Leadership Lifter – How to Take Wise Risks as a Leader: Recognizing the Results of Fear

by Rick Warren

God wants you to live a life of freedom. Not a legalistic life, not a burdened and depressed life, but a life of freedom. Free from repressed guilt. Free from suppressed memories, hurtful memories and resentments, free from oppressive fear. God says I want to set you free. Your past is forgiven, you have a purpose for living, you have a home in heaven.

What is the purpose of that freedom? It’s not just do whatever you want to do. God has a plan and a purpose for your life. As a leader, you have even greater responsibility to use that freedom wisely.

Galatians 5:13 tells us, For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love (NLT). Those are the two things that God wants you to do with your freedom. He wants you to serve God and He wants you to serve other people.

There’s a little problem with that. The barrier is this. You cannot serve God without taking risks. God has wired the universe in such a way that it forces you to trust Him, to rely on Him, to depend on Him, to learn from Him, and to have faith in Him. So God allows things in your life that are risky so you’ll learn to trust Him. You don’t know God is all you need until God is all you’ve got. When the floor falls out from under you and you’re in a very risky situation that’s when God is saying, “I want you to learn to trust Me.” You can’t serve other people without taking risks and you can’t serve God without taking risks. So God says “I’m going to allow circumstances in your life to force you to trust Me.”

One of the great examples of this in the Bible is the story of Moses leading the entire nation of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. The nation of Israel had been taken captive, and taken into slavery. For 400 years the Egyptians mistreated them, misused them, and abused them. Moses fights for their freedom until Pharaoh finally relents and releases the entire nation.

Most of the nation follows Moses into the desert. After they get out a few days journey, they come up to a big barrier called the Red Sea. How are you going to get a million people across the Red Sea without any boats?

The other problem that occurred is right about this time Pharaoh changes his mind. He decides he wants all of his slaves back so he sends the Egyptian army out to bring them back and return them into slavery.

So the scene in Exodus 14 is this. A million people have come up to the Red Sea. They’re standing there and there’s an impassable barrier in front of them. All this water. On the right hand side and on the left hand side are mountains. So they can’t go left or right. Behind them is the Egyptian army pressing in to kill them or take them back into slavery.

Have you ever been in a situation like that? I call it God’s cul-de-sac! It’s when there’s no way out and you’re thinking, “I’m not going to get out of this situation financially. I’m not going to get out of this situation relationally. I’m going down. I’m losing. It’s all over.” You feel like you’ve just been hemmed in. When you’re in that situation God has you exactly where He wants you. Just like He had the Israelites exactly where He wanted them. He was getting ready to do a miracle.

Before He could do the miracle though, they had to trust Him in faith. We’re going to look at what they did today. But before we do that I want to point out the crippling effect of fear. In this story we see from their reaction the four things that fear does to you.

1. Fear makes us sarcastic.

The slaves have escaped Egypt. They are on their way back to freedom when they meet their first barrier. Here’s how they handled it. And they [the crowd] said to Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Weren’t there enough graves for us in Egypt” Can you hear the sarcasm dripping from these questions? Did you just bring us out here, Moses, to let us die? Weren’t there enough graves back there? They’re being sarcastic.

Folks, you can take this one to the bank. Sarcastic people are always fearful people. Sarcasm is an evidence of fear. When you’re afraid, you get sarcastic. We always make fun of what we fear. We always ridicule the things that frighten us.

In fact, the most insecure people in life are cynics. It’s easy to be cynical. It’s easy to be sarcastic. It’s easy to be a skeptic. Because that kind of attitude keeps people at a distance. In fact, studies have shown that the more secure you are, and the more confident you are, the more you trust other people. And the more insecure you are, the more you don’t trust other people. The more insecure you are, the more cynical and skeptical and sarcastic you are. Fear motivates all of those negative responses.

2. Fear causes us to shirk responsibility.

In other words we pass the blame, we pass the buck. We start blaming other people for our problems. We run from responsibility and we say, It’s not my fault! All of my problems are somebody else’s fault. We start acting like victims when we are afraid.

As we look at the rest of this verse, notice the second thing the crowd said to Moses. “What have you done to us? Why did you make us leave Egypt?”(Exodus 14:11b). Moses didn’t make anybody leave. Nobody was holding a gun to their head. He just said, “I’m going back to Israel. Anybody want to go with me?” And a million people wanted to go. He said if you want to stay you can, and some of them did stay because they’d married Egyptians and they had started moving up in class, and out of slavery. So he wasn’t forcing anybody. They all left under their own free will because they wanted to be free. But now that they’re facing problems they start blaming others. They start blaming the leader.

This is so typical. When we become afraid we blame other people for our problems. We start excusing ourselves and we start accusing other people. We pass the buck and we’re afraid to commit to anything. I won’t commit to a job, I won’t commit to marriage, I won’t commit to leading this ministry with all of my heart. Because I’m afraid. So I shirk responsibility.

3. We become stubborn.

Fear makes us not only sarcastic and self-absorbed, it makes us stubborn. In other words we begin to resist change. We resist anything new when we’re afraid. Verse 12 tells us, Didn’t we tell you this would happen while we were still in Egypt? We said, “Leave us alone! Let us be slaves to the Egyptians. It’s better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness!”.

Friends, when people say to you, “Leave me alone,” they’re afraid. You may be trying to comfort them. Maybe they’re going through grief and you want to give them a hug. But they say, “No! Leave me alone.” Why? Because they’re afraid of losing control. They’re afraid that the grief will overwhelm them. That your tenderness will bring tears to their eyes and they’ll lose their composure. Most of the time when people say, “Leave me alone,” it means, “I’m scared.” It means, “I’m insecure. I’m afraid.” So we become stubborn.

