Safety: Vice or Virtue?

My friend Christian died in the Austrian Alps this past spring, caught in an avalanche.  Jane Larson was struck by a falling rock in July and is alive and healing, but it could have gone either way.  Spend enough time in the mountains and you’ll begin to compile an “in remembrance” list of those who died young.  The rest of us who venture out all have “almost” stories, enough to write a book, because to go high in the moutains is to move to the realm of uncertainty.  You can mitigate the risk to nearly nothing, but like the rest of life (taking a bath, walking down stairs, going shopping), the risk is never zero.  The difference, though, between risk in civilization and risk in the wild has to do with the awareness of it.

“Why go then?” is the question I’m asked, often.  There are plenty of reasons, but the one for this moment is to say that I go to peer over the edge.  Our sanitized world, with illusions of safety and nightly news reports of disasters far and near, has created an obsession with personal security, and this fixation has, ironically, has left us feeling anxious and powerless.  As we result we’re living less and guarding more – bigger walls and less generosity, more privacy and fewer friends, better insulation and more illness, hypochondria, insomnia, and all the rest that comes to those who live in cages.

In contrast, those who leave the confines of civilization, are rewarded, the farther and higher they travel from predictably, with what one author calls the “the raw and urgent joy of life”.   Such ventures don’t require irresponsibility.  Far from it, the truth is that those who leave the illusion of safety behind and face the unfiltered risks of the wild are more attuned to life, not less.  Climbing invites focus because of the knowledge that mistakes can be life or death here.  When it’s over, the hyper-awareness of everything lingers, as the taste of food, the colors of sky and flora, sounds, smell, seem intensified – and we feel more alive.  Soon, though, if we’re not careful, we’re find ourselves getting all worked up again over a broken traffic light, or long line at the store.  Ugh – is there a way to know awareness, joy, and real life in the midst of the faux security all around us?

The question begins to rub up against the gospel.  The “big city life” as Mattafix calls it, seems to kill vitality, offering more illusion, fantasy, and escape, than reality.  What’s person to do?  Though I could tell you to go climbing, there’s actually a better answer:


I can hear you laughing, see you rolling your eyes, see your hand reaching for the mouse to move on.  Give me a moment to make three observations about why this is the first and best thing we can do:

Abundant Life is why Christ came. Jesus didn’t begin his kingdom thing so that we’d sit around and pontificate about the finer nuances of Christology, argue about who’s in and who’s out, and pretend to be holier than we are.  He tells us the express reason that he came was so we’d have a capacity to live richer lives.  Abundant life gets embodied as the book of Acts unfolds, and what it seems to mean is “life poured out” in careless loving abandon, like that lady did with the perfume on Jesus’ feet.  I say this because at the end of chapter 7 in Acts, one man has been killed for inviting people into God’s story.  In chapter 8 God’s shoving people out of their comfort zone, sending Jewish Christ followers into places that, to their hearts, would have been more threatening and oppressive than K2 (the mountain, not the company).  They go – and find joy and power and abundance.  Soon there’s another one of their own murdered – beheaded.  Next, the famous apostle Peter is on the run, with a price on his head.  A group of people go out on a sea tour to various cities to share the good news of Christ and in the process there’s more rioting, and a key apostle is so injured that he’s presumed to be dead, except he’s not.  Riots, escapes, rejection, acceptance, parties, healings, confrontation 0 every day’s an adventure.

This isn’t about the fact that these people were part of a start-up, or on a mission trip, though both are true.  This is about the reality that following Jesus will infuse us with a certain quality of life, and that life will lead to certain attitudes, behaviors, interactions… all of which will enable us to peer over the edge, and thus know what it means to be fully alive.  This is as available to the barista, as the mountaineer, as the mom with small children – available, and elusive.  Why is this elusive?  Because of the second observation:

Abundant Life must be sensual life.  Jesus’ big complaint was that most people had become deaf and blind, even though they still had perfectly good ears and eyes.  This is an important observation on the part of Jesus because he’s telling us that we need to see, hear, mourn, dance, feast, fast.  We need, in other words, to wake up to the whole that is our lives.  This is harder than it appears.

It means that we need to be open to pain and loss.  Jesus spelled this out clearly when he said, “he who seeks to save his life will lose it”, which was his way of saying that if we choose the route of preservation over the route of obedience, we’ll miss the abundance and adventure that is life in Christ.  Losing one’s life simply means taking every next step simply because it’s the right step take, rather than because it’s the safe step.

A prayer found in a soldier’s pocket reads:

“The first prayer I want my son to learn to say for me is not, ‘God, keep my Daddy safe’, but ‘God, make Daddy brave, and if he has hard things to do, make him strong to do them’. Son, life and death don’t matter, but right and wrong do. Daddy dead is Daddy still. But Daddy dishonored before God is something too awful for words. I suppose you’d like to put in something about safety too and Mother would like it too. Well, put it in afterwards, always afterwards. For it really doesn’t matter as much as doing what is right.”

This is the sensual life, precisely because in doing the right thing, step by step, you’re opening yourself to the full range of life experience: celebration and confrontation, gain and loss, mourning and dancing, acceptance and rejection, ecstasy and agony, life and death.  The point, it seems, is that you can’t live the fulness of this by carefully avoiding risk – it will shut down the options and leave you with a range of experiences in the middle, but nothing on the ends.  You don’t need to seek experiences on the ends… just seek to live in relationship with Jesus and follow him – the breadth of experiences will come.

This kind of living requires risk.  The problem, of course, is that you don’t know your role in God’s story until you step on the stage.  Will you live in one house your whole life, or move 20 times?  Will you never go to the doctor, or face a rash of unknown illnesses?  Rich or poor?  Married or single?  Mountains or ocean, or jail, or the streets, or CEO?  The risk is that there’s no straight line between doing the right thing and the American values of security, upward mobility, and good health.

