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Several years ago, when I was contemplating a transition from my role as a youth pastor into missions mobilization, one of the questions that gripped me was: Am I deserting my “flock”? How many of the young adults I’m leaving behind will make shipwreck of their faith?

As I weighed the options before me, the Lord brought me to Acts 20:17-38—the Apostle Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders—and eased my conscience. Like Paul, I felt that I “did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God,” and hence my hands were clean (vv. 26-27) of any charges of gospel timidity. Imperfectly, I discharged the ministry to which I had been called. It was in the Lord’s hands.

Since then, Acts 20 has been especially dear to me. But there’s another lesson from this precious text that has been haunting me as we all live through this strange season—a statement from Paul often overlooked:

“But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (v. 24)

I’ve lived a relatively comfortable life—always well-fed, surrounded by loving family, and generally affirmed in my ministry and career aspirations. I will confess that the risks I have personally taken for the sake of the gospel are ultimately small and few in number compared to the global church of believers. I take it that my fellow middle class and upper-middle class North American brothers and sisters in Christ will relate. So, admittedly, I am in a precarious position—ironically—to be writing about risk.

But when we encounter a passage of Scripture that does not conform with our own past experiences, it is not the text’s job to bend and accommodate us. We must conform to the word.

A Revelatory Crisis

The current crisis in our nation has not really changed anything; rather, it has only revealed what was already present—in the medical community, in public policy, in the media, and in the health (or unhealth) of our churches.

And watching the variety of responses to varying degrees of viral threats—from my comfortable home, again—has indeed been revealing. Many churches, organizations, and individuals have taken wise precautions to protect the most vulnerable, using common sense, submitting as much as possible to reasonable recommendations, and showing love for neighbor. However, at the same time, there is a slowness to recognize truths which ought to have been more deeply instilled in us as Christians all along.

We have forgotten the fundamentals of living in a fallen world. I am speaking of such fundamentals as the fact that physical health and well-being are never guaranteed in the Christian life (Luke 14:26), that mortality is inescapable (Heb. 9:27), and that Christians are free from the fear of death (Heb. 2:15). “Fear not” is one of Scripture’s most oft-repeated imperatives, yet panic consumes many in times of strife and despair. We are to be “reasonable” and “not anxious” (Phil. 4:5-6), yet we have brought society itself to a screeching halt in such a way that we would never dare to do to fight “ordinary” evils, from cancer and heart disease to car accidents and drug abuse.

We are called to live wisely, protecting life and valuing the safety of others (Ex. 20:13, Deut. 22:8), and in the Old Testament this meant that those with infectious disease were to be quarantined (Lev. 13:1-59). But to live life in a fallen world incurs some level of risk, from the moment we rise in the morning to the instant our head touches the pillow at night. How much more is this true for the truly missional life?

Simply put, the pandemic has proven that the people of Christ in the West are far too risk-averse, and our risk-aversion is a major reason why we do not send more overseas missionaries, church planters, evangelists, Bible translators, open-air preachers, and abortion mill sidewalk counselors.

There is indeed a time to hunker down for safety; “The prudent sees danger and hides himself” (Prov. 22:3). But far too many of us have been idly content to merely shelter in place while countless millions continue to perish into an eternity apart from Christ. For a number of us, the lockdown orders have only given us one more excuse to use for failing to evangelize our community or serve the needy, simplistically cloaking our sloth in the virtuous garb of love for neighbor or Romans 13. Or, as a family member of mine recently aptly put it, “We American Christians are all too fat and happy.” And yes, I am fully condemning myself with this analysis.

What are we to do? Thankfully, there is no shortage of biblical insight to address our fears of the missionary life.

