Will We Risk?
Evangelical Ministry Assembly 2006 | London
The following is a lightly edited transcript
My goal is simple. I would like to encourage you, inspire you, and motivate you to take risks for the glory of Christ and for the cause of God. My approach will be to use biblical illustrations of risk-takers. I think it’s true from Scripture, and I’ll try to show you that it’s true. I know it’s true from my experience that very little is accomplished in advancing the gospel without taking risks. I think one of the great jobs of the pastoral life of ministry is to take risks and to cultivate an atmosphere in which people take risks with you, and they consider it normal to take risks. I think effective pastoral leaders create an atmosphere in which the lovers of the status quo and the defenders of security, comfort, risk-avoidance, and prudence are in the minority, and are not able to control the church.
That takes a long time and it takes a positive orientation on risk, but I think it must be done if the church is going to move where you want it to move. Almost all of you here in this room today are at a juncture in ministry where the next step will be risky. There are very different situations around the room, but if we just took five minutes and said, “What might he be calling me to in the next year five or ten years that feels really risky?” I would guess most of you are there. Some of you came here hoping that you would get the courage and the wisdom to know what that means, and I hope this message is one of the means God uses to do that for you.
Risk is Right
Let’s begin with a definition: A risk is an action that exposes you, or others with you, to loss or injury. If you take a risk, you could lose faith, you could lose money, and you could lose your life, and I’m saying that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing to risk losing faith and money and life. I don’t mean that all risks are good. You know that it’s not the case. Paul escaped out of Damascus in a basket, and the wise man went back another way. Jesus said, “Let those who are in Judea flee” (Matthew 24:16). So I don’t mean that every stupid activity is commendable, but more of them are than you think. That’s the nature of risk. It exposes someone to loss and injury.
Now here’s a second question: Why does it exist? That is, why does the possibility of risk in life and ministry exist? And the answer is ignorance. The only reason risk exists is because you don’t know what’s coming tomorrow. God cannot take risks because he knows perfectly what’s coming tomorrow. He says:
I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’ (Isaiah 46:9–10).
Never has God taken a risk. When the Son of God came, every step was planned — every nail and every thorn. There was no risk in Jesus’s ministry. When he talked about tomorrow, he said, “I will go up, and they will spit in my face, pull my beard, and crucify me. And in three days, I will rise from the dead.”
That is not a risk. That’s a planned sacrifice. The reason you can risk is because you don’t know what’s coming tomorrow. It’s not the same with us as it is with God. He cannot take a risk, in spite of many foolish books that are written these days, but you can, and I’m arguing that you must. You do not know if you will die before I’m done here. Do you ever lie awake, like I do, just before you go to sleep at night and take your hand, put it on your pulse, look at the clock, and count to see what kind of a pulse rate you have? When I do that, I think to myself, if God says that heartbeat is enough, it’s over, and then we either wake up in the presence of Christ or in hell.
That’s an awesome thought. You should think that before you go to bed night, and get right with Jesus’s sweet fellowship as you go to bed. It’ll be okay if you wake up and ask, “Is this a dream?” and he says, “No, this is not a dream. This is heaven.” What a way to go. You can’t even avoid risk when you sleep. It’s everywhere. But in the church, we have this enchantment that life, ministry, and missions can be lived risk-free.
Let me give you some biblical examples of risk taking, because I simply want you to come away remembering one thing: Risk is right. That’s the only thing you’re going to remember, and I hope it helps.
Let Us Play the Man
I’ve got about four examples. You can go and look at them with me or you can just listen, whichever you want, but I’m starting with 2 Samuel 10. I love this scene. I used it when I first came to Bethlehem to describe my relationship with the very first assistant minister that I had, Glen Ogren, 26 years ago. Now there are lots of us, but there was a day when it was just me, and I was doing everything. Then there was Glen, and then there were others. And I used these verses. I love this picture of Joab and Abishai.
