EDITORIAL - Out of the Comfort Zone
The Lord's teaching style continually revolved around posing explicit and implicit questions to His hearers. John's Gospel contains a total of 161 questions; and one brief passage in Mark ( 8:14-21) records how the Lord asked seven questions in quick succession. In this sense, the Lord Jesus intended to be intrusive into human life; He penetrates the depths of our being. His call to pick up a cross and follow Him was radical- so radical, that His hearers both then and now tended to [even unconsciously] negate the totally radical import of His demands.
The Challenge Of The Cross
The rich young man would fain have followed Jesus. But he was told that he must sell all that he had, give to the poor, and take up the cross to follow Christ (Mk. 10:21). Notice how the ideas of following Christ and taking up the cross are linked. The man went away, unable to carry that cross, that sacrifice of those material things that were dearest to him. Peter responds with the strong implication that he had done all these things, he was following the Master, and by implication he felt he was carrying the cross. Notice the parallels between the Lord's demand of the young man, and Peter's comment (Lk. 18:22 cp. 28; Mk. 10:21 cp. 28):
"Sell all that thou hast and distribute to the poor
"We have left all
…and come, take up the cross
[no comment by Peter]
and follow me"
…and have followed thee"
Peter seems to have subconsciously bypassed the thing about taking up the cross. But he was sure that he was really following the Lord. He blinded himself to the inevitable link between following Christ and self-crucifixion; for the path of the man Jesus led to Golgotha. We have this same tendency, in that we can break bread week after week, read the records of the crucifixion at least eight times / year, and yet not let ourselves grasp the most basic message: that we as followers of this man must likewise follow in our self-sacrifice to that same end.
The Gospel records, Luke especially, often record how the Lord turned and spoke to His followers- as if He was in the habit of walking ahead of them (Lk. 7:9; 10:23; 14:25; 23:28; Mt. 9:22; Jn. 1:38). As we saw above, Peter thought that following the Lord was not so hard, because he was literally following Jesus around first century Israel, and identifying himself with His cause. But he simply failed to make the connection between following and cross carrying. And we too can agree to follow the Lord without realizing that it means laying down our lives. The Lord brought Peter to face this with a jolt in Mt. 16:22-25. Peter was following Jesus, after He had predicted His crucifixion (for Jesus "turned, and said unto Peter"). He thought he was following Jesus. But he was told: "Get thee behind me…if any man will come after me (s.w. 'behind me'), let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (s.w.)". The italicized words are all the same in the original. Peter didn't want the Lord to die by crucifixion at Jerusalem, because he saw that as a follower of Jesus this required that he too must die a like death. Peter needed to get behind Jesus in reality and really follow, in the sense of following to the cross, although he was there physically behind Jesus, physically following at that time. The Lord was saying: 'Don't think of trying to stop me dying. I will, of course. But concentrate instead on really getting behind me in the sense of carrying my cross'. John's record stresses that the key to following Jesus to the cross is to hear His word, which beckons us onwards (Jn. 10:4,27). All our Bible study must lead us onwards in the life of self-sacrifice. But Peter loved the Lord's words; yet, as pointed out to him at the transfiguration, he didn't hear those words of Christ deeply. And so he missed the call to the cross.
All this explains why we find it so hard to stop our minds from wandering at the breaking of bread. It explains why we struggle with the records of the crucifixion. Who He was there, what He was there, is a powerful imperative to us to do and be likewise. For we are brethren in Christ, in Him, the crucified Christ. In our deep subconscious, it seems to me, we know how we ought to live in Him. We don't respond well to merely being told how we ought to live by well meaning brethren. The final motivation must be a real person we know, a man, a human, a more-than-man, a hero who inspires and reveals our deepest conscience. And in the cross we have just that Man.
