Sad but true. It’s a side effect of our autonomic system that protects us from harm. Think flight or fight responses. We are wired to favor efficiency over conscious thought. And while that might help us when a baseball is being thrown at our head, it is ironically those same systems which hold onto stereotypes, make assumptions, and are resistant to change. That’s why we feel good when we eat comfort food or wear our favorite shirt or watch The Princess Bride for the 1000th time. The familiar is easy on our brain. It brings us comfort. We don’t have to think so hard. But if we’re not careful, it may also close us off to new opportunities and new experiences that could be even better! Take for example my own love of Star Trek. I grew up with Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the crew and I loved their adventures. But when they announced they were making a NEW show with NEW characters, I vowed not to watch. How dare they? Of course it could never be as good as the original. I didn’t watch the entire first season, despite the praise of the press, the critics, and even fellow Star Trek fans (traitors!). But eventually, I decided to give it a chance. And you know what? It was GREAT! I LOVED it! How stupid I felt for not at least giving it a shot. I missed out on a whole year of amazing episodes (thank God for reruns). But our minds favor comfort and unless we are conscious of it, we could be missing out on a lot of what the world has to offer.
“Comfort is your enemy.”
When we think of evil in the world today, we often come up with the most horrible images we can think of. Images that rattle our very belief in the world around us. The Holocaust. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Serial killers like Charles Manson. Humanity in its ultimate depravity. But those are the extremes. Those may be the most vibrant and visual instances of evil in the world, but they are also (thankfully) very rare. Instead, we need to remember there is evil is around us every single day and if we aren’t careful we could be willful participants in spreading it, and comfort is one of the ways evil works in and through us. It might seem weird to think of comfort as an agent of evil, but have you ever been so snug under the sheets you just didn’t want to get up? That nice warm feeling of being in just the right spot all cuddled up with the fluff of a comforter around you? It feels so safe and so happy that you don’t want anything to change. And that’s how the devil sucks you in. He comes to us in our comfort and says, “You don’t want things to change, do you? It’s all nice and cozy exactly how it is. We should make sure it stays that way.” You get lulled into believing that’s true, that it would be the worst thing in the world to change things up, to do something a bit differently. And you end up in the same rut you’ve always been in.
Even when the alternative is BETTER, we often are blinded by our comfort.
That’s what happens to the young man in our passage today. If you have a Bible or a Bible app would you go to Matthew 19 beginning with verse 16. Matthew 19:16. Leading up to this passage, Jesus has been healing and teaching throughout the region. The Pharisees confront him on the topic of divorce and Jesus has to correct the disciples who are shooing away the children from approaching him. Then this rich young man comes up to him and asks him the key to eternal life.
16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
18 “Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’[c] and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’[d]”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The problem for the rich, young man isn’t money.
It’s comfort. When Jesus says it’s hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, it’s not because being rich is evil or bad. It’s because having wealth makes you comfortable and it’s hard for us to leave a life of comfort. We’re wired to stick with what works. By all accounts, if we can accept his word as truth, the young man is a pretty good guy by our standards. He keeps all the commandments. He honors his parents. He loves his neighbor. Pretty good guy. But then Jesus challenges him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” And the guy walks away sad, because it would mean giving up the life he is used to living. Familiarity breeds comfort and comfort is the enemy of progress.
Why change what works?
That’s the reason people are so fond of the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But if that were the case, we’d still be using horses for transportation. We’d all be fluent in Morse code. Our houses would be near the river so we could do our laundry every day. Most of us would agree life is better now than it was fifty years ago and better still from fifty years before that. Not only do we have modern conveniences like cars and telephones and washing machines, but Black people are no longer 3/5ths of a person, women are allowed to vote, and children are protected from unfair labor practices. Progress not only makes our lives better but our world better, too. To be sure, some things done in the name of “progress” seem to be a step backward (New Coke comes to mind) and we’re far from perfect, but overall, the world becomes a better place when we step out of our comfort zone and embrace what is possible.
This tendency toward comfort is dangerous for the church, too.
It’s one of the reasons why churches are shrinking and closing. We are unwilling to embrace those ideas that take us out of our comfort zone. But as the world changes, we need to change with it. While the mission and the message stay the same, the way we transmit and deliver it should adapt to the world we live in. Imagine if we were literally delivering the message of God by Pony Express while the world is transmitting in 5G. That’s the danger of staying in our comfort zone. But it happens all the time. One of my friends who used to pastor a small and once thriving church found this out pretty quickly. By all measures, he is a person who has a passion for trying new and innovative ideas to bring people to Christ, but one of his parishioners literally told him he wasn’t interested in growing the church. He liked it the way it was and any new people would mess it up. And this guy isn’t alone. Most pastors have stories like this in their pocket. One time while talking about growing the church, one guy came up to me and said, “I hope it doesn’t grow too big.” And he wasn’t a bad guy. Quite the opposite. A devoted Christian, always thinking of others, willing to give of his time, talent, and gifts. What he was saying in his own way was that he was comfortable with the way things were and didn’t want to lose that feeling. But I hope we trust enough in God to know the difference between our discomfort and our disobedience and that we would choose the first over the second.
Psychologically and biologically there are many ways to explain this phenomenon.
But the important thing to know is that we can overcome it. By intention and discernment we can put aside our tendency toward comfort to do what is best – for ourselves, our community, and for the Kingdom of God. Intention – to do something with purpose by keeping our minds open to new opportunities; and discernment – to carefully examine our feelings when we resist. Otherwise we may miss out on opportunities that can make our lives so much better – like watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. God has in store for you amazing opportunities if only we have the bravery to step forward in faith and embrace it. “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).” Dare to live a life of discomfort; to boldly go where no one has gone before! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.