If you’ve ever been in athletics or fitness you know that there are different kinds of pain: the kind you push through and the kind that means STOP! If we give into the first kind, we will not progress very far in training, and certainly never excel. If we ignore the second kind, we risk injury, even the permanent loss of that activity. It is very important to learn how to discern the kind of pain we are feeling and address it properly.
Not surprisingly there is a spiritual correlation. God uses divine discomfort to speak to us. There are types of this spiritual pain that we are supposed to press through because they enhance our training, and other kinds that are meant to stop us in our tracks because they serve as a warning. It is important to press into the Lord and seek Him for wisdom to know the difference.
I have often wondered what preparation Abraham had to move away from Ur. Was there a growing discontent? What was it that took him away from the comforts of a city and connections, and brought him to the point of being satisfied to be a nomad, leaving behind family and relationships? Yes, he was following God’s voice, but what prepared him to say yes?
God will often use discontent or dissatisfaction to signal to us that something needs to change. We generally don’t just wake up one morning and decide to make a major shift; it generally comes step by step. It can be so subtle at first that we aren’t aware of it. In fact, when the change comes we might point to some event toward the end of the shift. It is said that when an eagle knows it’s time for the eaglets to leave the nest she makes the nest pokey and comfortable to encourage them to go. We may not recognize that we had been drifting towards movement for a while because God had been subtly making our nest uncomfortable. It is good to pray through those things which disquiet us and ask if this is God preparing us for change.
As we mature spiritually we will find that we are uncomfortable with what we formally accepted in our lives. The bawdy entertainment, the gossipy exchanges with friends, the willful attitudes—such things now make our spirits uncomfortable, even when we try to rationalize or excuse them. This form of divine discomfort is such a gift, as the Holy Spirit is leading us to follow Jesus in holiness. John tells us that “Everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure…No one who lives in Him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin had either seen Him or known Him” (1 Jn.3:3.6). If we ignore this spiritual discomfort and continue to follow our willful, fleshly desires, a callous will form over our heart, and the voice of the Holy Spirit will become muted, even silenced in our lives. We will have lost the discomfort, but it is a similar loss to how a diabetic or leper loses sensation in their extremities and is subject to the ultimate loss of a limb. This is a time when discomfort is to be embraced as the warning it is meant to be.
However there are times when we are uncomfortable and God wants us to remain thus and fight it through. Perhaps God has been prompting us to have a conversation with a loved one or colleague about their spiritual destiny, or some sin in their lives. It makes us uncomfortable. We don’t want to rock the boat. Maybe the banter in the office has taken a negative turn and so far we haven’t said anything because it makes us uncomfortable to speak up, but the divine discomfort of holding our tongue is increasing as well. Maybe there is something we’ve been tolerating in our life that needs to be dealt with ruthlessly, but the temporal rewards of it make shedding it an uncomfortable prospect. Still the Holy Spirit is making it obvious we need to face that discomfort head on. Perhaps the discomfort is about letting go of something good and familiar to step on in faith into the unknown, like Abraham. It frightens us to let go of what we’ve counted on, but has that comfortability become an idol to us? It’s something we need to pray through with the Lord.
There are a couple of points to consider when evaluating discomfort: (1) the devil will rarely tempt us with discomfort; in fact, his lures will be the exact opposite, to get us to avoid the uncomfortable which God may be using in our lives to grow us. (2) When we do feel a spiritual discomfort we need to pay attention, because it may reveal what our idols are by showing us either what we are avoiding, or what we are turning to for comfort which isn’t God.
We have reached a point in time in our nation that divine discomfort may be something that we will all have to deal with on a more regular basis. Before we could be comfortably Christian and stay within the mainstream of the culture. However the cultural shift has been seismic in the past decade, at the very least among those who influence and control the information flow in this nation. To speak out for Christ and God’s ways and to live a life that is consistent with the truth of the Scriptures is becoming increasingly difficult. If we are going to stay true to the Word of God and walk in His ways, we will have to do so by facing a growing sense of discomfort, even risk. We will have to be bold, resilient, and willing to be unpopular, even distained.
If comfort has, indeed, become our idol, it will have to be cast down. In fact, in order to do that God may intensify our discomfort so we will realize that it is not fatal for us to feel disturbed. Only the dead are no longer faced with discomfort, so we can be, in a strange way, comforted by the fact we are able to feel discomfort, because it is a sign of God’s life within us, either warning us or training us. The best way we can deal with it is to seek the Lord to show us which kind of pain we are feeling, and to help us respond accordingly.