The Greatest Risk I Ever Took

Ten years ago, I went scuba diving during a shark-feed with two of my kids. We descended sixty feet to the ocean floor and knelt in a large circle. A scuba pro (in chain mail) followed us down with a basket of fish heads. Scores of sharks slammed into us on the way to their feast.

I couldn’t resist buying a few professional photographs (even though they cost me an arm and a leg), and I posted my new favorite photo to my computer’s desktop.


(The hungry-looking big fish are sharks; the tasty-looking humanoids are my kids and me.)

About a year later, I opened my laptop on a business trip, and the man next to me asked about the shark picture. I told him about our shark dive. He then shared his own story of risk.

He once took a chance in a business venture, but the venture failed, costing him money, prestige, and self-respect. He decided never again to take a risk. And that’s how he has lived ever since.

Now, twenty years later, his wife just filed for divorce, he hates his job, and his kids despise him. He ended his story with a line that has haunted me. “Sam,” he said,

“The greatest risk I ever took was the decision never to risk again.”

We can’t avoid danger

We all know reckless hot-dogs, those kids who skateboarded behind cars by hanging onto their bumpers, or those adults who rock-climb, bungee-jump, or start their own businesses.

We say, “I’m a safety-first kind of person; I’m not a dare-devil; I’m just not reckless.” Yet the point is, safety-first can be just as perilous as thrill-seeking. (And not as fun.) Helen Keller said,

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”

Risk-avoidance is risky. Safety first isn’t always safe. Whether we admit it or not, we are each risk-takers. We will fail more frequently due to timidity than we ever will fail if we daringly take a chance.

Cowardice is the greatest risk of all.

How dangerous are Christians?

I fear most Christians lean more towards timidity than risk-taking. Maybe it’s because being “wrong” sounds so much like sin. But being wrong isn’t wrong. It’s just a mistake. Gossiping about your friends behind their back is sin. Fruitless attempts are just fruitful lessons learned.

Someone once said, “It is so conceited and timid to be ashamed of mistakes. Of course they are mistakes. Go on and make the next one.” Pride, not humility, fuels our fear of the unknown.

Besides, God designed us for danger. It’s in our DNA. Jesus said, “I send you out as sheep amidst wolves.” (Doesn’t that sound a lot like humans swimming with sharks?) We are made for risk.

Although let’s balance brawn with brains. I swam with relatively safe sharks, not Great Whites.

Mistakes are great teachers

Back in 1983 I labored in my worst job ever. For eight months, I hated every moment. Sunday nights were terrible because tomorrow I would wake up to another week of misery.

Yet I learned more about business (transparency, who I am, how to care for customers, and how to deal with angry customers) than I ever did from any other five-year job that I loved.

We’ve all heard that mistakes are master teachers, but we forget. Here are some reminders:

  • Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new (Einstein).
  • A mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement (Henry Ford).
  • It is said that those who never make mistakes never make anything (Unknown).
  • If we look back on our past life we shall often see that we have been helped by our mistakes and injured by our wisest decisions (Churchill).
  • Success is not the absence of mistakes. It is the product of mistakes (Unknown).

The ultimate form of recklessness is to live a life of riskless-ness.

So what can we do?

Shakespeare wrote, “Our doubts are traitors / And make us lose the good we oft might win / By fearing to attempt.” Shakespeare’s advice is simple. He says, “Try something. Anything.”

Habits can be wonderful aids. Professional golfers swing their clubs thousands of times at golf ranges to develop muscle memory. When the cameras zoom in, and the crowds shout, “In the hole,” their habit-trained muscles drive the ball three hundred yards down the fairway.

The ultimate form of recklessness is to live a life of riskless-ness.

I suggest we develop a habit of the heart that embraces risk; that we make dozens—soon hundreds—of smaller risks until our heart-muscle is prepared for when the big risk arrives.

A new mental mindset

We may fear risk because the hazards seem too great. Sometimes they are. To develop our new habit, let’s forget about climbing Mt. Everest (for now). Let’s start by sharing with a friend something we’ve never shared; or write a poem, disagree in public, or learn to scuba dive.

Let’s make a mental adjustment; let’s recalibrate our thinking; let’s reframe our hearts; let’s,

  1. Decide to develop a habit of the heart of risk.
  2. Choose a life of intentional daring rather than a shrinking life of reckless riskless-ness.
  3. Agree each week to take three risks, to simply try three new ventures.
  4. Dispassionately evaluate and learn from our soon-to-be many mistakes.

