Suffering, risk, insecurity

17 Mar 2023

A theology of suffering should be about what we are willing to endure for the sake of the Gospel. A theology of risk should be about what active dangers we are willing to be exposed to: risk is an exposure to the possibility of danger, harm or loss. A theology of insecurity should be about exposure to feelings of anxiety or situations that are uncertain, lacking in safety or protection.

Suffering implies actively suffering and enduring some form of pain or loss. Risk means we are willing to go into a high possibility of loss, to accept a certain measure of probability. Insecurity means we are willing to be in situations that are uncertain or that lack any safety or protection to prevent risks - not necessarily high probability, but not defending against or seeking to reduce risk.

A “theology of suffering” can practically work out as a very good statement - “I am willing to suffer for the sake of the Gospel.” But without a predisposition to accept and even enter into risk, it can be little more than a nice statement. It’s far easier to say we are willing to suffer when we never enter a situation with a risk of suffering.

One brief little article (Karl Rahner, “The Theology of Risk,” The Furrow, 1968) makes a bold suggestion: “in case of doubt where the correct decision cannot be deduced directly with certainty from material suppositions, one should decide in favor of the new risk (as distinguished from adhering to what has already been tried and tested); that is to say, one should regard the principle risk as the surer way in case of doubt.” This form of risk, however, probably has more due to with what I’m here defining as insecurity.

A “theology of insecurity” might go beyond this. The term “insecurity” has some bad connotations. People can be “emotionally insecure.” Or we can “feel insecure.” We want security and safety. We want things to be dependable. We want our expectations to be set and met.

Life amongst the unreached may be insecure, but not necessarily risky. It may not meet our standards of dependability and consistency. And situations of insecurity - with some probability of risk - can be very difficult, perhaps even more so than situations of outright suffering or high risk. Insecurity requires acknowledging the uncertainties while keeping a fair understanding of the real levels of risk.

When I travel abroad, I travel with some sense of the insecurity on the trip. There are many things that could go wrong. The plane may have trouble. There may be problems at the border. There might be physical danger at some points along the path. There may be a danger of crime (for example, something being stolen). I might lose something of value along the way. There may be danger of getting Covid.

The easiest way to mitigate against these dangers is not to take the trip at all. But, as John Shedd reportedly said (1928), “A ship in harbor is safest—but that is not what ships are built for.” The better path is to have a realistic assessment of the potential risk level. In most of my travels, plane trouble is a very low risk (certainly, the highest such risk is a mechanical failure that delays my flight). Most times, problems at the border and physical dangers are very low risks. Crime is a higher risk, and I do take steps to face that possibility. The danger of getting Covid is probably the highest risk of all, and even then, I have to ask myself, what’s the real long-term risk for me? Each time I’ve gotten Covid it has “knocked me out” for some weeks, but it hasn’t been a life-threatening sort of thing.

There are also, on the positive side, things that could go “above and beyond” right. There are unexpected opportunities to be a blessing to a lost person. There are unlooked for conversations on planes. There are meetings at conferences with people I haven’t met before, who happen to know an answer to a key question. In situations of high ‘insecurity’ or ‘uncertainty,’ the delta of change can go right just as much as wrong.

Living long term with insecurity may actually be the hardest of these things. Living with high upside usually means living with the possibility of high downside, too. But it’s not something you can definitely expect.

I am reminded of the story of Paul in Acts. In the story, you get the sense that he went to Jerusalem expecting to be arrested and killed. In fact, many people along the way expected the same thing. And he was arrested - but along the way, he had the opportunity to share the Gospel with many people, including Roman leaders, where he might not otherwise have had the chance. And the book ends with him in Rome, able to interact with people, and living there for years. It’s a situation of great insecurity, but not perhaps the immediate risk everyone envisioned.

Living with insecurity is a challenging choice - it requires one to move into a situation where there are many “little foxes that spoil the vine” rather than one big bad wolf to face off against. It may be that the thing we are willing to face - suffering - may be the thing we do not have to face, while the thing that we do not like - insecurity, uncertainty, undependability, inconsistency - is the most common challenge of all.