Share, Listen, Think

Leaving the Comfort Zone

In Life in Society on January 24, 2012 at 3:59 pm
Wadi Rum @ Sunrise

Photo by Roger Brown
Wadi Rum at Sunrise
Petra, Jordan

By Bekah McNeel

I just wanted to stay in my hot pink world for one more minute. The garish, saggy mosquito net suspended over my bed created a delicate membrane protecting me from the unfamiliar world on the other side.

It was late in the morning, and I was probably the last in the guesthouse to rise. No one was disapproving, as I had only recently arrived and was still horrifically jet-lagged. Plus, we’d been awakened that night by a scurrying, scratching, unmistakably vermin attempt to break into our suitcases, which were strewn across the floor. As there was no electricity in the guesthouse after 10pm, we had not been able to switch on a light so we’d been hunting by sound, jumping from bed to bed with only a plastic wiffle bat to brain our foes, should we magically find them in the blackness.

By morning, with the equatorial sunlight careening through the makeshift curtains, I could see the world more clearly–except that it was tinted hot pink, thanks to the uniquely festive mosquito net draped over my bed. All my roommates were awake too–I could hear them through the “wall” that my bed shared with the dining room. The happy clatter of mix-matched flatware. The muffled discussion between mouthfuls of typical Ugandan missionary breakfast: peanut butter on toast and PG Tips. (I did not yet know how fond I would become of PG Tips.)

The world was hot pink, and I was out of sorts. I’d been in Uganda for four days and managed to commit every Africa-virgin faux pas. My luggage had been delayed in arriving, so I’d been squeezing into borrowed clothes two sizes too small. When it finally did arrive, that bag had been nothing but trouble. The vermin from the previous night had been after the granola stashed in my suitcases. The missionaries were not a particularly chastising group, but I did get some long looks for that one. Also, as I mentioned, I was still jet-lagged. All that, and I was a spare wheel on someone else’s adventure. My friend’s parents were setting up a computer lab at a private school on the same property as the guesthouse. I was, in essence, there to watch the process. So all of this discomfort felt rather in vain.

That’s how my hot pink world became my only comfort zone for tens of thousands of miles in any direction.

I was mustering up the will to face a room of smiling strangers, native Ugandans, and slightly annoyed roommates. I was steeling my nerves for another day of feeling completely superfluous, obtuse, and burdensome. Right as I was breaking the magical barrier of my mosquito net, a booming Dutch voice drowned out the clamor of knives and plates. “Dr. K” was going to lead morning devotionals.

Dr. Henry Krabbendam is about 6’5”, white-haired, and completely immune to social inhibition. I was terrified of him. He was the patron saint of both guesthouse and school. Every morning he led a devotional for the assembled staff and guests. The last thing I wanted to do was walk in late to the devotional, opening myself to all sorts of notice and embarrassment, so I listened through the walls. I don’t remember much of what he said, but one line changed my life, or at least my morning:


To have a comfort zone is idolatrous.


I don’t remember how he explained it then, but over time his point has made a home in my heart. A “comfort zone,” consists of the people, places, habits, conversations, and culture we look to for assurance that we are all right, that life is good and safe. We look to those things instead of looking to Jesus. When we’re in our comfort zone, we’re happy and secure not because we have Jesus, but because we have an alarm system, a like-minded friend, or a savings account. We have a reservoir of strengths so that we don’t have to do the uncomfortable business of trusting Jesus.

That morning, I was looking to the privacy of life inside the mosquito net to give me a sense of comfort and rest. Outside the net I was frequently misunderstood and misunderstanding. Inside, I could think through things until I had reassured myself that I was noble and good and gracious. Outside people bothered me and asked me for money. Inside I only had to answer to myself. But wasn’t that why I’d come to Africa, to “get out of my comfort zone?”

According to Dr. K, there should be no question of getting “outside my comfort zone.” Either it is the whole world, or it is nothing. Comfort does not come from a “zone” it comes from a King.  Either Jesus is enough, or he’s not. If Jesus is enough, then I have to see the world his way…and his way is not the hot pink tint of looking out from my comfort zone. His way is clear and immediate. If certain people annoy me, it’s because I’m missing their divine stamp. If fear keeps me from going to places of need, then I fear the wrong thing.

Another wise man wrote, “I always believe that being obedient puts me in the safest place I could ever be.” And isn’t it the spirit of Moses’ plea in Exodus 33, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

I am never any safer or in any more danger in one place than I am anywhere else, if I truly believe that it is Jesus, not crime statistics and good investments, that keep me safe.

No one is advocating needless stupidity or recklessness. They are advocating a radical perspective on safety that allows us to follow God with confidence, no matter what the neighbors look like. It’s giving to the poor before you put the maximum allowance in your Roth IRA. It’s opening your home to the person who drives you nuts…on Christmas.  It’s doing these things with joy.

That joy is crucial. The Christian life is not some dreary slog through the mud, nor is it trying to pick the rose with the most thorns.  In the modern church, we tend to see “mission,” “calling,” and “generosity” as endeavors that are virtuous on the basis of how much they hurt. Like if you love Jesus you will become a missionary, but if you really love Jesus you will become a missionary to a remote village with no running water and a leprosy outbreak. And if you catch the leprosy, well, now the whole world knows you love Jesus. Cheer up, this should be the best day of your (swiftly shortening) life.

One problem with the above mindset (among many) is that if we evaluate our work based on how miserable we are doing it, then we’re not going to have longevity or depth in our mission. Yes, mission, calling, and generosity all carry the inevitability of suffering in some way, but that’s not what makes them virtuous. The result of that kind of thinking: very few people reaching out to the barrio, and lots of once-per-year clean-up projects ending in celebratory dinners back on the good side of town. Lots of burn-out, lots of avoidance. Because at the end of the day, if it’s misery with lots of Jesus or comfort with a little less Jesus, eh, I’ll take the half-portion, thanks. Like a long, grueling hike, the excitement gets you through the first 1/100th of the task, then you are left with trying to ease your misery until you can figure out how to get out of the adventure altogether.

Discomfort, even to the point of suffering, is not the thing we avoid, or the thing we seek. Neither is comfort. Comfort and discomfort ebb and flow wherever we go in a world that is both broken and Jesus’. And the Christian who has no comfort zone is comfortable with that. That Christian has, like the apostle Paul says, “learned to be content in any circumstance.”

Rather than trying to muster up our strength to go suffer for Jesus, and leave all the things that delight us; what if Jesus delighted us, and nothing hindered us from pursuing his call? What if we believed he was protecting us… and our children? What if our greatest joy was being a part of his work? Then he wouldn’t have to compete with Starbucks and alarm systems for a place on our “must have” list. We would be free to go everywhere, even if there was no internet, Home Owners Association or national infrastructure! We would be free to take on the wild, radical adventure of living like we were made to live.

Living without a comfort zone would make us bold. It would make us brave and generous. We would be the kind of people who “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and fear no evil. We would give cheerfully. We would count it joy when we suffered for Jesus’ sake. We would care for widows and orphans. We would do those things in real and practical ways instead of just doing whatever we want and then trying to redefine it so that it fits Jesus’ commands.

As for me, it got me out of bed that morning.

Photo by Doug Stutler
Monarch Cliff Dwelling

Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.  – Brian Tracy

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Philippians 2.3,4


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