What’s Wrong with Being Comfortable?

In praise of the much-maligned “comfort zone”

by Len and David Schmidt / original illustrations by Caitlin Ng

No matter where we turn these days, we seem to run into a preacher telling us that we need to “get out of our comfort zone.” The exhortation is often couched in positive terms: “You can do it! God wants you to move out of your comfort zone and into your faith zone!” Sometimes, however, the message contains darker undertones and nearly threatening implications: If you’re in your comfort zone, if you’re using your natural talents and gifts and feel fulfilled doing so, watch out…God just might take it all away from you.

To be sure, at certain times in life we definitely need to move beyond our personal comforts. The “comfort zone” becomes a problem when we fall into complacency and laziness, when we trust in our material abundance as if it were eternal, when we assume our spiritual life no longer has any room for improvement.  We must stretch ourselves to pursue worthwhile goals, to help others in need, and to answer even the most delightful calls on our lives—a marriage, for example, or a cross-country move for a new job. Most importantly, getting out of our unhealthy comfort zones is an integral part of spiritual growth. When we move beyond our customary patterns, ruts, addictions, habits, and dysfunctional relationships, it almost always feels uncomfortable—but it is always worth it in the end. As C. S. Lewis once said, “The blows of [God’s] chisel which hurt us so much are what make us perfect.”

comfortzonefinal-web2If all we meant by the “comfort zone” were a state of indifferent complacency, it would make sense to always set our sights beyond it. Many preachers cast a broader net with the term, however, suggesting that we should make a conscious effort to be uncomfortable for the sake of being uncomfortable—that discomfort is a desirable state to inhabit.

The theology of turmoil
A pastor once described how he and his wife ended up on the mission field in India. The couple had been happily serving a church in the US for years, using their talents, abilities, and natural inclinations to bless the lives of their congregation. Suddenly and without warning, however, the pastor felt that God was unhappy with this situation. He began to experience guilt that he and his wife felt happy and fulfilled, and he drew the conclusion that God was calling them to be missionaries. With no knowledge of the language or culture, the Midwestern couple relocated to Mumbai to live in misery for six unproductive years.

No Hollywood-esque happy ending awaited them, no victorious accomplishment that made all the sacrifice worth it. In the end, the pastor and his wife anticlimactically decided that their calling was over and moved back to the States. Rather than redeeming the experience or impregnating it with any sort of meaning, he simply (and ominously) concluded: “Sometimes God will take you out of your comfort zone and send you somewhere you don’t want to go.”

The implication of this sermon, and others like it, seems to be that there is something inherently holy about unhappiness and discomfort. Unpredictability and chaos are canonized and beatified ad absurdum, baptized as “the place where God wants us.”

But is this really something we should be striving for? And should we feel inadequate as Christians if we stay inside the comfort zone?

The blessings of the comfort zone
God often uses people’s personal comfort zones to do divine work. When a person goes under the knife for major surgery, the patient is put at ease by the knowledge that the doctor is working within his or her area of comfortable expertise. The last thing the patient wants to hear from the surgeon is, “I’m really much better at driving a tractor than performing surgery, but I feel God wants me to challenge myself to work outside of my comfort zone.” When we entrust trained professionals with the wellbeing of our bodies, children, and cars, we are rightfully consoled by the knowledge that these people are operating within their respective comfort zones.

In addition to the service we can provide to others from within our comfort zone, there are plenty of other reasons why this can be a blessing.

Productivity: While Germanic efficiency isn’t everything, the fact remains that we are at our most productive when we’re doing those things that are within the scope of our interest, training, experience, and competence.

Joy: If you’re working in a field you enjoy, living in a place that suits you, and are happy about the people who populate your life, this type of comfort can be a source of great fulfillment.  Rejoice and be glad.

Comforting others: When you are in your own comfort zone, this can itself become a tremendous source of comfort to those who desperately need it. Without even realizing it, you may be providing them with stability and security by virtue of the simple fact that you are not, yourself, distressed or destabilized. In addition, when we are in a grounded place in life, this makes it much easier for us to look beyond ourselves and expend attention, emotion, and energy on others.

If all we meant by the “comfort zone” were a state of indifferent complacency, it would make sense to always set our sights beyond it. Many preachers cast a broader net with the term, however, suggesting that we should make a conscious effort to be uncomfortable for the sake of being uncomfortable—that discomfort is a desirable state to inhabit.

So if the comfort zone can serve as a place of refuge, a source of strength for ourselves and others, and a resource that God can use to bless others, this begs the question: Why the obsession with getting out of it for the mere sake of discomfort itself? Why the guilt-induced encouragements to leave the comfort zone? Part of the answer may lay in the theology that one might call “deism-lite.”

The myth of the “supernatural”
Whether or not they articulate it as such, many contemporary Christians unconsciously hold to the false notion that two separate realms exist: the natural and the supernatural. While the deists of the 18th century believed that the natural world functioned on its own accord, without any interference from the Creator, many in the church today adhere to a watered-down version of this philosophy, believing that the world usually follows natural laws and every now and then God intervenes in the natural world with what we would call a “miracle.”

To be sure, God often works in extraordinary ways, with what the biblical authors referred to as “signs and wonders.” The Passover, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection—these are wondrous occurrences that fall outside of ordinary human experience. The mistake committed by many believers, however, is when we describe these occurrences as “divine intervention”—as if God were not already present and active in the ordinary and the mundane.

The myth of supernatural intervention is a mainstay for dramatic personal stories of faith. Deism-lite is common in testimonies of faith across the globe. In the case of Americans who have overcome a terminal illness, former members of the Russian mafia, and recovering drug addicts in Mexico, the statements are nearly identical: “The counselors couldn’t help me, doctors couldn’t help me, psychologists couldn’t help me…God was the one who helped me.”

