“Safe spaces” are in the news lately. Often, outside the places where they are being held, they are derided as a method of coddling “snowflakes”, i.e. college kids who are biological adults but seem to have the emotional maturity of a stunted Chihuahua.
I have to admit: I have done my share of chuckling at and deriding of these snowflakes.
What if I told you, though (or told me, since I’m the one deriding and chuckling), that the concept of a safe space is Biblical. Not only that, but it was pretty much commanded of his followers by none other than Jesus himself?
First off, though, get the idea of the college safe space out of your mind. I’m not talking—nor was Jesus—about a room with coloring books, zen tangles, or a giant ball pit. These things can all be fun and may even have their place in entertainment or relaxation, but they have nothing to do with the kind of “safe space” Jesus was talking about.
OK, so what was Jesus talking about?
Matthew 6:5-7 - But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (English Standard Version)
Specifically, Jesus was contrasting this attitude with that of the outwardly pious person who prays loudly in public so as to draw attention to their own piety. Jesus didn’t want his followers to do that. He wanted them to get off by themselves and just be alone with God.
The King James Version has it that we should go into our “closet”. This wouldn’t work for most of us these days because our closets are full. I think the idea was/is, though, to go to a place away from worldly distractions. NO TV, no radio, no phone—I said, “NO phone!”—and just pray, and listen. Maybe take your Bible in there with you and meditate (more on that in a moment). A paper Bible, printed and bound and not one on your phone. A Bible that serves no other purpose than that of being a Bible.
Those of us making fun of the snowflakes are deriding them for pretending to be adults while being “traumatized” by an election, or the prospect of an election, or a professor who espoused an idea they “weren’t emotionally prepared to handle”. So the campuses we’re laughing at have set-up spaces where said snowflakes can go and color in books or listen to soothing music (I say we play some Pink Floyd for them, myself) and, basically, ignore whatever it was that was bothering them. Sometimes it’s said that these safe spaces are provided so that the snowflakes may “process” what’s going on—which isn’t the worst idea—but unless such processing involves giving someone the strength of character to get back out there and “get on the horse”, it’s actually just making the problem worse.
The safe space Jesus is advocating, commanding maybe, is a place where we go for petition, for redress, for the kind of spiritual warfare he engaged in in Gethsemane that led him to break out in a sweat! And remember what Jesus prayed for in that garden? OK, he prayed for several things, but one of the things that Jesus prayed for was for his father to take the cup away from him. Jesus knew what he was about to face. He wasn’t looking forward to a scourging or crucifixion any more than you or I would. And he really wasn’t looking forward to the separation between himself and his father that he knew taking on all the sins of the world would bring about.
It’s easy, then, to say that God ignored his prayer because God clearly didn’t take the cup away, right? Well, God didn’t take the cup away, but look at how he answered Jesus’s prayer: “Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening him.” (New King James Version) God’s answer to the prayer wasn’t to take the cup away, but to give Jesus the strength to drink it.
See, that’s the kind of safe space I need to retreat to now and then. When stuff bugs me—elections, slights, attacks, bad food, etc.—I need to take to my safe space and pray. When good stuff happens—elections, praise, good food, etc.—I need to get to my safe space and pray. Sure, there is a place and necessity for saying “sentence prayers” throughout the day, for praying before or after meals or just when I wake up or right when I’m about to go to sleep.
But I also need a place—a place that’s partly physical (which helps) but is mostly mental—where I get away. I don’t just turn off the phone, I leave it somewhere else. There is no place in my life where things are completely silent—I’m always hearing cars, AC units, distant dogs—but I need to get to a place that’s as distraction-free as is reasonably possible. I need to get down on my knees (why? Because it’s uncomfortable and I’m less likely to go to sleep) and I need to talk to God. That’s my safe space. It may or may not be safe from the world—even in my back bedroom, there’s the possibility that a tree limb, a plane or a drunken politician could fall from the sky and shatter my roof and, thus, me.
Here’s where it might get rough, though: am I willing to let him tell me anything? When the apostle Paul tells us to put on the armor of God, the first item he mentions is the “belt of truth” (Ephesians 6). Most of us pride ourselves on being truth-tellers, especially if it’s difficult, but are we truth-hearers (especially when it’s difficult)? How do we react when a fellow human comes up and tells us an unpleasant truth? (“You know, getting fired was mostly your own fault.”) How will we react if God tells us an unpleasant truth? (“Yes, I can see that your marriage sucks, and I will help you with that, but will you first acknowledge that the suck starts with you?”)
Some of these safe places in our culture include meditation. Some public schools are teaching meditation to children. Before someone can assume that I am going to have a negative knee-jerk reaction to public school meditation, let me assure that meditation is Biblical.
Most of the meditation being taught in schools (and some churches), however, is not.
Biblical meditation is, most often, a concentration on the written word of God. (See Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2; and 119) Otherwise, it is a meditation on the character of God (Psalm 63:6, 77:3) and the works of God (Psalm 77:12, 143:5). This is not a process of emptying oneself so that “something” may come in, but of emptying oneself and then actively allowing God to fill you back up with himself. It is concentrating on a Scripture passage, a single verse or concept. Turning it back and forth in your mind and inside out. Looking at it from every side and maybe even memorizing the verse. It’s getting to know the character and power of God through the ways he has revealed himself to us.
Sometimes, this is calming. Sometimes, these closets of prayer will help you to sleep better or have a more productive day at work or give you the fortitude to withstand something harsh or unpleasant.
Sometimes, though, this safe space with God will leave you wrung out, exhausted, or agitated. Sometimes with righteous indignation, and sometimes with hard-fought chastisement. Some days, I crawl from my safe space into my bed and sleep like a log, but other days? I crawl from my safe place into bed desiring sleep, only to find it won’t come because the verse, the passage, the concept or the challenge still has a hold on me and I won’t be able to rest until I have turned it over to God (and, I’m convinced, sometimes he doesn’t let me turn it over to him until he’s sure I’ve finally grasped whatever it is he’s trying to tell me). On days like that (usually nights) the safe place can feel like the most dangerous place in the world and make you wish you had never entered.
Just back up a few paragraphs and remind yourself that the safety is with God, which is the only safety that really matters, anyway. His plan may not be to take the cup from you, but to give you the strength to drink it.
Don’t worry: it’s safe.