Confidence in little risks grows our risk-ability. Our heart’s newfound capacity to succeed in little unknowns increases our heart’s competence to triumph through life’s greatest storms.

Soon we’ll swim with sharks.  And we’ll sheep-fully (not sheepishly) engage the world of wolves.


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What do YOU think?

14 thoughts on “The Greatest Risk I Ever Took

  1. Sam, we as Christians are much more comfortable living in a silent black and white film. While God is calling us to be an actor in a 3-D Imax panoramic sound film titled “Journey To Discover A Life Lived In Freedom of Shameless Nakedness.” Problem is the sounds, colors and 3-D effects scare the crap out of us so we go running back to the black and white version of life.

    Great point and posts my friend.

  2. Sam,
    C-O-N-V-I-C-T-I-N-G! As a former pastor who had the dubious privilege of serving two highly toxic churches in succession, for almost ten years, I lived with the previously unrecognized agreement that I would never risk ministry again. Though I have given up on the institutional church, I have not given up on God, and he has obviously not given up on me. It’s true: some of our risk-taking does cost us an arm and a leg. But, over nearly the past decade, I’ve discovered that I would rather bleed to death on the battlefield, than watch from the sidelines with the safety of boredom. As the renowned theologians of Def Leppard have it, “It’s better to burn out, than to fade away…” Great post. Thank you.

  3. Sam,

    Bravo for you to not only raise this crucial topic but to also make a memory with your sons about risk. We all need to keep risk from moving to the back burner. Your topic reminded me of a book by Bonnie Ware. The top 5 regrets of the dying. No. 1 is “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself instead of the life others expected me to live.”

    Thanks for the reminder to risk living beyond our grasp.

    What’s that line? Big hairy audacious dreams?

    • Hi Jim,

      Just to give my daughter credit, it was her idea to swim with the sharks, and there she is in the middle, that juicy-looking morsel.

      Big, hairy, audacious dreams indeed. Even having a dream is the first step in risk.

      Another survey of dying people listed these activities they would do more:
      – Reflect more
      – Risk more
      – Leave behind something of value


  4. Wow, Sam! Is that really you? My esteem for you has gone up higher. (Please don’t ask me to swim with the sharks.) Our great God took a risk and sent Jesus. My risk is to continue to work in the church even if it means getting close to “sharks.” That’s risk-ability. Please keep on blessing us! Steve in the Hollow

    • Hi Steve,

      You are taking risk in a better way.

      Most people think of risk in a physical sense, like swimming with sharks or rafting down white waters.

      Those are just training grounds for life’s reals risks. Real MEN and WOMEN (I’m not talking boys and girls) take more important risks. Talking with our spouse about something difficult, standing up to bullies in church, making friends with non-believing neighbors, learning to say NO.

      By all means, let’s take physical risks, but mostly to train us how to handle the significant risks of life.


  5. Thank-you for that word! I have been feeling suffocated lately in my ministry, and you’ve helped me to realize that it’s because I’ve become afraid of failure! In fact, I’m a natural risk taker and I love adventure, but because of some unhealthiness in the leadership I’m working with I’m in an environment that’s very anti-failure. One of our leaders just told our husband that he feels that he just wasted 4 years in his ministry. I just don’t believe that’s even possible, unless you spent that time wallowing in sin and disobedience (which he was not). Ever since I started reading your blogs I’ve been speaking out about the importance of the theme of redemption in the Bible and our lives. An environment of redemption is freeing and allows us to take risks as we follow God. Even if we hear wrong from God, even if we suffer (while hearing right), even if we “fail,” our amazing God can use all of that for good. Any time our motivation to do something is fear then we are not living in faith. I think that your challenge to make risks a regular activity is good – get practical about this. But also we need an attitude adjustment. An adventure of exploration may lead to a wrong turn which becomes a detour which becomes a powerful learning experience. I get lost all the time, but I try not to get upset about it, I just take it as an adventure. When we allow ourselves to give in to negativity and self-doubt then we will never step out on a limb, we will never walk on water. Children take risks all the time, it’s in their nature, and I’m pretty sure that we’re supposed to have faith like a child, aren’t we?

    • Havs,

      You just raised a great point that I wasn’t considering when I wrote this. That is the point of perfectionism. Many of us–at times, most of us–are afraid of mistakes because of our perfectionism.

      Freedom is partly freedom because of freedom from perfectionism.

      G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”