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Youth Focus from Vertical Thought... Comfort Zones: Meant to be Broken

A monthlong solo backpacking trip through Europe took me far out of my comfort zone—and brought a profound realization about our Christian calling.

by Debbie Whitlark

In the midst of the Swiss Alps, I clung desperately to a cliff face that demanded both proper gear and experience, and reflected that I had neither. My right hand clutched a tuft of grass, my left hand knocked away loose stones, and my feet were splayed against the rock as I felt a sickeningly slow loss of traction. There was no other human being in sight, and I knew I must either keep moving or fall.

I had lost the path heading over the ridge—and though I soon realized the error, the slope was too steep to descend safely. I kept going, realizing too late that a disastrous mix of misguided optimism, perceived necessity and stubbornness had brought me to a very dangerous position, maintained only by rapidly tiring muscles.

I was two weeks into a month of backpacking solo through nine European countries, and the past five days alone had brought six languages, four currencies and countless border crossings.

As I set off from home, many mistakenly chalked the adventure up to bravery. But I did not go because I am a fearless adventurer. As a methodical, organized and reserved perfectionist with a deep need to feel competent, my comfort zone was nowhere to be found.

It was not until after I returned home that I finally realized that was the point. I had set off from the United States not completely sure how I would survive a month on my own, and returned a relatively experienced traveler, with priceless life lessons and a deeper knowledge of myself that could not have been learned except through facing the challenging situations I encountered. Although the wisdom of my choices can be questioned (I deeply appreciate God's mercy and protection!), the lessons I learned are important ones.

In both physical and spiritual matters, people often meet every challenge—and thus every opportunity—with a well-practiced list of excuses for why they will avoid the issue or why they will only expect a mediocre performance from themselves. But fears are conquered only through action, and they are only intensified by avoidance.

Failed attempts can be painful and humbling, but refusing to make a legitimate effort to reach a worthwhile goal leads without exception to the ultimate failure: forfeiting that unique human ability to choose who we are. The Bible makes it clear that God did not grant any of us that ability merely for us to neglect it! He expects that we use it and take control of how we live, even—or especially—when a challenge puts us outside our comfort zone.

Though parents love their newborn child, they do not expect the infant to remain an infant. A child will learn, grow, stumble and try again until he or she learns to walk with confidence.

Likewise, when it comes to both our actions and our character, God does not accept stagnation. We should see our weaknesses as areas of potential growth rather than viewing them with an attitude of "Well, that's just the way I am!" Christ emphasizes that when He comes, He will reward the person "who overcomes" (Revelation 21:7).

Growing in Christ

In Ephesians 4:12-13, we are told to continue in the work of God and the edifying of the Body of Christ, "till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ."

We are reminded by God's Word that ignoring the problem areas isn't the answer. We have the responsibility to face them! Far from being a destination, our conversion is a process of continual growth in which we should learn better and better each day how to imitate Christ. We must press on until the very day Christ returns and rewards us for our labor.

When God liberated the Israelites from Egypt , the Promised Land was not a paragon of perfection, but instead was still full of sin and idolatry. Likewise, when we are baptized, our battle has only begun. We must continually clear ourselves of the dark side of our own human nature steadfastly refusing to be influenced by the evils of the world in which we live.

While we should enjoy our progress along the way, there is no destination in this life and no time at which we can sit down, take off our armor and rest in a complacent way. We are encouraged by God's Word that He will be with us in our battles. We are making a mistake if we claim the battle is too difficult. The fact that it is difficult is part of the point and is what makes our learning process so powerful.

God has called us to be spiritual warriors, and warriors are to be faithful, unyielding, courageous and obedient. We should remember that every challenge in life is a priceless opportunity to grow. We should not ask God to take away the problem while reciting a long list of explanations as to why we won't be able to overcome the challenge at hand. Instead, we can confidently trust that God will see us through the trial, not necessarily always lift it from us.

When God asked whom He could send to do His work, Isaiah did not try to avoid His calling. Instead, he responded: "Here am I! Send me" (Isaiah 6:8). Likewise, as true Christians we must be eager to confront the challenges of the unknown in order to allow God to perfect us and use us as a tool in His hands.

Back to the mountain

After an hour of agonizingly slow progress, I still clung to the side of the mountain in the Alps. Though I found myself near the top, the way was impassable without gear, and I had no other options. I half-slid, half-fell down the steep slope and eventually stumbled upon the path I had lost an hour and a half earlier. 

Though back to square one, I was oddly excited to climb 300 meters of rough switchbacks back to the top of the ridge. I eventually reached the 3,000-meter (nearly 10,000-foot) summit after my eight-hour hike and then began the grueling descent. Back at the youth hostel, other travelers shared their pasta with me, and I crawled into bed covered in a layer of sweat, blood and dirt, which I hardly even noticed.

My European trip and its purposes came full circle at my final stop, Amsterdam. Wandering the rooms of the Vincent van Gogh museum, I read a quote by Pablo Picasso that perfectly captured the challenges of life and true Christianity: "I am always doing what I cannot yet do, in order to learn how to do it."

That approach to life will inevitably lead to occasional disappointment and failure. But growth cannot occur within familiar, comfortable territory. We must choose to keep discovering and expanding what we are capable of, rather than always staying within a comfort zone that would insulate us not only from nominal failure, but also from real success.

So have the courage to challenge who you are and see what you might be! Whether it's trying out for a new sport at school, meeting someone new, learning to get the most out of college, finding a new job, taking a once-in-a-lifetime trip or overcoming a character flaw, we must, in wisdom, forge new and worthwhile paths without using the crutch of complacency.

Let us never grow weary in using every opportunity in this adventure called life to learn about God and to exercise our uniquely human ability to respond to His divine calling by saying: "Here I am, God. Send me!" GN

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