Friday, August 14, 2009

Safe-Living or Saved-Living

Is Our God Too Safe?
Mark Galli's latest article, "Danger: God" touches on the tendency of modern Christianity to play it safe rather than sorry. Beginning with the suburban context, Galli notices that Christians try to make this world a 'safer' place in many places. Mothers start writing 'safe' romance novels for their daughters to read, instead of allowing them to be seduced by worldly offerings all over the popular bookstores. People read the Bible or go to churches mainly for inspirational stuff to feel good, rather than agonizing through controversial material that can dislodge one from his or her private perch. It reminds me of Mark Buchanan's "Your God is Too Safe" which reiterates much of the same theme Galli is writing about. Buchanan argues that Christians are mostly 'stuck in the borderlands' which is exactly the safety zone that Galli is talking about. Like CS Lewis's depiction of the mighty lion, Aslan in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

Lucy talking to the Beaves asks about Aslan, “is he a man?
Beaver says “A man, He is the king of the woods, king of the beasts, Aslan is a Lion.”
Lucy goes “oh, a Lion, I am nervous about meeting a lion, is he safe?”
Beaver- “Oh no… he is not safe but He is good.”

Safe vs Good
Remarkably and very perceptively, CS Lewis reveals the human tendency to prefer 'safe' instead of something far better: 'Good.' This is precisely the same thing that tempts the rich man to opt for 'safe' riches rather than the 'good' of following Jesus (Matt 19:22). This is also chosen by Demas, who prefers the 'safe' confines of this world, rather than the 'good' of sticking with Paul (2 Tim 4:10). Even within the community, remember how Ananias and Sapphira's act of choosing what is 'safe' for themselves rather than what is 'good' for the community (Acts 5)? Mark Buchanan gently exposes the enigmatic nature of the human predicament.

We are deeply ambivalent about God. Sometimes we flee Him; sometimes we seek Him. But our motives in either case are complex, mixed. " (Mark Buchanan, Your God is Too Safe, Multnomah, 2001, p19)
Both Galli and Buchanan, as well as CS Lewis all force us to confront our human tendency that shies away from danger. Like knee-jerk reactions, we prefer the false sense of security of riches that earth possesses instead of the true treasures in heaven. The human self gravitates toward any miserable earthly refuge of today rather than the solid heavenly security of tomorrow. It is against such a human instinct that Jesus has to state emphatically:

"Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." (Matt 6:33)

While Galli criticizes the tendency of Christians to prefer the safe hinterland of suburban Christianity, Buchanan points us to something far more subtle and dangerous: the playground of being 'stuck' in borderland. In other words, Christians often know the path to take, but they have not ventured far enough to finish the journey. They prefer to know it, but reluctant to practice it radically to the end. They are happy to remain at the middle, albeit stuck into inaction. Buchanan, a fellow Regent-College alumni, gives a no-nonsense, no-holds barred, piercing diagnosis of many Christians' spiritually cancerous condition, even indicting those of us who have been theologically trained:
We go to Bible college, hoping that will innoculate us against spiritual languor, will create in us robust faith. But many theological schools and Bible colleges are built on borderlands. There is the danger in such places that we will learn much about God and at the same time grow distant from God; we will study the intricacies of doctrine but lose passion; we will become eloquent at God talk, but cease talking to God.

We go to church, we sing, we pray, we listen to the Word read and preached. Maybe we take notes. Maybe we even lead some of it. And maybe our slow hearts burn within us. But walking away - just strolling to our car in the church parking lot, fifty-seven steps away - the conviction, 'He's alive!' dribbles down lile water held in the hand. Monday morning, it's still hard to get out of bed." (
Buchanan, Your God is Too Safe, 21)
Let me put it another way. We drink the cup of Christ, but we intoxicate ourselves with the wine of the world, rather than the costly blood of Christ. I am not talking about becoming blood-thirsty. I am referring to being fully identified with the person and cause of Christ. As the saying goes, 'blood is thicker than water,' which refers to choosing one's family members above other people. Likewise, we choose the kingdom of God above all other kingdoms of the world. We choose the cause of Christ above all other causes of the world. I am not arguing for a dichotomous reading of the world. That will be dualism or gnosticism. (One understanding of Gnosticism is the heresy that sees the physical as bad, the spiritual as good. In Christianity, one believes that in Christ, all has been redeemed.) I am talking about dying to self, taking up the cross of Christ, and following after Christ, warts and all.

