Risk-Taking and Trusting God
I never anticipated having church members tell me that going to church is too risky. COVID-19 has melded together, going to church and risk-taking. I am asking questions now that I have never asked before in ministry. Is it worth the possible risk to the physical well-being of church members to gather together? Is gathering together worth the risk of appearing antagonistic to our governing officials?
When I first began thinking through these questions, I realized that I hadn’t ever thought much about risk in the Christian life. And I don’t think I’m alone. To make wise decisions about risk-taking, especially when our choices also cause others at risk, we need to understand the difference between wise and foolish risk-taking.
Every Christian’s life involves risk. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his disciples to risk their lives and reputations. Jesus’s disciples should expect to be taken advantage of (Matt 5:10-12, 40-42). Christians take risks, but not every risk is wise. Jesus also commends people who flee when they see the “abomination of desolation.” In that situation, it is wiser to run rather than die (Matt 13:14-16). So, how can we discern between a wise, God-trusting risk and a foolish one? The New Testament offers some guidance.
When is risk-taking praised?
The New Testament shows three situations when risk-taking was wise. The first, evangelism and missions. Paul and Barnabas risked constant danger on their missionary journeys (Acts 15:26). They embraced the danger that came with preaching the gospel in unreached places. Second, when serving other Christians. Epaphras risked life-threatening illness by bringing Paul a message from Philippi (Phil 2:25-30). Prisca and Aquilla also “risked their necks” to minister to Paul, bringing gladness to him and “all the Gentile churches” (Romans 16:3-4). And third, to help people in need. The writer of Hebrews commends his readers because they “had compassion on those in prison, and […] joyfully accepted the plundering of [their] property” (Hebrews 10:34). Here we see three examples of when risk-taking was wise.
God-Trusting and Danger Embracing
The situations alone did not make the risks wise. One common thread through all three of these risk-taking situations ties them to wisdom – God. They are all God-trusting risks. Divorced from trust in God, all risk is foolish.
When Paul was having a tough time in Corinth, God spoke to him. He said, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9–10). Paul trusted this promise and ministered in Corinth for another year-and-a-half. His risk took a specific promise of God and acted on it in faith.
Likewise, the Hebrew Christians trusted God’s promise of a better possession. They valued his promise more than their possessions, and therefore, risked losing their belongings to help others (Hebrews 10:34).
These risks reveal that we never misplace trust when we trust God. These risks were not like betting your salary on the underdog and praying for a lucky break. Behind these risks was the confidence that God would be faithful to his word, whether they lived or died. A wise risk is God-centered and God-trusting.
Some Christians risk their necks and lose their lives. Though it can be dangerous, trusting God is always wise. Two specific promises of God – that death is gain and that he is sovereign — keep our feet firm in any danger met through God-trusting risks.
Death is Gain
When Stephen rebuked the religious leaders, they killed him (Acts 7:55). Someone might say he wasted his life by taking a foolish risk. But not God. When the crowd rushes at him to stone him, Stephen looked up and saw Jesus ready to welcome him in glory (Acts 7:56-59). Death is the fiercest enemy we meet when we take risks. But because of Jesus, death does not get the last word. Paul says, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil 1:21).” Death is gain for a Christian. That is why Stephen was not afraid to risk death to proclaim the gospel. John Piper says, “When the threat of death becomes a door to paradise, the final barrier to temporal risk is broken.” When death is gain, its threat is only a toothless bite.
19th-century missionary, John Patton, knew about risk-taking. Not just him, but his family. Shortly after arriving in the New Hebrides, his wife and newborn son died. Why would they risk so much? He said, “if I can but live and die serving and honouring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.” God’s promise of resurrection gave him the courage to risk death to serve Christ.
God is Sovereign
Trusting God’s promise — to die is gain — steadies our feet for risk. But there is more. Paul goes further in Philippians 1: “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again” (Phil 1:25-26). Since God has work for Paul to do, he knows he will not die. The sovereignty of God over our life and death means that until his work through you is complete, death cannot have you. This is another ground for God-trusting risk.
John Patton again shows us the truth applied. Before going to the New Hebrides, someone warned him that he, “will be eaten by cannibals!” But he trusted God’s sovereignty over his life and death, and one occasion cemented his confidence. Enemies who wanted him dead surrounded him. They were urging each other to kill him, but no one raised a finger. Something stopped them. Reflecting on this, he says, “I realized that I was immortal till my Master’s work with me was done.” The sovereign hand of God kept their weapons sheathed.
For All Christians
I have never had an experience like that. If I am honest, it sounds too exceptional to be true. But even though John Patton’s circumstances were exceptional, God’s sovereign care was not. He cares that way for all his people. The Good Shepherd walks with all his sheep, even in the darkest valley (Ps 23:4), and unless he allows it, no arrow can touch them.
What gave John Patton the courage to risk his life can be held by every Christian. By trusting that in Christ, death is gain, and that with God, we are immortal till his work is done, we can embrace risk.