A Gorilla, Fear, and the Myth of Safety

I waited quite awhile to weigh in on the tragedy regarding the young boy who made his way into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. I did this mostly because I’ve been fascinated watching the aftermath on social media. I’m not going to comment on what actually happened because a) I wasn’t there, and b) I’m not an expert on zoos, gorillas, or watching children in the midst of chaos and crowds. I will, however, comment on the crazy behavior of everyone on social media because, unfortunately, we have all become experts in that. People responded to this situation with a great deal of anger at all involved. Some called for the parents to have their children removed from their care, and there were even death threats. It caused me to reflect on why people responded in this manner. So, this post is not really about the gorilla situation at all; it is about what thoughts and emotions were behind people’s reactions and what that means for our lives.

After some reflection, I decided that it was likely that the main reason that people reacted with such vitriol is that they were afraid. It’s no secret that fear makes people do crazy and awful things, and this was no exception. Parents and others watched the video of the young boy with the gorilla and immediately thought about their own children or the children in their lives. They pictured what might have happened if the story had had a different ending. And it scared them. BUT, if they blamed the whole situation on the parents’ poor parenting skills, it allowed them to sleep at night. If they came up with a list of rules and regulations that should be put in place “so that this never happens again,” it allowed them to believe that future similar situations could be completely prevented, and they felt in control again. They could go to bed saying, with relief, “THAT would never happen to MY child. I would never be in that situation.” And it took away their fear. So the bashing continued, the demand for new rules and regulations continued, and everyone felt better about themselves, their lives, and the safety of their own children.

But, the truth is that we in America only live under the illusion that we are in control of everything. We believe that if we just work hard enough, take enough precautions, and put enough rules and legislation in place, we can keep ourselves and our children completely safe from all harm. But, that is a lie. You can be the best parent in the world and still lose a child. You can take every precaution and still see harm come to your child. We can legislate to the gills, and people will still find a way to cause pain and suffering to others. Even the best parent is not perfect and even the best situations can yield the worst outcomes. Why? Because the world is broken. It’s scary to say it, but the reality is that no matter what you do, you cannot ensure your child’s complete safety.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take reasonable precautions. And I’m not saying that the parents in this particular situation did everything perfectly; I honestly don’t know. And I’m not saying that some rules aren’t necessary and good. But, I do know that disease, accidents, death, and violence can happen to children of very capable parents when all of the right rules are in place.

So, that’s a scary thought. And it definitely raises some important questions about how we should respond to such a reality, especially in our world of extra-cautious behavior. Many well-meaning and loving parents, both Christian and non-Christian, have clearly responded by overreacting and overprotecting. While I understand such a response (and could easily imagine myself being guilty of the same thing), I have to wonder if that response is the best one. So, I posed some questions to myself, namely the following: What are the spiritual consequences of overprotecting our children?  In what ways do we harm our relationship with God by lying to ourselves about how safe we are? And, related to the first question, is protecting our children the most important thing that we can do for them?

What are the spiritual consequences of overprotecting our children?

Not long ago, I took some kids from my church to a local Christian camp for a retreat. At the start of the weekend, the camp staff made it clear that the kids would be exposed to a moderate amount of reasonable “danger” in their activities (I use the term loosely…we’re not talking Hunger Games here) over the course of the weekend and that the parent chaperones should resist the urge to jump in and rescue them. The parents nodded in agreement, but throughout the course of the weekend, a group of them couldn’t resist shielding their kids from any difficulty. I started to refer to this group as “the helicopter moms” (admittedly, that was not terribly nice), and watching them was fascinating. They complained about the lack of safety when one girl faced a challenge on a ropes course. The girl was fine (she ended up with a minor scratch), and most importantly, she overcame the challenge and grew because of it, which was, of course, the point. When a group of girls (including some from my own church) complained during free time that the kids were not being fair while playing tether ball, the moms jumped in and made a bunch of rules. (When the girls had complained to me, I encouraged them to figure it out for themselves.) It’s easy to see how a good desire to protect our children can result in the stunting of their development. The camp’s (right) philosophy is that children grow when they have to overcome adversity.

