How do we balance bold risk with wise safety? We don’t want to be foolishly daring, nor overly cautious, in our love to others. It’s a dilemma faced by an anonymous young woman. “Dear Pastor John, I am struggling to find balance with serving others. However, sometimes when I approach my husband about certain ideas to help others, he, and historically others (like my pastors and parents), have told me it might be unwise. Why is possibly risking your safety, financial comfort, and ease always considered unwise?
“For example, I met a lady and her two children. They are in a really rough temporary situation pertaining to housing and money. My first instinct is to invite them into our home, free of charge, for as long as they might need. However, my husband said he wants to pray about it, and needs to know more about who she is and her background before we trust her in our home. This is where I struggle. What is there to pray about? Why should I hesitate when I see someone in need, even if I don’t really know them? When does wisdom or safety undermine God-centered trust in our risk-taking?”
I have struggled with this question a lot over the years, partly because of where I live and partly because of trying to understand texts in the Bible. And I don’t want to give the impression that the Bible disregards a father’s calling to protect his family (1 Timothy 5:8), or a disciple’s obedience in fleeing from persecution (Matthew 10:23). But I am going to argue that the overwhelming thrust of the New Testament is that the disciples of Jesus incline from the heart toward meeting needs at the risk of loss more regularly — at least we ought to — than we incline toward staying safe and comfortable by neglecting risky helpfulness.
Or to put it another way, I don’t want to prescribe precisely when love calls for self-protection and when love calls for self-risk, but the burden of the New Testament is to infuse the faith and love that leans toward self-risk rather than toward self-protection. And I suspect the double reason for that is that, on the one hand, we are selfish by nature. And we need — I need, anyway — far more help to break free from that selfishness than I need help with living in sync with it.
And on the other hand, the second of the double reason for why the New Testament leans this way is that the glory of God shines much more brightly in the countercultural, counterintuitive risk-taking of God’s people for the sake of love than it shines in self-protection, which pretty much looks just like the way the unbelieving world would act. Why would they be impressed and give God glory for us acting just like them?
So, the way I would answer the question, “When does wisdom or safety undermine God-centered trust in our risk-taking?” is with these six tests.
1. Reckon with the reward.
Choosing temporal safety undermines God-centered risk-taking when it doesn’t reckon with and rejoice in the staggering reward for being plundered for love’s sake.
You had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. (Hebrews 10:34)
2. Admire Paul’s resolve.
Choosing temporal safety undermines God-centered trust in risk-taking when there is no serious admiration for Paul’s response to those who begged him not to risk his life in going up to Jerusalem in Acts 21:13. Paul responded,
What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.
3. Expect to be swindled.
Choosing temporal safety undermines God-centered trust in risk-taking when it doesn’t take seriously Jesus’s and Paul’s call for disciples to be willingly taken advantage of rather than going to law to defend ourselves.
And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:40–42)
To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? (1 Corinthians 6:7)
4. Show heavenly hope.
Choosing temporal safety undermines God-centered trust in risk-taking when it doesn’t reckon seriously with the fact that the glory of God shines out to unbelievers through Christian behaviors that say, “Our hope is not in this world, but in God and in heaven.”
[Be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. (1 Peter 3:15)
Now, why would anybody do that? Why would anybody ask me for a reason for the hope that is in me? And the answer surely is that our actions seem to indicate that our hope is not in the safety and comfort that they live for. So they’re puzzled, and they want to know, “What makes you tick? Because I wouldn’t have responded like that.” And this helps make sense of Jesus’s command to
let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
5. Ground your confidence in God.
Choosing temporal safety undermines God-centered trust in risk-taking when it is not rooted in the confidence that all possible assailants against us are in God’s hands and cannot harm us beyond his sovereign will. In thinking about this, I remembered John Bunyan, whom I spoke about some years ago. I remember reading his book Seasonable Counsels: Advice to Sufferers. He spent twelve years of his life in prison, when he could have gotten out (by agreeing not to preach) and taken care of his wife and four kids, one of whom was blind. And he comments on Daniel 5:22–23, which says this:
And you . . . Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart . . . but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven. . . . The God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored.
And here’s Bunyan’s comment:
Wherefore as we should, and so again we should not, be afraid of men. We should be afraid of them, because they will hurt us. But we should not be afraid of them as if they were let loose to do us anything they will. God’s bridle is upon them. God’s hook is in their nose. Yea, and God has determined the bounds of their rage.
6. Enjoy deep freedom.
Finally, choosing temporal safety undermines God-centered trust in risk-taking when it is not enjoying deep freedom from the love of money and things, rooted in the promises of God to take care of us, just like Hebrews 13:5–6 makes so clear:
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
Don’t Miss the Joy
Now, that list of six tests for how to undermine risk-taking trust could go on and on, but let me just end with this: don’t miss the joy. I think I’d be saying this to our listener’s husband: don’t miss the joy — the deep, amazing joy — that comes from overcoming fear and taking risks of love. It is shortsighted to think that the comfort and security of not taking a risk is more satisfying to the soul than the joy of trusting God in the risky path of love for what you can’t see. You can’t foresee what’s going to happen.
At the front end of such love, the flesh is screaming, “No, no, no! Too risky! Too risky!” And the Spirit is whispering, “There is great Christ-exalting joy in this to be had.” So, I’m just suggesting, don’t miss the whisper for the screaming, and don’t miss the joy.