Warning. Danger. Hazards ahead. God at work. Live at your own risk.

Risk.

The only way we can know God.

You see it from one end of the Bible to the other.

Look at the names in the Hebrews 11 Hall of Fame.

  • Abraham took the risk of leaving the greatest city of his time to go to an unknow country.
  • Sarah took the risk of having Isaac at the age of 90.
  • Abraham again took the risk of offering up Isaac before he knew a ram was caught in the thicket.
  • Joshua took the risk of facing Jericho with no way to overcome it.
  • Rahab took the risk of siding with Israel when no one else among her people would.
  • And others like Jeremiah, who endured the risk of being rejected and persecuted or Shadrach, Meshac, and Abednego who took the risk of walking into fire or Daniel, who took the risk of sleeping with lions.

With God risk really means risk, and it can cost us all we have. But when we take risks with God, we gain all He has. We can never know God in His power and love without taking risk with Him.

Risk demands trust. In fact, risk is another word for trust, a trust that calls for us to give up our control and security to rest in His control and security—before we fully know what that means. It would not be trust if we knew what risk means for us. That's the key to knowing God: we have to trust Him before we know what trusting God means. And it can mean anything from the greatest joy imaginable to the deepest struggle possible. Probably both.

That's what it meant for Israel: putting everything on the chance God would come through. For the wilderness generation, that's exactly what it was, a chance they weren't willing to take. They refused to trust God and it cost them everything. Amazing, isn't it? We refuse to take risk with God because we're afraid it will cost us everything and that refusal ends up costing us everything.

The risk God called Israel to take when they entered the Promised Land was great. And that's all the land was—a promise, not a certainty or a reality, only a promise. Words. Nothing more. That's always what risk with God is, a promise, words we have to trust, nothing more.

This is especially true when we start out as leaders and don't have any experience with God's faithfulness. But even then we have the history of God's trustworthiness in His word.  Israel also had fulfilled promises, actions God had taken to prove Himself in their eyes. He had delivered them from Egypt to demonstrate His power and His faithfulness and He did that with the aim of getting Israel to trust Him in the greater risks that lay ahead of them. The deliverance from Egypt was beginner's risk, passive risk, no real risk for them at all. All they had to do was obey His directions. That's what He does with beginners. He takes them through experiences to show them what He will do so He can bring them into new opportunities to trust Him, make them part of His triumph, and give them a sense of value and healthy self-confidence that grows into increasing rest in Him.

We have to realize that it is risky to turn down God's risk. He became angry with the generation that hardened its heart by refusing to trust Him and never gave them rest from their wanderings. With God it's risk or nothing. There's no in-between.

So the next generation of Israel faced the risk their fathers rejected. God called them to do the supernatural: cross a rushing river at flood stage, confront the walled up city of Jericho, go against giants, and defeat entrenched foes who were more powerful than they. What God called them to do was to take the risk of entering into His rest that the generation before them rejected.

God knows we cannot face His risks by ourselves. But He also knows we can never become His leaders without learning to trust Him to do things that are beyond us. That's what Jesus did with His disciples when He led them into storms and called on them to feed the 5,000. He knew His men could never do what He wanted them to do without learning how to take risk with Him. And remember this: we never take risk for God without taking risk with God and through God.  God doesn't put us out there by ourselves, even when it feels that way. He's always with us and always working through us when we act for Him. To get us to take risk God demonstrates His faithfulness by giving and keeping His word before He ever requires us to chance it with Him. That's what He did with Israel when He delivered them from Egypt. And that's what he did in my life when I was pastoring South Hills Community Church in San Jose, California.

When we started South Hills Community Church in September, 1969, we decided we would not build a building. Instead we would put our money into missions, not real estate, and we communicated this to our people so it became one of our core values. We rented a Seventh Day Adventist Church and did very well for nearly eight years. Then the Seventh Day Adventist people gave us a firm deadline when we had to be out of their building. That meant we had to build. 

