Discernment / Exercises

Discernment Exercise: Pushing Beyond Comfort Zones

Last year a friend, Tim Giese, phoned with an invitation, though he worded it as a challenge. “You’re always talking about discerning culture,” he said with a good-natured snicker, “but there’s a lot of culture you don’t pay any attention to—let’s go to the mixed-martial arts cage fight at the fair grounds next week. Bet you’ve never discerned one of them!” He had a point. I had noticed the ads in the newspaper and knew the sport was wildly popular, but had never considered attending. For one thing, I can think of more entertaining things to do than watching young men beat on each other; for another, attending a cage fight is a bit outside my comfort zone. It meant stepping into a world different from the one I ordinarily inhabit. “This one has three title bouts between fighters from the US and Canada, so the rivalry will be intense” Tim added. I told him I’d love to go.

As we walked to the door of the arena that night the parking lot included some serious pickups—serious as in gun racks, over sized wheels, dried mud, and decals of Calvin (not the Reformer) relieving himself. Knots of young men stood smoking outside the entrance. “How’ya doing?” they asked, and when we said great, they seemed genuinely pleased. “Should be some great fights tonight,” my friend said, and they said the same in return, only with a lot of graphically descriptive adjectives that I won’t bother to repeat here. Tickets were $35/person for general admission; beer and pizza extra, and the venders were doing a brisk business. Uniformed cops were standing around all over. “That’s because some nights the best fights aren’t in the cage,” my friend mentioned. Most of the police were talking casually with people in the crowd; I got the impression that some of the young men might have met the cops before.

None of the fights went beyond a few rounds; most ended when a fighter “tapped out,” meaning the losing fighter taps a hand so the referee can see it, his opponent having gotten him into a painful hold from which he can not escape. One title match was over in seconds. A few punches were thrown, and then one launched a kick to the head of his opponent so fast it was a blur; the losing fighter simply dropped to the canvas, out cold.

In the stands were a handful of people my age (old enough for a discount in most restaurants), and I’d guess maybe a fourth of the audience looked to be above 35. The rest—the vast majority—were young adults. Sitting next to us was a group of young women, all of whom were seniors in high school or recently graduated. I spent the evening listening to the conversations going on around me. Young adults talking about the fights and fighters, certainly, but about much more, too: conversations about the myriad details of life, of school and jobs, of music and movies, of relationships and breakups, of hopes and fears. They were easy to talk to. They came to cage fights regularly, they told me, traveling to other cities when necessary. I asked them why. All their friends were there, one said. It’s a good place to talk, another said—and it is, since the time between matches added up to far more of the evening than the matches themselves did. “Things are real here,” one young woman said. Her friends agreed.

I couldn’t help but think of Fight Club—a film dismissed by so many as full of mindless violence, which made me wonder if they had actually watched the film. Violent: certainly, but mindless? Quite the opposite—the movie is relentless in its insistence that we face life squarely. All the Big Questions are not just hinted at in the film—they are part of the dialogue and the reason for the plot. And in the world of the film reality seemed more real, somehow, the violence piercing through the ordinary numbness that usually makes us skim across the surface of life.

Would the young adults sitting around me in that arena describe the church in similar terms—a place where things are real? Would they describe my home and life that way? If, as I believe, Christianity is true, then by God’s grace our community, lives and homes must partake of a reality that delights, attracts, and brings a shiver of fear to those who do not share it. If Christ is Lord of all, then faith is more than a patina of color to brighten up an otherwise drab existence. It must partake of reality, a reality that flows out into every corner of life, a reality that takes our breath away with wonder.

The second way my comfort zone was breached this past year involved visiting Islamic mosques. I’ve visited three: two in St. Louis, MO and the one in Rochester, Masjed AbuBakar, which is situated a few blocks from the Mayo Clinic. I wanted to make the visits, convinced that as a Christian I need to meet my Muslim neighbors, and grow in understanding their faith. On the other hand, walking into a mosque was something I had never done before, so I was unsure of what to expect. I felt that tension as I opened the door—walking in was just a bit outside my comfort zone.

The experience made me acutely aware of how foreign walking into a Christian church could be for someone who has never, or rarely attended one. It also made me realize how seldom I intentionally breach my comfort zone. I prefer to remain on the side of comfort. Yet, had Christ followed my usual pattern, there would have been no incarnation, no cross, no redemption. And I claim to follow him. In him, I am convinced, is the final reality.

Growing in faithfulness

Here’s an exercise that’s rather instructive. First, identify the limits of your comfort zone. Second, name some of what you are missing in life by staying within those limits. And then, if you are a Christian, identify the limits your comfort zone should have given your calling from God.

