. As discussed on the post for the song "Kaleidscope," negative emotions are often beneficial, and they serve important functions. Although emotions can sometimes lead to harmful behavior, they can also help us identify that which is good and valuable in life and they can motivate us to pursue those things. If I grieve over the death of a loved one, my grief is based on the beauty and value of the person I lost. If I feel anxious, my anxiety is based on the fact that there is something quite important and valuable to me that appears to be under threat. Because of my own experience with negative emotion, I can experience empathy and compassion for others. Without negative emotion, we would likely become cruel, reckless, and uncaring. Although negative emotions are unpleasant, they are part of what guide us and part of what make life meaningful.

Thus, it is possible that presence comfort is valuable precisely because, in those situations where it is appropriate to feel negative emotion, presence comfort helps us to face it, accept it, and sometimes maybe even embrace it.

The song, Ocean, and the Genesis creation poem

The song, Ocean, is about presence comfort. It is about finding beauty and goodness, finding a divine presence, and finding comfort in the waves of the ocean. Much of the inspiration for the song is drawn from the creation poem (or creation account, or story) that is found at the beginning of the book of Genesis in the Christian and Hebrew Bible. This is most evident in the line that begins the second stanza of the song, “As now a spirit moving, glides over water deep.” This line is drawn from the first line of the creation poem in the book of Genesis:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God (or spirit of God) swept over the face of the waters. (Genesis1:1, NRSV).

Also, both the song and the creation poem use the metaphor of God as creator, and just as the song finds divine presence in the goodness and beauty of nature, the creation poem includes a repeating theme emphasizing that creation is good, “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31, NRSV).

In other words, they both express a sense of awe over the goodness that is woven into the natural world, and they both portray God as the source of this goodness. Given that the Genesis creation poem was written a few thousand years ago, it, of course, lacks a modern perspective. For example, God seems to take on a human-like form (like a man that talks) and God creates a world according to an ancient understanding of cosmology (with the sun and the stars placed in a giant dome of the sky). At the same time, this does not negate the fact that the imagery used here is vivid and moving. If I think of ancient people talking about a “spirit of God sweeping over the waters,” and about how creation is good, “indeed, it is very good,” it seems like they must have been experiencing some of the same goodness and beauty in the world that I experience today. Whereas our scientific understanding of nature has changed, maybe our human capacity to perceived goodness and beauty in it remains the same.

The song, Ocean, points toward two contrasting aspects of presence comfort.

The song describes how an awareness of divine presence brings feelings of peace, “Peace fills the salty air, blowing like a tender breeze.” At the same time, the song embraces feelings of anxiety, grief, and other negative emotions by calling attention to the experience of loss, the fragility of life, and things that we may experience as troubling. The song begins with a flower petal, but in the end, the flower petal sinks into the sea, and the sea “consumes, now taking what it gave.” In the song, the ocean is magnificent and beautiful, but it’s waves are also frightening and unfeeling; the divine presence is like a light shining on all that is good, but at the same time, it is also a “dark mystery.” The song sings of how the divine presence blows a breath of life, but it is a breath that we keep only “briefly.” Yet still, the ocean is beautiful and awe inspiring. Still, peace fills the air with the goodness of a divine presence. Still, this divine presence brings comfort, even as we also embrace some anxiety.


  1. Initially I was somewhat discomforted by the minor key. It felt like a juxtapositon from the notion of ocean. However, understanding the two notions of comfort made sense. The minor key of anxiety and the lyrics of comfort and possibility.


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