Archive for January, 2014

Safety, comfort, and security. They sound like wonderful, worthy goals that no one would take issue with. After all, who would willingly seek out and embrace their opposite numbers, danger, suffering, and turmoil? Yet in a previous post I began to make the case that these three nearly universally accepted values of the western world are in fact slowly suffocating and choking the life out of the faith of most Christians. In that post the focus was on our obsession with safety and its negative impact on a faith that trusts God enough to move into circumstances that on the outside appear risky, even dangerous, when remaining in place is actually more dangerous to your soul.

This post is about comfort. On the surface you would think who could possibly have an issue with comfort. The Bible itself is full of references to comfort and how God promises to comfort His people. Not all comfort is created equal. When God offers to comfort His people it generally is in the context of a people who are suffering and God wants to strengthen them in the midst of hardship. That is what comfort is really about. It is the combination of two Latin root words, com, meaning with or alongside and forte meaning strength. So to comfort someone in a classic sense is to be alongside them providing strength. I will take kind of comfort whenever I can get it, especially when it is God who offers it.

Far from a comfort that brings strength in time of need is the 21st century variety. Our value of comfort is more about making life free from all struggle, all hassle and all minor irritation. It is about making a nice life as soft and plush as possible. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating pain and suffering as a virtue to be pursued. Last year I put in nearly 175,000 miles in an airplane seat as I traveled the world helping train pastors and leaders to plant churches. That level of frequent flyer miles means that on rare occasions I get bumped up from economy to business or first class. Trust me, it has never crossed my mind to turn down that upgrade to a more comfortable seat in the name of some misguided love of discomfort. When you have a fourteen hour flight ahead of you and someone offers you a bigger, softer reclining seat with a meal served on real plates, you take it. There is nothing “holy” about bumping elbows with your neighbor as you try to eat bad food with the seatback in front of you nearly in your lap. Yes, I will take the upgrade when I get it. What I try hard to do is take it as a blessing so that when I don’t get upgraded flying overseas, which is 90% of the time, I don’t get annoyed and put out by the experience.

When I speak of our obsession with comfort I am talking about what I see as a value that no one should ever be physically, emotionally or socially uncomfortable. Take some time to watch ads on television and you will quickly see that Madison Avenue is selling, among other things, the life of comfort. Anything that makes life easier, more plush, softer, is good. It doesn’t matter if the product is a car or toilet paper. Conversely, anything that is difficult, hard or stressful is intrinsically bad. Parents want their children to never ever feel uncomfortable so to the delight of makers of sports trophies, even the worst player on the worst soccer or Little League Baseball team gets a trophy at the end of the year because Lord forbid that a child should be forced to deal with the painful reality that some people are better at kicking or hitting a ball than they are. 

So what does this have to do with your Christian faith? Simply this, I have found that my faith often grows stronger when I am forced outside my “comfort zone” and it grows weaker and softer the more comfortable my situation and surroundings. Our cultural value that seeks out comfort at nearly any cost is in direct conflict with one of the most important ways God uses to deepen our faith and relationship with Him. Imagine for a moment that you are faced with two possibilities. You can take a two-week vacation to that favorite relaxing spot you’ve always dreamed about. Be it a tropical beach resort or a lush mountain getaway, it doesn’t much matter. The point is it is a place of comfort, beauty, special service, fantastic food, huge soft beds and wonderful hot tubs. You enjoy the comfort of servants who cater to your every need. Each night you go to bed stuffed from the abundance and variety of the food you feasted on. At the end of it all you drag yourselves to the airport and go home to face the work week. You love the time you had in comfort but somehow feel like you need a vacation to rest from your vacation, yet you cannot of the life of you think of what you did that really mattered and will last.

Your other option is two weeks in a third world country caring for AIDS orphans. The food will be the same everyday, something along the lines of pasty grits with some beans on top. You will bath out of a bucket after a night of sleeping on a very hard bed under a mosquito net. But everyday you will be challenged by the smiles and laughter of children who have nothing but feel they have everything because you came to love them for the briefest of days. You will find yourself praying for strength and feeling guilty that you complain about the food knowing that these kids eat the same thing everyday. Well actually only Monday through Friday when they have school. On weekends there is no food at home. You will find yourself reading your Bible every morning AND evening because you need it like never before. Incredibly the words jump off the pages and into your heart as never before. When it is finally time to go home the tears flow as children rush to hug you and say goodbye and it takes all you have to peel them away and not smuggle one or two into the van.

Which was the more comfortable two weeks? Which was the more difficult, challenging and uncomfortable? Which one did nothing to strengthen your faith and as a result actually weakened it? Which one changed you forever and drew you nearer to the heart of Jesus as never before? That answers are obvious, yet most people will never, ever consider the uncomfortable two weeks because it is just that, uncomfortable. They dismiss it out of hand without realizing they have made a decision based on a deeply held cultural value and not a call from God to change the world. It is not just the decisions on what to do with two weeks of vacation that is in play here. It is the decisions we make every day to select comfort over challenge, ease over effort, soft over sacrifice. Those daily decisions add up over time to suck the life out of the Christian faith.

Faith in Jesus is a living, breathing thing. Like all living things when healthy it grows and even reproduces. As long as it receives the proper nourishment and right environment it can flourish. But if we cut back on the nourishment or the environment becomes toxic, sickness and even death can result. The scriptures speak often of the difference between the things of this world and the things of God. For the follower of Christ our citizenship is in heaven but we currently live in this world as something akin to aliens and sojourners. We are to some degree living in an environment that by its very nature threatens the health of our faith.