The situation is that the Ammonites really did a stupid thing. David respected King Nahash and he died. So David sent a respected group to Hanan, Nahash’s son, to pay his tribute to his dad. But they cut off half their beards and cut their clothes off at the middle and shamed them. David was outraged, and they knew he was outraged, so they hired the Syrians to protect them. And so, you’ve got the Ammonites and the Syrians coming and closing in on David. That means Joab and Abishai will be involved.
There they are on the field between the two enemies. I love the words of 2 Samuel 10:11–12. They make my spine tingle with a sense of comradery that I hope many of you feel when you’re at a place like this. This is Joab talking:
If the Syrians are too strong for me, then you shall help me, but if the Ammonites are too strong for you, then I will come and help you. Be of good courage, and let us play the man for our people, and for the cities of our God, and may the Lord do what seems good to him.
What is that, when he says, “May the Lord do what seems good to him”? That’s pure risk. Joab does not know how it will go. They just knew, “We’re going to fight for the cities of our God. May the Lord do what seems good to him.” So every time you sense the passion to move forward and do something fresh, to do something new for the cities of our God and for the glory of Christ, find a comrade. Find somebody who’s like that in the church and say, “Let’s do this, and may the Lord do what seems good to him.”
You know, when I came to Bethlehem, we didn’t even have elders in those days. It took 10 years to persuade this Baptist church that elders were in the Bible. Isn’t that ridiculous? As we were venturing things, and I wanted to try new things in the neighborhood and new kinds of outreach, I used to say, “Brothers, let’s fail at something.”
Do you know what I mean? Let’s fail at something. You can’t do anything if you don’t risk failure. If your whole mindset is to protect yourself from failing, you can’t do anything. It’s paralyzing. So I would plead with them, “Let’s fail at something.” I can imagine if Abishai didn’t have the same guts that Joab had, he would have said, “Ah, I’m not sure this is a really wise way to divide the troops. I think we should just retreat up the hill.” And I think Joab would have said, “Come on, let’s fail for God in the cities of God here on this field.” So that’s the kind of mindset I would love for you, as a pastoral leader, to cultivate in your church.
If I Perish, I Perish
Let’s go to the book of Esther. You all know where I’m going now, don’t you? You know what I’m going to do. This is for the women, and for all of us men in here who admire women like Esther and others. You know the situation. This is in Babylon. Mordecai has a young cousin and her name is Esther. He adopted her. She was an orphan, and he raised her up. She was a beautiful woman and she became the queen to Ahasuerus. She was also a Jew and he didn’t know it. Haman persuaded him to decree that all the Jews should be exterminated. Mordecai heard of this and said to Esther, “You’ve got to risk it.” Now there was a law — this is not from external sources but from the text — that if you went unbidden into the King’s presence, you would die if he didn’t lift his golden scepter.
And so Mordecai said, “You have to do that. These people are all going to be slaughtered. I know you could lose your life, but we’re going to lose ours anyway.” So here’s what she said in Esther 4:15–16. These are the words that I think are right at the heart of the meaning of the book:
Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”
Oh, I love Esther, and I love Joab. There are so many people like this in the Bible, and so few today. There are so few ready to go do the hardest mission works in the Muslim world, the Hindu world, or the Buddhist world — these masses across central Asia that are closed, hostile, and full of violence against those who say there’s one way, and it isn’t Muhammad. That’s dangerous, and risk is the only way the job will get done. Where are the Esthers and the Joabs? Risk is right.
Never Bowing Down
We’ll stay in Babylon and go to Daniel. There’s several possibilities in Daniel, aren’t there? Let’s go to chapter three with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In the situation, there was this monument that Nebuchadnezzar put up and said, “Everybody must bow down here.” But they wouldn’t do it. In chapter three, they’re brought to the king, and he says to them, “I’m going to burn you alive if you don’t bow down here.” And here’s what they say in Daniel 3:16–18:
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
They said, “We know our God can deliver us. We know his will is that we not bow down. We do not know if he will rescue us from this fire. He may rescue us in heaven, but we’re not bowing down.” That’s a risk. They took their lives in their hands. Risk is right.
