Trust God or Take Precautions?

The violence in Sutherland Springs Texas on November 5 got many of us thinking twice about whether our churches are safe places. From a purely rational, data-based perspective, they’re just as safe as they were a month ago. From a theological perspective, they are as well.

But when something horrific like that happens, our hearts tell us it might be time to make changes. It’s not just emotional reaction that moves us to look at a real event and think, “Yes, that could have happened at our church any time — but seeing it happen in a church so much like our own now gives us a reason to think about our security now.”

But we want to think biblically about all this. We want to properly frame these issues in well-informed faith, and respond to the dangers in a faith-filled way. “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (NKJV, 2 Tim. 1:7).

This is where Ezra and Nehemiah serve as interesting and helpful case studies. First Baptist in Sutherland Springs raises the big-picture questions of why there is suffering in the world and why God sometimes allows evil to befall His own. But for those of us who believe we already understand those issues (as well as they can be understood) there is a more down-to-earth question of practical theology: Do we take steps to protect ourselves or do we trust God to do that?

Ezra and Nehemiah seem to have answered this question in very different ways.

Both of these godly men were lead by God to travel many miles through dangerous country in order to undertake building projects in Jerusalem. Both had the permission and support of the reigning monarch. Both were men of faith and prayer.

But Ezra specifically rejected the opportunity to be accompanied by security forces from the king.

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty. (ESV, Ezr. 8:21–23)

There are different ways to read this. Did Ezra speak presumptuously to the king and then feel the need to back up his brash words with a prayer-only strategy? Did he have special revelation that God wanted him to handle the danger in this way — as a special message to Artaxerxes I? Was he simply following his conscience and choosing among equally valid options?

We don’t have any way of knowing for sure, and the more pressing question for us is this: Are we supposed to follow Ezra’s example and respond to potential dangers in life with bold demonstrations of direct dependence on God?

Nehemiah’s approach suggests that “yes” might not be the right answer. Two portions of his story are worth noting here.

And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah, and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me. Then I came to the governors of the province Beyond the River and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen. (Neh. 2:7–9)

Nehemiah shows no hesitation whatsoever in getting all the help he can from Artaxerxes. He doesn’t appear to have asked for armed escort, but he clearly accepted one. Later, when the environment within the city of Jerusalem became far more dangerous to those working on the walls, he showed a similar attitude. The last phrase in this portion is especially intriguing:

When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work. From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. And the leaders stood behind the whole house of Judah, who were building on the wall. Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other. And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built. The man who sounded the trumpet was beside me. And I said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “The work is great and widely spread, and we are separated on the wall, far from one another. In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.” (Ne 4:15–20)

In the face of a real threat, Nehemiah’s response was not, like Ezra’s, “Fast and pray and watch God deliver.” Rather, he developed a comprehensive armed-attacker response plan, compete with alarm system, defensive weapons, and offensive weapons!

Then he declared that when they themselves rallied to the alarm, weapons in hand, God would fight for them.

To Nehemiah, using what God had made available to them for defense was trusting God. There was no either-or, no “do we trust God or do we make a plan and fight.” It was both-and. He expected that God would “fight for them” by using secondary causes. He would fight for them by fighting through them.

So who was right?

I’m not aware of any biblical evidence that either Ezra or Nehemiah was wrong to respond to danger the way he did. And I have no simple formula to recommend for deciding when to do it Ezra’s way and when to do it Nehemiah’s way.

But I do think the pattern of Scripture overall is closer to Nehemiah’s way, and — whether it’s because I am “of little faith” or more because I’m exercising biblical wisdom — I’m in favor of a Nehemiah approach. In a society where gathered crowds — including worshiping congregations — are increasingly at risk of violent, rapidly-lethal attacks, the best course seems to be, not fear-filled preparation and defense, but faith-filled preparation and defense.

Nehemiah shows that it is possible to gather resources, strategize, and act in genuine faith, trusting that when we are diligent, “God will fight for us.”

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Ed Vasicek's picture

Like everyone on this site, I was shocked and heart-broken when I heard about the horrible shooting at the Sutherland Springs Church.  Aaron is right, being a church "like ours" makes it hit home even more.

But we have to keep this in perspective.  Unless these sorts of horrid church killings escalate, we are a zillion more times likely to die driving to church than we are dying while in a church gathering.  Of course that could change.  And it never hurts to take a few precautions.

But we need to remember that such events are newsworthy precisely because they are rare.  When some town is bombed in Iraq, we are sad to hear it, but it doesn't affect us much -- we are used to hearing about it.

So if you are really concerned about protecting church goers, (1) cancel church in icy weather and salt well, (2) make sure everyone's brakes work,  3) discourage your members from owning swimming pools, etc., (4) train people in the Heimlich maneuver, and (5) make sure people have working smoke alarms in their homes.

In America, 42,000 people die per year from a vehicle collision.  39,000 die from poisoning (mostly accidental, but including illegal drugs).  Falls -- 25,000 people die annually.  Then it goes way down. 2,700 die each year from fires. 2,500 people die per year from choking.

Think about this: 

...an average of 3,536 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) annually in the United States — about ten deaths per day.1 An additional 332 people died each year from drowning in boating-related incidents.

