In a previous post, I talked about the importance of maintaining margin. Too much stress for too long a period is unhelpful and destructive.
But as I also demonstrated from the life of Paul, we must not avoid all stress at all costs. I am afraid that far too often I have said “no” to an opportunity simply because it would have stretched me beyond my comfort zone. But I need to be stretched if I am to grow.
I see many parallels to physical training. When I started running (again) in 2009 after knee surgery, I was not able to run more than a kilometer before being totally exhausted. Over the period of a couple of months, I was able to extend that to almost 5 km, a distance with which I was quite satisfied. After all, I was not a serious runner, and already in my late 40’s, and this was already further than the distances that I had run in college. So I plateaued at that distance for about 4 years, running 5-6 km three times a week, just to keep in shape.
But then a few years ago, a good friend of mine challenged me to try for a half-marathon. It took a bit of convincing, but eventually I caught the bug, and started training for longer distances. In 2012, I ran my first 10 km ever. Then the following spring, I made it to 15 km a few times. On a trip to Minneapolis, I reached a distance of 17.7 km (11 miles) one morning, totally beat, but exhilarated. Finally, the day came when I was able to run a total of 21.1 km, the distance of a half-marathon. Each time, I was totally exhausted by the time I completed the distance, and could not imagine running any further. But after a day of rest, I would be out running again, as the training plan stipulated. By the next weekend, I would again be asked to run a long distance, and every few weeks that long run would be extended by a kilometer or two – and I found out that I now had the capacity to do so.
Capacity increases over time as we push ourselves to higher goals. In my physical training, I discovered what has been called the principle of progressive overload:
The principle of progressive overload implies that a training effect is produced when the system or tissue is worked at a greater level that it is normally accustomed to working. As the body adapts to these new levels, training should continue to be progressively increased.
Progressive overload can be achieved by varying the frequency, duration and intensity of the training, with increases in intensity having the greatest effect. Considerable stress must be placed on the system or tissue so that improvements can occur. If there is too much overload, fatigue can result as well as potential injury; if training load is too little, the training effect will plateau or decrease. Athletes need to be aware that not all adaptations will occur in the same timeframe and that it is important to increase the workload gradually over a long period so improvements are maintained and overtraining is avoided. (Principles of training from NSW HSC online)
“Considerable stress much be placed on the system or tissue so that improvements can occur.” You only realize a training effect when you push yourself to work at a greater level (faster, longer, heavier) that your body is normally accustomed to working. You only see development in your physical capacity if you go beyond your point of discomfort on a regular basis. But this process of extending ourselves needs to be balanced with regular times of rest and restoration. Too much stress, and you injure yourself. You need to return to the “comfort zone” after a period of stress so that strength can be restored. In fact, these rest periods are the times when the body rebuilds those tissues with greater capacity than they had before.
Is this not also true in our spiritual lives and in our ministries? Unless we step beyond that which we can do comfortably and easily, we will not grow and develop in our faith. Isn’t this the story of Hebrews 11?
Hebrews 11:8 – By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.
Hebrews 11:17 – By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son,
Hebrews 11:24–25 – By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.
Each of these verses points to a story that was very stressful for the person being tested. But each time, these heroes of faith stepped beyond their point of discomfort in obedience to God, they discovered that God was faithful and had given them the capacity to do that which they could not have done before.
So, I would argue that we regularly need to step into that area which Swenson calls “margin”. If we stay in the “margin zone” too long, we will eventually burn-out. Too much stress for too long a period is unhelpful and destructive, just as it is in physical training. But if we never step out of the comfort zone, we will plateau, and never see our capacity develop to that which we are capable.
There is great value in regularly stepping outside of our comfort zones and doing that which is slightly beyond that which we can do in our own strength, then stepping back for rest and rebuilding. Fortunately, in cross-cultural ministry, where we function in another language and culture, opportunities abound for us to step outside of our comfort zones. We just need to make sure that we don’t say “no” to all these growth opportunities.
What are you doing these days that pushes you out of your comfort zone?