Meet Safety Steve. Safety Steve is a high school student who has lived most of his life over the last nine months in fear. He was always a germaphobe, but especially now. He spends most of his time in his room playing videogames or watching Netflix. He only dares to leave his room for meals and to use the restroom. He isolates himself. On the rare occasion he leaves the house, he carries a gallon of hand sanitizer to kill any germs he comes in contact with. He is an expert at social distancing and loves the idea of “safe spaces.” But Safety Steve is depressed. He claims that the digital world is enough for him, but he feels empty inside. And really, even in isolation, he has never felt more unsafe. He is not the kind of kid clothed in bubble wrap or who has helicopters for parents, but he is the kind of kid who had the idol of safetyism unmasked by the Coronavirus.
The Idol of Safetyism
Safety Steve is not all to blame. Neither is the novel Coronavirus. The idol of safetyism was embedded in American society long before the pandemic struck. The concept of safety literally means to be free from harm or risk. But within the American mind, it has taken on a new form. “Safety” is no longer understood solely in physical terms, but also emotional. As the word “safety” has taken on new meaning, the birth of safetyism has made its debut. Safetyism is “a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. ‘Safety’ trumps everything else.” Safetyism is seen most explicitly as ‘emotional safety,’ which means that one should be safe not just from car accidents and sexual assault but also from people who disagree with you.
The gospel allows us to see safetyism as the illusion that one is safe. The gospel tells us that safetyism is an idol – a false god who demands that all moral, practical, social, and theological concerns bow to it. But those of us in youth ministry can attest that it is also an idol that has run rampant among those students who are members of iGen.
The Idol of Safetyism Unmasked
If safetyism has led us to believe we can be safe from all harm or risk, then the Coronavirus has taught us that we cannot be safe all of the time. The Coronavirus has ripped the mask right off the façade of safetyism. The Coronavirus has reminded humanity that no matter how hard we try to pursue safety in this world, we will ultimately fail. It is a hard pill to swallow.
Safetyism forces isolation, but this has led to hearts that are depressed. Student after student has confessed to me that their own joy in Christ faded during quarantine. The longer they isolated from the body of Christ, the longer their devotional life lacked spiritual power; the longer their hearts longed for safety, the darker their hearts became. Safetyism and the Coronavirus crashed into one another at the site of the human heart, and we are reaping the consequences.
Ultimately, safetyism is futile because in earthly terms, death has the last say. We have learned quite honestly that no matter how safe we attempt to make ourselves, our bodies, hearts, and society are destined for death. Safety Steve has felt all of this. Death has never been so real to him.
3 Gospel truths from 2 Tim. 4:17-18
Despite all the bad news, there is good news as well. The gospel steps in and fills the gaping hole that the Coronavirus created as it unmasked our idol of safetyism. The apostle Paul tells us how this happens in 2 Timothy 4:17-18. Paul finds himself in prison, and he finds his safety only within the great promises of the Lord. It is here that Paul provides three incredible gospel truths that shape our view of safetyism and shape our ministry towards students such as Safety Steve.
- The Lord stands by us when we are most vulnerable.
Paul says, “But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me” (2 Tim. 4:17). Paul records that when he stood on trial, no one was there with him. He found himself alone, facing death without the comfort of other fellow believers. He was isolated. In very much the same way, the Coronavirus has done something similar. Yet Paul proclaims that the Lord had stood by him when he was most vulnerable. Like a good friend amid tragedy, Jesus stands by his friends. When we feel most isolated, most vulnerable to death, most exposed to our idols, the presence of God in Jesus Christ is a great comfort. He is the God who is there. Such comfort is the fundamental reality of those who put their trust in Him; spiritual comfort instead of safetyism becomes our new joy.
- The Lord releases us from safetyism for bold proclamation.
Paul further says, “The Lord… strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it” (17). Paul has no illusion about his own safety. Safety is a relative term when he knows that the Lord stands by him. The bonds of safetyism are crushed when we realize that God, through Jesus Christ, has released us for bold proclamation of the gospel. Proclaiming the gospel has always been a dangerous endeavor. Yet it is the way to life. The gospel teaches us that we cannot serve two masters. We will either love the one and hate the other or hate the other and love the one. We cannot serve the Great Commission and safetyism. It is in times of danger, crisis, and fear that the gospel is most loudly and clearly heard. Safetyism tells us to isolate and to avoid boldness. Yet the gospel frees us to engage with others and proclaim boldly.
- The Lord promises that he will bring us safely home.
Paul finally says, “So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom” (18). Paul is confident that his lack of safety in the present will not jeopardize the safety of his eternal home. The Lord promises us through Jesus Christ that he will bring his children home safely. Such promises are rooted in the cross. At the cross, our eternal home was purchased. When Christ went to the cross, our safety in the heavenly kingdom was guaranteed. There is now nothing that can wipe us out of the mighty hand of God.
Just ask Paul in Romans 8: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? No, we as Christians know that we have an eternal home, and we have a savior who will lead us safely there. We are sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, including highly contagious viruses, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
As we minister to students like Safety Steve, let us speak gospel truths into their lives. Let us tell the Safety Steve in our ministry that even when he feels most vulnerable, God will stand by his side. Let us tell him that safety in this life is a brutal slave-master, but the gospel has released us to boldly proclaim the good news. And finally, let us tell him that even when our world is unsafe, we can be confident that the Lord will bring us safely home.
 I am indebted to Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff for showing me the issue of safety-ism in American culture, especially those who are members of IGen in The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Books, 2018).