Begin by identifying the places, people, and groups where you feel most comfortable. Think of it as an inner circle: here you are with people who share your deepest convictions and values; you are in places where you have some confidence in your competence and acceptance; and in groups in which you feel generally at ease. Don’t rush the exercise; the more thought you bring to the process the more clearly you’ll be able to identify your comfort zone. Then, identify a series of two or three outer circles that represent decreasing comfort levels. Let the circles grow out of your own life and circumstances, so that they reflect the realities of life in the community in which you live. Doing this with a group of trusted friends is best—not only can shared laughter lighten the task, they may bring up aspects of the wider community that you may tend to ignore. Slowly begin to identify the limits of your comfort zone—the people, places, and groups with which you feel less at home, more ill at ease. The more specific you are, the more helpful the exercise becomes.

Then second, begin to identify what your comfort zone will make you miss by staying within those limits. What members of your wider community will remain outside your circle of friends and acquaintances? What groups will you tend to remain ignorant about, or know only on the basis of hearsay?

And finally, if you are a Christian, identify what the limits your comfort zone should be given your calling from God. (If you are uncertain as to your calling, see the recommended readings at the end of this article.) What neighbors do you have but not know? To what extent are your friendships and acquaintances limited to people who are like you, defined perhaps by faith or work or economic status? To what extent is your life defined by a subconscious pursuit of comfort, safety, and ease rather than a determined faithfulness in following Christ into a broken world? What fears tend to keep you from taking legitimate risks? Are there groups of people against whom you speak and vote (say pro-life or pro-choice folk, or pro-global warming or anti-global warming) but with whom you’ve never tried to have a serious ongoing, open-minded, winsome conversation? Are there representatives of beliefs, religions, ideologies, or spiritualities living around you but whom you have never taken seriously enough to listen to and ask intelligent questions? What should your comfort zone look like if it becomes one with Christ’s comfort zone? And what plans should you make to work towards this end? Here again, doing this exercise in a community of trusted, safe friends who share our deepest commitments can save us from mistaking a foolish leap for a thoughtful plan.

In Christ’s comfort zone

Francis Schaeffer, my spiritual mentor, used to warn about what he saw as a pernicious temptation for Christians in the West: personal peace, along with the affluence that made the pursuit of it possible. The problem is that life has gotten so busy, margins so slim, and stress so constant that personal peace seems less a temptation to avoid than a respite to be embraced. We can even come up with spiritual sounding justifications for pursuing it. The true solution to these pressures, though, is carefully planned cycles of rest. Personal peace, in contrast, is an attempt to keep from having to walk by faith, an escape from everything that is different from us as if our comfort is the final standard of all that is obedient for a believer.

It is foolish to try, but sometimes I try to imagine what Christ went through to enter my world: From an infinite, all-encompassing omnipresence to be a fetus in a womb, as the deity of all life to a slow, agonizing death by crucifixion, the One who spoke far-flung galaxies into existence yet was disbelieved by the ones he came to love. My mind boggles.

It’s a little less foolish to read the Gospel narratives and try to imagine some of what the disciples went through as they followed Christ. Walking with Jesus meant leaving their comfort zone to live in his. In Samaria, a place good Jews avoided, the disciples were surprised that Jesus would sit at a well in broad daylight talking unhurriedly with a woman (John 4:27). Though they may not have understood it fully at the time, Jesus clearly expected them to adopt his perspective in place of their own (John 4:31-43). He didn’t seem to worry much how comfortable they were about it, either. Another time Jesus disappeared when crowds of needy people were clamoring for him (Mark 1:32-39). It took a while for the disciples to track him down (he had slipped out before dawn to pray). “Everyone is looking for you,” they told him. “And he said to them, ‘Let us go on to the next towns.’” He knew his calling from his Father, and so could say No to good things in order to say Yes to what was truly important. There is no record whether the disciples understood—I doubt I would have—but it’s clear Jesus expected them to follow him. He touched untouchable lepers (Mark 1:41), insulted religious leaders (Matthew 23), befriended Roman collaborators (Luke 19:1-9), and for a Messiah had a horrible reputation (Matthew 11:19). Some people even came to Jesus wanting to become disciples, but he made their comfort zones the reason they could not (Luke 9:57-62).

I do not want the narrow limits of my comfort zone to disqualify me.

And I take comfort in knowing that being in Christ is the safest place to live. There will always be risk when we seek to follow Christ in faith, but that risk is always less dangerous than refusing to be faithful to the calling we have been given. After all, Jonah had his encounter with the fish running from faithfulness, not in the middle of fulfilling his calling (Jonah 1:10).

In the past I have proposed some of what seems to me to be required if we are to be faithful as Christians in our increasingly pluralistic world:

Learning to listen, really listening.
Asking thoughtful questions.
Giving the gift of unhurried time.
Opening our homes and lives in warm hospitality.
Developing skill in being discerning.

