By Pastor Glenn Pease
It was 1847, and St. Paul, Minnesota was a town filled with ignorance and drunkenness. Liquor was sold in every store. Half the parents could not read, and so drinking was about their only form of entertainment. It was typical of frontier towns, and no one even dreamed of trying to make a difference. Then Harriet Bishop came along at age 13. She was converted to Christ and baptized as the youngest member of her Baptist church in Vermont. She read about missionaries and became determined to get an education to be one. She went off to Albany, New York to a Christian school for training teachers.
A pioneer missionary in St. Paul wrote a letter to that school telling of the desperate need for a godly teacher for the children. He painted no pretty picture, but warned of the sacrifice, risks, and obstacles. No one wanted the task except Harriet. She felt she was most needed there than anywhere else on earth. She accepted the call to be a missionary to Minnesota. Her call was confirmed by the special providence of God in her life. She did not want to travel on the Sabbath, and so she stayed over in Palmyra, New York instead of taking the ship Chesapeake that day. The ship went down in Lake Erie, and all the passengers were lost. She finally made it to St. Paul. The last 9 miles was in a canoe paddled by two Indian women.
Her first school house was a mud plastered log hovel. It was formerly a black smith shop on the corner of 3rd and St. Peter. Two weeks after her arrival she began the first Sunday School in town, and it became the foundation for the First Baptist Church of St. Paul. By the third Sunday there were 25 people. She started the fight for temperance to release the community from the bondage to alcohol. She took a lot of flack from the men, but she was supported by the women. She said, "To women is entrusted the future destiny of Minnesota." In 1867 she helped organize the Ladies Christian Union which helped the poor and homeless.
Like so many loving people she lacked good judgment for her choice of mates. Her first fiancé was a lawyer, and he broke the engagement just before the wedding. Seven years later she married a harness maker, and he was a drunkard. He was abusive, and after 9 years she divorced. Unhappy in love, but she still made a major difference in other lives as the founder of the first public school and first Sunday School in St. Paul. She broke out of her comfort zone in the East to be used of God in the West.
Almost everything in God's plan calls for breaking out of a comfort zone and taking some risk. God called Abraham from the center of a great civilization to go out to a land he knew nothing about. He gave up his security and comfort and headed West, and that was the beginning of the people of God. Very little can happen for positive change if people stay in their comfort zone. When Jesus said to deny yourself and take up the cross and follow Him He was saying in essence that we need to break out of our comfort zone to be useful for the kingdom of God.
That is what Jesus was saying to the rich young ruler. He was basically a good guy. He was raised from childhood to be obedient to the commandments of God. He grew up to be a very successful Jew. He was both rich and a ruler, and so he had achieved two of the most frequent dreams of men, which is the dream of having power and possessions. Yet for some reason he was not content, and he had some doubt about his relationship to God. His religion was obviously just mechanical and legalistic. He kept the commandments out of a sense of duty, and it was a mere matter of habit. He did not feel that he had a personal relationship with God, and so he had no assurance of eternal life.
Jesus knew he was typical of the many in Israel who had developed a mere legalistic religion where the kept a lot of rules and cared little to nothing about the needs to be met in a fallen world. They were religious and wealthy. They had the good life and they were content. Jesus shocked this young ruler by saying you lack one thing. He told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor, and then follow Him. Jesus never said this to any other person. Other rich people became His disciples, and He never told them to sell all and give it to the poor. You have Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, and others including some of his chosen 12. Peter and Andrew, and James and John had a substantial fishing company with hired hands, but Jesus did not tell them to sell it all.
The point is that Jesus is using this rich young ruler to teach a major lesson. The truly committed person is one who is willing to break out of a comfort zone for the sake of the kingdom. If you are content to stay stuck in the comfort zone, you are not available to be used to fulfill God's dream for you. He goes on to say to Peter that those who have left loved ones and possessions for the kingdom of God will be greatly rewarded, for giving up of comfort is a key sign that reveals that a person is really serious about the dream God has for them. No pain-no gain is a biblical truth. Almost every beneficial change in the history of mankind demanded that someone break out of a comfort zone. A hurting world is seldom helped by comfortable people. It is people who are willing to suffer hurt who help the hurting.
