The MRI technician did a double-take when I entered the room. I was a walking carcinogen. My face was streaked with ash, my glasses cloudy with soot, my otherwise white shirt gray on the collar and shoulders. I smelled of reckoning.
The intended brain scan had nothing to do with the reckoning I’d just walked out of. I was only getting the scan because a months-long headache had driven me to all kinds of doctors, who’d helped me rule out any pedestrian causes. My specialist said it was time to see if a more severe threat was quietly pounding away at my gray matter. But that threat was far from my mind, even if not far from my brain. The threat occupying my mind was the one my family had experienced that morning.
It only took a few pre-op questions before the technician noticed how distracted I was. He kindly took the clipboard full of forms from my hands and told me we’d take care of those later. His tone was the same one I use with my 8-year-old, Betsie, when she can’t keep up with something I’ve asked her to do.
The technician had me change into scrubs and lay down on a table. The ceiling had happy images of blue skies and white clouds. I stared at them as the tech situated me into place and strapped me down. I don’t know if it was because I was cradled into position with bumpers, because I had been changed into pajamas, or because the odd sound pattern emanating from the machine was like listening to a conversation I couldn’t understand, but I had never felt more like a child in my adult life.
We’re all children in times of fear. And that desperation is a gift.
Fear and Fire
Let me back up and describe the threat I’d just emerged from.
The day had started as a standard Tuesday morning. The whole family had started up the weekday machine, seven people working around each other to get everyone clothed, fed, packed, and out the door. Five kids to school, two parents to work, and one dog to the crate.
We are all children in times of fear. And that desperation is a gift.
I was in the bedroom when an unfamiliar screech made all of us freeze. My first guess was an Amber Alert—the benevolent governmental takeover of our phones—telling us to be on the lookout for license plate number such-and-such. I thought a tap of my phone screen would resume a normal day.
It was Sarah who screamed “Fire!” My wife normally operates with two volume settings. Standard volume is for everyday interactions. Urgent is for spiders or perceived injuries of children. This scream belonged to some third category.
Smoke was coming from the laundry room door next to our bedroom. My most vivid recollection of the room was the pure orange of the flame coming from the dryer, an orange that was alarmingly out-of-place inside our house. We raced downstairs for the extinguisher, shouting to the children to get outside and call 911. In two minutes I was back upstairs, nervously operating a device I’d never used before. The entire tank did almost nothing against the now self-perpetuating fire. I stared helplessly into that prodigious orange, emptied extinguisher hanging at my side.
I could no longer linger in the illusion that I could control this.
The smoke was now rolling, black as oil. Sarah was yelling for me to get out of the house. I was halfway down the stairs when my mind registered a vital point. I had seen the four older kids leave the house with my own eyes, but not our youngest—our Betsie.
I remember being surprised at my own voice as I tore back up the stairs screaming her name. It was animal. It was the kind of wail that comes only from helplessness, only when clawing through an alien atmosphere, searching for what you love.
Fear Makes Us Children
Those moments haunted me as I laid strapped into the MRI machine. My desperate search probably lasted only 15 seconds or so before Sarah yelled that Betsie was with the neighbors. But those 15 seconds changed something in me. They awoke a desperation in me I’d never felt before. That prodigious orange and formidable black had proven to me that I have no ability to control even the most important things in my life. I was a child.
We’re all children in times of fear, because threats to our safety remind us of our dependence. We cannot guarantee our own security, let alone the security of those we love. We cannot control our lives. That fact is profoundly unsettling.
This is why I’ve never been all that comforted when reading Jesus’s words that the kingdom of God is for children. What seems at first like a sweet and sentimental thing to say is actually one of Jesus’s hardest sayings. He is isolating a characteristic about children that we don’t want to be true of us as adults: children are aware of their need for help.
“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:17).
We can’t guarantee our own security, let alone the security of those we love. We can’t control our lives. That fact is profoundly unsettling.
Children know they aren’t in control—that’s why they often have to ask for things. The key concept here is to receive—like a child. Luke places this story in a series of other stories that contrast successful people who did not perceive their need for help with desperate people who were painfully aware of their need for help. Jesus was showing that the necessary heart condition for receiving God’s grace is acknowledging our need. And we are never more aware of our need than in times of desperation. Desperation, then, can be a gateway to the kingdom.
This shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus himself learned desperation. The writer of Hebrews tells us that though he is God, as a man he had to be placed under the same threats we are. He knew the same loss, the same temptation, the same suffering. As a man, Jesus learned to wail. His was a deeper cry than even our most desperate desperation. And yet he trusted his Father while under threats we can only imagine (Heb. 4:14–16; 5:7–10). Jesus knew desperation.
Faith is proven in desperation, not in safety. Jesus proved his trust in the Father precisely because he was unsafe. In fact, the writer of Hebrews puts a song from the Old Testament on the lips of Jesus:
I will put my trust in him.
Behold, I and the children God has given me. (Heb. 2:13)
We are those children. Like Jesus, we learn desperation so that we may learn trust. This is the path Jesus blazed for us. There is no other way.
Peace Amid Fear
I hadn’t yet thought all of this through. I was still lying in the womb of that machine, the inside of my mouth tasting like fire extinguisher. I remember trying not to wonder what the strange pattern of noise was revealing inside my skull, trying not to re-live those 15 seconds of animal desperation in search of my daughter that morning, trying not to wonder where my family would be sleeping that night.
The necessary heart condition for receiving God’s grace is acknowledging our need.
But you know what I found? I didn’t have to try that hard. I was experiencing something that has only happened a few times in my life. A single involuntary thought placed itself, immovable, in the front of my mind. It was like an override of those other thoughts, blocking any of them from entering.
I am a child of God.
Of all thoughts I could have had, this was it. It was unplanned and unwilled, like the testimony of someone else helping me to think rightly. It was the voice, unexpected yet familiar, of the Holy Spirit, fulfilling his role as Helper: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16). His comfort was so powerful, so overwhelming I thought it might show up on the MRI.
Peace is the privilege of God’s children. This peace is strongest in times of desperation. God is extra sweet to his hurting children.
Whose Child Are You?
That evening my family bunched up on hotel beds, freshly showered, and listened to the governor of our state give the first of increasing restrictions due to the spread of this mysterious thing called the “coronavirus.” Sarah and I looked at each other over those five little heads. We had to smirk at the absurd number of threats that converged on one day.
A Tuesday in March we’ll never forget.
But this day had only given my wife and I a jumpstart on learning a lesson COVID-19 is teaching all of us. We don’t control our lives.
We are witnessing the world’s medical experts unable to create remedies, the world’s statisticians unable to know the best way to calculate the spread, the world’s industries unable to keep up with needed supplies, the world’s markets panicking on their downward spiral. Even our experts are children.
Closer to home, we’re losing jobs and freedoms that we assumed safe, merely a few weeks ago. We feel anxiety about toilet paper and white bread. This would have been laughable a few weeks ago. Yet these basic concerns strip us of the illusion of our dependence. We’re all children.
The real question is whose child are you? You are either no one’s child—an orphan. Or you are Someone’s child—a son or daughter of God. Desperation forces us to notice the difference.
Peace is the privilege of God’s children. This peace is strongest in times of desperation. God is extra sweet to his children who are hurting.
Those who know their need—because their sin separates them from a holy God and death is an enemy too strong for them to escape—can become children of God. Desperation can provoke us to trust Someone else to save us. It can wake us to the eternal danger that awaits anyone who doesn’t acknowledge her need for Jesus to save her. It shows the untold value of being welcomed safely into God’s family. Desperation is a gift.
We’re Always Children
But most desperation eventually fades. The situations that distress us only last so long, and then we are embarrassed of our old desperation.
Looking back now, I could be embarrassed by my desperation in the house fire. The firefighters told me it could’ve been far worse. The house is still standing. Betsie is playing happily in the backyard of our rental house with the rest of the children, now safe. Maybe such desperation was silly.
I could also be embarrassed by my desperation about the MRI, since the results came back with nothing more concerning than extreme intelligence, as I tell people. Whatever these headaches are from, it’s not a tumor. Maybe such desperation was silly.
And one day, we may be tempted to be embarrassed by our desperation about this pandemic. We will eventually get through this. Most people who contract COVID-19 will recover. The economy will pick back up. Businesses will start hiring again. We will regain our sense of security. So maybe our desperation right now is silly.
Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s helping us see ourselves more accurately than we normally do. We’re all children in times of fear. But then again, we’re always children.