A Risky Business

Cross-cultural workers are quite good at taking risk. It is part of what draws many of us to the field. We view risk as a necessity in reaching people with the good news and it energizes us. We surround ourselves with the biographies of Jim Elliot, Adoniram Judson, David Livingstone, Hudson Taylor, Gladys Alward, and more. We memorize quotes from our heroes and bible verses to strengthen our resolve to take risk.

So, we travel to difficult locations with new illnesses and a lack of medical care. We willingly risk our homes and stability. We risk because we believe in the eternal reward. As Jim Eliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Our willingness to risk is predicated on the faith that the reward is worth more than what has been sacrificed.

However, because of the transient and nomadic life of the cross-cultural worker it can be more natural to risk our physical and material safety while shying away from the risk of transparent relationship. I don’t suppose we think the reward found in real relationship is worth the risk. The risk of loss, grief, money, support and reputation is a high risk for such a seemingly low return.

I know for myself that this is true.

I remember the day that I decided relationships weren’t worth the pain. I remember the moment that I consciously chose never to make attachments again. I was 15 years old, competing at a swim meet for Tustin High School, my Dad had just gotten back from meetings in China in an attempt to smooth over team dysfunctions. At those meetings, it was decided that a compromise was untenable. We would have to leave my city. We would have to leave my friends. We would have to leave my home.

I felt so betrayed by our organization as well as our teammates. As a child these people are your family, they are Aunt and they are Uncle and to have decisions made that affected me so painfully and irrevocably without their consideration, I shut down. I became an observer of relationships and no longer a participant. The walls I built were tall and strong.

On the surface, these walls were safe for me but they have been truly damaging. Through my personal process of growth and maturity I have hurt many people by neither caring nor considering their relational efforts. Not to mention, that walls built against one of God’s greatest gifts are walls that will ultimately devastate a soul.

I continue to ask myself if there even is a reward found within relationship that would outweigh the risk of loss? The struggle within my soul is real. Risk versus reward.

Still I know that when God created the world it had been perfect. I know that Adam had been formed in the image of God and there was no sin, no pain, no shame and yet there was still a problem. The problem was simple and yet profound. “It is not good that man should be alone.” (Genesis 2:18). Adam had God, he could walk and talk and interact with God freely without the veil that sin has brought us and yet it was still “not good” that Adam be alone. It’s not good for us to be alone.

The war within me wants to deny that there is any such value to relational attachment. Can’t it be just me and God? Isn’t that enough? Unfortunately, for me, it’s not. Our relationships are the tangible teachers of all spiritual truths. There is a reason that God calls himself our father and there is a reason that fathers play a significant role in the emotional development of their children. The relational attachments are essential for understanding who our God is. What a grace it is that He has given us physical examples of spiritual truths that would be otherwise unknowable.

Therefore, the walls that we build against rejection and pain and loss only become walls that separate us further from God. Who we are and how deeply we interact in relationship with our fellow brothers and sisters has a direct impact on how we relate to our God.  In contrast, as we openly relate with a relational God our lateral relationships grow and improve in intimacy and transparency. It is a symbiotic relationship between both the horizontal and the lateral which drives our growth as emotional and spiritual beings. As Peter Scazzero points out, “Our relationship with God and our relationship with others are two sides of the same coin.” (Emotionally Healthy Spirituality)

All of us have our reasons for building walls and withholding ourselves from others. Past experiences with betrayal, rejection, loss, transition, lack of energy or simply lack of experience. What does a healthy relationship even look like? No matter the reasons for self-protection, we need each other, and not just so that we can ease loneliness or find support, but to see the face of God. What is the fruit of the Spirit if not relational? Love whom? Patience with whom? Kindness to whom?

Many of us are willing to take great risk in mission. Risky moves from country to country to witness to risky people, eating exotic foods, but are we as willing to take equal risks in our relationships?

Do we risk honesty with our teammates? Do we risk transparency with our friendships? Do we risk speaking truth to supporters? Do we risk the pain of reconciliation? Can we risk being wrong? What about within our marriages? Or within our families? Are we willing to risk conflict? Are we even willing to risk our ministries?

I still carry with me a lot of relational baggage that manifests itself in many different ways. I still have so far to go and yet I also can see how far I have come. Every tiny step I take to develop and grow in my personal relationships I take one step closer to the heart of Christ.

I encourage you to take a risk in relationship and expect that there will be great reward.

Do you hold yourself back in relationship to others? What step could you take this week to improve intimacy in just one relationship?

Photo by Morgana Bartolomei on Unsplash


  1. Elizabeth October 10, 2017

    These thoughts are good timing, as I just took a relational risk yesterday, revealing to a good friend (one of my closest in this location) something about myself that I rarely reveal to anyone. I was nervous, but when she was not shocked, I was relieved. Later I reflected, if she is one of my safest people here, and yet she’s not safe enough to carry _this_ then I don’t have _actual_ safe people in my life. I’m thankful for my safe person yesterday.