Jesus was comfortable in heaven. He was rich beyond anything we can conceive, but He became poor for our sake. He gave up perpetual pleasure and took on the persistent pain of a real human life. It was a life of rejection and then crucifixion. Had Jesus gotten stuck in His comfort zone there would be no plan of salvation, and we would face eternal condemnation rather than eternal comfort. We own everything to the fact that Jesus broke out of His comfort zone.
If you look at the history of every miserable situation and the people who changed it, you will see the same pattern. Somebody has to break free and pay the price of sacrificing their own comfort. For example, take the life of Sara Josephine Baker. She was born in 1873 to a well to do lawyer in New York. Her mother was one of the first to inter Vasser's new college for women. They were rich, educated, and sophisticated. Sara became a female doctor when it was very rare. In 1902 she was offered the job of seeking out sick babies in New York for the health department. Believe it or not, in 1902 there were 1500 babies that died every week in New York City. Dr. Baker climbed stairway after stairway where she saw drunk and filthy mothers with dying babies. She came to the conclusion that these babies were better off dead than to have so degrading a life.
The whole medical community was fatalistic. It was inevitable that these babies would die, and nothing could change it. By the time doctors saw these babies it was too late to save them. Dr. Baker fell into the comfort zone of accepting the inevitable. But then in 1907 The Bureau Of Municipal Research asked Dr. Baker to help find the reason for New York's high death rate. She learned that one fifth of them died before they were one, and one third died before they were five. It was obvious that the only solution would be prevention of the sicknesses that killed them.
The Bureau made a new division for prevention, and made Dr. Baker the chief of this division. She chose to experiment in the Lower East Side populated by Italians newly arrived in New York. It had one of the highest infant death rates. She used all of the city school nurses who were off for the summer to go and teach parents of all the newborns the principles of child hygiene. At the end of the summer there were 1200 fewer deaths than the summer before, and all other areas of the city had as many deaths as ever. All of the medical skeptics were convinced that it was not inevitable that masses of babies die each summer. 35 year old Sara Baker became the head of the first government bureau in the world concerned with child hygiene. She was the first person to act on the idea that preventative medicine was a function of government.
She had enormous battles with the medical profession, the New York City school board, the psychologist, and basically all professional people. Nevertheless she pressed on, and her programs saved tens of thousands of babies. The paradox is that it was among the poor that the death rate was drastically reduced. She was never able to achieve this reduction among the wealthy because they refused to believe her. In pride they had to see their babies die at a greater rate than was the case among the poor. The medical profession kept killing mothers and babies at a higher rate than any other country except Chili, but the thousands of mid-wives who trained to work with the poor were saving lives at a greater rate than ever before in history.
Her successes were so great that her division became the largest in the New York Department Of Public Health. The city's infant morality rate became the lowest of all the major city's of the world. By 1923 there were agencies for preventive child hygiene in every state and many foreign countries. You and I may be alive today because of one wealthy sophisticated lady who broke out of her comfort zone and devoted her life to saving poor babies. History reveals that Jesus was right. The kingdom of God, that is the realm where God's will reigns and His will is done on earth as it is in heaven, does not overcome and conquer the kingdom of darkness unless someone is willing to break out of their comfort zone.
The best of people who just conformed to the system whatever it is get comfortable with what is in every realm of life. The only hope for change that can make a difference is a non-conformist who is willing to risk his or her own comfort for the sake of benefiting others. The reason it is so hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God is because they are the most comfortable. It goes against the grain of human nature to give up their comfort for the good of others, and even for achieving what they know is God's will. But Jesus says though it is impossible for men to break out of their comfort zone, it is possible with God. By the grace of God we can break free and be used to fulfill God's dream for us. But let's be honest and admit that we love our comfort zone. Who of us would not join the rich young ruler in being sad if we were told to sell all our possessions and give it to t he poor?
