- Jason Andersen
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
A few years back, there was a book that was quite popular (we read it and have encouraged others to read it) called The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure. The basic premise is that we don’t allow our kids to fail and, because they don’t fail, they’re hyper fragile. He uses the example of bones being strengthened by falling and then the reverse is that they are weakened by being kept ‘safe.’ I think this is a true assessment, and it is just as true for Christians and non-Christians, between public, private, and home schooled, between wealthy and poor (although in many cases the poor tend to be less coddled given the necessities of poverty). Unfortunately, it is a common thing for us to teach our kids (that we won’t let them fail or get hurt), and maybe even more so since Covid. In a way, I think Covid made the book’s principles get forgotten in practice.
So would it shame us to consider our own fragility? We are emotionally fragile; if someone says something we don’t like, it turns into a tailspin. I once mentioned how I liked our vacuum, and it offended someone (of course, I was at fault here, I tend to have ideas and opinions about everything, so it doesn’t help me avoid stepping on toes). But you can imagine that time you felt offended by either something trivial or not and you responded as though it were the end of the world. When I was a schoolteacher, you could always tell the students who were coddled. When the child went home and complained about their teacher, the parent assumed the teacher was in the wrong. So the student felt justified in their poor behavior, and potentially the parent made (essentially) false accusations against the teacher. It was the greatest encouragement when the parent actually knew how their kid worked and actually displayed their trust in and backed up the teacher. One parent in particular (who was and still is a principal in MPS) brought her daughter in with her to address the problem together with the teacher, and mostly gave her daughter a reality check (while giving me, the first-year teacher, some advice on the side).
Let’s look at this from another angle. Online, we pursue the perfect image which can never be realized. Nearly every week or two an Instagram influencer or young budding actor takes their life. We present ourselves in images but we can never maintain such perfection, and we were never meant to. Wouldn’t it be a thing to live in a world without photos and mirrors? But our image-based culture has encouraged this fragility because we cannot live up to our own image. This is especially true for young people, but can’t we see this fragility in us as adults too? In some churches, people expect to be served with things that meet them where they’re at. The Christian radio station I grew up listening to had a motto, ‘Positive, Uplifting Music.’ That sounds nice, but it is actually horrendous. If music is supposed to teach, that radio station, although it calls itself Christian, is purely secular positivism with Jesus added. Have you ever read the Psalms or Lamentations? Christian music ought to have some sober-minded, God-glorifying instruction in life in the valley of the shadow too. Not because we are sticks in the mud or cynics but because real life as it is on this side of Jesus coming back will have suffering and difficulty.
If we circle back around to conversation, Christians often don’t know how to have conversations with other Christians that have differing views on really important things. Instead of being willing to listen and converse over the long haul, we tend to silo ourselves to ‘safe places.’ It’s quite interesting that we passively feel the desire for safe spaces where we’re never challenged. We honestly often struggle when we’re challenged to grow (challenged by whom? I’d say God’s Spirit through human means: the teaching in the church, a fellow believer, or perhaps even someone we look down on, and yet God uses them all). It is not all good for churches to be homogeneous and a place where everyone’s merely comfortable. I suspect that growth is difficult in these places because we don’t see our need for growth, we don’t rub up against anything different. And because we don’t see our need for growth, we react when we’re confronted by suggestions of possible immaturity. I suppose I could go on, but what is important is for us to see is that we are all in the same boat. We don’t let ourselves fall and we don’t let our kids fall, and for many of us, our middle-class lives have protected us from many of the most extreme sufferings (or made us forget them) until we have crafted an idea of safety that’s not really what our Lord calls us too.
So what are we called to? I could suggest a few things, but there’s one we get a glimpse of in the sending of the apostles during Jesus’ ministry. Although these words aren’t directly applicable to us, we see that Jesus himself isn’t afraid of sending his young disciples out as ‘sheep among wolves.’ Talk about safe. What if they decided not to follow him? Jesus isn’t concerned about it, and knowing about humanity, we need to encounter trials to be more resilient. We need people to challenge our beliefs, our loves, our emotions and everything else to realize what ought to be true, and what my faith actually means worked out through fire and to know what things I love that are actually worthwhile. Because at the end of the day, the disciples would learn that loving their own fame wasn’t worth all that much. Loving their lives was to no avail. For this call in Matthew 10, the disciples were to learn that carrying the message of Christ to the whole of their nation was worth it. And they were to learn both suffering, patience, and denial of self (to be shrewd as a serpent is to deny your right to say whatever you want to say so that you can do what is more important).
And I think that we too can take a lesson from this: like a grape vine producing wine, we’ve got to suffer, we’ve got to let our children fall over their own mistakes (whether at 5 or 15), we’ve got to endure the elements, and learn to work hard and endure. Rather than fragility, this is spiritual resiliency. Rather than weak knees, we will have the peaceful fruit of righteousness. It’s truly the good life when our hope is placed in something that is unshakeable. We’ve already come to the city of the living God. Our citizenship is sure. This doesn’t make suffering, sickness, or death as light as a feather, but it does give us a glimpse that even such things aren’t an end in and of themselves. For the secular person pursuing their own pleasure, suffering is only something to flee. But for us who call on Christ, it is our path of sanctification leading us to a great weight of glory.