The somewhat unusual title is a direct challenge to the idea of the ‘comfort-zone’ and the ‘safe-zone.’ These phrases are quite commonly used, in writings, and by preachers. An effort to describe where many in the churches seem to be content to remain. Some questions can be extremely penetrating, forcing the person being interrogated to take stock and carefully answer.
“You travel to our country several times a year, what do you think of the churches you visit?” Several times recently this question has come provoking this response. “It would seem that there is a lack of God centred-ness. Agenda’s take centre stage. God and His Spirit come somewhere second or third. We meet churches that are mission centred, some music centred, some social work centred, others seeker-friendly centred, even word centred. However in them all, there are individuals who are disturbed and seeking something more. Is their dissatisfaction rooted in the lack of God centred-ness? Surely it is not wrong to be concentrating on the word, or mission, music, social aspects of church life and making the church more attractive to the ‘outsider’? These things have their place but not at the centre, that is certain.
Reflecting back a few decades there were multitudes of young people, especially in the USA who were commonly known as “The Jesus People,” an intriguing name. In the eyes of on-lookers they were ‘hooked on Jesus.’, indeed, that description was sometimes used. They were awakened to the Person of the Lord, that was the key. They wanted to know HIm, to serve Him and live for His glory and it is always the same, whenever there is a moving of God’s Spirit, a true spiritual awakening. People are awakened to the reality and the wonder of God. He takes the central place.
Think of the apostle John, suffering on the isle of Patmos for the testimony of Jesus and the word of God. Troubled in heart concerning the churches he loved, possibly wondering why the Lord Jesus had not yet returned. He went into the ‘un-safe’ place. He describes himself as being, “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day,” Revelation 1:10. He experienced a series of visions, of revelations and at the heart of all he heard and saw was One like unto the Son of Man in the midst of the churches, Revelation 1:10-13. Jesus in the centre and this was not all. In another vision John beheld Jesus, this time in heaven, “in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it has been slain…” Revelation 5:6. Throughout the remaining visions Jesus, the Lamb is shown to be the orchestrator of all transpiring in history and this climaxes in the revelation of Him seated upon a white horse dealing with every enemy, Revelation 19:16. Thus, the answer to the troubled apostle John is summed up in the fact that, “in the Spirit”, he saw Jesus, High and lifted up, Jesus, the centre and this brought comfort and perspective to everything.
Paul the apostle wrote many letters. In the first he sent to the church at Corinth he was answering many troubles that had entered into that church. They had become centred wrongly, their practices were askew. They were focused on apostles and names to mention two of their problems. Schisms were the result and were growing in their midst. It is wonderful to see the way Paul corrects them. At first sight we might not notice, but he constantly presents them with God, (that is the Father). Follow through the place of God in the letter. Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the WILL of GOD. That is the opening verse. The church belongs to GOD, second verse, keep reading, GOD, GOD, GOD. He is faithful, 1 Corinthians 1:9, GOD, chose to save by the foolishness of the message preached, even though that seems foolish by the standards of this world, 1 Corinthians 1:21. Carry on reading down, GOD, GOD, GOD, His wisdom and His weakness. GOD chooses, and,“Of Him (GOD) are you in Christ Jesus,” 1 Corinthians 1:30. To read through this letter is a lesson in the simple fact that God is central to everything that has been, is and ever shall be. Perhaps the climactic verse is this, “then comes the end, when He (Jesus) shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father….. And when all things have been subdued unto Him, then shall the Son also Himself be subject unto Him that put all things under Him, that GOD may be all in all, 1 Corinthians 15:27-28. We should quote Paul’s exclamation of glad wonder at the end of Romans 11, “ O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgements, and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counsellor? Or who has first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed to Him again? For of HIM, and through HIM, and to HIM, are all things: to Whom be glory for ever. Amen. Romans 11:33-36.
God centred-ness is the unsafe zone into which we must go. Human beings are inveterate schemers, planning, organising and basically taking the headship. We feel safe, “it is all sorted,” we say. It is quite fulfilling and a self-satisfied state of mind subtly focuses on serving, on mission, on music or whatever we feel our ministry might be. The Old Testament testifies to the error of this false focus and the failure to let God be God. Everything began with a seventy-five year old man, Abram. He left his comfort zone, his home place and went out, “not knowing whither,” as Hebrews 11:8 puts it. He did not know where he was going! Amazing! It was faith, the fact that the God of glory had somehow appeared to him and the details of the divine visitation are not given to us lest we should become preoccupied with the how and miss the WHO! It was God and nothing less drawing him from the place of his birth and home of all those years. We should not be surprised at the stress in the narrative as God calls Abram. “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee: and I WILL, WILL and SHALL, Genesis 12:1-2. The adventure of Abra(H)ams life is summed up in the way his name was altered by God. God was central in his heart and God put His Name in the centre of Abram’s name! Genesis 17:5. Originally the name Abram was given by his father Terah, it means ‘exalted father’ and signifies that he came from a royal family. It emphasises his past lineage. God, renames His servant and puts central in his name, such a change, for he is to be the father of many nations, God is central and emphasises his future! Abraham was 99 at the time and we can imagine the household discussing (possibly mockingly) this name change when Abraham told them to alter what they called him! How could a man that age become a father?! But he believed God , the God Who was Abraham’s centre and thereby he became fruitful.