We like the kind of rut we are in. We like our net worth to rise each year, and we like to acquire more stuff. We like to be comfortable, and don't like to look for ways to break out of our comfort zone. This is the American dream, and it is more acceptable to our nature than the demands of the kingdom of God to sacrifice comfort. Most of us are not fighting to figure out how to break free, but of how to maintain the comfort zone. Someone wrote, "A burley construction foreman lined up his crew and told them that he could lick any man on this gang. A husky young man stepped forward and said, 'You can't lick me.' The foreman looked him over carefully and replied, 'You're probably right. You're fired.'" What threatens our comfort is not welcomed as a challenge, but rejected as a foe of our dreams.
All change is something of a threat. Change means you may have to move out of your comfort zone. If you try something new, or strive to develop a new relationship, it means a likely sacrifice of something old. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. He saw something in Jesus that challenged his comfort zone. He was basically in the same boat as the rich young ruler, but he was a rich old ruler. He was stuck in his comfort zone, and Jesus said that he needed to be born again. He did not tell him to sell all and give to the poor, but said that he needed a rebirth. He needed to escape his legalistic and mechanical religion and experience the love of God with all his heart. He was set in his ways as were all the leaders of the Sanhedrin. He showed that it is not true that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. The rich young ruler went away sad, but Nicodemus went away glad, for he realized it is never to late to break out of ones comfort zone. He did it and went against the majority to become a follower of Jesus.
Peter was the oldest of the 12 Apostles, but he was more willing that the rest to break out of his comfort zone. He was the only one with the faith to step out of the boat in a storm to go to Jesus. That boat was the comfort zone of all of them, but Peter took the risk. He didn't get far before he started to sink, but he did break free and gave Jesus a chance to show him that his security was not in himself, but in Jesus. It is often a leap of faith to break out of a comfort zone, for you may no longer be in control, but have to surrender your destiny to the Lord. This leads to a lot of discomfort to let go of the wheel and let another take charge. It is hard at any age, but all ages are expected to do it to experience God's best.
Comfort is not our goal as Christians. We love it and hate to leave it, but it is not our goal. The goal is to be channels of God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Our goal is to be Christ like in all areas of life. Our goal is to love God with all our being and our neighbor as our selves. Our goal is to fulfill the Great Commission, and do our best to see that the whole world hears the Gospel. There may be a great deal of joy and satisfaction in aiming for these goals, but on the other hand, there may be a great deal of risk and sacrifice. If our comfort is not leading us to success, then we need to face reality, and recognize the need to break out of our comfort zone, and be willing to pay the price of discomfort for the kingdom of God. Even success is dangerous, for it can lead us to be comfortable and not be willing to pay the price for a greater dream.
Back in August of 1985, 200 lifeguards with the New Orleans Recreation Department gathered at the city pool for a party. It was the first summer in memory when there had not been a drowning in any of the New Orleans pools. They were celebrating this great success record, but at the party a 31 year old man, Jerome Moody, drowned in that very pool. There was such a sense of security in their success that nobody dreamed of staying on the alert, and one of their own was neglected and drowned. They got too comfortable in their success, and the result was a failure.
This also happens to Christians. Janette George, who played Corrie Ten Boom in The Hiding Place became so popular after that movie came out. She was a Christian celebrity over night, and people saw her as Corrie Ten Boom. She was on platforms with Christian leaders in all fields. In TV interviews she was asked about her views on controversial issues she never knew existed. But not knowing, never kept her from answering. People expected her to be all wise, and she felt comfortable with all the attention, and the assumption that she was just like Corrie. The fact is, it was all a front, and she was pretending to be someone she was not. She became a hypocrite playing a role that made her feel good. She wrote her book Travel Tips From A Reluctant Traveler to set the record straight and start being herself. She had to break out of that comfort zone of being somebody else to be the person God wanted her to be. Her very success in being somebody else was making her a failure at being who she really was. The price for getting back to her really self was discomfort.
