Necessary Discomfort

If following Jesus is never painful, we may be missing something.

It didn’t happen to some stranger on the local news, but to our friend Lucky. Fire ravaged his home, taking every family possession, but sparing Lucky, Becky, and their three children. I was a kid then, fairly close to their son Ricky, who grew up with me in church. On hearing the news, I’m sure I had a long, sobering thought about Ricky and the fire. But for my mother, that just wouldn’t do. This was our fire, too.

Such a sacrifice was too much; couldn’t we give them something else?

I remember grumbling with my two sisters as we were made to sift through our possessions, selecting one or two items to give Ricky and his siblings. When we brought my mother the things that would cost us the least, she marched decisively to our stockade of toys and chose a treasured thing, our Fisher-Price jet. It came with a pilot, a retractable door with inset steps, seating for four Little People figures, and a luggage bed. And though it was plastic and could fly only with imagination, we raged against such a sacrifice. It was too much; couldn’t we give them something else?

To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever sacrificed as much as that. It was something precious, and I felt the pang of it for a long time. In the decades since, I’ve sweated and supported the kingdom of God—using my talent, time, and treasures, but none of this has cost me much. Not really. I find this both perplexing and disturbing. Where is the sacrifice? If Jesus didn’t spare His own life but gave it up for His brothers and sisters, shouldn’t my life resemble His?

Paul tells us to have the mind, or attitude, of Christ (Phil. 2:5). Though He was God, He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). He gave up His rights, even—and especially—to the point of death. Jesus wasn’t an insulated Savior, confined to His comfort zone—and it’s unthinkable that He would be comfortable with me having such a mindset. He told the large crowds that followed Him everywhere, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27). That speaks of a willingness to obey God, to surrender regardless of how unsuited we feel for a task.

There was a time in my 20s when our singles ministry hosted a Sunday afternoon worship service in a local nursing home. I didn’t sing or play the guitar, and I felt awkward on this unfamiliar turf. Maybe it was obvious to everyone, because a friend lovingly gave me some advice. She told me it was okay not to do everything. So I quit going to the nursing home yet continued teaching the Bible, playing host, and organizing events. It was fine and good to operate out of my strengths and gifts, but what if I’d leaned into the power of God made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9) and gone anyway? What unequivocal work of God would I have seen? What life-giving relationships would I cherish to this day?

It wouldn’t have come easily. Though our Savior knew His mission, He wrestled in His soul over the prospect of that bitter cup: “My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done” (Matt. 26:42). He surrendered His heart and mind before sacrificing His body.

The surrendered way is really a prelude to sacrifice. And it’s a beautiful way. We prepare ourselves to accept pain and loss before their shadows darken us. It’s unnatural to the flesh and contrary to all our comforts, and that’s why it is a work of God, produced only by His Spirit. Surrender is not a thing that we can wear, or put on for the moment as needed, but a continual consecration in Christ. As the French reformer John Calvin wrote, “We renounce the guidance of our own affections and submit ourselves entirely to God, leaving him to govern us, and to dispose of our life according to his will, so that the afflictions which are the bitterest and most severe to our nature, become sweet to us, because they proceed from him.”

There haven’t been any fires in the homes of our current neighbors or church friends, so I haven’t had opportunity to repeat the Fisher-Price jet moment for my own kids. But I want them to walk in surrender and to know the taste of sacrifice. We have sent them on mission trips and they’ve tutored children in need, but as much as I try to inculcate them with spiritual lessons and expose them to this idea of surrender, it always returns as a lesson I need to preach to myself.

So on a Friday night, with my mind fixed on myriad other things I’d rather do, we set out as a family for church. Suburban families, many of them not unlike my own, sometimes experience seasons of homelessness. Several area churches rotate to provide a week of food and shelter for these families. Through play, my teenagers would serve the younger children and, I hoped, experience joy from their small sacrifice. It would allow the hosted children to unwind from a long week of school and the challenges of living continually in a changing space. As for me, I bucked myself up to endure a few uncomfortable hours with strangers. But as the sky turned to twilight and strangers became friends, I recognized again how dimly I see. That what seems like loss is really gain when I forfeit my life to walk the path of the cross.


Illustration by Alex Nabaum

Related Topics:  Service

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5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,

7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.

27 Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.

9 And He has said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

42 He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done."

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