Risk Management

Risk Management
Window on the World
Philip Ryken

We live in a risky world, and it is important to know what kinds of risks we should and shouldn't take, as well as what kinds of risks we should and shouldn't worry about.

It is characteristic of human beings to worry about some things much more than we should. Many of our fears are not entirely rational. To give just one common example, based on statistical facts, people are much more likely to die in a car accident than they are to die in a plane crash. Driving a car is thousands of times riskier than riding in an airplane. But many people are far more anxious about riding in an airplane. Our fears are not always proportional to genuine risk.

This seems to be especially true in America, which has become a nation of worriers. We are living in an anxious age. One obvious place to see this is the family, where over-sheltering parents worry obsessively about their children's health and safety. This is the generation of the rubber-cushioned playground and the sanitizing gel that (believe it or not) one third of American parents send with their children to school. Psychologist Hara Marano believes that as a result we are creating "a nation of wimps." Marano writes, "Parents are going to ludicrous lengths to take the bumps out of life for their children. However, parental hyper-concern has the net effect of making kids more fragile; that may be why they're breaking down in record numbers" ["A Nation of Wimps," Psychology Today (November/December), 2004].

I much prefer the approach one pediatrician took when he looked at a young boy's minor cuts and bruises. "Good," he said, "I'd be worried if you didn't have some scabs on your knees and elbows; a boy like you ought to be going out and having a few adventures!"

Many of the fears that parents have are small ones. But at the other end of the spectrum are the big fears. Consider, for example, the risk of nuclear terrorism. If you want a good scare, just read the article that Graham Allison wrote last fall for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in which he argues that a nuclear attack on American soil is more likely than not in the coming decade. Consider that Al Qaeda has already declared the acquisition of nuclear weapons to be a religious duty. Allison's descriptions of what could happen are terrifying, both in terms of how easy it might be for a terrorist to detonate a nuclear explosion and how catastrophic the results would be. Entire cities could be vaporized instantly, and the ensuing panic would sweep around the globe [Graham Allison, "The ongoing failure of imagination" (September/October, 2006), pp. 36-41].

How serious is the risk of a nuclear 9/11, and how do we live with it? And how do we live with all the risks that lie somewhere between falling down on the playground and a nuclear holocaust?

Let me share three principles for managing risk. First, there is the faith principle. The Bible tells us not to worry about things outside our control, but to trust God for them. We believe in a sovereign God who is working all things for his glory and the good of his people (see Rom. 8:28). Even the worst evils in the world cannot overthrow his dominion or counteract his plan. The things that seem like risks to us are all certainties to God. And the way we exercise our trust in God is by taking our anxiety-causing risks to him in prayer. "Do not be anxious about anything," the Scripture says, "but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Phil. 4:6).

Second, there is the prudence principle. We have a responsibility before God not to engage in risky behavior that foolishly threatens our ability to glorify God and love other people, either in the short or long term. We should never allow God's sovereignty to become an excuse for our folly. For example, the dangers associated with sexual immorality and chemical experimentation make those activities wrong in themselves.

Finally, there is the calling principle. There is a certain amount of risk associated with almost anything we do. So how do we know when there is a risk we ought to take, or allow people who are under our care to take? We know in part by asking what our calling is. As a parent, it is not my calling to protect my children from all harm, but rather to protect them from life and soul destroying harm, while at the same time teaching them to trust in God through life's difficulties and dangers. There is no way for them to learn all the lessons God has for them to learn without taking some risks in life.

We should think the same way about the risks that we need to face for ourselves. Some of the risks we face are professional or financial or medical. Others are relational, like the risk we take when we share our faith or tell people how much we love them. Or they may relate to something we are thinking about attempting in Christian service--something that might be dangerous, like going to a particular mission field, or something we know could fail, like starting a new project in ministry. There are no guarantees in life. So should we risk it or not?

The answer depends on what God is calling us to do. Some of the most important things we can ever do in life--from the little things like riding a bike to the big things like asking for someone's hand in marriage, or planting a church, or undergoing life-saving treatment--require us to step out in faith. When we are faithful in following God's call, it always turns out to be worth the risk.