Obedience is not a popular word. It conjures thoughts of condescending authorities, power imbalances and struggles, the uncomfortable choice of compliance or correction. Disobedience carries thoughts of being punished, the risk of reprimand. Yet whether we see ourselves as generally obedient or disobedient, living courageously or cowardly, dutifully or defiantly, in all of life there is always risk. Christian author John Piper refers to “the enchantment of security” as a potent myth that pollutes our lives. He describes risk as a reality for all of us—whether living obediently or otherwise—because we don’t know how things will turn out. Risk is built into the framework of our finite lives. That is to say, our plans for the future always carry the risk of being shattered by a thousand unknowns. Our declarations of love always carry with it the risk of dismissal. And for the Christian, though risk might be associated with disobedience, vows to follow after God carry with them the risk of obedience. As Jesus once illustrated to an agrarian audience, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
In the Old Testament book of Joshua, which recounts the battles Israel fought after crossing the Jordan, “possession” and “promise” are key words in this notion of risk. The people of Israel were commanded by God to go and take possession of the land God had promised them, to seize what had been given. But there is a distinction between the promise itself and the possessing of that promise. The land was not just given to them; they were called to fight and seize hold of what was promised. To take possession of the Promised Land required risk, and yet God imparts that it was indeed given to them. He declares through Joshua, “I gave [your enemies] into your hands…. You did not do it with your own sword and bow” (24:11b, 12b).
In pursuit of God’s promise, the Israelites had to proceed courageously; many grew weary and some may have given their lives. The risk was certainly real. But each obstacle that blocked the Israelites’ ability to possess what God promised was an illustration that God was among them. Though the risk was certain, over each trial they faced, God declared the promise of risk and the assurance of God’s presence.
Thankfully our relationship with God does not hold risks the same way that our relationships with others pose risks. The risk is not with God; it is with you and me. When the covenant was made with Israel that they would be God’s people and God would be their God, it was not God’s ability to keep the covenant that worried anyone. Standing on the Promised Land in the excitement of victory and the confidence of possession, the Israelites declared that they would faithfully serve and follow God. Joshua responded flatly, “You are not able to serve the LORD” (24:19). Our promises to God certainly carry the risk that they will be broken. But as the Israelites encountered combat and conflict, risking their lives in obedience to the LORD, they were repeatedly reminded that the greatest of all possessions is the promise of God Himself. God not only kept God’s vow but acted on their behalf knowing that they could not.
There is a risk to following God, a risk to obedience. But as God declared to Joshua, it was declared again by his Son, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” The Christian is invited to seize God’s promises knowing that she won’t know the outcome of her days, but that God himself is more certain than anything else. In risk and in suffering, uncertainty and disappointment we are assured and instructed by the same words given to Joshua. As he weighed the risk involved in seizing God’s promise, Joshua was told: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” God asks us to boldly follow and then carries us through the risk.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.