A comfort zone “is a psychological state in which things feel familiar to a person,” resulting in “experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress” because “they are at ease and in control of their environment.”1 And while that sounds like the optimal place to be, comfort zones can actually become danger zones because they can foster a conditional approach to discipleship. Conditional discipleship is the practice of placing conditions on your spiritual commitments. So, when I say that our comfort zones can foster a conditional approach to discipleship, what I mean is that when we limit our spiritual activity to our spiritual comfort zones, we tend to start identifying conditions—directly or indirectly, consciously or subconsciously—conditions on which we will do God’s will.
Such appears to be the case of some potential disciples mentioned in Matthew 8:19-22 and Luke 9:57-62. According to the biblical account, three different individuals offered to follow Jesus or were invited to follow Jesus. Instead of dropping everything to follow Him as some apostles did (Matthew 4:19-20; Luke 5:27-28), these three individuals succumbed to conditional discipleship.
The first potential disciple was a scribe who voluntarily said, “I will follow you wherever you go” (Matthew 9:19; Luke 9:57). That is a bold, unconditional claim. So, it’s somewhat surprising when this individual disappears from the story as soon as Jesus informed him of the itinerant nature of his ministry, which would include the sacrifice of creature comforts (Matthew 8:20; Luke 9:58). Apparently, this uncomfortable and unpredictable lifestyle was a deal-breaker for this would-be disciple because there is no indication that he followed Jesus. As one author said, this guy “volunteered to go until he heard the cost,” which was that “he had to deny himself.”2 Thus, this scribe indirectly indicated that his condition for following Jesus was the availability of comfortable accommodations.
The second potential disciple was invited by Jesus to become a follower, but this individual responded with the request to “first go and bury my father” (Matthew 8:21; Luke 9:59). That seems like a reasonable request, and Jesus’ response, which was “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60), seems insensitive. However, the text does not indicate that the father had passed away. In fact, the phrase used by this man was “a common Near Eastern figure of speech [that is still used today] that referred to a son’s responsibility to help his father in the family business until the father died and the inheritance was distributed.”3 So, this individual’s request was likely a way of saying, “I’ll follow you after I have fulfilled my other obligations.” Thus, this individual indirectly indicated that his condition for following Jesus was the absence of other responsibilities. Jesus’ response exposed this would-be disciple’s real reason for the request—to avoid discipleship by appealing to other obligations, and served as a way of saying that discipleship should take precedence over all other reasonable responsibilities.
The third potential disciple, like the first, volunteered to follow Jesus but requested to “first say farewell to those at my home” (Luke 9:61). This seems like another reasonable request and is patterned after Elisha’s request to “kiss [his] father and [his] mother” before he began following Elijah (1 Kings 19:19-20). While Elisha’s request was granted, this individual’s request was not. Jesus responded to this request by saying, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Jesus’ statement refers to the singular focus that a farmer must have when operating a plow in order to prevent his field from having crooked rows, and Jesus point is that discipleship necessitates that same singular focus. To understand why Jesus said this, you must remember that Jesus didn’t invite this guy to follow Him. This guy offered to follow Him. The fact that he wanted to return home after volunteering to follow seems to indicate “some reluctance to take the decisive step.” Thus, this individual indirectly indicated that his condition for following Jesus was Jesus’ acceptance of other focuses.
The lesson we can glean from these three potential disciples is that discipleship must be unconditional, and anything that is unconditional will inherently be uncomfortable. And that’s OK because Jesus never promised comfort. In Matthew 7:14, He said that “the way is hard that leads to life.” Why then do we have this expectation that Christianity should be comfortable? The truth is that when Christianity gets comfortable, we should get worried because comfort was never promised. So, instead of worrying about whether or not we’re COMFORTABLE, let’s just worry about whether or not we’re FAITHFUL.
2 Warren Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2007), 169.
3 John MacArthur, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 8-15 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987): 24-25 as quoted in Sellers S. Crain, Jr., Matthew 1-13, Truth for Today Commentary (Searcy, AR: Resource Publications, 2010): 285.