Afflictions in Every City
Who’s the biggest risk taker in the New Testament? The answer to that is Paul, at least as far as we know, not Jesus. Jesus’s sacrifice was planned every step of the way. It was ordained and embraced in obedience, but not so with Paul. In Acts 21, he was his way to Jerusalem, and he had an offering he had been taking. He was bound by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem, and he got as far as Caesarea. Then, a prophet named Agabus came down and said:
Thus says the Holy Spirit, “This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.”
He had bound his own hands and feet, using the belt as a symbolic statement of what was going to happen to Paul in Jerusalem. So they all begged Paul not to go. Then, in Acts 21:13 he says this:
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.
And then the next, Acts 21:14, says:
And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.”
If I perish, I perish. May the Lord do what seems good to him. Nebuchadnezzar, we’re not bowing down. God reigns here. I’m going to Jerusalem. That’s risk. Paul already knew that if Agabus was a true prophet he was going to be bound, but what about after that? Would he be killed? Would he be kept in prison the rest of his life? Would he be banished? He didn’t know, and it doesn’t matter. He said, “I’m going.” What’s your next step?
Willing to Look Crazy
He did all that, going to Jerusalem, after he wrote 2 Corinthians. That’s relevant because we find in 2 Corinthians, more than any other letter, the catalog of this man’s sufferings. I’m going to read a section from chapter 11 that you’re familiar with. You can look at it with me if you want. In Acts 20:23, he had said:
The Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.
He almost didn’t have to take any risk because he was so certain that he was going to suffer, but he never knew when it would come. He never knew what form it would take. He never knew how severe it would be. He just knew that in every city, the Holy Spirit was telling him, “Suffering awaits you.” That was his life. But you don’t feel the force of it until you read these verses in Second Corinthians. They are simply breathtaking.
How are you doing in your suffering in ministry, in your willingness and readiness to take risks regarding your faith, money, reputation, life, and family? Remember Jesus said:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26).
I think that means you will be called upon to do things that will look, to undiscerning people, like you hate your wife. You don’t, but it’s going to look like that to everybody else. Hopefully it doesn’t look like that to her. Hopefully you married the right person. Some of you didn’t, which makes your life very hard. Love her, stay with her, and pray that God might give her the same heart. And it works the other way as well, maybe more often. The wife is ready to lay her life down, to do something radical, and the guy is a chicken. I deal with both kinds in my church when it comes to missions. One feels a call so powerfully and the other is dragging their feet.
There’s a couple in Bangkok right now, and it took the man eight years to get on board with his wife. Now they’re there together living radical life. I’ve seen it go exactly the other way as well, where it took the woman five years and she was on board.
But when it says you must hate your wife, I think it means there are behaviors in ministry and in missions that are just going to look inexplicable to the grandparents. They will say, “What are you doing with my grand-baby?” Once I had a man say to his son, who I had worked with for 12 years like this before they moved to central Asia for missions, “If you don’t come back, I’m going to kill John Piper.” The father wasn’t a believer and there was no hesitation. He thought, “He’s the one who’s put this thing in your crazy head, and if you don’t come back, he’s dead.” That’s a good thing.
Litany of Suffering
Now listen to these words from 2 Corinthians 11:24–28:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.
What does that mean? It means that Paul never knew where the next blow would come from. Every day he was uncertain how the suffering would come, though he was almost certain that it would come. He wasn’t safe on the land. He wasn’t safe on roads. He wasn’t safe crossing rivers. He wasn’t safe with his own Jewish people. He wasn’t safe with Gentiles. He wasn’t safe with Christians because so many were false. He wasn’t safe in the wilderness. He wasn’t safe in the cities. He wasn’t safe on the sea. Safety is a mirage, at least we ought to view it that way.
And yet, American churches are filled with people who only dream of security. From now until they drop dead they maximize safety, security, and comfort. It’s the total opposite of the biblical vision of life. Risk is normal. It’s right. Be the kind of pastoral leader that awakens a mentality in your church that we take risks. That’s who we are as a church. What is the cost if you don’t do that? You can’t escape risk. It’s a mirage. It’s an enchantment. It’s a dream-world to think you can escape it.