Faith: Safe-Living vs 'Saved'-Living
I like Galli's description of: "The normal Christian life is in many ways the antithesis of safety," mainly because it mirrors the encounters I have with many evangelicals today. Perhaps, it has nothing to do with the people themselves, but more of the culture that we live in. Suppose I were to live in the Third World today, under the barrage of gunfire and religious persecution, maybe I will see Christianity much different than now. Having said that, I think not running into physical danger does not mean there are safe passages in the comfortable rich West. In fact, one can argue that it is an even more dangerous playground. An illustration from history can help.

When the early Church was persecuted, we see Christians being fed to the lions, with martyrdom as fodder for first century entertainment. Foxes' Book of Martyrs was classic reading for the early Protestant movement. Being a Christian then is extremely costly. Nowadays, we emphasize grace so much as if faith is cost-free, forgetting that it costs Jesus his life. Martyrdom is largely forgotten in the West. It is referred occasionally only as a passing thought. Reading through the persecution era reminds us that the faith that we have, has been preserved not with wine but with blood. Christianity was not transmitted to us in air-conditioned buildings, complete with modern hi-fidelity sound and audio-visual technology and an inspirational nice-to-listen exciting sermon messages. The Christian faith came to us at a huge cost, paid in full by none other than our Lord Jesus Christ. Think about it. If God felt it better to play it safe, would he have allowed his Son to come down to earth to suffer and be tortured? The phrase "Be safe not sorry" can be misleading as far as a Christian is concerned. It places safe as the antithesis of danger. Christianity is not about being safe. Neither is it about avoiding 'sorry' conditions. Lest we forget, it is about following Jesus, regardless.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny
himself and take up his cross and follow me
." (Matthew 16:24)

Let me elaborate more about the differences between safe-living and saved-living.

  • Safe living prefers the present world. Saved living prays heavenly living on earth as it is in heaven.
  • Safe-living accumulates riches on earth. Saved-living accumulates treasures in heaven.
  • Safe-living worries about present needs and future requirements. Saved-living leave the worries to God.
  • Safe-living protects oneself and loved ones from harm. Saved-living seeks to inculcate love to all, including those who can potentially cause harm.
  • Safe-living keeps things for oneself. Saved-living gives things up for the sake of others.
  • Safe-living reads the Bible for information, for personal inspiration and motivation. Saved-living reads the Bible for transformation.
  • Safe-living isolates one from others, by locking oneself within a fortress of weaponry and security. Saved-living frees one to live a transparent life, to be willing to connect with others.
What kind of living reflects our choices? Safe or Saved?

I concur with Galli's reminder, that even as we worship God, we should not be too distracted by the kinds of songs or the missing Powerpoint slide before our eyes. Neither should we become too judgmental of the way the whole service is put together, or to complain about the lack of help or resources to serve God's people. We need to approach the God's presence with fear and trembling. We need to put on the shawl of Christ's grace and to bow our hearts with thankfulness.
"If we lose the sense that worship is a dangerous place, well, we're probably
not in the presence of the biblical God."

The best attitude that we can adopt is not to play it safe, but to approach life with a grateful heart, and to share this thankfulness by sharing Christ with all. In other words, lived as saved-people, not as safe-seeking-people. After all, the gospel is not to be canned and stuffed into our storerooms of convenience. Like the woman with the alabaster jar, the gospel is to be poured out. If need be, let our 'safe' hardened vessel be broken so that the fragrance of the love of God can fill the whole house, and permeate the communities we live in. Be saved, and not be sorry that we have missed the opportunity to bring the gospel to the unsaved.


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