Risk, not the game but the concept which describes uncertain outcomes and probabilities. Risk is one of those things which most humans naturally try to minimize the effect of in their everyday lives. That is, until they get a hankering to be thrilled by danger and jolted by a sudden shock of fear. Thrill-seeking has become something of a pastime in American society, and vocational thrill-seekers, something of an oddity who exist on the fringes of culture (i.e. X-games, alternative sports, trapeze artists, jumping out of a fully functional plane with nothing but a bed-sheet attached to your back. etc.).
Risk is both natural and unnatural to the human. It is inescapable, and yet we fear it because of the uncertainty it brings. It paralyzes us in indecision and can make us cowards if the outcome has the potential to harm us. Whether it’s choosing to ask a girl out on a date, or deciding on a degree and career path, or telling a friend or stranger that their actions are immoral, it all carries with it some kind of inherent risk which is beyond our control.
It’s not entirely negative due to its uncertain character, though. Uncertainty doesn’t guarantee the worst outcome, even though that tends to be what our fears imagine will be the case. Instead, in the basic sense, risk carries with it both good and bad possible outcomes. That girl could agree to go out on a date with you or she could simply say no. That career path you choose could be a fulfilling one or a long-trying experience which you regret. Your friend could thank you for holding them accountable, or they could become angry at you and decide to end the friendship.
Settling For Control
It’s not certain which one will happen, or if any of these will happen. Perhaps it could be something more in the middle than either wholly good or bad. In reality, I think that is where most of us tend to settle in life. We tend to settle for a more certain medium because of the exact characteristic of its certainty. That is, we tend to value certainty over good or bad. We may really desire the good outcome but we’re so fearful of the bad outcome that we settle for something in the middle because it’s certain and controllable.
I don’t know if it was a little nod from the Lord this morning, or the prophets of analytics at Facebook and Google who discerned the meditations of my heart, but I had what appeared to be a providential moment when one of my social-media platforms reminded me of a quote I had shared on this day, four years ago. The quote is from one of my seminary professors. He said:
“Some of us go through life so carefully that we have to have a contingency plan for every contingency plan, and we never do anything dangerous to the glory of God. May God help us if we go through life never willing to do something dangerous for God’s glory and then trust Him for the outcome. “
Control and Faith
There’s something in this quote that resonates within my Christian being. It is deep down there in my inner-self where I wrestle with the nature and reality of faith. I’m not a believer in blind faith in the way it is often criticized. I think Christian faith has an insurmountable volume of evidence which attests to its truth and historicity. Further, the author of Hebrews offers us this famous description of faith, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (11:1, ESV). In describing faith to a people who had not met Jesus’ in His physical form, the author details an assurance and conviction of things which are hoped for but not seen. Though the thing which is hoped for is not presently seen, two of the elements which comprise faith are still assurance and conviction.
Without getting too lost on semantics, let us consider at least that assurance and conviction are somehow unlike uncertainty. Uncertainty, again, involves the idea that the outcome can go either way. Assurance and conviction, in this case, carries with it the assumption that there can be only one outcome; the one which is hoped for. As I have mentioned in a previous blog entry, the Christian concept of hope is something like joyful expectation. It is an expectation of a thing to come; a certainty, not a wishful thinking.
The certainty we explicitly have described in the Hebrews passage is of Christ’s righteousness granted to us through His death and resurrection. We are certain of our righteousness before God because Christ is there at His right hand as our mediator and justifier.
Now, without detracting from this reality and confidence we have in Christ, I would like to say that often when we think about faith and outcomes, we might be very ready to leave the ultimate outcome of our salvation up to Christ but it is the immediate challenges of faith, the present obstacles and unknowns, in which we still try to arrest control away from God. We are like Jacob wrestling that angel in the night, trying to secure blessing and good fortune for himself. We are like Abraham lying to Pharaoh about Sarah being his sister to prevent his own harm. We are like Abraham and Sarah together trying to bring God’s promises into fruition by having a child through Hagar. We are constantly trying to control the outcome, even while trusting in Christ.
Anxiety: Worry and Concern
One of the best illustrations of concern and worry that I’ve found, again, comes from one of my seminary classes. A counseling pastor, in fact, shared this, in which I think there is some great practical wisdom. He went to the whiteboard and drew a circle on it. Inside the circle he writes “concern” and outside the circle he writes “worry”. He goes on to present his argument that Biblically-speaking, having thoughtful concern about certain situations and circumstances is healthy and warranted, but worry is sinful. His basis for this claim was that worry comes from a heart of fear over things which are outside of our control. Essentially, the domain of things outside of our control (i.e. outside of the circle) is what God controls, and for us to have fear about those things is to distrust God.
Now, whether worry is sinful or not is secondary to the point I’m making. I do believe this distinction gets at the heart of the thing I’m presently writing about. That is, worry generally comes about when we meditate on the outcome of things which we have no control over. It’s so easy to spend our lives anxious about how others will react to something we say, or how a thing will turn out, or whether we’re making the right choice. I’ve been saying this statement to myself recently, “You never know until you know.” Sure, we can take certain measures with things to perhaps augment how impactful that thing might be.
For example, if you must tell a friend that their actions are wrong, you can do so gently or harshly. Who knows how they will take it? Perhaps, even as gentle as you can be, they may still become indignant toward you. Or, your gentleness is exactly what was needed to get through to them. You’ll never know until you know. And you won’t know until you try. But, of course, trying involves that inherent risk of being rejected or scorned.
So, perhaps, how you approach the situation can have an effect, but your approach will not guarantee a specific outcome. Being gentle as opposed to being harsh is not an attempt at controlling the outcome, it is simply wisdom. Just like the circle illustration with concern and worry; how you act should be something you concern yourself with because that is what you have immediate control over, but how the other person reacts is beyond your control, something you should not worry yourself so much with.
Letting Go and Letting God…
There’s another statement that I’ve heard before which helps encourage me towards making decisions in light of risk. It goes something like this, “let go and let God…”. One of the biggest challenges of faith for many people is surrendering control over to God. It’s certainly not easy. As I said in the beginning, human nature pushes back against the idea of surrendering control, of accepting uncertainty. But so much of faith is exactly that, surrender…but not necessarily uncertainty.
Yes, we are uncertain about the specifics in the meantime, but there is a notion in which uncertainty in faith is slightly different. As I said before, uncertainty generally assumes that the outcome can go either way, bad or good. But in faith we know that God is working all things to the good of those who believe. Further, that He will carry on to completion the work which He begun in us. There’s some sense in which there can be no bad outcome for the Christian if he genuinely believes these things to be true.
By implication, regardless of the outcome, whatever it is, it is ultimately a work of God shaping you into Christ, and moving you toward His ultimate purpose for you. In some sense, you can’t screw up God’s plan for you, as long as what you’re pursuing is not sin. But at that point I digress.
Risk and Moving Forward
I’ve gotten a little long winded here and have meandered around my topic and goal so I’m going to offer a quick final thought. One area in which God has been growing me lately is the area of control. I constantly try to control the outcome of different aspects of my life; school, career, relationships, ministry, you name it and I’ve tried to control it. Recognizing this doesn’t mean that I’m going to quit trying to influence these altogether. Rather, it means that I hope to better surrender the things in which Christ asks for control over, and have better stewardship over the things He gives me control over. In light of inherent risk and life decisions, I’m encouraged to face those with an assurance of God’s goodness towards me, not because I have won His favor, but because He has shown His favor to me in the form of Jesus Christ.