By Jeff Faull
It’s difficult to find a follower of God in Scripture who did not take big risks. Look at those who brought Jesus into the world. Look at the first church and the ministry of the apostles. How can our ministries and personal lives follow their example?
Famous psychologist Abraham Maslow is best known for his hierarchy of needs pyramid. According to Maslow, the most primal needs we have involve our bodily activities, like breathing, eating, or drinking.
Second only to those needs is the basic human desire for security and safety. We are driven by the desire to feel secure about our surroundings, our future, and our own continued well-being. But what happens when that need for security overpowers everything else?
Part of Jesus’ call to discipleship is to trust God to meet those needs and to seek his kingdom even more than we do our own security. Giving up that fear is easy to talk about, but hard to do.
Yet, with Christ, there has always been an element of risk and danger. After all, the whole thing started with a young engaged couple who chose to believe an angel and were willing to risk their lives, reputation, and future to become his parents. His first worshippers risked job responsibilities to be the first to see him, and his first wise seekers risked fortunes to find and honor him.
His great forerunner risked everything. His first disciples risked their livelihood and their lives, and his teaching called for his followers to risk it all to gain everything. And that’s all before the church even began.
After the church began with the apostles’ courageous stand in Acts 2, the next chapter finds Peter boldly confronting his listeners as the murderers of Jesus.
In Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested and interrogated and forbidden to preach Jesus, but they do it anyway. Their mind-set was simple:
“Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Act 4:19, 20).
Then the church prayed for even more boldness.
“Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness” (Acts 4:29).
In Acts 5, the apostles are jailed, flogged, and threatened with death. Still they speak.
Chapter 6 contains false accusations and testimony against Stephen for preaching, but he doesn’t back off. It culminates with his martyrdom in chapter 7.
Acts 8 opens with Saul persecuting the church, and chapter 9 has the tables turn, as the newly converted Saul is now the one threatened for his faith.
In chapter 10, Peter boldly goes to the Gentiles with the Holy Spirit.
And as the rest of Acts unfolds, every subsequent chapter reflects the danger and exposure believers faced and the boldness they demonstrated in response.
Some of the risks were more obvious than others. Scripture refers to Barnabas and Paul as “men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26). And it’s not just the apostles who lived boldly. Scripture speaks of people like Aquila and Priscilla who “risked their own necks” for Paul and his ministry (Romans 16:4, New King James Version).
Epaphroditus is described similarly: “Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me” (Philippians 2:29, 30).
This is a recurring theme in the New Testament. The original church exploded and continued in growth and maturity in an atmosphere and culture of peril and persecution.
Fast forward two millennia to the contemporary church, especially in America. Our inclination to remove all risk in our insulated and padded church bubbles stands in stark contrast to our spiritual predecessors, and even to our spiritual contemporaries in other locations. Our safety-conscious, risk-averse, self-protection mind-set has seeped into the way we see everything, and it has distorted our understanding of the very nature, definition, and practice of our faith.
But imagine a risk-free Hebrews 11. A risk-free exodus. A risk-free ark construction. A risk-free temple or tabernacle project. A risk-free Abraham, Moses, Noah, David, Mary, Elizabeth, Peter, Paul, Deborah, Amram, or Jochebed.
The parable of the talents is not risk free. The prodigal son’s return and his father’s welcome were not risk free. The creation of humanity was not risk free. Leaving the boats and nets and the tax table were not risk free.
Following Jesus demands risk. “Safety first” may be a great mantra for the construction site, the schoolroom, or the factory, but it doesn’t play well in the kingdom of God.
Consider your risk tolerance for the gospel. Spiritually speaking, are you a person who tries to eliminate, or at least minimize, any element of risk in your life? Do you hold your cards close to your vest and refuse to take any unnecessary chances in life?
Are you like the servant who was afraid and hid his talent in the earth, and when he gave it back it was not acceptable? Do you know what it means to lose your life to save it? Those of us who try to eliminate every risk from our lives often operate out of a fear and protection mentality instead of purpose.
Does that resonate with you at all? Can you feel for Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night? Can you sympathize with the disciples who stayed in the boat? Do you feel for the rich young ruler who wanted to keep a chunk for his retirement? Can you understand the mentality of the Pharisees who were comfortable with their religious systems? Do you have a soft spot for Joseph of Arimathea, the secret disciple? Do you find yourself subconsciously defending the inaction of the priest and Levite who walked by on the other side of the road or the parents of the blind man who didn’t want to lose standing in the synagogue?
Our Ministries, Our Risk
In the book Ten Steps for Church Growth, Donald McGavran and Winfield Arn wrote,
New life and growth are more likely to be experienced when a church is willing to risk and move from the known to the unknown. Such a move, however, is threatening. Not all . . . are willing to assume risk. Such fear of failure has laid to rest many attainable goals and buried many magnificent visions.
Arn told of a time some people he was working with invited him to try a trapeze they had been using as a prop. Amazingly, he took them up on their offer. He climbed up, grabbed the bar, and swung out into the air. He wrote,
Flying through the air, I made three important discoveries: First, you can’t hold on to one bar while grasping for the other. You must let both hands go and leap! Second, it’s frightening and threatening to let go of your security. Third, you don’t have forever to make up your mind.
I recently sat down with a financial adviser and took what he called a risk tolerance assessment. The results confirmed what he and I both already knew. I’m way too cautious in my approach. A spiritual risk tolerance assessment will surely be even more revealing. Does God want us to risk . . .
• our own vision of a “successful” church for his plan of a real church?
• our own individual and family security for his promise of true security?
• our own version of “proper” spirituality and doctrine for his unfettered declaration of truth?
• our own definition of a meaningful existence for his description of abundant life?
• our own carefully crafted public image for the image of his Son?
• our own sense of purpose and accomplishment for his ultimate purpose?
What we will find in our contemplation is that he wants us to be willing to risk that which we treasure most. What if Christ asks you to risk your dignity, or your finances, time, or comfort? What if he asks you to risk the familiar? What if he asks you to risk everything?
The Risks, The Promises
Margie Warrell, author of Stop Playing It Safe, wrote in a recent Forbes article,
Using the latest brain imaging technologies, researchers have been able to prove that we human beings are neurologically wired to over-estimate the size of risks, under-estimate our ability to handle them, and downplay the costs of inaction.
I don’t doubt the general accuracy of her assessment, which doesn’t even take into account the power of Jesus to help us face our fears.
Do you think perhaps we can face the risks involved in following Christ? It may not be as risky as we imagine. Consider the promises that accompany the risk:
• He will be with us always.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
• His word will not come back void.
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10, 11).
• We will be repaid many times over.
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first (Matthew 19:29, 30).
The famous North Carolina preacher Vance Havner was spot-on when he said, “Salvation is a helmet, not a nightcap!”
We have brothers and sisters all over the world who are daily risking everything—even their necks—for the gospel. It’s time for us take off the nightcaps and lead with our helmets.
Jeff Faull serves as senior minister with Mount Gilead Church, Mooresville, Indiana.