(Before I start this article, let me just say I'm aware of verses that say we are "safe in God's hands". I just think we go wrong when we misinterpret them as "safety" in a natural sense, which is what prompted me to write this. Being spiritually secure, assured, and "safe" is categorically different from being insulated from all forms of danger/harm.)
(Check out other articles in the Silly Things Christians Say series.)
I’ve had the conversation a hundred times in a hundred different ways every time I’ve traveled to the Middle East. Usually it goes something like this:
“Well, first of all, Lebanon is a remarkably safe country right now,* and it doesn’t look at all like what the news portrays as the Middle East. Even so, I know there is always a chance of danger.** Regardless, I’m not afraid of any of the horrible things you can imagine. I know I’m going to the place where I’m called to be. I’m deeply passionate about the ministry, and I don’t think there’s anything that could stop me from going there.”
Then there comes the (almost) inevitable response: “Well, you’re in God’s hands, and he will keep you safe.”
Wait, what? I think I missed something during seven years of theological and Biblical studies. You mean God promised to keep us safe from danger?
Nope. He most definitely did not.
The obvious example: Jesus
Let’s start with Jesus and move forward (usually a good way to do things).
First of all, Jesus’s devotion to humanity was anything but safe. The Father certainly did not keep him safe. Let’s look at what happened to Jesus when he made it very clear he was “in God’s hands”.
Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)
He breathed his last. He passed away. He kicked the bucket. He was called home. He was in a better place. I don’t like using euphemisms to soften up the grit and grime of reality, so let’s just get this straight: he straight-up died. For Jesus, being in God’s hands was anything but safe.
The implications: taking up your cross
Let’s move forward by looking backward first. Jesus’s cross, while unique, was not an exception to the rule of discipleship. He was quite clear:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
This is one of the relatively short list of quotes found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Matthew 10:38 and 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23 and 14:27) - presumably all three of them found it to be an integral part of the Jesus way. Matthew and Luke found it important enough to include almost identical versions of the same quote twice in their books. John, as always, does his own thing, but he is no less clear:
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:18-20)
The Early Church got it
For the earliest Jesus followers, persecution and martyrdom were very real possibilities. (“Persecution” here meaning something slightly more intense than not being able to say “Merry Christmas” at Starbucks.)
Paul’s laundry list of consequences of putting himself in God’s hands including things like beatings, stonings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, and sleepless nights. Comfort and safety are noticeably absent from the list. The list of citations would be far too long, but his response was always to rejoice that he had been “counted worthy” of suffering with Christ.
Later on, the Early Church Fathers repeatedly said that martyrdom was the highest honor and greatest calling that a Jesus follower could receive. To die for Christ was to die like/with Christ, to experience a special unity with the Cross in a very unique way. Many of them even called it a “second baptism”. For the Early Church, being “in God’s hands” certainly did not mean comfort and safety.
(Side note that should be put at the bottom of the essay but is too important to put off that long: it’s extremely important to note that they were not masochists, suicide bombers, or religious fanatics with a death wish. They were quite clear that (1) martyrdom is for the edification of the Church and the furthering of the Kingdom, not for personal gain; (2) martyrdom is not to be pursued - in fact, the ones who talked the most about “wanting” to be martyred were often the ones most likely to recant and back down when put on trial; and (3) the word “martyr” literally means “witness”, and losing your life for Christ is a witness to him, not for your own personal glory.)
Mirages in the desert
I was playing a board game called Forbidden Desert the other day. Basically, you play as a team of travelers stranded in the desert trying to recover the parts to your crashed airship before the heat and sandstorms kill you. It’s a cooperative game, and it’s probably the most difficult board game I’ve ever played. (Out of the six or seven times I’ve played it on “easy” difficulty, my team has only won once.)
One of the greatest challenges is keeping your canteens full. As the sun beats down, you must consume water, and there are only three tiles on the map where you can find more. Scratch that: there are only two. Of the three oasis tiles, one of them ends up being a mirage when you flip it over: a refraction of light on some cracked and dried solid ground. If you are about to die and, in a desperate search for water, you use your turn to flip over that mirage, you’re in trouble. There is no hope of life there.
Safety and comfort are mirages. We live in a broken world, and we naturally want to do everything we can to find the fullness of life. The thirstier we get, the more frantically we search for those things on the horizon (funny how they’re almost always on the horizon, right?) that promise to give us what we desire. We instinctively identify safety and comfort as deep wells of life that will quench our thirst. But when we get there, sooner or later we will realize that they are little more than mirages - refractions of light on cracked and dried ground.
I don’t want to say that either safety or comfort are inherently bad. I appreciate and enjoy both of them as much as anyone. I’m not masochistic or suicidal, and I certainly don’t have a death wish. The problem is when we, especially us Jesus followers, identify them as God-given promises, wellsprings of life, signs of blessing, and rivers of living water. They are categorically none of these things. Jesus did promise us rivers of living water - but we have to move on from the mirage and into the real oasis to find them.
The promises: way better than safety
To reiterate: neither Jesus nor God the Father ever promised anything remotely resembling safety and comfort. The promises we do receive, however, are far greater than either of these:
We are promised other things, too. These are necessary side-effects of following Jesus in a broken world, but they’re also the promises we all (me too - I’m no holier than thou) have strong aversions to:
Above all, the greatest promise lies in the very last sentence of the Gospel of Matthew: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (28:20)
I’ve been tempted as much as anyone to make safety and comfort my goals, to view them as signs of blessing. But let me make one thing clear: Despite all my faults and failings, I am doing my best to put myself in God’s hands daily. And the way I recognize the times I’m succeeding is when I really couldn’t care less about safety and comfort. I’m more than grateful to have them (I’m no masochist!), but they are infinitely insignificant compared to pursuing my calling and knowing that the Jesus who died in God’s hands promised to be with me even to the end of the age. Because there I have found peace, joy, love, beauty, etc. (And yes, I have also found pain, sorrow, struggle, opposition, etc.)
I firmly believe I’m in God’s hands. And even though I don’t suspect any immediate danger to my life in Beirut, I’m not particularly worried about being proven wrong. It's really not that terrifying when you step back and ask a simple question with a rather obvious answer for a Jesus follower:
What’s the worst that could happen?
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me [in prison] will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 1:18-21, 4:11-13)
*This is pre-explosion/escalating political unrest/economic crisis.
**Particularly post-explosion/escalating political unrest/economic crisis.