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Practicing the Present

This week the blog is sponsored by Moody Publishers.

John Koessler is an award-winning author and teacher who served on the Moody faculty for 25 years. In his new book, Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody, 2019), he addresses how to evade the tyranny of past regrets and future plans and meet God right where we are, in the present.

Get Out of Your Discomfort Zone

The other day a friend asked me, “What are you doing to challenge yourself?” “Nothing,” I replied. “I don’t believe in it.” He thought I was joking. If I was joking, it was only a little. I don’t believe in the theology which says that God’s chief aim for us is to move us out of our comfort zone. I think His purpose for us lies in the opposite direction.

Before I tell you what I mean by this, let me tell you what I don’t mean. I am not saying that God would never ask us to do something that is uncomfortable. Discomfort is a common feature of daily life. You don’t have to go looking for it. Sooner or later it finds you. I am not saying that God would never expect us to deny ourselves. The Christian life is one in which we must “put to death” whatever belongs to the earthly nature (Colossians 3:5).

My problem with discomfort zone theology is the way discomfort seems like an end in itself. Discomfort zone theology is just a new version of the old asceticism that prompted the monastic fathers to drink rancid water and live on moldy bread. This old asceticism was fueled by a dualistic worldview which saw the body as a liability. Holiness was equated with hardship. These factors were aggravated further by a theology of salvation which placed the stress on human effort combined with a well-meaning but misdirected spiritual ambition.

Of course, our version asceticism is not like that of the monastic fathers. We do not wear clothing that is so coarse it makes us bleed or starve ourselves in desert caves. Popular asceticism in the evangelical church is usually little more than a missed meal now and then or maybe swearing off craft beer for Lent. But the discomfort zone theology that I am talking about also involves something else. In its most common form, discomfort zone theology is a motivational tool wielded by church leaders to move their members to action. It is rhetoric used to urge worshippers to do something they would not normally do. Go on a short-term mission trip. Volunteer to teach Sunday school. Help out in the church’s mid-week children’s program. Pass out flyers. Get out of your seat and walk three rows to shake hands with someone you’ve never met. Get out of your comfort zone.

None of these practices is necessarily bad. Indeed, they are often quite helpful. But I do sometimes have reservations about the motives of those who make such appeals. I can’t help noticing how often the discomfort zone into which I am being urged to thrust myself corresponds with some ministry initiative that advances the church’s program. Why is it that my discomfort always seems to be to the church’s advantage? And why is God so eager to make me uncomfortable, to begin with?

Discomfort zone theology is also an ethos that shapes our approach to the Christian life. Being comfortable, it would seem, is a bad thing. As long as we are comfortable, we cannot pursue God’s will. Only by making ourselves uncomfortable can we please God. In this way of thinking, the discomfort becomes more than an occasional side effect of obedience or an environment in which we are sometimes asked to exercise faith. It is now a destination. Discomfort is a mark of grace. It is proof of our genuine devotion. Steeped as we are in such a culture, we might be startled to discover that a theologian as eminent and ancient as Thomas Aquinas asserted the opposite. “The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than the difficult” Aquinas wrote. He also noted that not everything that is difficult is necessarily more meritorious.

The trouble with discomfort zone theology is that it appeals to the worst side of our religious nature. As Theologian Josef Pieper explains, “… the man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.” Not only is this way of thinking unhealthy, but it is also a spiritual orientation which is fundamentally incompatible with the Bible’s theology of grace. I can’t help noticing that the same Jesus who tells us that we must take up our cross and follow Him also seems to link that burden with the experience of rest. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

I do not think you need to get out of your comfort zone. Life will take care of that for you. Life is challenging by its very nature. Live long enough, and you will inevitably be drawn into awkward relationships, unfamiliar territory, and unwelcome experiences. Discomfort will find you. Follow Jesus long enough, and you will discover that like Peter you are not in control of where you go. Sooner or later you have to go where you would rather not go.

Jesus’s call is not to get out of your comfort zone but to find it. His promise assumes that we are already uncomfortable. The yoke of rest that Jesus offers can be taken, but it cannot be seized by force. We do not manage ourselves into it, acquire it by a bargain or even attain it by discipline. It comes to us through an exercise of faith. It is laid upon us. Rest as Jesus defines it is something that must be done for us. So the next time someone tells you to get out of your comfort zone, you should consider moving in the opposite direction. You are uncomfortable enough. What you need is rest.


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