Retreat or risk?
Throughout redemptive history, that question has confronted God's people. As John Piper references in the pages of the new book Risk Is Right (Crossway, 2013), it was the decision facing the Israelites on a crucial day at Kadesh Barnea. Standing on the brink of the Promised Land, with the guarantee of God within their grasp, they ran from risk and chose to retreat. Instead of staking their lives on the faithfulness of God, they recoiled in fear. The cost was great, and the Lord left an entire generation to waste away in a wilderness until they died.
The Commission Is Clear
Fast-forward a few thousand years, and you come to the people of God standing in a similar moment. We live in a world where half the population is living on less than two dollars a day, and over a billion people dwell in desperate poverty. Such physical need is only surpassed by spiritual poverty. Billions of people are engrossed in the worship of false gods, and approximately two billion of those people are still unreached with the gospel, meaning that they have little chance of even hearing about the sacrifice of Christ for their sins before they die. Most of the unreached live in hard-to-reach areas of the world that are hostile to Christians — areas of the world where our brothers and sisters are presently being persecuted, imprisoned, and killed.
Though the challenges facing the church are great, the commission Christ has given is clear: make disciples of all the nations. Spend your lives spreading the gospel of God for the glory of God to the ends of the earth. As you go, trust in his sovereign authority, depend on his indwelling presence, and experience his incomparable joy.
Jesus Is Worth It
As we stand at our Kadesh Barnea, we have a choice. We, too, can retreat into a wilderness of wasted opportunity. We can rest content in casual, convenient, cozy, comfortable Christian lives as we cling to the safety and security this world offers. We can coast through a cultural landscape marked by materialism, characterized by consumerism, and engulfed in individualism. We can assent to the spirit of this age and choose to spend our lives seeking worldly pleasures, acquiring worldly possessions, and pursuing worldly ambitions — all under the banner of cultural Christianity.
Or we can decide that Jesus is worth more than this. We can recognize that he has created us, saved us, and called us for a much greater purpose than anything this world could ever offer us. We can die to ourselves, our hopes, our dreams, our ambitions, our priorities, and our plans. We can do all of this because we believe that the person and the plan of Christ bring reward that makes any risk more than worth it.
Powered by Gospel Joy
In Matthew 13:44 Jesus tells his disciples, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
I love this picture. Imagine walking in a field and stumbling upon a treasure that is more valuable than anything else you could work for or find in this life. It is more valuable than all you have now or will ever have in the future. You look around and notice that no one else realizes the treasure is here, so you cover it up quickly and walk away, pretending you haven't seen anything. You go into town and begin to sell off all your possessions to have enough money to buy that field. The world thinks you're crazy.
“What are you thinking?” your friends and family ask you.
You tell them, “I'm buying that field over there.”
They look at you in disbelief. “That's foolish,” they say. “Why are you giving away everything you have to buy that field?”
You respond, “I have a hunch,” and you smile to yourself as you walk away. You smile because you know that in the end any risk that others perceive is nothing compared to the reward you will receive. So with joy — with joy! — you sell it all. Why? Because you have found something worth losing everything else for.
This is the picture of Jesus in the gospel. He is something — someone — worth losing everything for. When we really believe this, then risking everything we are and everything we have, to know and obey Christ is no longer a matter of sacrifice. It's just common sense. To let go of the pursuits, possessions, pleasures, safety, and security of this world in order to follow Jesus wherever he leads, no matter what it costs, is not sacrificial as much as it is smart. In the words of Jim Elliot, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Fearless in the Face of Risk
I praise God for John Piper and the way he has shown me and countless others the supremacy of Christ. I was in college when I heard my first Piper sermon, entitled “Christ Died for God.” I was compelled by a captivating, biblical vision of a God-centered God, and I began to realize in a fresh way that the ultimate reason for my existence is God's exaltation. Moreover, I began to recognize that my greatest joy is indeed found in God's greatest glory, and Christ is clearly a treasure worth losing and letting go of everything for. This is a central theme (maybe the central theme) of Scripture and is the predominant truth that pervades John Piper's ministry, which is why this book by him on risk makes so much sense.
I pray that God will use it, along with a host of other things, to raise up an army of pastors, missionaries, church leaders, and church members who are fearless in the face of risk because they realize that in Christ, even death is reward. In view of God's great glory above us and in light of the world's great need around us, retreat is unquestionably wrong. For the good of our souls and for the glory of our Savior, risk is most assuredly right.
This post is the foreword to John Piper's new book Risk Is Right (Crossway, 2013).