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“Get Out of Your Comfort Zone”

1 Corinthians 9:15-27
Bob DeGray
June 25, 2006

Key Sentence

Believers get out of their comfort zones both by outward flexibility and by inward discipline.


I. Outward Flexibility (1 Cor 9:19-23)
II. Inward Discipline (1 Cor 9:24-27)


       Tom Venuto, wrote an article on fitness expert Chet Day’s web site called ‘Get Out of Your Comfort Zone.’ He said “Take a moment and think about the sum total of all you’re currently doing to improve your health, fitness and athletic performance. Include every detail; the workouts, dieting, level of effort, sweat, time - everything. Now grab a pen or pencil and draw a circle in the center of a sheet of paper. Imagine that all the work you’re doing is contained in that small circle. Inside your circle, write the words, "Where I am now: My comfort zone." Next, take your pen and draw another circle outside the first to make two concentric circles. The larger circle represents personal growth and positive change. In the fitness arena, that might mean better health, better cardiovascular fitness, increased strength or decreased body fat. In sports it might mean performing a skill or event at a higher level of competency. If you’re not seeing the changes you want - a frustration many people have today - it means you’re staying inside that circle of comfort most of the time. In order to make a positive change in your life, you have to expand your boundaries by climbing outside your comfort zone.”

        Venuto goes on “If that’s all there is to it, if a little step outside your comfort zone is all it takes to grow and improve, why don’t more people do it? The answer is simple: In the space between your two circles, write the word, "pain" a few times around the circumference. You see, the second you leave your comfort zone, you experience pain, DIS-comfort and awkwardness. Since all positive changes take place outside the comfort zone, change is painful.”

        I’ve experienced this. Some of you know that for the past year or so I’ve been running. I started off just running a slow mile five times a week to support a diet. Then I started to increase this, and eventually set the goal of running a half-marathon with the kids from canoeing. That’s thirteen miles, and to get there I had to really push my previous limits. Even now thirteen miles stretches my comfort zone. A week ago last Friday I didn’t make a thirteen because I didn’t want to push that hard.

        And what’s true in the physical realm is true in all of life. You and I surround ourselves with comfort zones: they may be intellectual, spiritual, cultural, social, emotional or relational; each is a limit beyond which you do not comfortably go. And the Apostle Paul recognizes that positive change comes from some discomfort, and encourages us as believers to get out of our comfort zones both by outward flexibility and by inward discipline.

I. Outward Flexibility (1 Cor 9:19-23)

        We begin by looking at outward circumstances: Paul says ‘get uncomfortable by reaching out to people and in situations different than your own.’ I Corinthians 9:19-23 Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. 22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

        Last week we saw that maturity often means giving up my rights. Paul taught us that he has certain rights and privileges and freedoms as an apostle, but he said “I have not used any of these rights” Now he expands that dramatically by saying “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone.” Paul knows that in Christ he has been set free from sin, free from the law and free from the pressure of works righteousness. But he chooses to become the slave of all men “to win as many as possible.” I’ve said many times recently that an important part of our self-image in Christ is to see ourselves as a slave, a servant, a steward. All these ideas come from Paul, but here he goes even further and says “I am willing to become a slave not just to Jesus, but to all men; to assert no rights but let every man be my master.” One commentator says “there is a gold mine of evangelistic methodology in that single sentence, particularly when we remember the way that Jesus himself modeled the servant/slave way of life: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.”

        How does this work out in practice? Paul describes great flexibility in ministry situations. Verse 20; “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.” Paul was a Jew, but that was no longer the core of his self-identity. Nonetheless when he went from city to city and town to town he always went to the Jews first, as a fellow Jew and made them the offer of the Gospel. And usually some believed, maybe only a few, but some. Others inevitably rejected the good news as being opposed to the Jewish faith, and that meant trouble for Paul. Yet in Romans he can sincerely say “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.”

        So, verse 20 “To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.” At the heart of Judaism was the law of Moses, those 613 commandments that described the detailed behaviors of ceremonially righteous living. Paul had been a slave to the religious ceremony and ritual in this Jewish law, and a failure in it’s moral implications. He ultimately despaired of being able to keep the law. He writes “I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.”

        Only in Jesus did Paul find the way out of this death: Romans 8:1-2 “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” ‘The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ Paul elsewhere calls grace: Romans 6:14 “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” So Paul did not consider himself to be under the Law; he knew adherence to the Law did not and could not save him. But he was willing to conform to the Law to obtain an easier hearing for the message of salvation. There are several examples of this in Acts: in chapter 16 Paul circumcised Timothy before taking him on missionary journey. Since circumcision was one of the works of the law Paul opposed, it’s remarkable that he was willing to circumcise Timothy for the sake of the Gospel message. Later, when Paul arrived in Jerusalem, he joined in certain Jewish purification rites. These rites are not prescribed in the Old Testament but were part of the Jewish tradition. Paul had done a similar thing when he left Corinth several years earlier. So he was willing to conform to the law for the sake of the Gospel.