And I want to propose one more: intentionally breaking out of our comfort zones to walk by faith in Christ’s. It’s the only way we’ll be able to fulfill our calling from God.

I do not mean these things as a technique, or a formula, for they are neither. I mean them instead as a way of life, as habits of the heart that we can, by God’s grace grow into. They are not guilt-trips nor are they legalisms. They are meant instead, to shine a little light into the thicket of possibilities we face in order to make sense of the way forward.

Begin by taking stock of the extent your comfort zone is holding you back from being faithful. Then take a simple step of faith outside your zone. Join a discussion group sponsored by a bookstore (making time for it, if necessary, by dropping some activity at your church). Spend time each week knitting at a coffee shop until others join you. Call a mosque in your area and find out when you can visit—many host open houses and provide introductory talks on Islam. Ask a friend who is comfortable some place you are not if you can go with them to help you get past your dis-ease. Go on a short-term mission trip. Go to New Orleans and help Habitat for Humanity build houses.

How can we witness to God’s kingdom in Christ if we do not follow him into a broken, needy world?

There have been times in the past, after I have written an article like this, when I’ve then received emails from people demanding why I have encouraged readers to attend porn films or to visit brothels or to hang out with corner drug dealers—all that the correspondent could apparently think of as being outside a Christian’s comfort zone. Of course I am not suggesting that people set aside the dictates of conscience, or cross the line of good and evil, or to be foolish in a dangerous world. I suspect that it is fearfulness that causes people to read such absurdities into articles like this. A fear that since the truth is fragile, taking any step into a fallen world is spiritual folly. Such fear is unwarranted. We live in a deeply troubled world and in it, Jesus promised, we will have trouble. “But take heart,” he says, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Begin simply—but simply begin. When the Bible reveals that we are broken, fallen people, it means we can no longer trust our comfort zone to be an adequate standard for being faithful. And remember: at every step, we can have a quiet confidence that the safest, most ultimately fulfilling, shalom-infused place to be in this troubled world is to be in Christ.


1. Together with a small group of trusted, grace-full, kindred spirits, take the time, perhaps over several weeks, to go through the exercise outlined in the article.

2. Read each text of Scripture—and it’s immediate context—mentioned in this article. Are the texts of Scripture used appropriately by the author?

3. What other texts from Scripture could be used as further examples of how God’s people need to be moved beyond the narrow limits of their comfort zones?

4. What influences shaped and formed your comfort zone? To what extent were they appropriate earlier in your life? To what extent are they appropriate now?

5. Is there a close friend who might be willing to walk with you as you take some initial steps outside your comfort zone?

6. In his book, Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, John Stott says this when commenting on Jesus claim that his followers are to be salt in the world (Matthew 5:13-16): “God intends us to penetrate the world. Christian salt has no business to remain snugly in elegant little ecclesiastical salt cellars; our place is to be rubbed into the secular community, as salt is rubbed into meat, to stop it going bad. And when society does go bad, we Christians tend to throw up our hands in pious horror and reproach the non-Christian world; but should we not reproach ourselves? One can hardly blame unsalted meat from going bad. It cannot do anything else. The real question to ask is: where is the salt?” [p. 65] To what extent does the Christian community—do we—live as salt? Is it possible that part of the problem is related to people staying within their comfort zones?

7. In The Church at the End of the 20th Century, Francis Schaeffer comments on the diversity present in the 1st century Christians church: “The early Christian church cut across all lines which divided men—Jew and Greek, Greek and Barbarian, male and female; from Herod’s foster brother to the slave; from the naturally proud Gentiles in Macedonia who sent material help to the naturally proud Jews who called all Gentiles dogs, and yet who could not keep the good news to themselves but took it to the Gentiles in Antioch. The observable and practical love in our day certainly should also without reservation cut across all such lines as language, nationalities, national frontiers, younger or older, colors of skin, education and economic levels, accent, line of birth, the class system of our particular locality, dress, short and long hair among whites and African and non-African hairdos among blacks, the wearing of shoes and the non-wearing of shoes, cultural differentiations, and the more traditional and less traditional forms of worship” [p. 106]. Since Schaeffer wrote this in 1970, some of the specifics are dated—update his list with, for example: undocumented workers and legal immigrants, tattooed and pierced, etc. How comfortable would your church be with such diversity? How comfortable would you be? Why, in a wildly pluralistic society like ours, does Sunday morning tend to be, by and large, a homogeneous gathering rather than one as diverse as the wider society? What texts of Scripture might be useful for reflecting on this issue?


For further reading on calling:
The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life by Os Guinness (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson; 1998).
The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work by Lee Hardy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing; 1990).
Courage & Calling: Embracing Your God-Given Potential by Gordon Smith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1999).
Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation edited by William Placher (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing; 2005)