Risk Redefined – Part Two: What Is Risk?

Risk – it’s not a simple concept. You can study degrees based on it and its application. Continuing this ‘Redefining Risk’ series I want to look at definitions of risk, to investigate what it is, and if there is, or should be, any difference between ‘secular’ risk, ie risk in and for the world around us, and ‘kingdom risk’, ie risks we take because of and for God, or if they are the same thing.  I want to give this a whole blog post, and so I’ll be leaving the whole topic of attitudes to risk (including the much maligned ‘unhealthy appetite for risk’ in the banking sector) for another post.

Searching for definitions of ‘risk’ gives you countless results, including:

Risk is the potential that a chosen action or activity (including the choice of inaction) will lead to a loss (an undesirable outcome). The notion implies that a choice having an influence on the outcome exists (or existed). Potential losses themselves may also be called “risks”. Almost any human endeavour carries some risk, but some are much more risky than others.


and from dictionary.com:

1. exposure to the chance of injury or loss; a hazard or dangerous chance: It’s not worth the risk.


a.the hazard or chance of loss.

b.the degree of probability of such loss.

c.the amount that the insurance company may lose.

d.a person or thing with reference to the hazard involved in insuring him, her, or it.

e.the type of loss, as life, fire, marine disaster, or earthquake, against which an insurance policy is drawn.

The point that I’m trying make is best borne out of definition c under insurance above, and this (specifically rating to risk in a financial context) from investorwords.com:

The quantifiable likelihood of loss or less-than-expected returns. Examples: currency risk, inflation risk, principal risk, country risk, economic risk, mortgage risk, liquidity risk, market risk, opportunity risk, income risk, interest rate risk, prepayment risk, credit risk, unsystematic risk, call risk, business risk, counterparty risk, purchasing-power risk, event risk.

I think the key words here are ‘quantifiable likelihood’, or from dictionary.com ‘degree of probability’. In our contexts of risk (mortgage lending, skydiving, whatever), risk is quantifiable – it is something you embark upon with some degree of knowledge as to the chance. For example a bank will only lend you money if they’re X% sure you’re going to repay it – you have to pass a credit score. You wouldn’t jump off a ledge without knowing how deep the drop was.

But that’s not the end of it in the bible and in the kingdom.  You can calculate the risk, but you can’t quantify God. In the space of a single breath God can transform the most hopeless situation and bring about the most unlikely outcome. A few loaves and a couple of fish isn’t enough to feed 5000 people. If you haven’t caught a single fish all night, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll catch some trying one last time in the morning (Luke 5).

The flip side

There is a weight to this though, an equal truth that Jesus was keen to talk about:

“Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn’t first sit down and figure the cost so you’ll know if you can complete it? If you only get the foundation laid and then run out of money, you’re going to look pretty foolish. Everyone passing by will poke fun at you: ‘He started something he couldn’t finish.’

“Or can you imagine a king going into battle against another king without first deciding whether it is possible with his ten thousand troops to face the twenty thousand troops of the other? And if he decides he can’t, won’t he send an emissary and work out a truce?

“Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple.

Luke 14:28-33 (Message)

I think to fully grasp what Jesus is talking about it’s useful to see what Jesus is saying in the context of what’s going on around him. In the narrative, the feeding of the 5000 was just a few chapters earlier . In between then and now are more miracles – even just earlier in the same chapter he heals a man of physical illness. In short, if you were around Jesus at that time, you’d see him taking risks and them working out pretty well! Here though (much before his crucifixion) he is teaching that it will not always be this way, that pain and suffering would never be far away.’Counting the cost’ means losing everything:

You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.

Luke 21 16-17

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.

John 15: 18-20

The big picture

But again, this is not the whole picture. Read on past that Luke 21 passage (‘they will put some of you to death’) and the very next verse is ‘But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.’  Is this a paradox? John Piper doesn’t think so, instead referring to the famous verse in Romans:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:35-39 (ESV)

More than conquerors

In closing then, if that’s the big picture, are we missing the synthesis? It is easy to fall into the trap of basing expectations on circumstances – if we are seeing God move, lives transformed and his favour generally, it seems unnecessarily austere to be reminded of those verses in John 15. But equally in the midst of pain and desert, it seems almost offensive to be reminded of God’s goodness and promises. But ultimately isn’t this palpable tension, this beautiful mystery, at the very heart of what it means to risk?


~ by jgebrown on 2 March 2011.

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