Growth in the knowledge and understanding of God comes from embracing the path of humility. Humility is always the result of God centred-ness. The essence of pride is self-centredness. Every fall involves pride, satan and Adam in the garden and on through history whether it be pride of face, race or even of grace. Jesus, when speaking with Nicodemus, broke through his stumbling ideas saying words so well known to us, “Verily, verily I say unto you, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the realm of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, that which is born of the Spirit, is spirit, John 3:5-6. The source from which something comes is that to which it surely goes. The efforts of man that arise from his well intentioned flesh will bear dubious fruit. We must enter into the quiet place, shut the door and be with the Father Who sees in secret. We shall be humbled there, knowing ourselves to be nothing yet loved exceedingly. The outcome will be outward reward with the marks of the Father upon it, Matthew 6:6. The private place before the Father is not easily gained. We must learn the habit of solitude and quietness with God. Wherever we are. The fertility of the natural mind must be emptied of its self importance and instead become the repository of the vision of God and His will done in His way. As soon as one attempts to go into the tranquil place with God noise erupts! Things that must be done. Plans to be executed, there is that which has been forgotten and demands attention and with all that, the nagging voice that says, “you should be doing something!”
Moses on the backside of the desert reminds us of this. At least he had forty years to consider the paucity of his own efforts, his vain attempt to bring about God’s deliverance for his beloved people. Salvation had not come when he fought in his own forty year old strength. Now he was eighty and God drew him into the unsafe zone. The place which was holy. “Get your shoes off your feet, the ground is holy,” Exodus 3:5. The story is flooded with lessons. The bush in perpetual burning is a perfect symbol of God Who’s zeal for His covenant purposes never diminishes nor is exhausted. There is no doubt that the fire that burning for God’s will in the heart of Moses had long ago turned to embers and was almost gone. Indeed God awaits our total dependency upon Himself. He had no intention that His chosen vessel should stand on anything manufactured by man. On the holy mount it was seen. God’s commissioning came. No proud attitudes present any more, humility, God, quietness, nothing but the commanding voice of God. O the delight of the place of solitude where at last God is heard. Although this was the ‘unsafe zone’ is there such a place of delight as this? Strange paradox! The blessedness of stillness and profound silence and yet there the commanding voice of God. “Go back to Egypt and bring the people to this very place. This very mount.” Parameters were given to Moses. Apparently he could bring them no further than that place where he himself had met God, Exodus 3:12. It is ever the same. This is why leaders must go up the mountain alone with God again and again. Such people need a refreshing constantly, they must not get stuck in their safe zone.
The Exodus story has so many parts. Moses was called up that mount of God, into the cloud and fire, that ‘un-safe’ zone on more than one occasion. Such periods of communion with God were essential to the future of God’s plan for the multitude. The people did not want to venture near and stood afar off, Genesis 20:18. Moses climbed at God’s command, receiving the law of God He had something from God to bring to the people from the mountain closet. Yet again, into the un-safe zone, this time elders and two priests were to go part way and ‘worship afar off” Genesis 24:2. They saw something in that place, it was wonderful. And, yet again, Moses was called up right into that height. As far as was possible in the Old Testament era he had intimacy with God. ‘Intimacy,’ the word comes from the latin ‘intime’ which carries not only the sense of closeness with nothing between, but depth also. This intimacy is surely proven Moses when he was called up again the children of Israel having spent their time in idolatrous worship and singing and dancing at the foot of the mount. Such was his intimacy that when God would make of him a people and wipe out the sinners he said, “blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book…” Exodus 32:32. There is a man in the un-safe zone plumbing something of the depth that is part of intimacy with God. Intercession indeed and it reminds us of Paul’s testimony concerning his fellow Jews, “I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, “ Romans 9:3.
Often, it seems to me, that we substitute the text of scripture for the inner life of the Spirit. We can all see, if we are willing to do so, there is a pattern revealed throughout the Bible, a pattern of God centred-ness. We must have inner experience of God, it is not enough to have proof texts and systems of mission and church planting and Bible exposition. We must have communion, ‘intime’ with God. Communion with God is a dangerous place indeed, we see ourselves, and it is a terrifying sight, we see His love for us, an amazing sight indeed. In His Light we see light. Light revealing our shortcomings and inabilities and His greatness and ability to do all through humble hearted vessels. Again, let us remind ourselves such a place is not easily gained. The enemies are arrayed on every side, the determination to thwart people from embracing God and His ways. Breathing the atmosphere of God, dwelling in His presence is fulness of joy, but this is because it is first, the place of death to every self centred thing. In that Light we begin to be illuminated as to how selfishly we have lived. We have turned God into a kind of convenience to serve ourselves. To dwell there for long will change the disposition of the wife of a difficult husband, she will know exactly what she must do. For the husband who dwells before God for even a short while, understanding of what is demanded to ‘husband’ his wife will be his. In the Light self cannot parade, pride cannot long survive, unforgiveness cannot remain, the cross is implicit, to be crucified with Christ becomes a reality and is sweet surrender. How profoundly we need to come boldly to where we have been brought by His grace. Is that not strange? To come to where you already are? The Hebrews letter tell us, “ you ARE come unto Mount Sion, unto the city of the Living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem, to God the judge, to Jesus, to the blood that speaks better things, to an innumerable company of angels, to the church of the firstborn ones,” Hebrews 12:22-25. You are come, yet in the same letter, “LET US COME boldly,” Hebrews 4:16, “LET US DRAW NEAR,” Hebrews 10:22. Dare we do that? Let us do so more than ever before.