As I weighed the options before me, the Lord brought me to Acts 20:17-38—the Apostle Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders—and eased my conscience. Like Paul, I felt that I “did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God,” and hence my hands were clean (vv. 26-27) of any charges of gospel timidity. Imperfectly, I discharged the ministry to which I had been called. It was in the Lord’s hands.
Since then, Acts 20 has been especially dear to me. But there’s another lesson from this precious text that has been haunting me as we all live through this strange season—a statement from Paul often overlooked:
“But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (v. 24)
I’ve lived a relatively comfortable life—always well-fed, surrounded by loving family, and generally affirmed in my ministry and career aspirations. I will confess that the risks I have personally taken for the sake of the gospel are ultimately small and few in number compared to the global church of believers. I take it that my fellow middle class and upper-middle class North American brothers and sisters in Christ will relate. So, admittedly, I am in a precarious position—ironically—to be writing about risk.
But when we encounter a passage of Scripture that does not conform with our own past experiences, it is not the text’s job to bend and accommodate us. We must conform to the word.
A Revelatory Crisis
The current crisis in our nation has not really changed anything; rather, it has only revealed what was already present—in the medical community, in public policy, in the media, and in the health (or unhealth) of our churches.
And watching the variety of responses to varying degrees of viral threats—from my comfortable home, again—has indeed been revealing. Many churches, organizations, and individuals have taken wise precautions to protect the most vulnerable, using common sense, submitting as much as possible to reasonable recommendations, and showing love for neighbor. However, at the same time, there is a slowness to recognize truths which ought to have been more deeply instilled in us as Christians all along.
We have forgotten the fundamentals of living in a fallen world. I am speaking of such fundamentals as the fact that physical health and well-being are never guaranteed in the Christian life (Luke 14:26), that mortality is inescapable (Heb. 9:27), and that Christians are free from the fear of death (Heb. 2:15). “Fear not” is one of Scripture’s most oft-repeated imperatives, yet panic consumes many in times of strife and despair. We are to be “reasonable” and “not anxious” (Phil. 4:5-6), yet we have brought society itself to a screeching halt in such a way that we would never dare to do to fight “ordinary” evils, from cancer and heart disease to car accidents and drug abuse.
We are called to live wisely, protecting life and valuing the safety of others (Ex. 20:13, Deut. 22:8), and in the Old Testament this meant that those with infectious disease were to be quarantined (Lev. 13:1-59). But to live life in a fallen world incurs some level of risk, from the moment we rise in the morning to the instant our head touches the pillow at night. How much more is this true for the truly missional life?
Simply put, the pandemic has proven that the people of Christ in the West are far too risk-averse, and our risk-aversion is a major reason why we do not send more overseas missionaries, church planters, evangelists, Bible translators, open-air preachers, and abortion mill sidewalk counselors.
There is indeed a time to hunker down for safety; “The prudent sees danger and hides himself” (Prov. 22:3). But far too many of us have been idly content to merely shelter in place while countless millions continue to perish into an eternity apart from Christ. For a number of us, the lockdown orders have only given us one more excuse to use for failing to evangelize our community or serve the needy, simplistically cloaking our sloth in the virtuous garb of love for neighbor or Romans 13. Or, as a family member of mine recently aptly put it, “We American Christians are all too fat and happy.” And yes, I am fully condemning myself with this analysis.
What are we to do? Thankfully, there is no shortage of biblical insight to address our fears of the missionary life.
Why Risk Is Still Right
In his book Risk Is Right, John Piper writes, “If we walk away from risk to keep ourselves safe, we will waste our lives.” Elsewhere Piper also states, “Honoring Christ, magnifying Christ, making much of Christ. That was the meaning of Paul’s life. It should be the meaning of ours. And Paul prays it will be the meaning of his death as well. We live and we die to make much of Christ.” This has not stopped being true in the midst of a global pandemic, economic crisis, or national state of chaos from racial or political tensions.
Our fear of the Lord should drive us out to persuade others of the gospel (2 Cor. 5:11). As mortals on mission with God, we are to “number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). A healthy sense of our own frailty should not cause us to shrink back from the precipice of faith-filled risk; it should compel us to step out, diving headlong—wisely, of course—into the will of God.
One important biblical solution to unhealthy fear is not to merely put all fear out of mind but to substitute it with a greater dread. The solution is the fear of the Lord: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isa. 8:12-13). Only in the face of the far weightier awe and dread of Jesus, our salvation and our judge, will we find the cares of this world—including our very lives—light and fleeting in comparison.
Death is real—for us, and for those who do not know Christ. Only for us, it is just a tad bit less real, because in Christ, there is a sense in which we shall never die (John 11:26). But for the lost, death is not only real but ultimate. This is not a reason for us to stay home. This is why we go.
None of this is to say that we should forsake wisdom and be reckless on mission. Paul himself occasionally fled. But in all our contemporary concern for mitigating risk and exercising caution, I believe it is possible that we have all clenched our lives and possessions too tightly. Instead of counting our lives as precious to himself, let us return to the painfully simple teaching of our Lord: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Lord, grant that this greater love you have shown to us may be in us, and compel us out to our neighbors and to the nations.