The Radical Life
In the account of Peter walking on water we have a cameo of what it means to walk out of our comfort zone. Peter asked the man on the water to invite him to walk on the water; for Peter knew that only Jesus would be that demanding. He's a demanding Lord for us too. Peter didn't have to get out of the boat. But He realised that following the Lord Jesus involves this stepping out of our comfort zone. For us, it may be making a radical donation of our money, our time, a donation that really hurts, that is significant, not a giving that is well within our comfort zone. Or it may be a radical forgiveness - and I'm sure we can all think of many other things that may be our 'walking out on the water'. Picture Peter as he stood by the side of the boat, wind blowing his hair back and forth, rain driving into his forehead, his brethren muttering, 'You're absolutely crazy, there's no need for this…we're only going to have to save you ourselves'. He must have felt so alone. There was no human encouragement. Probably his thoughts went back to the wife and children he had left behind on the other side of the lake, in that humble home in that quaint fishing village. But his focus was upon one Man, the same Lord and Master whom we look out to from the sides of our ships.
The sheer bravery of Peter stands out. Was he afraid? Of course he was. But he focused all his faith into the word of Jesus: "Come!" He overcame his fear to the point that he climbed over the side of the boat. Picture him there, with one leg over the side and on the water and the other still in the boat. He couldn't stay like that. He had to go only forward. The only thing that kept him back was fear. And it is basically fear which holds us within our comfort zones. Fear, fear, fear…that's all it is. To know 'truth' in its experiential sense should free us from fear; for fear is related to the unknown. God appeals to Israel: "Of whom hast thou been afraid or feared, that thou hast lied?" (Is. 57:11). Fear leads to our abdicating from the responsibility of making choices; and this is why humanity has such a dearth of truly creative imagination, and why genuinely new ideas are so rare. But the true life in Christ is a life of repeatedly overcoming that fear, the fear which paralyzes, which holds you back. Let the widow woman of 1 Kings 17:13 be our heroine; she had totally nothing, just some flour, and she was hunting around in a parched land for two sticks with which to make a fire to bake it for her and her son to eat there last meal, then to lie down in the dust of death. She must have been literally on her last legs. But then God, through Elijah, asked her to give Him even the little she had. And Elijah encourages the frightened, wide-eyed woman: "Fear not!" And she went forward in faith and gave him her very last hope of life in response to the Father's challenge.
Fear is, to my mind, the greatest single barrier to faith and true spirituality. It is fear alone which stops us from keeping commitments, from not entering into covenant relationship as deeply as we are bidden. This is why people shy away from covenant relationships, be they with the Father through baptism, or to another person through marriage or having children. Fear holds us back. We fear even ourselves, our own spiritual capacity, our standing before the Father. Our inner anxieties, our unconscious inner conflicts as we stand with Peter on the edge of the boat, often lead us to criticize others or to speak and act with a hypocritical bravado. Yet true faith asks us to risk. As my beloved Brother John Stibbs once e-mailed me:
"We are asked to risk all we believe ourselves to be, we may find we're not what we thought ourselves to be, our constructs of the self will be pushed to the limit and we're afraid of what we may find of ourselves, that we may not be what we imagine ourselves to be in the construct upon which we have built our theories of the self. Obeying rules, staying within the construct, is much easier, much safer. We may have never tested ourselves in the real world To launch off into the unknown, into a future that contains or may contain unknown risk, where our worst fears are realised, the greatest fear may be that we are failures... most of us, it would seem, don't have enough faith in there even being a God to risk even getting out of the boat let alone walking on the water".
Don't underestimate the power of fear. Nor let us fail to appreciate that the fearful are listed alongside the unrepentant whores and idolators who shall remain outside the city of God (Rev. 21:8). Our thirst for love, our fear of death and spiritual failure before a perfect God, the fear of displeasing or misunderstanding the infinite God…these fears should all be taken away for the man or woman who is truly clothed with the imputed righteousness of Christ, who knows him or herself to be "more than a conqueror, through him that loved us". Yet they have a way of persisting in our weakness of faith. And so there develops a conflict between our true conscience and the false suggestions of our faithless fears. All this can lead to neurotic behaviour and a repression of conscience. The only way out of this is to boldly step forward as Peter did.