“Thanks… but I prefer stability, security, predictability.  I’m allergic to rain.  My family lives nearby, so I’ll never move.  The biggest car is the safest one, so who cares about the environment?  I need six figures to live a meaningful life.”  Well, there you have it.  Go for it.  Just know that you might not reach your goal of long life and insulation from pain anyway, because, like living in the city, your insistence on control only offers the illusion of risk-free living, not the real thing.  Since there’s risk either way, why not cut the line, and let the wind of the spirit take you out into the deep waters of abundant life… wherever they might lead.

Share a story in the comments section of how God is helping you embrace risk, large or small.  Thanks!



About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Roy

    Good post, Richard. For whatever reason my life hasn’t taken a “traditional” path. I don’t hang off physical cliffs like you do but I am someone who tends to chase after those philosophical places that others may find risky. I’m a bit of a music nerd and this song from a few years ago still rings true to me. Here are the lyrics and a video below if you want to check it out:

    I sit here clutching useless lists, keys for doors that don’t exist
    I crack my teeth on pearls
    I tear into the history, Show me what it means to me in this world
    Yeah, in this world

    ‘Cause I am due for a miracle, I’m waiting for a sign
    I’ll stare straight into the sun, And I won’t close my eyes
    Till I understand or go blind

    I see the parts but not the whole, I study saints and scholars both
    No perfect plan unfurls
    Do I trust my heart or just my mind, Why is truth so hard to find in this world
    Yeah in this world

    ‘Cause I am due for a miracle, I’m waiting for a sign
    I’ll stare straight into the sun, And I won’t close my eyes
    Till I understand or go blind (till I understand or go blind)

    I know that there’s a point I’ve missed
    A shrine or stone I haven’t kissed
    A scar that never graced my wrist
    A mirror that hasn’t met my fist
    But I can’t help feeling like I’m

    Due for a miracle, I’m waiting for a sign (waiting for a sign)
    I’ll stare straight into the sun, And I won’t close my eyes (and I won’t close my eyes)

  • Peter Rengstorf

    A wonderfully timely post Richard, thank you! My friend sent me an article about the NW super quake and I was in a funk all morning. Its something I know about but there is quite literally nothing I can do about it so why worry. Much better to live every day in the abundant love of Jesus.

  • DonM

    If you live like that, be sure to have plenty of children, for they will learn from you. We need people who take risks, and support freedom to take risks.

  • B

    It does seem that avoiding death has become the number one value in our society. But in avoiding death (and pain) we often undermine the very substance of life (and joy). There are worse things than dying, which is no small thing. In every relationship we must decide whether to manage risk or to build trust. Trust is violently risky, beautiful, painful, rich, exciting, dangerous and life changing. The poem “How Did you Die?” comes to mind, as well as the “man in the arena” T. Roosevelt quote, but mostly Jesus “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Let the grand adventure roll on!

  • Rebecca Trotter

    Wonderful post! I think that this is something that as a society we are in danger of completely cutting our children off from – this rich life. We feel obligated to keep them close at hand, well supervised, continually corrected, always on the right track so that nothing bad will happen and life will be easy for them. We’re so afraid of kidnappings and accidents and looking bad in front of the neighbors or allowing them to fail. But it stifles them. It teaches them not to ever take risks, to be afraid – to be less competent, free and alive.

    Anyhow, that’s my little rant. ;) Thanks again for a great post.

  • April Lott

    As I step into what feels like both the riskiest and most exciting time of my life, your post and sermon last week could not have been better timed. I’ve been working in Seattle as a Pharmacist for the past 2.5 years and have been richly blessed in this season to be a part of Gods kingdom “in every square inch”. My husband to-be and I (1 week away!) are convinced God is calling us into full time ministry with college students with Campus Crusades for Christ. As I “peer over the ledge” into marriage, changing jobs, professions, cities, and leaving Bethany, I feel fully alive and comforted knowing Jesus promises us his presence at every step. I am uncertain what the future holds for us, but I am sure this is our “right next step” into God’s story, and we will take one step at a time knowing Christ is with us. Embracing the risk and the riches of abundant life in Christ!

  • Don Ibbitson

    I am a
    Christian counselor and four years ago the Lord called me to strike out on my own to start a counseling ministry. My temperament type thrives on security and stability so this was, and has been, a huge step of faith. He has been faithful and blessed me with professional and personal support but the flesh continues to battle from time to time.

  • Heidi

    Insightful read. My cousin was one of the young people killed in the mountains – labor day 2011. He was a 21 yr old uw student and all of life was still ahead of him. It still hasn’t sunk in that he is gone. I’ve always been a an outdoor enthusiast-I climbed mountains, tried new things-risky things- but After Peter passing, I’ve since thought about the potential significance of my “outdoor risks.” is it worth it for my husband and family? I typically think. The last year ive just been running, and hiking occasionally. But the mountains are Fierce, majestic but fierce. And they can kill you if we dont respect our limits. It just takes one loose rock. And so I continue to juggle the safe space with the risky space when it comes to adventure.

  • Amy

    Great post! I recently visited Mexico on my very first mission trip at 33 years old. My family and friends were nervous as there is a lot of unrest there right now. I was a mess before I went. But I went anyway. God showed me signs before I left, through various scripture and devotionals. He told me to trust Him and go anyway. And it was the most amazing experience I have ever had. I was so alive and so close to God. Although some of my senses have faded, this post made me remember and smile. I still see the sunrise and sunset with the same awe as I did in that small village. However, I have let my safe life takeover. This post reminds me that it wasn’t necessarily Mexico or the people, it was amazing and life changing because I was following Jesus. Thanks.