We must learn to recognize that our primary job as Christians is not to keep ourselves safe. It’s not even to provide safety for others, though we do that when we can. Instead, we are called to be present where God is present and point out his activity in the midst of pain and suffering. God is there in the midst of unsafe situations. Indeed, he put his Son in the most unsafe of situations on our behalf. He sent his Son to stare evil directly in the eye and overcome it. And by the power of his Spirit, he calls us to do the same thing. By keeping our children from this holy task, we do not include them in God’s mission, we do not honor their baptism, and we stunt their spiritual growth. They may end up being safe, but they do not end up being faithful, and they never grow into the people whom God has called them to be.

In what ways do we harm our relationship with God by lying to ourselves about how safe we are?

We Americans feel safe, generally. This makes us feel in control and independent from God. Third world parents don’t have this luxury. They know that no matter how good their parenting skills, their children are at high risk for disease, early death, or being victims of crimes. This is why the gospel spreads rapidly in these areas. The people are under no illusions about who is in control. We think that we are better off than they are (and perhaps in many ways we are), but in this way, they are better off than we are. Instead of elevating safety to be the highest good, we need to acknowledge our imperfections, our inadequacies, and our need for God’s intervention in our lives. We need to recognize God’s sovereignty and pray for his will to be done, even in the midst of unsafe situations. The truth is that we can never be in right relationship with God if we believe that we are the ones in control.

We need to acknowledge that God loves our children even more than we do, but that does not mean that he will always keep them out of harm’s way. What he’s doing in the world is so much bigger than simply keeping his children safe and comfortable.  His desire for them is not merely to survive, but to bring, through the power of his Spirit, his kingdom to bear on the earth. He will and does put all of his children in the line of fire to do just that. (Ever read the story of…well, almost everyone in the Bible?) When we in the church believe that God’s main mission is to keep his people safe and comfortable, we miss out on what he is really doing, and our relationship with him suffers.

Finally, is protecting our children the most important thing that we can do for them?

I recently heard a parent say that she didn’t want her church reaching out to those in need in its community because she didn’t want her children to be in contact with those kinds of people (addicts, criminals, etc.). In her own words, her primary goal as parent is to protect her children. I understood where she was coming from, but I was also sad for her. In an effort to protect her children, she is keeping them from the places where God is most at work and where God calls us to serve.

Of course it is a natural instinct for parents to protect their children. Their love for them drives them to do it, and certainly God has created humans this way in order to ensure that the species survives. But, I don’t think that protecting their kids is the highest calling that parents have, though it certainly is part of it. Instead, parents are to parent in the way that the Father parented his Son: not by removing their children from all harm, but by teaching them to be faithful in the midst of every situation and by calling them to bring hope and healing to a broken and hurting world. Is that hard? You bet. Is it counter-intuitive and counter-cultural? Sure thing. But is it our mission? I think so. Does it bear fruit? It does. It draws us closer to the Father and allows us to participate in his work in the world. It also shows children that their highest aspiration for their lives should not be mere survival, but that their purpose is to live the life that God has called them to live, even in the midst of danger.

I remember being at a conference a few years ago and one of the speakers said, “Don’t pray for God to keep you safe. Pray for him to make you dangerous!” He talked about how when his children were afraid of monsters under their bed, he never prayed for the monsters to go away. Instead, he prayed for the children to be brave. I’ve never forgotten this. As an anxious child, I prayed for God to keep me safe quite frequently. I’ve since changed my prayers and have asked God to make me dangerous. We become dangerous to the enemies of God when we act faithfully. So, this is my prayer for all of the children whom I know and love: not that they are kept safe from all harm but that they are equipped to stare darkness in the face and beam the light of Christ straight into it. While this may not keep them free from all adversity, it will shape them more and more into the image of Christ, and that is what I most desire for them.

Please don’t worry; I would not allow my child to play in a gorilla pit as a character-building exercise. I would, of course, do everything in my power to prevent such a thing from happening. I do not consider putting proper precautions in place at zoo exhibits and vigilantly watching children (though no parent can do so perfectly) to be “overprotection.” These are normal and good protective measures that should be in place and should have been in place in Cincinnati. My point is not that we should allow our children to enter into unsafe situations willy-nilly, but that we should not allow fear to rule our lives. More importantly, the fear should not be stilled by overprotection and countless rules; it should be stilled by trust in a loving God who is at work setting the world to rights. It is a dangerous place. But, praise be, we have a more dangerous God.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

– C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe


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