Taking the Land of Promise
There was a moment in Israel’s history where they thought they could escape risk. Joshua and Caleb had it right. They thought, “We can take these people. Of course they’re giants, but we have God on our side.” But it was ten against two, and they voted them down. And what was the cost? Forty years of aimlessness. How many churches have been sentenced by God to 40 years of fruitless ministry because there came a point where there was a possibility to take some risks and do a fresh new thing, but it was all voted down? You may have just inherited one of those churches, or you may have stuck with it for a long time. May God use these days, because if you listen to these other messages in relation to this simple statement — risk is right — every one of them will relate to this.
May God use these messages and all we’re doing here to give you a special anointing, something you’ve never had before, to get a breakthrough in that kind of church, to get a breakthrough where one or two begin to gather around you, and begin to pray and begin to believe God that a mindset that is so different can be awakened in this church. That’s what I’m praying that God would do for you.
What kind of risk should you take? Let’s just talk about application for a few minutes regarding the kinds of things I have in mind. I have four categories I’ll mention briefly. See if these land on you and make you think, “Yep, that’s where I am.”
1. Risking Relationships
There are some people in your church, maybe in your family, and they really need to be confronted. It is so hard. They’re in sin, their attitude stinks, or maybe they’re blatantly watching pornography. You know if you go to this person, it won’t work. It’s going to come back at you. It’s just going to get you in big trouble if you confront this person and try to do a little church discipline at the one-on-one, and then the two-on-one level. And if that didn’t work, it would be at the whole-church level. There’s even a kind of relational risk in a marriage where you tell your spouse, “We need to talk,” and it’s just so hard to talk about this topic. Or maybe you have a kid you need to talk to — teenagers are especially difficult because they could leave. They could just open the window and be gone. Maybe you don’t know whether to confront or not. You don’t know what to do. But whatever is going on now is just not working.
There’s no escaping relational risks. I’ve got a long list of examples here, but if I took them all, we wouldn’t give any others. I’ll give you one concrete example, just so you know how imperfect my wife and I are. Twenty years ago, there was a marriage magazine called Partnership, and it always had a picture of a happy couple on the front that was in ministry together, smiling. We got a call from Partnership and they said, “We’d like to feature you and Noel like we did with Ben and Loretta Patterson and others. We’d like to come up there and interview you, take some pictures, and write about your life in ministry together.” And I said, “I think I better talk this over with Noel.”
We were hardly talking to each other, and they were going to come interview us as a model ministry couple. We talked it over, but now here’s the risk. We can perform pretty good and we could have done it, but I thought, should I call them back and say, “We’re not really happy right now, and, frankly, it would be a joke”? That’s what I did. I mean, this magazine is owned by Christianity Today. They all know me down there. I was thinking they were all going to start spreading rumors, saying, “Piper is going to get a divorce. Piper has a broken marriage.” That’s a risky a phone call, but I did it. And as far as I know, that rumor didn’t go too far. We’ve been married 37 years now and I’m really happy.
2. Risking Money
Most of you don’t have a lot of money, right? You need to preach this to your people. Some are poor, and some are rich, but you need to talk to them about money before the building program, or the budget crunch. Create a mindset of risk taking with money. Here’s the text on money from Luke 21:1–4:
Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
Now, there are guys in my church who would say, “That’s really bad advice. Skip that text when you preach through Luke because you’re going to cause people to do stupid and impudent things with their money.” Why is Jesus excited about this woman? It’s not about quantity, but sacrifice. She gave it all. I mean, what’s she going to pay her rent with? That’s a risky story. So preach it. There’s a mindset that Westerners have — unlike millions upon millions in the world don’t have the things we do — to store things up and build bigger barns, in order to secure our retirement and do all kinds of things that are out of step with the teachings of Jesus, who said, “You’ll know where their heart is by where their treasure is” (Matthew 6:21).