Her problem was more similar to that than the rich young ruler than it appears on the surface. She was loading her life with that which gave her comfort, but which also robbed her of being authentic. It seemed like a dream come true, but it was not the dream that God had for her. God dreams for us to become fully ourselves, and not to escape into the fantasy of being someone else. She had to get rid of the excessive luggage if she was going to travel to the destination God had in mind for her. That was the problem with the rich young ruler. He was loaded down with possessions, and was actually enslaved to them, and the result was he could not follow Jesus.
Breaking out of our comfort zone often means we need to learn to travel light. We get so encumbered with life's stuff that we are no longer free to go the way God desires for us to go. The rich young ruler could not travel light because he could not let go. We are not in a position to judge him, for my guess is that none of us are able to travel as light as Jesus expects. We cannot let go, and so we hold on to our comfort level and miss the adventure God has planned for us. Back in 1915 the ship Endurance was locked into the freezing ice in the Antarctic. Sir Ernest Shackleton, the great polar explorer, called all of the crew together and explained that their only hope was to abandon the ship and drag the lifeboats over the ice to the open sea 350 miles away, and then sail 1000 miles to the nearest civilization.
He told them that the key to their success would be to travel light. To show just how serious he was about this he took out the gold coins he had in his pocket and threw them into the snow. He then took his Bible which had been given to him by Queen Alexandria, he turned to Psa. 23 and tore it out, and he tore out the fly leaf with the Queen's inscription, and put these in his pocket and laid the Bible gently in the snow, and he walked away. Nobody could miss the point. Survival meant letting go of all that was not absolutely vital. They followed his example and by the grace of God, after 13 months of unbelievable danger and hardship, they made it back to safety. They survived because they traveled light.
The rich young ruler could not do it. He held to his load and did not make it into God's dream for him. Many are the accounts of people in ship wrecks who cannot let go of their money bags or prize possessions, and they sink as a consequence. Christians who can't let go of a painful past let it drag them down. Christians who can't let go of a comfortable present let that hold them back. There does not seem to be an end to all the ways Satan can keep us from God's dream. It seems like some sort of suffering has to be endured to make progress in the Christian life, and this is a hard choice to make, for all of us prefer comfort to suffering. But if you read the biographies of the people God has used in history, you discover there were not many who lived lives of great comfort. They were more likely to be facing discomfort perpetually.
The point is, we all have or comfort zones. We like the thermostat between 65 and 75, and we like to get through the grocery line in 10 minutes or less. We like company to stay just three days at the most, and we like 6 to 8 hours of sleep a night, and we like people to agree with the way we think. When circumstances and people do not cooperate and our comfort level is disturbed, we find it hard to be Christ like. Our old nature takes over and God's dream for us to be holy and blameless gets shattered. We are not as different from the rich young ruler as we like to think. What we hold on to may not be the same, but all of us hold on to some comfort zone that is hard to let go of, and we tend to go backward instead of forward because of it.
Few of us escape entirely from the very comfort zone the rich young ruler held onto. It was the comfort of acquiring and possessing things. Scott Wesley Brown, the musician, wrote a song called "Things."
Things upon the mantle,
Things on every shelf,
Things that others gave me,
Things I gave myself,
Things I've stored in boxes,
That don't mean much anymore,
Old magazines and memories
Behind the attic door,
Things on hooks and hangers,
Things on ropes and rings,
Things I guard that blind me to
The pettiness of things.
Am I like the rich young ruler-
Ruled by all I own?
If Jesus came and asked me,
Could I leave them all alone?
Oh, Lord, I look to heaven,
Beyond the veil of time,
To gain eternal insight
That nothing's really mine
And to only ask for daily bread
And all contentment brings
To find freedom as Your servant
In the midst of all these things.
For discarded in the junkyards,
Rusting in the rain,
Lie things that took the finest years
Of lifetimes to obtain,
And whistling through these tombstones
The hallow breezes sing
A song of dreams surrendered to
The tyranny of things.
May God help us all to dare to dream again, and break out of the comfort zones that hold us back from an adventure with God.