I recently encouraged two friends to pursue ministries in dangerous places. One hopes to bring Jesus to strippers and the other to imprisoned drug addicts. They both seemed surprised when I wholeheartedly supported their efforts. Despite their young faith, they’ve counted the cost of following Jesus and found it worthy. As a result, they’re willing to take the same cup of living water from which they drank back to those they left behind.
Those of us with easier pasts may not feel as compelled to push back the darkness in such costly ways. We’re happy to serve by putting money into offering plates, bringing a few canned goods to the food drive, or mentioning Jesus if he comes up in conversation. But I wonder if it’s too much of this “safe” service that causes it to be infrequent, passionless, done more out of a sense of obligation than of gospel gratitude. While God certainly uses “safe” endeavors for his eternal purposes, we should desire to carry the cup of living water to those who need it at any cost—and with consistency, passion, and joy.
Learning from a Risk-Taker
We could all learn from the apostle Paul. He lived and breathed evangelism, discipleship, and self-sacrifice. Paul didn’t walk blindly into costly service—he walked fearlessly and obediently. In Acts 20:22–24 he wrote to the Ephesian elders:
And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await message. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.
The Ephesian elders didn’t just want Paul to continue his ministry with them. They also worried for his safety. Their concerns were real—they knew he might die. Paul, however, knew reaching the lost with the message of the cross was more important than his safety, his comfort, even his life. He went to Jerusalem informed and willing. He went knowing the risks.
Paul was a risk-taker; I’m a risk-list maker. I want to be familiar with all the risks that might come my way and have a plan for managing them. Most importantly, I want to be able to ensure the risks each offer acceptable outcomes. As I fantasize worst-case scenarios in my head, I often give myself the illusion of confidence and control. Such faithless pondering rarely stems from a heart of trust or the peace that comes from walking by faith and not by sight. How I long to be like Paul—intentionally and fearlessly following the Great Commission even when it means plunging into uncertainty.
Lives of Sacrifice and Mission
My life of ministry includes fewer ships and seas than Paul’s, but that doesn’t excuse me from Christ’s call to take the gospel to the lost. Before leaving for Jerusalem, Paul spoke with the Ephesian elders and prayed with them. They wept, embraced, and said their goodbyes, but then the elders accompanied Paul to the ship. We can expect to experience grief and sorrow over our own impending afflictions as we count the cost of obedience, but sadness shouldn’t keep us from walking to our own ships or accompanying others to theirs as we wave goodbye for the sake of the cross. We must be men and women who practice and encourage faithful and costly obedience because we value God’s kingdom more than safety, security, and control.
Costly obedience can take place anywhere and in any season of life. It isn’t constrained to singles, married, or empty-nesters. It can happen in the inner cities, overseas, or right where God’s already placed you. God’s work happens everywhere. As recipients of his grace in the gospel, we have been called to lives of sacrifice and mission. The most ongoing way I practice costly obedience is in my service to my family. Inside and outside my home, the opportunities to lay down my life are endless. Even when you don’t know where to start, pray and ask God to help you identify unique and creative ways to serve him. My friends are called to minister in strip clubs and prisons; I am called to moms in my children’s school and women in my neighborhood. Both ministries demand vulnerability, time, thoughtfulness, prayer, and love. And both come with cost.
Our Ultimate Example
We often underestimate the cost of saying “no” to good things that can keep us from costly obedience. Soccer games, church events, and game nights with close friends may unintentionally prevent us from seeing and serving the lost. Giving up weekly Bible study with friends hurt, but it gave me time to serve women needing love. Costly obedience for the sake of the cross may mean the abandonment of many “good” pursuits. The kind of self-sacrifice to which we’ve been called doesn’t come naturally. We must be trained in it. We must look to the cross and learn from the ultimate example of costly obedience—Jesus Christ himself.
Don’t let fear, comfort, or ambivalence keep you from obedient kingdom-mindedness and from storing up treasures in heaven. Incline your ears to Christ’s call and ask him to strengthen your steps and your heart as you boldly take the gospel to your world.