    1. Joy Smalley October 11, 2017

      Good on you for taking a risk and being transparent and open! Praise God. I really believe that when we take the first step and risk transparency and honesty we give permission to others to be as transparent as we are. Maybe in our transparency we become safe people too?

      1. Elizabeth October 11, 2017

        Most definitely! Giving people “the gift of going second.”

        Here’s to both risking and receiving others’ risks.

    2. Ellie October 11, 2017

      Yey, Elizabeth, I’m glad you were brave! Well done! I think what you said there is really helpful “if she is one of my safest people here, and yet she’s not safe enough to carry _this_ then I don’t have _actual_ safe people in my life.” I have been stepping out and “risking” being honest with a few people in our new location and thinking this as well. Because although it’s good to have safe people the other side of the world – it’s also good to have some locally too! But we won’t get them without risking. And I love the “going first allows someone else to go second” too.

  2. Kiera October 10, 2017

    Thanks for pointing this out – risking in relationship is indeed very important and I think something we often overlook. I recently read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly (after having many people rave about it for a long time) and one thing she points out is that you can’t dull pain without also dulling joy. Relationships can be so painful and yet they can also bring such joy. The joy is worth the risk of pain. The joy of relationship we have with someone is worth the risk that they will soon move away. The joy of a making a new friend is worth the risk that we might be snubbed or rejected. Just like with so many aspects of our life overseas, the joy is worth the risk.

    1. Joy Smalley October 11, 2017

      Hi Kiera, I think I’d like to read that book 🙂 I’ll have to look it up. I totally agree that the suppression of pain will suppress the joy as well. Making a new friend is definitely worth the risk of future loss!

  3. Ellie October 11, 2017

    Thanks for this post Joy.

    ” The walls I built were tall and strong.On the surface, these walls were safe for me but they have been truly damaging… Not to mention, that walls built against one of God’s greatest gifts are walls that will ultimately devastate a soul.”

    was very powerful with clarity for me – I’ve been trying to summarise some things in my life on a searching application form recently and reflecting on the walls I built a long time ago and that they were/seemed safe “at the time” – sometimes as children (and as adults for that matter) we don’t always have all the information to make good decisions and we do our best to “keep ourselves safe” at the time. But it’s taken me many years to realise these walls were even there, then to look at what they were “made of” so to speak, and years later to be dismantling parts of them. What a hard process, but like you say, otherwise the walls “will ultimately devastate a soul” that was made for freedom and relationship. Here’s to carrying on in the hard brave process!

    1. Joy Smalley October 11, 2017

      Hi Ellie, it is such hard, Godly work to reflect on our walls of self-protection and I know God will meet you there. I think the walls we build as children (especially) are often necessary and valuable coping mechanisms. I know mine served me well as a child and have kept me safe. I am still trying to discern which walls I can now let go of because I have the wisdom and maturity to deal with prospective loss, disappointment or traumas. I love that you put freedom and relationship together, because that is what I long for also.

  4. Beth October 11, 2017

    “All of us have our reasons for building walls and withholding ourselves from others.” This is so true and often we can’t even point to huge betrayals like you faced as a 15 year old as the reason for building those relational walls.

    I’m currently reading “Daring Greatly” by Brené Brown and she points out how corrosive disengagement is in our relationships and how it leads to loss of trust. I definitely see this in my own relationships as a reason for withdrawing. And yet knowing that I might be left hanging by my teammates, I am attempting to be more vulnerable and at the same time more aware of them and their needs. Your thoughts are so timely for me. Thanks.

    1. Joy Smalley October 11, 2017

      Hi Beth, now I have to get that book, it sounds so good!! I find that even as I try to be open and vulnerable there are pieces of me that I still hold back and find myself withdrawing also. It’s really not easy! Thank God we have a God who guides us through. Blessings.

  5. Amanda October 11, 2017

    This risk theme is so perfectly timed. Thank you for your honesty Joy! I’m walking through forgiveness for family members in my counseling and God keeps bringing to mind the relational aspect of horizontal impacting the vertical and vice versa. It’s a hard truth to slog through and work out, but Jesus promises freedom and I am clutching to that promise for all I’m worth in this. Thanks again for the reminder in sharing your own story!

    1. Joy Smalley October 11, 2017

      Hi Amanda! I really struggle with the truth that the horizontal and vertical relationships are so connected. It’s really painful and hard but, I agree, we have to hold fast to the truth that Jesus promises freedom. I like the word ‘clutching’ that you used. A two fisted clutching as we wade through the mud 🙂 Or at least that’s how I envision myself, Ha. Blessings.

What do you think?

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.