February 2010 - Vol. 37

Spiritual Risk Taking 

What kinds of risks are worth taking for the sake of Christ and his kingdom?

by Jon Wilson

When I think of risk taking, my mind first goes to traditional kinds of ďrisky behaviors,Ē including bungee jumping, rock climbing, and sky diving. I was recently reminded just how risk-averse I can be when I watched the movie The Guardian, which portrayed the work of US Coast Guard rescue swimmers. These guys regularly jump out of helicopters into places like the Bering Sea to try to pull drowning people out of very high (and cold) seas. No thanks!

But this isnít the only kind of risk taking. Many people try to evaluate their Ērisk toleranceĒ in considering how to invest and save for their retirement. Small business owners tend to be risk takers. And, of course, the exploding Ēgaming industryĒ rakes in huge profits from people looking for the worst kind of risks, where youíre pretty much guaranteed to lose. I am more naturally attracted to these kinds of risks, where there are no open helicopter doors involved.

Jesus' approach to risk taking
We donít often  think about a very different kind of risk taking; maybe we can call it spiritual risk taking. It has a lot in common with these other kinds of risk: it can give some people butterflies in their stomachs, make othersí mouths go dry, and cause still others to tuck their tails and run. But there are other ways in which it is very different from other kinds of risk taking.

Risk taking is an important topic for our communities in the Sword of the Spirit. There has been a growing sense among us that the Lord is moving us into a season of grace, fruitfulness, and growing pains. We have been given an image of an open door, with an invitation from the Lord to walk through. We have heard the Lord urge us to put aside our fishing poles, and to instead use nets for the great catch that he has in store for us. Words such as these can be exciting, but they can also leave us feeling overwhelmed, nervous, fearful, or inadequate. In light of this, it may be a good time to try to understand Godís perspective.

The Parable of the Talents
Jesus told a parable about risk taking, often called the Parable of the Talents. Here it is, from Matthew 25. I think it has implications for us.

14"Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.
 19"After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.'
 21"His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'
 22"The man with the two talents also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.'
 23"His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'
 24"Then the man who had received the one talent came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'
 26"His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
 28" 'Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'
A few observations to start with. First, notice that the talents start out as, and remain, the property of the master. Second, the text tells us that the master used discernment in deciding who to give the talents to. Presumably, he wanted to maximize his returns by giving the most resources to the most capable servants.

Fear of failure, action, and risk
As we read on and see the failure of the one-talent guy, itís important to note that this servant didnít do anything dishonest or unethical. He wasnít a bad person, as we might conventionally think about it. The problem was, he didnít do anything at all. And why didnít he do anything? He ascribes his inactivity to fear, presumably fear of his master, fear of failure, fear of action and risk. Finally, also notice that no one lost money in the story. The difference was between doubling your money or being left with what you started with.

So how might this parable apply to us as we consider taking spiritual risks? To begin, like the one talent guy, a primary obstacle for us is fear. When I read about the fear of the servant in the parable, I think of a squirrel in the middle of the road facing on oncoming car: fear causes paralysis, which only makes the situation worse. Squirrels are really fast, and if they would only act decisively, there would be a lot more squirrels alive today. So, too, we often act irrationally out of fear, which usually just makes our situation worse.

In God's economy we can't help but succeed!
Often we are afraid of failure. But look in the parable: no one who tried anything failed. I think it is the same way with spiritual risks. Things may not turn out as we had hoped or expected, but in Godís economy, a faithful effort made in obedience to him will only bring good fruit. We canít help but succeed!

Risk in making commitments
Let me conclude by suggesting a few specific kinds of spiritual risks that we should be taking. The first would be the risk of commitment. Every time we make a commitment, we are giving up all the other things that this commitment precludes. This is a risk, and it is one reason why commitment is becoming increasingly rare in our culture. 

Risk in serving to others
We also have opportunities to take relational risks, to go outside our comfort zone in order to love and serve others. This may include our family members, community brothers and sisters, or people who do not know the Lord. And related to this, the Lord may ask us to take identity risks, that is, to put our self-made identities on the shelf and to be willing to look different, even foolish, for the sake of Godís purposes. Letís not be held back by what others may think of us.

Risk in being generous
Finally, we constantly have the opportunity to take the risk of being generous. There are many ways we can do this: with our money, our time, our attention, our resources, our skills and abilities. We need to keep in mind that, like the servants in the parable, all that we have is from our Master. We are stewards, and we do well to invest these resources in the work of the kingdom of God.

The master in the parable distributed the talents with discernment. We need to remember that God made each of us with great care; he gave us the gifts, abilities, and resources that he wanted us to have. He is calling us to risk all of these, to put them on the line, so that his kingdom may advance, and many others may come to know and serve him. Let us, who are always safe in our Masterís hand, be spiritual risk takers.

[Jon Wilson is a coordinator of Word of Life, a community of the Sword of the Spirit, and a member of Knox Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He and his wife, Melody and their five children live in Ypsilanti, Michigan, USA.] 

(c) copyright 2010  The Sword of the Spirit
publishing address: Park Royal Business Centre, 9-17 Park Royal Road, Suite 108, London NW10 7LQ, United Kingdom
email: living.bulwark@yahoo.com