About one in five people who die from drowning are children 14 and younger. For every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency department care for nonfatal submersion injuries. [https://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/water-safety/waterinjuries....

Folks who died in church shooting in 2017: less than 30.

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

It's worth noting, regarding risks that we do accept in daily life, that it's said that about one in four girls suffers some form of sexual abuse by the time they turn eighteen, and about one in six boys.  For many victims, this is a wound that just doesn't heal, leading to loss of faith and a lifetime of promiscuity and the like.  

I take precautions at times to make sure the kids in AWANA are safe from bullets, but far more important is to make sure they're not exposed to perverts.  Bullets can only kill you, perverts seem to be sending people to Hell.

Aaron Blumer's picture

Ed -- you're right about the relative probability of being gunned down at church, and that context does help. There are some differences between what happens at church vs. on the way, or at home, etc. though. And these put church security in a different category in some significant ways.

If someone's brakes fail on the way to church, I feel all the normal emotions about that but I don't view it as my responsibility. I don't feel guilt. Likewise with a number of the other life hazards in that list. But at church, is different because we all have a measure of responsibility for one another's well being in that setting--much as we feel (rightly) especially responsible for one another's safety in our home.

So for me, that's a strongly motivating factor. I'm not a shepherd with a flock at this point, but I still feel "shepherdy" about the flock I worship with... or maybe just familial. But yes, it's not super likely to happen. I do think, though, it is increasingly likely. And, like smoke alarms, exits, and other sensible precautions, it's a possibility that calls for precautionary measures.

Fred, thanks for the link, some good stuff there. A caution about his point 3 though. The lockdown concept has undergone some changes due to better studies of active shooter situations. This is why the ALICE approach (and I think probably ALERRT and others also)  teach a modified lockdown approach that takes several factors into account. So along w/questions like who decides to go into lockdown and under what criteria, there is more emphasis now on the facility itself and what makes sense, depending on where you are in it and when. So in some cases, you lock down and in others you flee--or lock down and then flee. In many scenarios it makes way more sense to scatter than to lock down. Experts are training folks now also on various ways to fight back even if you're unarmed. Much has been learned. But what they do is analyze your site and help you customize a plan that fits your facility and grounds and how you normally use them.

Jim's picture

It appears to me that the mass shooters try to outdo a preceding shooter in kind of a "Guinness Book of World Records" way. 

See Columbine Shootings' Grim Legacy: More Than 50 School Attacks, Plots : see "he wants to “break the current shooting record”"

So the Sutherland Springs church shooting was the worst (in the mind of the demented, wicked shooter, a "world record") church shooting in US history.

The next monster may want to better that reprehensible record.

I don't think Sutherland Springs will be the last one

We should trust the Lord AND be prepared!

Ed Vasicek's picture

Aaron, I appreciate your comments -- and those of everyone else for that matter.  These sorts of things have to be hashed out, no matter what viewpoint we eventually embrace.

The Nehemiah vs. Ezra approach is a constant issue in the Christian life for certain.  How much do we help ourselves (while also trusting God), and how much do we  trust God to take care of things without our help?

For example, is a Christian using a dating service not trusting God?  Does a ministry facing a financial crisis broadcast the need, or take a Mueller "trust God" approach? Were the people who hoarded food for Y2K overly fearful or prudently cautious? (or course after the fact we can all see it was unnecessary, but I am talking before the fact).

In all these and a host of other instances, we often hear insinuations that people who choose the wrong way (in our estimate) are less spiritual or compromised.  So I very much appreciate the concept of the Ezra/Nehemiah continuum you developed. Well done.

"The Midrash Detective"

Susan R's picture

I'm definitely in the "both" category. We trust God, but take reasonable precautions. Of course, each person has their own ideas of what is 'reasonable'. 

And while likelihood is a factor--we should be preventative and proactive in areas where there is a statistically significant probability--I don't think we have to make the protection against gun violence and prevention of child abuse/molestation an either/or issue.

Bert Perry's picture

We might not have so much of a difference after all, except that Nehemiah accepted a guard troop, while Ezra did not.  Think about their lives; not only was travel (like back from Persia to Jerusalem) hazardous, but also most were farmers and would have needed things like knives, sickles, and staffs for their daily work.  The knife used for slaughtering animals would be of particular interest--kosher slaughter requires the throat of the animal to be slit in one quick stroke, so slaughter knives tend to be long (about 18"-24") and razor sharp--they are actually stropped prior to being used, like a straight razor.

Put a point on that, and you've got something very similar to the Roman gladius, really, and add a traveling staff a la Little John from Robin Hood, and you've got a man who can take on anyone who's not wearing armor.  Or people wearing armor who are not particularly motivated, really.   

So was Ezra's approach that different from Nehemiah's, or did the scribes simply record different parts of their response?  We can't know for sure this side of Jordan, of course, but my best guess is that both Ezra and Nehemiah both prayed and prepared.  

A last thought; while certainly Ezra would have been ashamed to accept a guard, another factor might have been that Ezra came from the province of Babylon, while Nehemiah served in the citadel of Shushan in Persia.  So Ezra's guard would have been Babylonian conscripts, while Nehemiah's would have been ethnic Persians personally and ethnically loyal to the king.  

Again, we don't know this side of Jordan, but food for thought.

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