Murderers often reveal that their psychological motivation was not merely hatred, but fear - fear of what that person might do, or who they might show them up to be. Fear, therefore, is at the root of all lack of love and respect for our brethren. We fear the poor image of ourselves which they reveal by their actions or examples; and so slander and hatred of them in the heart [Biblical murder] develops. If only we can cast away this kind of fear, then love will take its place; for perfect love comes when fear has been cast out (1 Jn. 4:18).
It seems to me that we have over intellectualized our 'faith', until we almost obsessively seek to understand at every point what God's plan is for us. But the life of faith is an abandoning of ourselves to the Lord, asking Him to guide us and invite us, as Peter did. It is our fear which leads us to 'choose not to choose any more', to resign responsibility for our choices. Human beings tend to allow themselves to be carried along by their instincts, desires and fears. Perhaps this, for some, is rooted in a childhood background where they never knew the carefree life of a child, but had to calculate in detail the result of every action and deed. Even if this were happily not the case with us, society has groomed us to do just this in later life. And this militates against the life of true choice, which is the life of faith - choosing to walk out of our comfort zones into the challenge of the Lord's protection and grace. It is in this that Peter's climbing over the side of the boat sets us such an inspirational example.
Living a life that has come out and comes out of the comfort zone is not the same as making occasional forays out of it. There is a tendency in all of us to make such temporary, ultimately insignificant forays out: to write a cheque for an amount well within our total wealth; to occasionally rise up to the challenge of forgiving others. We are in those moments like the Moslem who occasionally glances over an Internet site about Jesus, gets a little bit interested, and then runs back into the safety of tradition; like the well-behaved, submissive adolescent who occasionally does something just a little bit 'naughty'. Yet the call of Christ is far more radical than that. It is a call to live permanently on the edge, permanently risking ourselves and stepping out of line with all that seems humanly sensible and safe: decent living, nice habits, occasional kindness, doing no harm to our neighbour…all these things can be seen in the lives of some who make no claim to Christianity. Personal, real repentance, the shattering personal encounter with the real Jesus and His real demands…this is a life of an altogether different order.
So how exactly was Peter motivated? We want to know, because it's the motivation that we so urgently need. The Lord "stretched forth his hand" to save Peter (Mt. 14:31); and this is the very phrase used by Peter in Acts 4:30, speaking of how the Lord's hand is "stretched forth to heal". Peter saw himself on the lake as typical of all whom the Lord saves. Yet, it was Peter, not the Lord Himself, who stretched forth his hand to do the Lord's healing work on the lame man (Acts 3:7). Again, Peter is thinking back to the incident on the lake and perceiving that he is now Christ manifest as he had intended to be then. Thus it was the principle of Christ manifestation which inspired Peter to reach out of his comfort zone so dramatically, and, properly appreciated, it can motivate us likewise.
When Peter was sinking, he was living out the picture we have of condemnation at the last day. Mt. 14:30 says that he began to "sink" into the sea of Galilee. This is exactly the image we find in Mt. 18:6, where the Lord says, in response to the question, 'Who will be the greatest?' that he who offends one of the little ones will be drowned [s.w. "sink"] in the midst of the sea - and his audience would have immediately associated this with the midst of the sea of Galilee, just where the storm had occurred. Peter seems to have realized that this warning was pertinent to him, for it is he who then interrupts the Lord to ask how often he should forgive his brother (Mt. 18:21). Peter sinking into Galilee, giving up swimming but desperately throwing up his hand to the Lord [you don't swim with a hand outstretched], is the position of each person who truly comes to Christ. This is the extent of our desperation; baptism, conversion to Him, is most definitely not a painless living out of parental expectations. Note how they were "tossed" or 'tormented' (Gk.) by the raging waves (Mt. 14:24) - the very same word is used about how the rejected will be "tormented" in condemnation (Rev. 14:10; 20:10). Peter's salvation by the hand of the Lord was representative of us all. As he drowned there in the lake, he was effectively living out the condemnation of the last day. But he appealed urgently to the Lord: "Save me!" Later, Peter was to use the same words in his preaching, when he appealed to his nation to "save [themselves]" by calling on the name of the Lord, just as he had done on the lake (Acts 2:40). He saw that those people were in just the position which he had been in on the lake. And therefore he could passionately appeal to them with real credibility.