        But in other circumstances, verse 21 “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law.” When Paul went to the Gentiles he didn’t preach law, but grace. He called them to recognize their sin and believe on the Lord Jesus for salvation. In fact Paul often preached beginning not with the Jewish Old Testament but with their own background and heritage, as in Lystra and in Athens. He put the Law of Moses aside so as to not be a stumbling block for the Gentiles in coming to faith. Now does this mean he was under no law? No. He says he is not free from God’s law but is under Christ’s law. What does this mean? It doesn’t mean he’s creating a new law for works salvation, though the church often drifts that way. What he does mean is that the saving love of God doesn’t give permission to go on sinning that grace may abound all the more. Rather we now live by the precepts of Christ, who made obedience a heart issue rather than an external one. We live by the power of the Holy Spirit who writes God’s law on our hearts. We live by the fruit of the Spirit we’ve been studying in Sunday School: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things, Paul says, there is no law.

        So when Paul is conforming to the law he is not it’s slave, and when he is out from under the law he is not lawless, but he lives in a relationship of servanthood, submission and obedience to Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Finally, Paul says ‘To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.’ Here he is probably talking about how he behaves toward believers whose consciences trouble them. He’s been talking about meat offered to idols: those with long associations with idolatry and tender consciences should not eat such meat, lest they be tempted to worship the idol, and Paul will not be the source of that temptation - he will submit to their scruples so that he may strengthen and edify and build them up.

        In summary “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” What a great verse. Until now Paul’s been using the word ‘win’ to describe the effects of his behavior: ‘I become weak to win the weak’. Now he substitutes the word ‘save’ and qualifies it by saying ‘some’. He knows that even getting out of his comfort zone and conforming to the cultural interests of his hearers is not going to result in salvation for all of them. But it does help - by this means he expects to see some of them saved. His flexibility and adaptability were means to a goal - the goal of sharing the good news about Jesus as effectively as possible with as many as possible. In a sense he is making the same distinction we made this year in our ministry plan - his strategic goals never change - to share the Gospel and win the lost - but his tactics were flexible: ‘When I’m dealing with this kind of people I get out of my comfort zone and try to learn what communicates with them. With another group of people it may be a whole different style of communication.

        But, verse 23 “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” Paul is not so much thinking of the blessing he will reap from faithful service, though he’s aware of that. But here he’s thinking of the blessing that comes from partnerships in the Gospel with those who believe. He feels this way, for example, about the Philippians: ‘In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now . . . all of you share in God's grace with me.’ That’s the blessing Paul treasures.

        So, how do we translate this to our own situations? Quite simply, can you get out of your comfort zone? I said at the beginning that we have intellectual, spiritual, cultural, social, emotional and relational comfort zones. Let me illustrate a few of these. You might have a relational comfort zone with your spouse: we talk and communicate well about most things, but there are certain heart issues we just don’t touch because they cause pain - discomfort - and so we’ve never really worked them through. Paul isn’t really addressing relational comfort zones here, but you can’t avoid the fact that people build walls in relationships to avoid pain: and if you’ve got those walls there is a deep need to get out of your comfort zone and deal with them. There are many ways to do so: One thing we’ve arranged this year is to have a one day marriage seminar here at the church called “Keeping Love Alive” in which Roy and Sue Milam will teach on just this kind of issue.

        But Paul is talking about things that keep you from sharing Christ. Your comfort zone probably doesn’t include many non-believers; it doesn’t for most Christians. So getting out of your comfort zone means getting into the lives of people who would never darken the doors of the church. Like, your neighbors. Have you done anything on your street to get to know your neighbors? Block party? Christmas caroling? Pool party? It’s not very painful to extend your social comfort zone to include those around you who are probably very similar to you except that many of them need to find a saving relationship with Christ.

        It’s a little harder to do cross-culturally - it takes boldness to break down barriers to the Gospel with those in another culture. One recent example is my daughter Bethany’s living situation. In college she regularly attended the Muslim Student Association. Now she’s in a house at UTMB Galveston with a Hindu, a Buddhist and a Muslim. Every day is a cross cultural experience. She says that people who aren’t willing to try new foods have trouble becoming all things to all people - she told us about some squid her roommate cooked her last week. She didn’t really like it, but she tried it. And she’s already had significant conversations with her roommates.

        Escaping the comfort zone culturally takes many forms. It regularly happens on short term missions trips - to Russia; to Mexico next month. In Russia we had several cross-cultural experiences, including a walk through a squatters market on the edge of town that was a little bit rough, and the incident with the knife, and the normal experience of trying to connect spiritually to someone whose experiences in life are very different than your own. I encourage such trips as comfort zone stretchers. But you don’t have to leave the country: there are social and economic and cultural barriers to be crossed here in our own city. Those who help at the Crisis Pregnancy Center face them every day, as people in economic, relational, emotional and spiritual need walk in and ask ‘can you help me.’ Great place to get out of your comfort zone. Or it might be in conversation with the parents on your son’s soccer team, or with the person who manages your investments. It might be going door-to-door in the apartment complexes, as some are doing. Not in your comfort zone? Go and watch - it’s not that difficult. But the first step, the baby step, is to have one conversation this week with somebody you don’t know. You pick the time, you pick the place. But if Paul can become all things to all men, surely you can stretch a little for someone who might need to know Jesus.