I’ll take a risk here. I thought about if I should say this or not because this is going to backfire on me. Jesus said not to let your right hand know what your left hand is doing (Matthew 6:3), but I just imagine people are thinking these kinds of things. Maybe you’re thinking, “Here’s John Piper telling us about money, and he writes how many books? He must get a lot of royalties from those.” I just think that would be in my mind. Those books earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but I don’t touch any of that money, and cannot touch any of that money, because we saw it coming years ago.
It is hard for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23). I want to get into the kingdom of heaven more than I want anything because God is there. Therefore, we created a foundation called the Desiring God Foundation and all of the royalties from the books go there before they ever come to me. It’s run by a board, and the money is just plowed right back into ministry. No royalties come to me. I live off the salary at Bethlehem, and even whatever they give me for doing this sort of thing goes straight to TCT (Treasuring Christ Together), which is our multiplying building fund.
That was a risk because that’s pure boasting, right? And who knows my heart at this point? Only God. I’m sure it is corrupt, and so pray for forgiveness for telling you that story because when Jesus said give your alms, he said, “Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing,” which means that your left hand should be slipping the money quietly to the needy, and your right hand can’t even tell that’s happening. But I just told 800 people, so Jesus forgive me. May they do something good with that, especially if they write books.
I know this is not the main issue with you. Some of you are greedy and worldly, and are carving ducks on your time off instead of reading books, and you hope to sell those for big bucks. But most of you just need to love your people enough to create a risk taking mindset in their handling of money.
3. Risking as a Witness
Telling people about Jesus is risky because they’re going to roll their eyes at you and cluck their tongue. They’ll say, “You’re one of those born again types or whatever.” It feels so bad to be criticized. It just feels so bad to be looked at like you’re stupid. Luke 21:12–13 says:
But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness.
And then listen to Luke 21:16:
You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death.
Now, I don’t know how you feel about Jesus’s strategy at this point. He is saying, “They’re going to deliver you up in synagogues, put you in prison, take you before kings, and take you before governors. Why? Because I have some people I want to hear the gospel. One’s a jailer, and one is Festus.” If you wonder why you have a flat tire on the way home tomorrow, there’s a reason. God has a person somewhere, unplanned by you and planned by him. If you get a ticket for parking in the wrong place or speeding, there’s a reason why you’re there — to bear testimony.
You might say to the judge, “Judge, I’ve never been so humiliated my life. I’m a Christian. Christians should obey the law. It says so in Romans 13. I just want to apologize to you and in the presence of God, confess my sin and commend Christ to you.” I mean that. Take a risk. Open your mouth. That’s the strategy. It says so right there in Luke 21. God’s strategy for getting the gospel to governors and kings and jailers is to get his people arrested.
4. Risking in Ministry Ventures
I don’t know the British scene well enough to even talk to you about what that might be for you, but I have the sense that America is known as being a kind of entrepreneurial place — a make-it-happen, get-it-done, pragmatic, unthinking, low brow, unintellectual place, which is true. Praise God for it, and praise God that we’re not the only kind of human beings in the world. The world needs so much more than pragmatic, get-it-done kind of people. But oh, I don’t know, maybe there’s a need for Spurgeon-like entrepreneurial dreaming in Britain. And if so, then pray that God would show you some venture that you should risk.
The Gracious Grounding of Taking Risks
Let me close by pointing out how this is possible, namely, it all comes from Romans 8. This is possible. All the risks that I’ve talked about, and the ones you can imagine in your own life, are possible because of Romans 8:32, which says:
God who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
That’s probably my favorite verse because it roots God’s future grace in his past grace so solidly, and assures me that I cannot ultimately take a risk with God. The ultimate is no risk in following Jesus. It is absolutely sure.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8:35–37).
You can’t ultimately risk when you’re following God. Everything is going to work out for your good. God will take all your being-slaughtered and turn it for his great name and for your great good, so that you can come to the face of any risk and right at the brink of death and say:
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38–39).
Because he died, God will, with Christ, give us all things that we need now and that we could ever dream of later. And therefore, in this life, I can say, “Fear not, you can only be killed!” That’s a paraphrase of Luke 12:4–7, which says:
I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Of course, we’re going to die. Some of us will be killed. But don’t be afraid. Nothing can separate you from the love of God.