Why is there such a thing as risk? Because there is such a thing as ignorance. If there were no ignorance there would be no risk. Risk is possible because we don’t know how things will turn out. This means that God can take no risks. He knows the outcome of all his choices before they happen … But not so with us. We are not God; we are ignorant. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. God does not tell us in detail what he intends to do tomorrow or five years from now. (DWYL, p 80)
Have you ever read the story of Jonah the Old Testament prophet? Reading John Piper’s chapter “Risk is right – Better to lose your life than to waste it” I was reminded of Jonah. When God commanded Jonah to travel to the ancient and powerful city of Nineveh with a message of God’s judgement, Jonah ran in the opposite direction. This was a risky venture he wanted nothing to do with! Imagine taking such a message to a city which represented all that was most persuasive, influential and sinful about human society.
So, thinking he was taking the safe route, Jonah headed west when God said ‘Go east, young man!’ and ended up in the belly of a great fish in the depths of the sea. Jonah knew his disobedience was being challenged by God and so after three days and nights he cried out to the Lord in an impassioned prayer, asking for deliverance, perhaps understanding that he was being given another chance. This proved to be another risky venture because God then reiterated his command for Jonah to go to Nineveh with his message of impending judgement.
At this point in the story it’s not hard to imagine Jonah trudging grumpily and reluctantly towards Nineveh, muttering under his breath. But he obeyed God and pronounced God’s judgement upon that great city. No sooner had Jonah finally done the deed, than the entire city – king and noblemen included – was swept by a wave of genuine repentance. “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish”, decreed the king (Jonah 3:8-9). And to the prophet’s utter disgust, this is exactly what happened: the people repented of their sin and God forgave them, sparing them from his just punishment. Why was Jonah so cranky? Because God had once again shown his true colours – “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster,” Jonah complained! (Jonah 4:2).
He thought the Ninevites didn’t deserve to be let off the hook, and in a way he was right – nobody deserves forgiveness. But Jonah’s anger knew no bounds now for he asked God to let him die; the ready repentance of the pagan Ninevites had shown up the ungodliness and disobedience of God’s own people, including Jonah. Jonah was angry that God had exercised his sovereign right to have mercy on whom he will have mercy (Exodus 33:19).
As it happens, God’s mercy and grace extended even to Jonah, but he did not relent from his righteous and compassionate purpose. Jonah discovered that belonging to God is a risk in itself for God’s ways are not our ways. But he also discovered something Adrian Plass describes so well:
He will keep us safe, not as the world keeps us safe, but by bringing us to the centre of his will. (Adrian Plass, Jesus Safe Tender Extreme, Zondervan (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 2006, p 151)When Jonah headed for Tarshish, he desperately hoped he was headed for safety, but the opposite proved to be the case. Belonging to God meant that he needed to trust God, to love God as he is (not trying to mould him to his own specifications) and to find safety in the centre of God’s loving will. God doesn’t promise that we will not have to take risks. He asks us to take the one and only ‘risk’ worth taking: trusting him. Then safe in him, we can be sure we will not waste our lives.