“If our single, all embracing passion is to make much of Christ in life and death, and if the life that magnifies him most is the life of costly love, then life is risk, and risk is right. To run from it is to waste your life.”
“Your promises have been thoroughly tested, and your servant loves them.” Ps 119:140
Everything God does in history and for his people, he does through the means of a promise. Everything! In the beginning, God promised blessing and fruitfulness as long as Adam and Eve obeyed him (Gen. 1,2). When they sinned, God not only came with judgment but he came with a promise (Gen. 3:15). To Abraham, God promised to bless all the nations of the earth through his seed (Gen. 22:18). To enslaved Israel, God promised to deliver them from the strong hands of Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land (Ex. 3:8). To a judged and exiled people, God promised a time when they would call upon him and he would answer them and bring them back to their homeland (Jer. 29:10-14). To all who hear the gospel, God promises that those who respond and believe in his Son will receive eternal life (John 3:16). And, before he returned to the Father, Jesus promised to return and bring his followers into a final place prepared by him for them (John 14:1-4). That is why faith is so central to our Christianity and why we can’t please God without it (Hebrews 11:6). Faith not only believes there is a God, but it is fully persuaded that he rewards all who trust that he will, in the end, fulfill the wonderful promises he has made.
We know that everything that God has done, is doing and will do, has one ultimate purpose: to manifest his glory. He does so by creating a world that radiates his power and beauty (Psalm 19:1). More central to his plan, he creates human beings who can hear him, know him, love him, enjoy him, trust him and disobey him. He personally reveals Himself to them by his words, his acts and through the writing of Scripture. But, he does so in ways that never remove the demand for faith. As Hebrews reminds us, “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). This faith is “sure” and “certain,” but it does not fully “see” in such a way that it removes our need for faith.
This is crucial for us to know, for God uses his promises to glorify himself in his people and in the world. That is why promise is at the center of everything God is doing. Promise, by definition, deals with the future. Until it happens It remains a hope. Sometimes, the promise looks impossible because the “seen” circumstances seem to deny its possibility. Sometimes the promise will not be fulfilled for a long time; maybe not even in our lifetime. Sometimes, to believe and act upon the promise brings with it the possibility of loss, pain, persecution and even death.
That is why faith brings with it risk. It is a risk because we are ignorant of the future. We don’t know how or when God will fulfill his promise. The Hebrew children had to face this when commanded to bow to the false god erected by the king. They responded with this bold response, “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Dan 3:16-18). Esther, when facing the same kind of threat, responded with the same kind of testimony: “If I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16) And, Jesus, warned his followers of the “risk” when he said this, “You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death” (Luke 21:16-17). So, Some will be burned to death. Some do perish for their faith. Some will be put to death for their testimony. That is the risk of believing the promise of God.
But, when believers continue to believe God’s promise in spite of the long wait; when they remain bold in spite of the threat of the fire and when they die with an unshakeable hope in their hearts, God is glorified. In fact, the greater the risk, the darker the night, the more painful the loss, the more brightly his followers display the beauty and joy they have found in Jesus.
The thing that keeps us going in the same direction when threatened by real risk is God’s sure promise of an incomparable, future reward. Even Jesus held steady while facing the cross because of the promise of future reward: “… who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). We need the same kind of hope. We may “face death all day long,” we may be considered as “sheep to be slaughtered,” but we know that in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8:36-37). With Paul we are convinced, “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). On the other side of all crosses and losses is the sure and eternal love of God for us in Christ Jesus.
We will all face a crisis of faith where we will have to decide whether we will hold on to God’s promise in the face of real risk. For Joseph, the choice was between enjoying the sexual advances of his boss’s wife or choosing the joy of not sinning against God (Genesis 39:8-10). For Moses, it was the choice between enjoying the “pleasures of sin for a short time” or, choosing “disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value,” because he was “looking ahead for his reward” (Hebrews 11:25-26). For Paul, it was choosing whether he would risk going to Jerusalem where he would be bound and turned over to the Romans, or please the church and stay with them in safety. His choice, “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13-14). All of these men chose to honor God rather than to please themselves.
We face the same kind of crisis whenever we are tempted to lie, or strike out in anger, or hold on to bitterness, or view pornography, or horde our resources, or fail to witness, or fail to answer Christ’s call to go and give. We have to decide whether God’s promise of reward is more real and ultimately more satisfying than the momentary pleasures of this life. We have to decide if the joy of following Jesus, wherever he leads us, with all of the risks and dangers and losses, is more rewarding than playing it safe, staying home, amusing ourselves with the trinkets of the modern world, and going to church on Sundays.
I don’t have this down. I struggle like everyone else. There are moments when I wish I were home watching the Wolverines football, enjoying my family, sleeping without a mosquito net or taking advantage of the leisure I am told this old man deserves. Then, I travel to the village and see the drastic needs of the orphans. I see the hunger and the joy of village pastors as they are taught the truths of God’s Word. I see the light of the Word chasing away the darkness of tribal practices and evil witchcraft. Then, I thank God I have been given the opportunity of declaring the glory of God to this needy place. Sure, we face disappointments and there is some danger, but none of those things compare to the joy that is ours as we show these precious people the love of Jesus our Lord. God keeps every promise. His rewards far outweigh any of the costs. There is no ultimate risk in the sovereign, loving hands of our Lord. The one risk we do face is that we may fool ourselves into playing it safe, giving tokens of piety, and in the end, waste our lives.