II. Inward Discipline (1 Cor 9:24-27)

        And when you do that you may find your spiritual muscles are weak. Out here we want flexibility to engage outside our comfort zone. In here we want to grow in our own personal spiritual discipline so that we can be prepared for whatever happens out there. I Corinthians 9:24-27 24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

        Athletics, as we’ve already seen, offers a really good illustration of getting out of your comfort zone. Athletic games were common in the Greek word, and the Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympic Games in status, were held every two years at Corinth. The streets of the city and the hillsides of the Acrocorinth would have been full of athletes in training for these prestigious events.
        Verse 24: ‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.’ Paul is clearly calling these Christians to sold-out Christianity, to a higher standard, to get out of their comfort zones and really run the race marked out before them. When he says that only one runner gets the prize, he’s not talking about beating fellow Christians in the race - he’s saying that if you run to win you will get the prize. In my own running I very rarely compete against anyone, but I compete against myself five days a week, and if I’m going to beat my previous time for three miles or five miles or ten miles I’ve got to run just as hard as I can. That’s what Paul is calling for in us as believers.

        Verse 25: ‘Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.’ The phrase ‘competes in the games’ translates the Greek ‘agonizomai’ from which we get the words ‘agony’ and ‘agonize’. You don’t just play this game, you agonize this game - and if you’ve ever watched Olympic athletes you know that they compete with greater pain than any weekend warrior. Even to qualify for such agony requires ‘strict training’. Every competitor in Corinth had to train for at least ten months, during which he had to be, ‘temperate in all things.’ The purpose, Paul says, was to ‘get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.’ In the Isthmian games it was a pine wreath. If self-discipline was laudable when competing for such a temporary prize, how much more so to win ‘a crown that will last.’. Paul says in 2nd Timothy, at the end of his own race, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.’ Paul is not saying that the reward for running well is salvation, and the punishment loss of salvation. Rather the reward is the crown of righteousness, the ‘well done good and faithful servant’ for which we all long, but which not all will receive.

        So the strenuous self-denial of the athlete as he sought a fleeting reward becomes a rebuke to the half-heart flabby Christianity of most believers. I’m afraid many of us in this room, if we looked at our own devotional lives - time in the Word, time in prayer - and our own ministry lives - sharing the good news and participating with others in things that promote growth - if we looked at these things honestly, we would say ‘flabby, comfort zone, just getting by.’ An athlete denies himself many lawful and reasonable pleasures in order to train well - you just ask those paddled the Water Safari. In the same way the Christian must put aside not only definite sin, but many good things that nonetheless hinder spiritual progress. Verse 26: ‘Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.’ The imagery from the games continues. Paul is not like a runner who does not know where the finish line is, or a boxer who is either missing his opponent or shadow boxing. Paul’s Christianity is purposeful and focused and intended to be effective. He’s not training just to be able to say he’s training, like I sometimes do - he’s training to actually stretch his comfort zone.

        Verse 27: ‘No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.’ Paul refused to be limited by his own comfort zone: ‘I’m not going to let anything limit my devotion to the cause of Christ.’ I don’t think he’s afraid of being betrayed by his body, though some of us might need to apply the verses that way. I think rather that he is speaking metaphorically and what he means is ‘I am going to be a sold believer - no holding back; with as few limits on my personal disciplines or my ministry as I can achieve’. The word, disqualify’ was used of disqualification from the Games, but when Paul says he does not want to be disqualified, his fear is not that he will lose his salvation, but that he might suffer loss through failing to satisfy his Lord. Paul uses the positive version of the same Greek word - qualified, or tested and approved - to describe the gold, silver and precious stones that survive the testing by fire of a man’s works at death. Paul does not want to build with wood, hay or straw into his own life or into the life of others, but with materials that will stand the test.

        So what have we seen? There is a world out there outside our comfort zones, and we need to be prepared to move into it with a clear focus on communicating the Gospel and a willingness to take into account cultural and social differences. There is also a world in here where strength and sold-out-ness are required of believers, and we will not achieve those things unless we stretch ourselves and persevere to achieve change. What will strengthen us internally for ministry? What training do we need? I think it starts with the disciplines: we need to train ourselves to pray, this conversation with God by which we depend on him; we need to train ourselves in the Word - Paul urges Timothy to become a workman or a craftsman rightly handling the word of truth; we need to stretch ourselves in the giving of our time and energy and enthusiasm to serve the Lord; we need to stretch in the giving of our money as well. More important than that, maybe, we need to be aware of character issues in our lives: anger, selfishness, pride, anxiety, bitterness, etc. and make ongoing commitments to painful and joyful change in these areas.

        In all these ways and more we need to go into training with a no pain-no gain attitude so we can run the race before us. Hebrews 12:1-2 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.