Imitate God—Take Risks!
Mission is risky business. It means taking chances and being susceptible to failure. But God seems the biggest risk-taker of all!
Mission requires vulnerability. It involves a measure of dependence upon those not always dependable. Convincing others – through our lives, our relationships, and our ideas – means risking rejection. Mission requires humility.
A Kenotic God on a Mission
More and more Christians are coming to believe that God is on a mission. God is not resting alone, content, and disengaged. God has not predestined all things with a blueprint set in stone long, long ago.
A missional God – missio dei, if you think the Latin words sound cool – is a God who becomes vulnerable, dependent, and risks rejection. A missional God, to steal words C. S. Lewis used in his description of Aslan, is “on the move.”
Perhaps the scriptural passage that best expresses this is the hymn in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This so-called “kenosis” passage – Greek words can be just as cool as Latin – expresses the kind of humility present in effective mission.
Biblical scholars translate kenosis in many ways, but they most often render it “self-giving” or “self-emptying.” Paul suggests that Christ, whose nature is divine, took the form of a servant. This servanthood included being, as I like to say, “humbled to death” on the cross.
Humility is risky. And yet God took the ultimate risk in the self-giving love of Jesus.
In our everyday language, “risk” is often preceded by “foolish.” Unfortunately, this combination of words – “foolish risk” – occurs so frequently that we may assume risk-taking and wisdom are antithetical.
If God is supremely wise, the kenosis passage suggests risk and wisdom can be joined. Instead of “foolish risk,” God’s risks are judiciously chosen for the possibility of promoting abundant life. But they’re still risks.
I’m reminded of another C. S. Lewis line. What a Narnia character says of Aslan, we might also say of God: “He’s not safe. But he is good.”
God Creates Free Creatures
In a God-created world of free creatures, there are few sure bets. This God-intended-freedom-formula allows for the possibility of beauty and ugliness, happiness and pain, love and sin.
God apparently thinks the risk of creating and empowering free creatures is worth the chance those creatures would by inappropriate actions generate ugliness, pain, and sin. Apparently, God’s desire for beauty, happiness, and love motivates a divine gamble.
People take risks all the time. Economists tell us that we live in economically risky days. No kidding! Buying, selling, investing – it’s a crap shoot right now. A college buddy of mine now works as a white-water rafting guide. Next to bull-riding, it’s as risky a livelihood as I know.
But I’ve come to think that the riskiest business is the love business. Love takes chances. All bets are off.
God is Partly Dependent
I mentioned earlier that risk also involves a degree of dependence. Love involves dependency too. Both rely upon responses from others.
To say that love and risk entail depending on others is to imply the potentially unsettling notion that God is dependent. I say “unsettling,” because we’ve sometimes been led to believe that God doesn’t really need us. God is wholly independent and gets along just fine without us, thank you very much. Many have considered God fully self-sufficient, self-contained, or, to use Aristotle’s word, “unmoved.”
While it makes sense to think God is self-sufficient in some ways – e.g., God doesn’t depend on us for God to exist – the lessons of love suggest that God also depends on us in other ways. After all, it’s odd to think that a totally independent person can have genuinely loving relationships. Love takes (at least) two (baby).
I sometimes tell my wife how much I need her. I tell her I depend on her. When I say these things, I don’t mean I would stop existing or fail to be human should she die. I don’t mean that I would evaporate in a puff of smoke were she to stop loving me. Rather, I’m acknowledging that my love includes my depending on her to do her part to establish and maintain a full and satisfying relationship. The logic of love requires this kind of dependence.
Besides, what’s so bad about depending on others? Isn’t it the rugged individualist – detached, alone, and aloof – whom we worry is emotionally and socially stunted? Do we really want to imitate the recluse?
More and more Christians are realizing that risking some dependence on others is not only a risk worth taking but essential for what it means to live a healthy life. Community matters.
Be Like God
Paul not only says that in kenosis God is self-emptying, he also writes that we should “imitate God, as beloved children, and live in love as Christ loved you.” Paul’s instruction to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another” precedes this imitatio dei command (just had to throw in the Latin again).
I sometimes wonder if our fears of divine risk and dependence reflect more our deference to modernity than a thoughtful analysis of divine love. If we truly wish to imitate the One we consider worthy of worship, we too need to embrace the risk and dependence that love requires.
Missional theology attempts to describe a risk-taking God … on a mission. And it suggests that we ought to join with God as “fellow workers” or “co-laborers” on that adventure. Missional strategies may gain significant traction if we welcome the logic of love in missional theology.
But beware that it’s risky business!