Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Theology of Risk

Risk - Part 3

OK, so maybe all of my rambling about risk simply proves I’m a timid little mouse. I readily admit that risk is not a word people immediately associate with me. And I’m OK with that.

But it’s not only my disjointed DNA and my sheltered upbringing that prejudice me against unnecessary risk. My brother, who was raised by the same parents as I, is a helicopter pilot today, so what does that say about nature and nurture? Of course, he’s an exceptional pilot – in fact, I prefer flying with him rather than riding when he’s driving.

When I lived in New York City, I remember coming home at the end of normal workdays and flopping down on my bed, recalling the numerous opportunities I had that day to be smashed by a speeding bus, run over by a crazy cabdriver, or sliced open by impatient subway doors. I’d take a deep breath and marvel that I was still alive and in one piece! I've since learned that other people who've lived in the Big Apple have had similar "mortality moments." Maybe that’s not the way most people would want to live life, but for me, it was oddly therapeutic and energizing, even though it was physically exhausting.

So again: let this prove that I don’t deny some risks are worth taking.

But… and there’s always a but, isn’t there?

How should evangelical people of faith view risk? What is the degree to which people of faith are called to take risks, and what types of risk should we take?

Pump (clap) You Up

At the risk (!) of unintentionally publicizing what has proven to be utter garbage, let me reference the blasphemous book Wild at Heart by John Eldridge, printed in 2001. Marketing material for this travesty of a “Christian” book included such dorky bylines as “Helping men rediscover their masculine heart” and “Discovering the secret of a man’s soul”.

Among the many fallacies of his book, Eldridge tries to posit the theory that men are basically wild animals with a lust for life that girlie-man theologians have stripped of virility and castrated with empathy, education, and – gasp! – selflessness. His book made a big splash in the evangelical world when it first came out, but aside from some pseudo-Colorado-mountainmen and a few closet metrosexuals, Eldridge’s fantasies about alpha-male primitiveness soon fizzled in the light of Biblical reality.

The reason I bring up this horrible book is to draw upon a major aspect of risk which Eldridge attempts to pawn off as truth: he claims God took risks with His creation, and so should we. Apparently, Eldridge considers that an aversion to risk should be the hallmark of any manly-man, for which God serves as the supreme prototype.

Without wading too far into the muck and mire of all that is wrong with such a theory, can we at least agree that God’s sovereignty, omnipotence, and omniscience automatically preclude the impossibility that God takes any risks? Of all that is possible with God, He cannot take risks, because risk implies He would not have ultimate control over something, or that He would lack intimate knowledge and understanding about something. So right away, even though a lot of people initially defended Wild at Heart by saying “you can’t criticize the book without reading it,” we can indeed and with full conviction proclaim that risk cannot be validated by God’s use of it Himself.

Eldridge Isn't All Wrong

Which leaves us with the remaining shards of Eldridge’s idea that evangelicals should engage in risk for God. Which, of course, is true to a certain extent. But not necessarily in all of the ways Eldridge thinks.

True, “he who loves his live will lose it,” and that we are to “count all things as nothing for the sake of the Gospel.” But that doesn’t mean we’re free to skydive out of a plane into a wildlife sanctuary, tiptoe along the third rail, or even push the legalistic envelope, does it?

As over-quoted as it is, martyred missionary Jim Elliot’s words still ring true: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose." That's probably as good a definition of Biblical risk as I've ever heard. Because what did Elliot and his mission team really risk when they went to Ecuador to evangelize the Auca tribespeople? They knew their eternal reward was in Heaven, not here on Earth. In mankind’s way of thinking, perhaps going to jungles ruled by headhunters constituted a ridiculous risk, but if these missionaries were genuinely called by God to serve in the South America, what might they have risked by NOT going?

Taking Risk Further Than God Intends?

