Safety first (before Salvation)

When we can turn back to Christ and experience safety, love and acceptance from Him, and no longer see others or situations as a sign of danger, can we better process His truths and respond to others in a more loving and life-giving way.

Sep 22, 2023

What is my purpose?’ asked Tiny Dragon. Big Panda paused, then said, ‘To sit on that stone and be with your friend.’

(‘Big Panda and Tiny Dragon’ by James Norbury)

I was recently invited to coach a pre-teen who was experiencing social anxiety. He would not say much on our first day of meeting. But when I offered suggested responses to my questions, he could at least say “yes” or “no” to those suggestions. As I continued to reiterate how important he is to me, and offered him encouragement and safety to be himself, he was finally able to articulate feelings of disappointment about himself. Through the use of pictures from the book Big Panda and Tiny Dragon, I was then able to point out his strengths that helped him overcome his challenges, and remind him of the people supporting him in his journey. After just two sessions, he was not only opening up more to me; his mother also noticed how he was beginning to respond better to strangers.

Another opportunity came for me to accompany a teenager to study, as he felt encouraged and safe when I was with him. In school or at home, he would often be scolded and labelled as ‘lazy,’ but when I was around, he showed great interest in my life by asking questions about my faith and background, and even asked inquisitive questions with regards to what he was studying. All this revealed to me his intellect and capacity to thrive, provided he was given a safe and affirming environment to do so, something we do not seem to value or provide for others, yet goes such a long way in helping someone to be more of their best selves.

Psychological studies reveal that there is a part of our brain known as the amygdala, whose function is to constantly look out for danger as a mode of survival. When this part of the brain is activated, particularly when the person is in an environment that does not feel safe, it tends to operate from a fight, flight or freeze mode, resulting in what appears as social anxiety, laziness, or other kinds of rebellious or unhealthy behaviour. At this point, the pre-frontal cortex that is in charge of all the reasoning functions is not at its optimum level, resulting in individuals not being able to make sound and rational decisions. However, once a person feels safe, and the amygdala no longer needs to be hyper vigilant, it allows the pre-frontal cortex to function optimally, and can result in someone becoming more open, more responsive, make better decisions, and even thrive from his or her own innate strengths and gifts.

This very much applies to how we journey with people whether in life or in the faith. No amount of reasoning, reprimand, or reiteration of biblical teachings and truths can fully make sense to anyone who does not feel safe and loved. It is often after we have showed acceptance, patience, and gentleness to someone, and offered a safe and encouraging environment to the person, would the person become more open and perceptible to words and actions of love, wisdom and even gentle correction.

We see this in the way Jesus walked with the two disciples who were on their way to Emmaus. Instead of reprimanding them for losing their faith so easily and walking away from Jerusalem, Jesus provided a safe space for them to speak their hearts and minds about their disappointments and frustrations. Even as He tried explaining the Scriptures to them, He did not impose the teachings on them, but gave them their own space and time to process these truths on their own. It was not till much later, when the safe and loving accompaniment of Jesus finally opened their hearts to encounter His love and presence in the breaking of the bread, were their eyes, hearts and minds finally opened to the truth that set them free, and led them to making the decision to return to Jerusalem and spread the Good News.

How can we better provide safety and love to others in order for them to thrive and be more of their best selves? It might first be to provide safety to ourselves, especially when we find ourselves overreacting to people or circumstances from a fight, flight or freeze mode. When we can turn back to Christ and experience safety, love and acceptance from Him, and no longer see others or situations as a sign of danger, can we better process His truths and respond to others in a more loving and life-giving way.

“I shall not call you servants anymore, because servants do not know what their master is about. Instead I have called you friends, since I have made known to you everything I learned from my Father.” (John 15:15)

God never intended to use fear or force to get us to do what He wants. Instead, He treats us as friends, providing a safe space for us to be as we are, while gently making known to us everything He has learned from His Father, so that in our own time and space, through safety, love and encouragement, we might eventually accept these truths on our own, and gradually learn to live out of the truths of God, but also the truth of who He created us to be.

The better we are able to provide safety and love to ourselves and others, the better we are able to optimise our gifts, strengths and capacities to flourish and thrive as friends of God.

(Nicholas Lye is a lay missionary and creative evangelist who loves to create safe spaces for people to encounter God and discover more about their true and amazing selves, particularly through the use of art and creativity. Check out prayerthroughart for the various prayer workshops he offers both physically and through online platforms.)

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