We don’t doubt that God often helps people in astounding ways. The implication of these testimonies, however, is that God is especially present in occurrences that seem out of the ordinary, abnormal, illogical, or unnatural—in those that seem supernatural. Whereas Augustine defined evil as the absentia boni, the “absence of good,” many contemporary Christians seem to believe that there is an inherent absentia Dei in the natural world.

This view of God’s intervention is what one college professor coined the “jelly donut” model. If the natural world is the dry, baked cake—devoid of God’s activity—God’s supernatural intrusion is the jelly being injected into it. If we adhere to this worldview, it can be easy to relegate our comfort zone of inclinations and abilities to the dry sterility of the natural world. Many assume that a vocation can only be of God (or, at least, is more God-ordained) if it lies entirely outside of our own proclivities and talents. The proof verses commonly invoked to back up this view are myriad: “…His power is made perfect in our weakness…”, “…not by might, not by power, but by the Spirit of God…”, “…if God is for us, who can be against us?”

Of course, the Scriptures are full of stories in which God used people in ways that went beyond what we would call their own natural abilities. All of us have heard how Moses suffered from a speech impediment, David was dwarfed in size by Goliath, Abraham seemed too old to have children—but God used them anyway.

When we focus only on these stories of wonders and marvels, however, we run the risk of implying that God is less present when humans exercise their natural inclinations and abilities. As such, God is left to prove God’s presence by superseding our talents, leaving a divine calling card by using us in ways that are unequivocally supernatural. Inspirational stories abound that tell of a ministry that prospered in spite of all the rules of logic. The tale of the mission outpost, parachurch ministry, or new congregation that was run by unqualified, inexperienced people but somehow succeeded has an unfortunate subtext: The more it sounds like a bad idea, the more God’s hand must be in it.

The infatuation with supernatural experiences can take turns farcical—and sometimes deeply tragic. Shortly after the horrific earthquake struck Haiti, one church from Temecula, Calif., sent a team of 10 men to Port-au-Prince on a mission trip, beyond the bounds of their comfort zone. The trip leader emphasized that participants would “see how God can use people in spite of their own abilities.” The American volunteers were set to work building crude wooden benches and performing other menial tasks for a Haitian church. Regarding the inspirational experience, many of the mission-trippers repeated variations of this statement: “This is amazing. I’m not a carpenter, I’ve never picked up a hammer, but God used me to build these benches for a church in Haiti!”

The tragedy, of course, is that the Haitian believers could have built their own benches for a fraction of the cost. More significantly, the thousands of dollars that were spent for the volunteers to have this beyond-the-comfort-zone experience could have been used to save Haitian lives had the money been donated to Haitian groups operating within their comfort zone. A qualified Haitian ministry or NGO could have provided desperately needed food, shelter, or medical care to an entire camp of earthquake survivors with the same funds. But for many people, when humans bless other humans in a logical, orderly fashion, it “just feels less supernatural.”

comfortzonefinal-happyWhere is God?
According to an old anecdote, the pastor of a country parish discovered a couple of local boys stealing from the collection plate. Hoping to instill in them some respect for the church, he sat one of the youngsters down in his office and stared at the boy in silence for several minutes. The pastor eventually leaned across his desk and asked in a stern voice, “Young man, where is God? Where is God?!”

The boy ran out of the office and met up with his friend. “Man, are we in trouble,” he gasped. “I don’t know what happened, but I think they’ve lost God, and they’re trying to blame us for it!”

The pastor’s question has been asked by humans since time immemorial: “Where is God?” The answer usually given has been that God is “someplace else.” (To this day, most human languages use the same word for “the sky” and “Heaven.”) If God is “out there” or “up there,” it stands to reason that most of the time, in most places, and in most circumstances, God is not here, making interventions all the more extraordinary and unusual.

In order to cling to belief in this supernatural/natural dichotomy, however, we must ignore all the biblical figures that God used by way of their talents and abilities. The apostle Paul used his brilliant rhetorical clarity to exhort the early church; Solomon instructed through his wisdom; Esther used her privileged position to prevent genocide. These people were not acting on their own in the natural world, an enclosed biosphere devoid of God’s activity. They were active participants in God’s work on earth, an earth in which every good and perfect gift is from God, where all of us live and move and have our being in God. In a universe whose very existence is constantly sustained by God, there is no such thing as the “natural” world—every second we are alive is a miracle.

Of course, sometimes God does use people in remarkable ways. Sometimes God’s presence is revealed in an unexpected manner despite horrific conditions, sometimes doing great things with projects, churches, and ministries that were poorly planned from day one. But to canonize the mythical land of supernatural miracles as especially holy is tantamount to ignoring God’s presence inside the comfort zone.

To be sure, challenging yourself and moving beyond what you are comfortable with can bring spiritual growth. But more often than not, feeling neurotically guilty about being in the comfort zone can, in fact, stifle spiritual growth. In addition, it can blind us from seeing the everyday miracles that take place inside our comfort zone—the place where we are content and fulfilled, doing what we do best. When a skilled surgeon relieves a man’s suffering, a well-trained counselor brings a woman back from the brink of suicide, or a persistent human rights attorney rescues a child from prostitution, God is very much present and active.

Len Schmidt has spent 25 years in the ministry as a pastor, associate pastor, youth minister, and US Air Force chaplain. David Schmidt, Len’s son, has experience in cross-cultural ministry in Latin America and Russia and is a freelance writer, author, and translator who speaks eight languages fluently.

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