By Rick Lawrence
Vibrant Faith Executive Director
The legend goes something like this…
In the late 1960s, the now-iconic investor Warren Buffet pried seed money for his very first stock fund from eleven doctors who’d agreed to kick in $105,000. Then, in an act of metaphoric chutzpah, Buffet added one hundred dollars of his own money to the kitty. No one knows exactly when the phrase “skin in the game” entered the American vernacular, but many pinned it on Buffet’s experiment in financial poetry. The phrase captures the essence of an investment of heart and courage and risk, not the mere investment of money.
The idea is simple: You have no business asking others to trust you with their money if you’re not willing to put your own resources at risk. If you have no “skin in the game,” no stake of vulnerability, then your engagement is distant and rhetorical rather than personal and visceral. When Araunah, the rich owner of a well-known threshing floor in Israel, offered King David not only his business but all the tools of his trade as well so that David could build an altar to God, the King refused: “No, but I will surely buy it from you for a price, for I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24). David insisted on having his skin in the game—because a sacrifice that requires no sacrifice simply isn’t a sacrifice.
Author and poet Henry David Thoreau wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He was describing people who’ve chosen, with an inexorable bent toward pragmatism, to repeatedly step back from the precipice of risk. They stubbornly resist putting their skin in the game. And it’s not hard to understand why. Life in a world decimated and twisted by sin can be punishing. Risk can bring both reward and devastation. And the difference between the two outcomes can often seem arbitrary. The older we get, the more our balance tips toward the safety of disengagement. We’ve seen too much. We know too much. And as a result, we “manage our risk” so well that we choke off the fuel our soul needs to stay alive—because taking risks is integral to our spiritual vitality.
In the same way that God has created us to be dependent on oxygen for our physical survival, He has created us to be dependent on risk for our soul’s survival.
Through all great literature and storytelling, there runs the universal thread of a main character who’s uniquely ill-prepared for heroic deeds but who must meet the challenge nevertheless. Pick a favorite book or film—anything from Don Quixote to The Hobbit or To Kill a Mockingbird—and you’ll run right into the “unlikely hero” archetype. Why? Because something inside us resonates with this core storyline. Could it be that God himself has embedded ordinary-but-heroic in our soul’s DNA as a siren call, beckoning us onward as we run our race? And could it therefore be that Jesus’ words, “Whoever loses his life for My sake will find it,” are one of the kindest things he has ever said to us? His words call the hero in us out from the shadows of the ordinary, urging us—to paraphrase missionary/martyr Jim Elliot—to give what we cannot keep in order to gain what we cannot lose. After all, love would not be love that lowered its hopes to a settled life of “quiet desperation.”
God has chosen to need us.
This truth is core to our identity and our purpose in life. And God refuses to back down on it. Of course, the God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent could choose to work alone. But instead, He elects (at great cost to Himself) to move through a body of people. He has done so from the dawn of time, and He is doing so now—through men and women like you and me who are far less prepared for kingdom-of-God adventures than Don Quixote or Bilbo or Atticus were for their own exploits. It is no stretch to say that God simply will not operate unilaterally. Instead, He moves through and with willing partners. He insists that we offer the treasure of our risk as the admission price to the mother of all adventures: the beautiful advance of His kingdom and the epic redemption of His people.
We see this repeatedly in Jesus’ encounters with ordinary men and women:
For example, In the John 9 story of the man blind from birth, Jesus smears a mixture of dirt and spit on the man’s eyes, then tells him to go to the pool of Siloam, where he washes away a lifetime of darkness. What gets lost in this odd and remarkable story of healing is this: Jesus asks a blind man with spit-mud on his face to find his own way through town to a pool, where he can complete the process of healing. Why? Would youforce the man through such an unnecessary gauntlet of shame and uncertainty? Of course not. But Jesus wanted the man’s skin in the game.
In every encounter, Jesus asks those who would follow Him to be co-participants in His work. He will kick-in the $105,000 seed, contingent only on our feeble but mandatory hundred dollars. Ours is the “widow’s mite”—but it is also the coin that He’s decided will ultimately tip the scales. This truth answers so many of our questions about God’s movement in our lives. God will not do alone what He chooses to do with us. Yet we are often unwilling to accept, or are simply unaware, that our risky and personal investment is a prerequisite for God’s movement in our lives.
Risk is merely our turning of the knob on a wardrobe door that opens into Narnia.
[Note: I adapted this piece from my book Skin In the Game.]
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith. He’s the general editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, and author of 40 books, including The Jesus-Centered Life and the new daily devotional Jesus-Centered Daily. Coming in September, The Suicide Solution.