Spiritual practice: Discomfort
I have a confession: I like to be comfortable. No, really, I do. I don’t know where it came from, nor when it began, but I like to be comfortable. But so do frogs in kettles. You have likely heard the story of slowly killing a frog in a kettle of water by gradually raising the temperature. Because of the subtle change, I have heard it said, the frog never experiences discomfort.
We are not so different. A small compromise today can remain an option tomorrow as well. This concept was discussed in my reading about purity, but it can apply anywhere. The author of The Purity Principle, Randy Alcorn, demonstrated the effects of choices by slowly pushing a book off the desk. Even though he kept praying that the book would not fall, it had to obey the laws of gravity.
Comfort. We like it. I like it. And discomfort can slowly push away from where we should be. When discomfort comes, my first instinct has been to step aside. I am convinced that that is completely the wrong direction. I should step INTO. Take skiing, for example. Among the handful of times that I have been on downhill skis are the trips 4th and 5th graders take at my sons’ school. As a new skill, I do not like it. I do not like making mistakes, but moreover, I do not like being uncomfortable. However, my youngest son has wanted – for months – for me come on his trip this year. I agreed. But what would I do?
I debated about whether to ski or not (not) and then what to say. Not wanting to lie, nor make excuse, I settled on a truthful answer if Jonathan asked for an explanation. He asked me why I did not plan to ski, and I gave him what seemed like the truth – “I’m more comfortable not skiing.” I now dislike and regret that response, but that is what I said. So I justified; I made it right. I helped students get started on their skis. I helped them put equipment on. I gave encouragement. I visited. All good things. All avoidance techniques. I was avoiding the possibility of failure.
When Jonathan became frustrated and wanted to head to the lodge, I felt like my attempt to avoid failure had put me right smack in the middle of it.
If a seed in the ground avoided discomfort, it would never bloom and grow. If animals avoided discomfort, they would not emerge from their eggs. What discomfort are we avoiding? At dinner time, a knock came on the door right after the pizza was delivered. In fact, I thought it was the delivery person who had noticed or forgotten something. It was, instead, a man who said his name was Barry. Barry said he had cancer and AIDS and would work to earn money for his medicine. He also said he was not a panhandler.
All of this made me uncomfortable. Talking with him was not uncomfortable by itself. The nagging “What to do?” question did provide discomfort. I did know a request for money was coming. I did not know what was the truth. Did he have cancer? Would he buy medicine? His story was well-oiled, as they often are. BUT, I did know this truth: something has happened in Barry’s life that has made him dependent on others. He did ask for money, which I declined. I did ask where he was staying and did tell him he may stop by any time to see me. He finally settled upon asking for a cold beverage which I was glad to oblige.
What did Jonathan and Barry have in common today? Both were looking to m for help in their mess, in their discomfort. Instead of stepping into the mess with them, I offered advice from a safe distance. I need to work on that.
Think of a time when you would say Jesus was uncomfortable. The closest thing I could think of was his torture and crucifixion. But, even in that, his exercise of self-restraint, self-sacrifice, was precisely what he had practiced all of his life. It may have been a very comfortable experience for his spirit in that it was exactly right. We would do well to follow his lead.
The other day I considered adopting a practice of engaging new experiences for three seconds. Enter into a mess for three seconds. That is long enough to settle your feet, long enough to say, “Father, Son, Holy Spirit.” Long enough to decide if that discomfort is where you can stay while you are needed. Barry was looking for a quick fix to his discomfort. So was I. What I pray I will do is learn how to embrace discomfort. Did you notice that I mentioned that Barry knocked right after the pizza arrived? There is half of a pizza in the fridge right now. Am I so dense? Suppose I had taken three seconds to say, “Father, Son, Holy Spirit”? They may have revealed to me that Barry should step in and dine with us for the evening. That would have fit well with my spirit. Instead, I turned my discomfort aside.
Jonathan, while in the lodge today, saw me being comfortable. Then he saw me operate where I am comfortable – behind the scenes. He and I talked and he received my encouragement. He bounced back and later attacked his discomfort with joy. By the end of the day, he was looking at the hills he will engage next year.
Jesus was not just “Teacher,” but he was and is the one who takes away the sin of the world. He could not do such a thing unless he first decided to step into our mess. We have the same opportunity: to step into discomfort for the chance to grow, grow in faith, trust, love, grace, mercy and so much more. Do not run from your discomfort. Engage it with the help of the Lord.
There is a creed in the Heidelberg that reminds us of our “only comfort in life and death.” That only comfort – “that I am not my own, but belong body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ” – offers great comfort. But what if it is true, what if that is my only comfort?
If that is true, then what are all these other things that I call comforts? Be careful, they may all be steps toward the edge. They may be steps that take us away from the center – the center of God!s will.
Take the steps you need to place yourself back there, back in the center of His will. The steps themselves may feel uncomfortable, but I am certain that they will sit well with your spirit.