So we got land, communicated the necessity to build to our people, won them over, and worked to fund our effort. It didn't take long to discover that banks didn't want to lend to us, so we decided to work with a company that would allow us to self fund our project by borrowing money from our people and paying it back over time. Everything went well until we were just $10,000 short of our goal when we ran into a problem with our funding that required us to wait six months before we could move forward. During that time California experienced the greatest building inflation in its history until then.  So it was that we found out we were $100,000 short of our target, not $10,000. We had already taken great risk to decide to build, but now we faced the greatest risk our church ever faced.

A few days before we discovered this, I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience with God. On probably Tuesday of that week, I had a conversation with a friend of mine that was filled with pride and hubris. There's no other way to describe it. It may be the worst conversation I ever had. That night probably about 1:00 in the morning I woke up with my arm wrapped around my head and my circulation totally cut off. I had no feeling in my arm and could not really move it at first. At that point God spoke in my heart and asked me, "Will you stay here and serve me?" I realized how wrong my conversation had been earlier that day and I recommitted myself to stay at South Hills. So it was on the following week-end when we were on an elders and staff retreat, the chairman of our board informed us of our situation.

I still remember that moment as if it were yesterday. He said, "Fellas..." He always called  us Fellas when he addressed us as a group. Then he began to cry—a successful businessman leading over a 1,000 people with a passionate and tender heart for God—began to cry as he told us that we now needed $100,000 and we were facing a deadline that demanded we begin building in the next month. He said, "There isn't that much money in the church. We've drained it all." We were not a wealthy church so there was no one who could write a check and solve our problem. It was all over. South Hills would die at eight. We were done.

It was then that God brought to mind my conversation with Him from a few nights before. I realized that God did not call me to stay at a church He intended to bury. I thought of all He had done, of the weddings I had done, of the families He had transformed, of the people who had come to Him, of the over twenty interns who had served with us, of the other staff members on our team, of the children we were touching, of the neighbors who were watching us, and none of it made sense unless God wanted us to take another risk for Him—the greatest risk any of us had ever taken—and commit to raise $100,000 cash in three weeks.

As elders and staff we fell to our knees and cried out to God, determined to trust Him, and decided to plan Celebration Sunday three weeks later. So it was that the week before Celebration Sunday the giant earth movers were out on our property preparing the pad for our building. We made the deadline because we took risk with God without knowing what the result would be. That was part of  the challenge: we trusted God and He came through. Few moments in our lives will ever match that moment when God brought us to Celebration Sunday.

What do we learn from knowing God through risk?

1.  God can take hubris, turn it into humility, and then transform it into trust.

I continue to be amazed at the grace of God that woke me up in the middle of the night, had a serious conversation with me, and then transformed my pride into trust in Him that enabled us to take the risk He was calling us to take. Only God would redeem pride in such a way.

2.  Unless leaders take risk with God, followers won't experience the fullness of  His faithfulness.

Our people were as committed to Christ as they could be at that point in their lives. Virtually none of them had ever taken this kind of risk before, and if the elders and staff of our church had not taken the steps we did, they would never have seen God work in such a great way. Celebration Sunday meant so much to us that, at the suggestion of one of our staff members, we placed rocks in front of our new building that were rocks of remembrance, just as Joshua did in the Jordan River.

3.  Once people learn to take risk with God they become hooked on it.

Since then South Hills Community Church has built two more buildings and developed a beautiful campus that God has used in powerful ways. And it's all paid for. Risk with God is a high that people want more and more of once they experience it.

4.  The door to rest is marked risk.

God has a rest for us, a place of security, strength, and blessing, that we only enter through risk. That's why He became so angry with the generation that refused to mix faith with His word and take risk with Him. They never knew what it was like to rest with God. Don't make that mistake—you miss too much!

The only way to know God is through risk. Take risk, enter into rest, and know God.

Bill Lawrence is the President of Leader Formation International, Senior Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Ministries and Adjunct Professor of DMin Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary where he served full-time for more than twenty three years (1981-2004). During this time he also served as the Executive Director of the Center for Christian Leadership for twelve years. Bill is the author of two books: Beyond the Bottom Line—Where Faith and Business Meet, Moody Press and Effective Pastoring, Word Publishing. Bill served twelve years as founding pastor of South Hills Community Church, San Jose, CA (1969 to 1981). He has also been the Interim Pastor of Northwest Bible Church, Dallas, TX, on two different occasions.

Original publication date: January 11, 2010