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The Devil Wears Sweatpants

We love to be comfortable. It’s easy; it’s convenient; it’s killing us. Comfort can be a great thing in the moment. But it can have terrible side effects. It promises ease but prolongs misery. That’s why God calls us to be uncomfortable.

Biblical Theology

Many Old Testament characters are called to an uncomfortable life of faith and are called to change their beliefs and locations simultaneously. Abraham is called to believe in the promise of a new God while moving to a new land (Gen. 12:1-3). His daughter-in-law Rebekah agrees to leave her family ten days early to follow God’s will and meet her future husband Isaac (24:58). Jacob’s faith emerges during a journey between Beersheba and Haran (28:10; 16-22). Then there are the prophets, whose commission is not simply to accept the call of God, but to take the message to a people. Jonah is called to change and go. He becomes miserable.

It’s hard to grow in faith when we are comfortable. God tends to work through periods of struggle more than seasons of bliss.

We see this in the life of Jesus, who builds his ministry around two simple words: follow me. When Jesus asks disciples to follow him, they don’t just do so with their hearts; they leave their nets. They quit their jobs and travel. They have hard conversations with their families. They make sacrifices. Some would-be followers are preoccupied with farming, real estate, and marriage. Jesus continues on.


“God tends to work through periods of struggle more than seasons of bliss.”


We live in a world of comfort, marked by air conditioning in houses and heated seats in cars. We mock Blockbuster and RadioShack as relics of an era that required us to actually leave our homes to obtain what we wanted. We hate to be uncomfortable.

But physical comfort is not the thing that worries me most. I don’t see much value in turning off the air conditioning just to be miserable. There is a more pernicious form of comfort that wages war with our souls. We can see this in three places: universities, churches, and neighborhoods.

In Three Places

Universities

Universities have come under fire in recent years for promoting a culture of safe spaces, racially-segregated programming, and speaker cancellations. Student safety is routinely cited as the principal objection. But what does safety mean? During the meltdown over Yale’s Halloween in 2015, one student claimed the university should “create a place of comfort and home.” That actually sounds like a great description of a community college, but a terrible slogan for a residential one.[1] Jonathan Haidt claims, “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make people think.”[2]

Some slightly cranky parents and grandparents hear of these college spats and respond by self-righteously pontificating that college is supposed to be hard and these Gen Z snowflakes with their phones, helicopter parents, and Enneagram numbers are products of a soft culture of participation trophies. Maybe. But before we side with the Boomer yelling “Get off my Quad!,” we must note that comfort existed long before the smartphone, and that many of the habits of comfort were not invented by Gen Z; they were inherited. Maybe some of these same students learned entitlement from their church.


“Many of the habits of comfort were not invented by Gen Z; they were inherited.”


Churches

The church is the agent of God’s mission but occasionally forgets that the word “mission” implies risk and discomfort. Churches have been racially segregated for far too long (though that is changing with the growth of multi-ethnic churches). Some congregations are preoccupied with boutique theological disagreements, while deaf to the poverty and injustice in their communities. Petty worship wars have spilled unnecessary blood on the sanctuary carpet. Minor changes to services or experiments with new experiences are rejected by some for nothing more than making them feel uncomfortable. The cross loses its allure when it’s covered in bubble wrap.


“The cross loses its allure when it’s covered in bubble wrap.”


I was recently at a church whose security detail made me feel like I was a guest speaker at the Pentagon. Youth leaders repeatedly pray for safety on mission trips. Does it bother us that Paul and Jesus never pray for God’s mission this way? None of us want our kids to be hurt on a mission trip. But isn’t exposure to the plight of those who lack stability and security the point of a mission trip? The best thing someone can see on a mission trip is a person whose life is not totally engineered around personal comfort. Even Covid policies in churches went far beyond reasonable precautions by attending to the irrational fears of a few people who couldn’t imagine the entire group not bending to their own personal comfort.

Neighborhoods

This love of comfort is present in our neighborhoods. Recently Memphis had a terrible week where a beloved local teacher and runner, Eliza Fletcher, was abducted and murdered while jogging early in the morning. It was absolutely tragic and horrifying. I can’t imagine the grief being suffered by her family. A few days later a gunman opened fire randomly around town, killing three. Again, tragic and horrifying.

In the ensuing hours, well-meaning Christians peppered social media with appeals to stay at home, even suggesting that our streets are no longer safe. Memphis exceeds 300 square miles, making it one of the most sprawling metros in the country. For context: Atlanta is 135, Cleveland is 92, and San Francisco is under 50. This means that when a bad thing happens in Memphis, it isn’t particularly close to everyone else who lives in Memphis. Are we seriously telling the 600,000 people spread out over a landmass larger than Singapore that they should stay indoors because one terrible thing happened? That seems a bit much.

If we think the city is violent now, imagine what it will be like when all the people of God hide away in fear while binging HBOMax and drowning their sorrows in Takis and LaCroix. If we are constantly in fear, then what exactly is the message of God’s command, “Be strong and courageous” (Josh. 1:9)? Let’s not make urban areas our Nineveh.


“Let’s not make urban areas our Nineveh.”


It’s really hard to be a disciple when we feel entitled to comfort. When our workplaces, universities, and churches ensure maximum comfort, we get used to it. And then even the most minor discomforts can break us. Disciples are going to have to be more committed to accepting discomfort as a condition of discipleship if we are going to be any earthly good where we are. We must consider times of discomfort part of our mission.

1. We will need to be uncomfortable in matters of race and ethnicity.

If we are going to lead churches that are multicultural and minister to communities that are multicultural, we will need to get uncomfortable. Anyone can listen, talk, laugh, and cry in a homogenous group. It takes patience and humility to do it among those who are different. One of the things God has given me by ministering in Memphis is regular experiences in rooms where I’m the only white person. These experiences are invaluable for ministry.

2. We will need to be uncomfortable in a post-Christian world.

At the very same moment as white people become less of a majority, Christians will become a minority in America. Christians must learn what it means to faithfully minister in Babylon, even if Babylon used to be called the Bible Belt. Being on a mission field will require us to be on a mission. We must learn how to be church in the marketplace and understand how to share good news among people who share none of our philosophical assumptions.


“Christians must learn what it means to faithfully minister in Babylon, even if Babylon used to be called the Bible Belt.”


3. We will need to be comfortable in situations that make us feel unsafe.

When Jesus sends out disciples, he forecasts all of the possible conflicts they must negotiate (Matt. 10). If the conversations were easy, anyone would have them. If the work was comfortable, everyone would do it. But they don’t.

Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered (Heb. 5:8). We can too. We must be in proximity to our neighbors by going into poor neighborhoods. We should boldly stay engaged in classrooms and conversations even when our viewpoint is being attacked. Jesus was mocked on a cross; we can handle a few criticisms.


“Jesus was mocked on a cross; we can handle a few criticisms.”


Disciples must avoid comfort and take risks. We must abandon our own pursuit of comfort for the mission of God in the world. When we do that, God does not abandon us. In fact, he does the opposite. He comforts us. When we stop obsessing about our own comfort, we are able to comfort one another as well.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.” (2 Cor. 1:3-5)


[1] Conor Friedersdorf, “The New Intolerance of Student Activism,” The Atlantic (November 9, 2015) https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/the-new-intolerance-of-student-activism-at-yale/414810/.

[2] Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind (New York: Penguin, 2018).

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