The environmental issues that most threaten the health of Christianity in America are not the things that we Christians typically focus on, you know the lists of various sins du jour that come under scrutiny. There was a time when many preachers focused on three “big” sins of sex, drugs, and rock n roll as the cause of the coming downfall of the American Church. Sex, (whether of the homosexual or heterosexual variety), drugs even legalized marijuana, and certainly rock n roll will not be the death of Christianity in America. Rather there is a different big three that are far more insidious and dangerous. I am convinced that the American obsession with safety, comfort and security are slowing sucking the life’s breath out of Christianity in our country because Christians have unwittingly and uncritically been breathing the toxic air of an environment in which those three values subtly influence nearly every decision we make.

The illustration of a frog in a kettle of water has been used often, even being the title of a widely read book on church growth and transformation in the 80’s. The idea being that if you put a frog in a kettle of water that is extremely hot the frog will immediately jump out and save its life. But if you put the frog in water that is a comfortable temperature and will stay there even as you slowly raise the temperature to boiling and kill the frog. Christians in America are the frog in the cultural kettle. Over time the culture values of safety, comfort and security have become more and more the guiding values and as that has increased, we have not even noticed the life threatening change. Or maybe to stay with the analogy of air, many people have slowly succumbed to the toxic poisoning of carbon monoxide without even realizing they were breathing in their very death. In either case the point is, our cultural values of safety, comfort and security are killing our faith and witness and in a shocking irony we are embracing those values as being prudent, wise and even biblical.

Let’s talk about the first of those, safety. We have become obsessed with safety to the point that products have warning labels that go to the extreme of telling you not to use your electric hair dryer while sitting in the bathtub full of water. Children are not allowed to ride their big wheels unless they are wearing OSHA approved helmets and are in the basement where the walls are covered with protective foam and the floors are rubber. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we should be reckless and there are real risks to life and limb in the world. But it seems to me that we have progressed, or may regressed to the point where anything that has the slightest potential what-so-ever to have a bit of danger in it is immediately off-limits. I contend that in our efforts to insulate ourselves from any pain, hardship or disaster we have in fact insulated ourselves from life in the process.

So how has this impacted the church? I have three sons, the second of whom spent a year in Egypt. It wasn’t just any year. It was the year of the revolution. He arrived in Cairo just a few weeks after Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president. During the year my son was there protests and violent clashes were still a fact of life. Tahrir Square was at times a battle ground and people died. On more occasions than I can count people asked my wife and I if we were worried about his safety. Our answer was always the same and it was heartfelt and fully believed. Our son was convinced that God wanted him to be in Egypt serving others during that year. With that as our foundation we were certain that the safest place for him to be was Cairo, Egypt. Our home in Orlando would not have been safe, at least not in ways that really matter. His year in Egypt was a year of amazing growth and life for him. Was it risky on a physical level, sure. Would Orlando have been less a physical risk, maybe, maybe not. But it certainly would have been a greater risk to his faith and relationship with Jesus. Only by stepping into the risky place where God had called him for that year could he have experienced the things that so deeply impacted his relationship with Jesus and his view of the world.

Here is the point. Jesus never promised us safety. Instead he promised us life, life abundant which is a far better deal than mere safety. Jesus said in John 10:10 “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly”. He promised us life to the fullest which only comes in a healthy, living, breathing relationship with Him. That means sometimes going places and doing things that seem risky to a world obsessed with safety. Oh and the other thing Jesus promised is that we would face danger and even suffer. In Matthew 10:16 he warned his followers that he was sending them out like sheep in the midst of wolves. That usually doesn’t turn out well for some of the sheep. But notice that Jesus did not say, hey there are wolves out there. It’s dangerous. You better stay inside. No, instead he acknowledged the wolves and warned that they are there. But we are not meant to live life as sheep protected behind the walls of a sheep pen safe from all harm. We were made to go into the world, living life and bringing life, even when it is dangerous, even when there are wolves around. It is in those moments that you will experience being fully alive.

Somehow we have bought into the cultural worldview that sees anything hard, painful and the least bit dangerous as something to be avoided. The result being very few Christians will ever feed a homeless person because who knows what they might to when you give them something to eat. Very few Christians will ever use vacation time to go serve in another country or even another part of America, because isn’t it dangerous there? Very few Christians will ever share their faith in Christ with a neighbor for surely they may get mad at me? Very few Christians will ever truly experience the abundant life Jesus offers us because we are obsessed with being safe when in reality we are slowly destroying ourselves by breathing the toxic air of a cultural value.

The Kingdom of God will not be advanced by Christ followers who are always measuring what to do based on the value of being safe. In such a worldview being safe will always trump advancing the kingdom because advancing the kingdom is not safe, it is risky and dangerous, but it is full of life, life abundant.

Part 1 of 3. Next up, How Our Obsession With Comfort Has Made Us Spiritually Obese.

Recently I was asked to be a guest on a local news program to share a few thoughts about Hollywood’s new found fascination with stories from the Bible. With the upcoming release of Noah starring Russell Crowe as well as The Son of God, as telling of the life of Jesus, there appears to be a willingness on the part of Hollywood producers to explore themes of faith in a serious way. It remains to be seen what the long term impact, if any, there will be from this slight shift but we can be hopeful that it bodes well for the future.

Here is a link to a video of the interview. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdxmFXTdm3Q

Given the nature of live local newscasts it is short. Thanks to Rob Andrescik for recording and posting the video.

Dan