I am a fearful woman. A decade ago, not so much, but in recent years I see fear and anxiety still bubbling beneath the surface of a well-crafted outward demeanor. I hide my fear most of the time. Well, I think I do, but I am sure those who truly know me do see it. I think I have probably always been prone to fear, but it never became more evident than it has the past few years.
After experiencing a significant period of spiritual growth in my early twenties when the Lord brought me to a gospel-centered, Bible-preaching and ministry-minded church, I was determined to use my life for God’s glory in every way possible. I was serving in ministries left and right, stepping out of my comfort zone to make new friends, and even flew overseas alone several times for extended periods of mission work. I was at what seemed like the height of “risk” for the sake of Christ.
Then in 2010-2011, things collapsed. My mom went through a tough round of treatment for breast cancer, I finished graduate school amidst some challenging circumstances, my job situation changed drastically, and I was confronted with several areas of spiritual maturity that I had overlooked in my life. I had become theologically astute, yet lacked the emotional and spiritual stability that was necessary to push in closer to the Lord. And He knew what I needed, He knew what was best. In His careful wisdom, He let anxiety overrun me for a season. It was nauseating, panic-inducing and deeply disturbing.
Spiritual fear manifested itself in many of my relationships, as I was consumed by what others thought of me and even developed a sudden and severe anxiety of flying (which I had previously loved). Some friends pulled away in well-intentioned efforts to help me see some difficult truths about myself. In response, I withdrew, trying to cloak my fears by avoiding people. I stopped praying for my desires because I didn’t believe God would grant them. I was afraid of how he would answer my prayers. It seemed like everywhere I turned, I was faced with an uncomfortable perspective of myself. I saw my fear and that only made me more fearful.
In his new book, Risky Gospel, Owen Strachan addresses fear head-on. Maybe that’s why I actually didn’t care much for it during the opening chapters. Oh, I tried to excuse my dislike of the book by placing the blame on the writing itself – it’s too similar to other books on the market, calling Christians to a radical life of sacrificial dreaminess; there are too many anecdotal stories and that’s just not my thing. But by the closing remarks, I knew what was at the root of my initial uneasiness – the book called me out for being a fearful woman and revealed what I already knew from experience: I miss out on many opportunities presented with this life God has given me simply because I won’t risk.
Owen begins the book with several points that set the stage for the direction of the book, which does help to clarify its distinction from many of the other books I have come across in recent days. For instance, he thoughtfully assesses many Christian’s life perspectives early in chapter one, stating, “Better to stay in a neutral zone, keep expectations low, and not have to do anything drastic. That’s what we’re really afraid of: drastic, life-upsetting action.” Ouch!
But his assessments are not without compassion or understanding. Owen recognizes the unstable and sometimes unsettling world we currently live in, particularly with the rise of economic hardships and political upheaval. He approaches this call to risk, to living in light of gospel security, with a counselor’s heart. And I think that might be my favorite part of this book. I am not sure if it was his intention, but the entire book felt as if I was sitting in the counseling room of a pastor or trusted friend, just gleaning from his kind and gracious wisdom.
As an unmarried woman quickly approaching mid-life, my thoughts tend to be fear-driven sometimes. Although the Bible describes the single person as being free from the typical anxieties of this world, I think we live in a day when it’s easy to get swept up by fear regardless of marital state. I fear that I won’t be able to ever provide for myself or have a job that I love. I fear that my parents will die and I will be alone for the rest of my life. I fear I don’t fit in the Church sometimes. Particularly, where do I fit when I do not sense a definitive call to permanent singleness, yet desire to maximize my spiritual gifts and natural talents as best I can with the freedom and flexibility that currently characterizes my life?
In his chapter, “Risky Families: Building a Legacy,” Owen reminds the unmarried to rest in the provision of Christ for such fears. He doesn’t share some earth-shattering new approach to one’s view on marriage and singleness, but rather, undergirds foundational truths with reassuring words of encouragement: “Above all else, remember that your sufficiency, your identity, your hope is not a spouse. It is Jesus Christ. All that you need, you have.”
We are all prone to consider the opinions others have of us much more than we ought, and usually it’s for purely self-absorbed reasons. Owen further expounds, “If we end up single after thinking for years that we were destined for marriage, we don’t need to feel ashamed. It’s not that we weren’t fit for marriage, suitably attractive, or mature. It’s that God desired to chart a different course for us, and wants us to be devoted to his kingdom.”
Another element I appreciated in this book was the theme of building. Being risky does not mean taking risks simply for the sake of taking risks. It means envisioning and planning toward accomplishing big things for God, with the primary motivation of building something. This is strategized risk, not aimless gambling.
Throughout the book, Owen speaks of this building concept alongside several biblical examples, as well as examples drawn from the lives of people like Jim Elliott, the martyred girl, Blandina, and many other believers who risked great things for the sake of the greatest thing. He describes this building, “What are we doing with, say, our families, or our careers? What does parable-of-the-talents-like ‘risk’ look like in these and other areas? I think it pretty clearly means this: you and I take a long view of things. We see our lives as investments. We seek, over the years, to construct something enduring and God-glorifying. Gospel risk, then, is grounded in an unshakable foundation: God.” Owen provides practical examples of what this risky living might look like in the home, the church, the world, and the workplace. He describes well the means by which we can set out to accomplish great things and overcome fear in responding to the call to be faithful servants.
In case you still are tempted to think this book is about accomplishing something better, bigger, bolder with your life – it’s not. It’s about having a mindset that is fixed on our security in Christ Jesus so that we can live in joy, fullness of contentment, and maximized efforts for the kingdom no matter what our circumstances or station may be. My life doesn’t have to be radical to be risky. I risk by trusting in the safety of God. As Owen states, “We don’t know what the Lord has in store for us. He does, of course. He holds his people in his hand. He never risks. He is never caught off guard. Our lives are utterly secure in him, because he is security itself.”
Last night, I came back from a trip to see family in Rhode Island for Thanksgiving. I still get anticipatory nausea in preparing for the flights. And sometimes I still get fearful anxiety “butterflies” in the most random situations – just heading to meet a friend for lunch or even going to church. I can’t always put my finger on why, and I have learned it’s silly to always try to (I have a tendency to analyze everything!). But God has been faithful. As the plane took off from the runway, I was listening to a favorite song, and was reminded that my fears are of no value to my eternal life and that they do nothing but serve as a roadblock to serving and loving others, and when I face them – when I risk in spite of fear – the reward is so great. I enjoy sweeter communion with Jesus and a more assured hope that my future is secure.
Thank You for the cross that You have carried
Thank You for Your blood that was shed
You took the weight of sin upon Your shoulders.
And sacrificed Your life so I could live
Now nothing is holding me back from You
Redeemer of my soul
Now nothing can hold me back from You
Your love will never let me go
Bryan and Katie Torwalt, Nothing Holding Me Back
**I received an advanced copy of the book, Risky Gospel, in exchange for this review. All thoughts here are my own.**