I love football. Each fall, I look forward to Sunday afternoons with my husband, watching our beloved Denver Broncos grit their way through the professional season. But I love college football more. I spent some formative years in Nebraska, where the whole state halts for a few hours on Saturdays and the population inside Memorial Stadium makes it the third-largest city in the state.
This year, enjoying the first week of a fresh college-football season and eagerly watching Peyton Manning and the Broncos crush the Baltimore Ravens in their home and season opener, I’ll admit I’ve have some reservations. The sport is battered by recent scandal and statistics. Atrocities at Penn State. Junior Seau’s shocking death. New Orleans’ brutal “bounty system.” Revelations of brain damage to longtime players. National unease over a game that just is not safe.
I hope football will get reasonably safer. I hope teams will tighten penalties for players who hit harder than they need to, or who play with the intention of hurting others. I hope the game will reward those who play with sportsmanship, rather than those who play with bloodlust. But the truth is, football has never been safe. While we might have new evidence regarding the extent of the damage to players, we are not discovering this truth for the first time. What fans like me love about football–drama, unpredictability, a clash of strength on strength–is not safe. It’s risky, and that’s one reason so many people love a sport so often used as a metaphor for life. High risk, high reward.
In life, as in football, perfect safety is impossible. Yet we seem obsessed with trying for it. This wave of concern over football’s risks, while legitimate, also reflects a societal obsession with safety: Layer upon layer of insurance. Warning labels on everything. Security systems, metal detectors, and cameras. Tamper-safe packaging. Seatbelts for dogs. Hand-sanitizer dispensers next to the liquid soap and the bathroom sink. We believe we should be able to keep everyone safe, and we assume safe is the ideal way to live.
But we forget: with little risk comes little reward.
Safety is important. All lives are valuable. Risk only for the sake of risk is–well, stupid. Risk to someone vulnerable for your own selfish pleasure is inexcusable. But sometimes, if you want to do something that matters, you have to give ground on safety.
Ironically, with our children we celebrate heroes of our faith who took great risks in service to God–Abraham, Noah, Esther, Mary, Abigail, David, Ruth, Paul. Then we make sure those same children are wearing helmets and pads and carrying a cell phone every time they leave the house. We teach teenagers about Jim Elliot and friends, Billy Graham, Amy Carmichael, and Mother Theresa but make sure their own outreach experiences happen in a very controlled environment.
Jesus never told us to pursue safety. In fact, he warned against living for our own longevity: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it” (Luke 9:24). “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine,” he warned. “If you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine” (Matthew 10:37).
Paul knew about this. “Everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him” (Philippians 3:8-9a). How many of us are living for what is essentially worthless garbage?
True life is an inherently unsafe activity. As Christians, when we value our own safety above God’s mission for us, we fail the mission. We must be willing to risk ourselves for the sake of God’s greater purpose. This is not because our lives aren’t worth protecting, but because true life begins when this life has run its course–why not spend this one well?
© 2013 Amy Simpson.