And thus we come to a gripping piece of logic. Peter is set up as our example. All who will be saved will have called desperately upon the name of the Lord, deeply knowing their own condemnation. They will have stepped out of their comfort zones. For all true conversion to Him involves a stepping out of the boat and walking to Him over the waves, dying in self-condemnation and rising again. If we didn't go through this at our baptism, be assured that we will. For there are various stages to conversion; hence the Lord could tell the already-converted Peter: "When you are converted, strengthen your brethren". Our community has been deeply shocked by the fact that young Christadelphians in Iran and Afghanistan have recently been murdered for their faith; others have been tortured and imprisoned. We find it shocking and disturbing. And yet when I have commended those who endure these dangers with such devotion and joy, their response is basically, 'But this is what we signed up for in baptism. We agreed to share in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We expect no less'. And we should all have this attitude; that we have been called to give, to sacrifice, to give out, to risk, called to the life of bravery in the face of loss, suffering and death - the life and living which characterized that of the Lord Jesus.
Life On The Water
Try to imagine how Peter felt as he walked on the water. It must have been an exhilarating life to live for those seconds or minutes that he lived life just as his Lord would have him live it. Peter walking on the water is how we each can live life, walking with Jesus amidst every discouragement and distraction. This life of excitement, of adventure, of continual risk, living outside the comfort zone, this is the life which there is in Christ. We don't need to live under Islamic persecution to live this life. In suburban Sydney or central Riga or rural Zimbabwe, the call to this radical life is just as clear - if only we will perceive it. We may die in our beds, cared for in a loving Christadelphian old people's home until our last breath, but this doesn't mean that we aren't living the life of risk, the brave life, the dangerous life, with all the loneliness and creativity that arises from a life outside the comfort zone.
At Peter's initial conversion, he had also been in his ship on the sea of Galilee and had seen Jesus walking near [s.w. 'by'] the sea shore (Mt. 4:18). He left his boat and responded to the call to follow Jesus. Now it's the same basic scene, but this time Jesus is walking not "by" the sea but "on" the sea. The similarity is perhaps to teach Peter, and us, that the Lord's real call may be repeated throughout our lives; the initial response may be relatively painless, but through the storms of life, the Lord teaches us, as He did Peter, how radical is the response required. To follow Him meant not merely walking away from the cares of this life, the boat, the nets, the fishing - but if Jesus walks on water, then those who follow Him must do likewise. And Peter, to his immense credit, perceived this; he saw his Lord walking on water as an imperative that demanded he do likewise. For him, Jesus wasn't just a Saviour on whose back he could ride to salvation in God's Kingdom. Yes, He is, of course, our Saviour when we sink and drown in our weaknesses. But He is more than that - He is an inspiring example. Peter's wish to walk on water wasn't motivated, therefore, by any form of inquisitiveness or dare-deviling; wanting to walk on the water was rooted in his grasp of the fact that if this is where the Lord walks, then axiomatically, he must do likewise. When the Lord walked "by" the sea, Peter had come out of the boat and followed Him; now the Lord walks "on" the sea, Peter perceives that he must follow Him even there. For "he that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, as he walked" (1 Jn. 2:6 - the same word is used as in the record of Peter's walking on water with Jesus, making it possible that John is upholding Peter's example for us all). For many, our conversions were relatively painless; indeed, for those raised in the faith, it may have been easier to get baptized than to walk away from it. But the essentially radical invitation to follow Jesus is repeated in later life; and the validity of our earlier choice to follow is put to the test by our later response to the same invitation.
There are opportunities galore in these last days to walk out of our comfort zone, not counting the cost, into the real life as God intended. Many are trying to do this, very falteringly. You're surrounded by your brethren who in ways great and small, private and public, are living this life. Why not join them.