Now, I’m going to tread cautiously here: we still need to choose our "risk" ventures carefully, don't we? I’ve read some commentators who wonder if Jim Elliot had a streak of hard-headedness which virtually secured his fate at the hands of the Auca tribesmen. I bring up that theory not because it's been proven as credible, but to caution against misinterpreting foolish bravado for God's direction into danger. Whether Elliot - who has been practically enshrined by contemporary Christian culture - suffered from self-centered, unbiblical risk isn't for me to say, and again, I don't mean to impugn his memory by drawing the correlation between his genuine martyrdom and people with a mentality that justifies their own foolishness and embrace of risk. It's just that Elliot's story seems, um, downright swashbuckling compared with other stories of missionaries who have tread far more cautiously - yet still "successfully" - in their ministries.

Before you burn me at the stake as a heretic, let's move away from Elliot. You have to admit that some people claiming to be Christians seem compelled not by devotion to Christ, but simply because their acquiescence to their Type-A personalities makes it easy to scoff at risk and try to be the hero. It’s ego, pure and simple, to either deny the realities of risk or assume they don’t apply to you.

From my thin knowledge of 19th and 20th Century world missions, it seems like the evangelical fervor of the day tended to wink at risk and embrace the potential for glory that beckoned from distant shores. The terror that must have stalked every missionary upon their disembarking on those distant shores must have been excruciating, and far be it from me to judge their motives and hearts now, after so much Kingdom work has been advanced across the globe by these pioneers. But looking at how missions agencies today let insurance companies, health concerns, and other conventional bureaucratic considerations dictate ministry policies, has professional evangelical work become hog-tied by risk-aversion or simply more prudent and objective? Is less Kingdom work getting done because actuaries, lawyers, and accountants are calling more of the shots? Did God bless the proclamation of His Word because He says He would, despite the foolish risks His messengers took? Do the ends justify the means when it comes to the Gospel?

Which brings us to that thin line between ego and conviction, between risk for personal reward and trust in God despite the odds. Nobody really seems to know where that is.

God Is Sovereign Over Our Risks

The other day, I discussed the risks Carter BloodCare apparently absorbed into their business model by hosting a speedway event in which a guest was killed. Now obviously, people don’t get killed every time they get into a Corvette ripping through a closed speedway course. And all of the participants wore conventional protective gear that up until the crash probably seemed excessive, and after the crash proved inadequate. I’ve talked before about engineering a perfectly safe car, but that it would be so heavy and unwieldy nobody would want to buy or drive it. We take a certain amount of risk for granted every time we back out of our driveway, but should we simply ignore the extrapolation of that risk to a speeding car on a racetrack?

After reading my blog entry, a friend of mine mused that one freak accident shouldn’t necessarily force Carter BloodCare to scrap what otherwise is a novel and evocative way to recognize top blood donors and volunteers. After all, nobody was forced to participate, and by all accounts, proper procedures appear to have been followed. Just because I wouldn’t have participated, why should I say nobody else can?

And, since I'm a predestination Presbyterian, I believe that since God preordained that this person would die on this day, if he didn't get killed in a freak accident on a speedway, he would have died in some other way. But did the Lord allow this accident - no matter how freakish - to happen as a way to provoke some considerations of sensibility and prudence among the Carter BloodCare staff? Should risks that go wrong just be written off as the price of progress? Just because a few laps around a NASCAR speedway in a Corvette is fun, is the risk mitigated?

Perhaps my questions and opinions mean little to rogue risk-takers since I've admitted my sympathies lie with Prudence. Maybe since I believe that God will redeem His elect regardless of whether we invade indigenous habitats or nurture cross-cultural bridges, my musings about how non-ethnocentric missions is done mark me as a cynical second-guesser.

Somewhere, though, there exists that line that some evangelicals cross, and that some don't. Yet God uses it all - even the parts that seem so improperly executed.

Maybe the real risk is not doing anything for Him at all.


  1. Some steel bars and roll cages, a racing harness safety belt, helmets and some now very affordable cameras and screens would deliver an almost death proof car. People just don't want to be that uncomfortable while they text, listen to their MP3s, update their facebook page, along with other activities on their iphone and drink coffee while on the interstate. Just look how rarely a race car driver perishes while going in the neighborhood of 150 in heavy traffic. We all know the untimely passing of "The Intimidator" was a freak accident because God needed a driver.


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