Why Risk Is Still Right

In his book Risk Is Right, John Piper writes, “If we walk away from risk to keep ourselves safe, we will waste our lives.” Elsewhere Piper also states, “Honoring Christ, magnifying Christ, making much of Christ. That was the meaning of Paul’s life. It should be the meaning of ours. And Paul prays it will be the meaning of his death as well. We live and we die to make much of Christ.” This has not stopped being true in the midst of a global pandemic, economic crisis, or national state of chaos from racial or political tensions.

Our fear of the Lord should drive us out to persuade others of the gospel (2 Cor. 5:11). As mortals on mission with God, we are to “number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). A healthy sense of our own frailty should not cause us to shrink back from the precipice of faith-filled risk; it should compel us to step out, diving headlong—wisely, of course—into the will of God.

One important biblical solution to unhealthy fear is not to merely put all fear out of mind but to substitute it with a greater dread. The solution is the fear of the Lord: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isa. 8:12-13). Only in the face of the far weightier awe and dread of Jesus, our salvation and our judge, will we find the cares of this world—including our very lives—light and fleeting in comparison.

“For the lost, death is not only real but ultimate. This is not a reason for us to stay home. This is why we go.” —@ajkocman

Death is real—for us, and for those who do not know Christ. Only for us, it is just a tad bit less real, because in Christ, there is a sense in which we shall never die (John 11:26). But for the lost, death is not only real but ultimate. This is not a reason for us to stay home. This is why we go.

None of this is to say that we should forsake wisdom and be reckless on mission. Paul himself occasionally fled. But in all our contemporary concern for mitigating risk and exercising caution, I believe it is possible that we have all clenched our lives and possessions too tightly. Instead of counting our lives as precious to himself, let us return to the painfully simple teaching of our Lord: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Lord, grant that this greater love you have shown to us may be in us, and compel us out to our neighbors and to the nations.

2 thoughts on “Why Risk Is Still Right

  1. Excellent thoughts on risk and processing fear.
    I don’t think we fail to excel in missions beyond or current attempts because of failure to manage risk in our hearts. I think it is because the hearts of American believers do not see the lost. Their eyes and ears do, but not their hearts. There is certainly lots of preaching on going to the lost, and lots of talk about the unreached, but when you follow the money, on average only 16% of giving goes outside the church door. That is systemic wide, in every brand name and every size church. Leadership Journals numbers show this from their surveying hundreds of churches. This is the average. Some better and some worse. In my church 32% goes out the door, but that still shows a demand for 68% to FIRST buy hired staff and facilities to mostly bless those who do the “giving”.

    Jesus gave an axiom of the heart in relationship to money. “…for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If believers “giving” is focused on themselves and their “needs”, then that is where their hearts will primarily focused their attention. That is Jesus’ assessment and declaration.

    There is a simple way presented in scripture for much greater finances to go beyond the “needs” of believers. Part of it involves re-accessing from scripture what our “needs” really are. Believers are in a long standing bubble of practice that leads them to think their current understanding of their spiritual needs is 100% godly. The scriptures are there, in black and white, and have been there for 2000 years. But we don’t see them. The Bible experts don’t perceive their real practice. The scriptures are not academically discerned. I had a believer on FB assure me he was right because he is an epistemologist. I assured him God does not funnel his wisdom through a few Bible experts. The scriptures are spiritually discerned. Parsing and diagramming does not always lead to discernment. The massive disagreement between Bible experts demonstrates this. They have a false premise for approaching the scriptures. Bible expertise is where the money is for themselves, so that is where they place their confidence. “…for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

    Americans have a giving problem, that cauterizes their hearts from discerning the harvest beyond themselves. So they fund the work of God mostly to their own “needs”. Four times more for their “needs”.

    I have a jpg of the Leadership Journal chart, and from various church bulletins that show this percentage to be the average. The fix is not in tweaking the church or more Bible lectures, but in a humble reappraisal of the traditions of men from the light of scripture that has been twisted and even falsely translated to feed our current version of church. “The great danger is not that we will renounce our faith, but that we will settle for a mediocre version of it.” Author unknown to me

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