And fear makes us negative. And when we’re full of fear we begin to doubt ourselves and we begin to doubt other people. We begin to doubt our dreams and our vision, and our ambition. We begin to doubt God. We begin to say, “What in the world was I thinking when I thought I could do this? I thought I could go to school. I thought I could handle this job.” And you start listing all of these things that are overwhelming you. Then when you meet the Red Sea, your first God’s cul-de-sac, you start becoming afraid and thinking, “What was I thinking? Who was I to think that I could lead this ministry or take this class or whatever?” And you start second-guessing yourself and you start doubting. You become very stubborn and think, “I’m afraid. Let’s don’t rock the boat. Because if I rock the boat, what might happen?” That’s called fear. Or you say, “Let’s just maintain the status quo.” “Status quo” is Latin for “the mess we’re in.” That’s what it means – the mess we’re in. A lot of people stay in the status quo of their ministry when it could be better. But they’re afraid to rock the boat. They’re afraid to try something new. They say, “We’ve always done it this way.” You short circuit God’s leading in your life by being afraid to step out in faith.

When you’re afraid and when you’re insecure, you not only become sarcastic, shirk responsibility, and become stubborn, you also don’t want to admit it when you’re wrong. I’ve seen it over and over again that the most difficult thing to open is a closed mind. People say, “Don’t give me the facts. My mind is made up. I don’t want to know the truth. My mind is made up.” It is fear that keeps people from growing. It is fear that keeps businesses from growing. It is fear that keeps a church or a family or a relationship from growing. Fear keeps ministry from growing. Because we become stubborn.

Then the fourth thing fear does is…

4. It cripples us by making us short sighted.

Fear causes us to lose our dream, our vision, our goal, our ambition. Fear causes us to give up and want to retreat and to turn back. Verse 12 tells us that the former slaves tell Moses they would rather be slaves than die in the desert. That is an amazing verse when you think about it. They could not imagine a better life for themselves so they said, let’s just go back to the old way. When you’re afraid, when you’re insecure, you can’t imagine how your life could be any better than it is right now. So they said, let’s just go back to Egypt.

Think of this. Egypt was not exactly the good old days. For 400 years in Egypt they had been abused. They had been misused. They’d been treated like dogs, like animals. They’d been raped, they’d been killed, they had been tortured. For 400 years they had gone without food and starved to death and worked extra hours and lived for everybody else’s wishes and had nothing for themselves. No dignity. And they’re saying, “Let’s go back to that.”

What’s happening here? They were preferring slavery over uncertainty. They said we know this is bad but we don’t know what’s out there. So we’d rather have what’s bad than something that’s unknown.

As a pastor I used to really wonder about this. I would ask myself why people stayed in destructive relationship. Why do people stay in abusive situations? Why do people put up with a job they hate? Why do people who have a problem with drugs or alcohol or some addiction not admit it? Why do we hold on to hang-ups that are self defeating? Why do we stay slaves?

The answer is we’re afraid of freedom. Freedom brings responsibility. When I have freedom I can’t blame anybody else for my problems. I have to accept the blame myself because it’s my responsibility. Nobody’s forcing me to do anything. So if my life’s a mess, guess what? It’s my fault.

When you’re a slave then everything is decided for you so you can blame your master for the condition of your life. That excuses you from responsibility. It may be painful but at least it’s predictable. So people stay stuck in bad situations and bad relationships and bad circumstances because they’re afraid to step out and take a risk. Because they don’t know what’s out there. I know this is bad but it might be worse out there. I’ve talked to people who have said, The reason I’m not becoming a Christian is I’m afraid of what it might do to me. If I open up my life to the Lord, if I became a believer, a follower of Jesus what if I became a fanatic? A religious nut case? What if I lost all my fun? What if I lost all my freedom? So they stay stuck in their pain and their guilt and go through life with no purpose because they’re afraid of the unknown.

Let me ask you a question. What are you enslaved to right now? I know people who are enslaved to guilt and they don’t know how to get over it. They cannot forgive themselves. I know people who are enslaved to resentment. They’re still bitter against that person who hurt. They won’t let it go even though the pain is perpetuated by their resentment. And it hurts them more than it does the person they’re holding a grudge against. I know people who are enslaved to worry. I know people who are enslaved to loneliness. I know people who are enslaved to pornography or some other addiction. I know people who are enslaved to the past. They’re enslaved to unhealthy relationships with their mother or father. I know ministry leaders who are less effective than they might be because they are enslaved to the thought that they are not “good enough”. They’re enslaved.

The only way to the Promised Land is through the Red Sea. You’ve got to go through it. You’ve got to take the risk and go through it. So you’ve got to say, I’m going to put my fears in God’s hands.

God doesn’t want you taking foolish risks. Anybody can do that. He wants you to learn how to take wise risks so you learn to trust Him. Next month I will continue this discussion by looking at the six steps God wants you to take as you consider taking a risk. I would highly recommend that you write these six steps down because the rest of your life you’re going to be forced into some risky situations. As a ministry leader, grater things will be asked of you. You’re going to have to take some financial risks. You’re going to have to take some relational risks. You’re going to have to take some career risks. The important thing is to make these risks wisely, and under God’s guidance.

Join me next month for the second part of this three part series.

Rick Warren is the Founding Pastor of Saddleback Church and author of internationally best-selling books such as The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose Driven Church.

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