Jay Blogs – The Unsafe God

This week, I traveled to a meeting with several of my head-of-school peers. In my quiet times with the Lord before my trip, I prayed that God would give me an opportunity to serve my colleagues around me, many of whom face difficult issues, work situations, and personal challenges in their respective schools. I prayed that the Lord would allow me to love them well. If I’m honest, though, I had a pretty clear picture of what I imagined my service would be. I envisioned myself engaged in many deep and meaningful conversations with troubled people, counseling, encouraging, and praying with them, all in a relaxed, conference-like setting.

The reality was starkly different than what I imagined: late nights and early mornings schlepping boxes up and down stairs and to meeting rooms and breakfast areas several blocks away; multiple trips to the store to buy supplies for the executive director; fielding complaints from people and clarifying misunderstandings, and helping to clean up the whole thing. At the end of the conference, I was worn out and lamenting over the fact that I had far too few “ministry” conversations, my time consumed with “grunt work.”

As I sat, exhausted, on the plane coming home, mildly disappointed that things hadn’t turned out like I had planned, it hit me: God absolutely answered my prayers. He gave me exactly what I had asked him for- multiple opportunities to serve my colleagues, to care for them. It just didn’t materialize at all in the way I had expected (or frankly, hoped).

Our God is a wild and unpredictable God. He won’t be tamed by our imagination. He won’t be put in our boxes, won’t simply behave the way we’d like. He has his own plans, his own purposes, and his own agenda. And, his unpredictability far transcends merely answering prayers in ways slightly discordant with our own self-focused expectations.

While I may absolutely be secure in his love, his mercy, his character, and my future in him, he is not safe. Following him will subject me to danger, to disruption, to risk, and to suffering. We can’t count on him for predictability, or for prosperity (as we envision it). We can’t count on him to fulfill our preconceived notions for how things will turn out, or what he’ll do next. We’re delusional for thinking we ever could, because he never says he’d be or do these things for us. In fact, his whole history with us tells us otherwise.

God tells Job, who had probably the wildest, most unpredictable life ever (though we’ve all experienced a little Job, haven’t we?), that His Spirit blows and breathes where it wishes, and we can’t predict or control it (Job 3). Rather than prediction or control, God invites us to ride the Spirit’s current, taking us where he may.

This is why God calls us to obedience in the things we know he is calling us to be and do. He’s not a strict disciplinarian Father, demanding first-time obedience on a flailing power kick. Every one of us wants to be guided by the Lord, to listen to his voice and to hear him speak, and obedience is the training ground for a heart that learns to hear his voice over our broken, native tongue, the lies of the devil, and of the world.

This unsafe God not only calls me to obedience in the midst of turmoil, but also routinely disrupts my life. Just like Jesus overturning the tables in the temple, He’s consistently upsetting my expectations, whether through people I love getting sick or dying, people I thought were friends turning on me, my plans being put on hold or not turning out anywhere like I had imagined, or any other myriad of unforeseen circumstances. And, most of the time, he doesn’t really seem in any particular hurry to resolve this disruption. On the contrary, he often keeps me unsettled, knowing that outer turmoil captures my attention and tills the soil of my sometimes-hardened heart, rendering me humble and open and willing to receive His Word.

So, as parents trying to disciple our kids, how do we raise our children to serve an unsafe God? How do we shepherd them to feel secure in the love and mercy of God, to trust in his goodness, but live empowered to expect the unexpected, lives of disruption and unpredictability? I saw a graphic the other day, focused on equipping teams, but, in my experience, very effective for raising kids empowered to live in an unsafe world.

The graph was set up with an x-axis and a y-axis. The x (horizontal) axis was based upon support– how well supported do (in this case) your children feel in your home? The y (vertical) axis was challenge. How often are your children presented with challenge in your home? Support can come in the form of affirmation, praise, encouragement, and expressions of love. Challenge comes in the form of giving kids a context for failure and encouraging the process of failure as a mechanism for learning. It also includes putting kids in positions where they have to work hard, earn things versus having them all given, and experience delayed gratification. Challenge also means not being sheltered from the world around them, but supported with a context for thinking and feeling about that world in age-appropriate ways, and through a Christian lens.

The four quadrants formed by the x and y axis are “Protect” (High support, low challenge), “Empower” (High support, high challenge), “Abdicate” (Low support, low challenge), and “Dominate” (Low support, high challenge).  If we think of the four as styles of parenting, only “Empower” prepares a child to live in the world of the unsafe God, yet secure in His goodness and love.

While the Holy Spirit can repair any kind of brokenness, parenting redemptively requires high support and high challenge. It probably goes without saying that abdicating, not supporting one’s child, nor presenting them with any real challenges in life, essentially hands-off parenting, is going to leave kids ill-equipped to face disruption and turmoil in life (all the while creating a great deal of both).  Likewise, dominating our children through high challenge with little or no support (think old-school boot camp training, challenging without outward manifestations of love), may leave kids tough and resilient, but lacking compassion or empathy, and certainly not having the confidence in God’s love (or yours, for that matter) to face life’s disruption and challenges with security.

“Protect” parenting is significantly more common in our culture, including our school- tons of support, praise, and manifestations of love showered on the child, just not much challenge. In fact, not only are kids not challenged, but they’re affirmatively protected from challenge, a pathway against challenge cleared by their parents, motivated by a fear of children’s failure as a poor reflection on parents or a misplaced desire to never deprive their children as they once felt themselves deprived.

“Protect” parenting, rooted in all kinds of unexamined insecurities, prepares kids for a “safe” world, i.e., a world in which we do not actually live.  These kids, lacking resilience and inner strength, not only struggle to thrive and flourish in the unsafe world, but struggle with their faith because their life and parental history have taught them to expect God to clear a path for them, to keep them safe, and when he doesn’t, he must either not love them or not actually be God.

“Empower” parenting, high support and high challenge, equips kids for life, and faith, as it actually is. Knowing that they are loved, yet not fearing failure or challenge, allows kids to step into the breach of life with confidence. This isn’t to say they won’t struggle with life or with God; they most certainly will, as have the best of us. Yet, they’ll struggle from a concept of life and God rooted in reality, secure in the love of an unsafe God.

Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.