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Living Like Guinea Pigs

In the last two weeks, I (Adam) have found myself using “guinea pig” as a verb—as in, “Let’s guinea pig this and see what happens.” People hear this and cock their heads to the side. I take liberties with language—I am a writer, after all!—but clearly this one isn’t landing right.

So I’ve been tracing back where this new verbiage came from. Guinea pigs, as I understand it, have been used as test subjects—they have lived to be experiments. There is risk inherent in this. They will probably end up with liquefied guts or their hair falling out. Scientists learn from guinea pigs giving their bodies and lives.

Not only do I like making this into a verb, but I want to live the same way (though I don’t want my guts liquefied).

My life is an experiment.

I have a hard time with stasis. I rarely think anything is as good as it could be. So I try to learn, change things and explore ways to improve. This involves risk and exasperates my mom.

I grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, in the same house my dad grew up in. My mom grew up a few miles away. We never got to travel far from home because the cows needed to be milked each day. The first night my parents stayed away from home in 20 years was for our wedding. And as farmers, my parents have always been wisely conservative in their decision-making. “Let’s try okra this year instead!” is not a good business practice for a small family farmer.

Somewhere along the line, despite my upbringing on a conservative family farm, I got it in my head that it was OK—even good—to try new things, experiment and have adventures. In high school, I decided to try to notice or just do something amazing every day, from buying lunch for a guy living on the street and eating it together to riding a motorcycle across the mountainous country of Lesotho.

After college, Chrissy and I got married. Our love has played out in one amazing day after another, trying to find what is true, good and fun. We lived in abject poverty in Nicaragua, rode a rolling luge down the Great Wall and faced serious crime in South Africa.

Now I’m addicted.

I took a personality inventory earlier this year, trying to understand better how God had wired me and how I could be of use to the world. One thing that came up was that I enjoy risk: “You want to launch into exciting or extraordinary, even risky, activities where the outcome is uncertain.” Yeehaw!

Over the last 11 months, I’ve built a treehouse for our kids, Phoebe and Zeke. It’s 14 feet off the ground, and the platform is the size of a decent bedroom (seven feet by 14 feet). Chrissy built a zip line halfway up for kids (and fear-free adults who are not very large) to fly out into the forest, and last night we slept in the treehouse with the kids.

There are people who would say a structure of this sort is a bad idea: It’s too high. A kid could fall out. Think of the liability. You’ll break your neck up there trying to attach heavy planks to an awkward tree.

Yes, this treehouse is inherently risky. I had never been in a real treehouse. I’d never built anything significant out of wood. “Maybe you could build it lower down,” my mom helpfully suggested 40 times.

In a lot of ways, the cautious voices are right. We could get hurt. But we also have the chance with this treehouse to wake up beside our kids sometimes, 14 feet high with the morning sun casting magical shadows of a flock of starlings zipping in and out of the leaves five feet from our heads.

We can’t not stretch for things like this. We can’t not risk. It’s a fundamental element of my worldview. It’s a theological thing.

Faith without risk is dead.

If you’ve been around churches much, you’ve probably heard, “Faith without works is dead,” (James 2:26). I agree with this, but the structure of this also captures an element of faith that seems too often forgotten: Real faith inherently leads to action. Real faith demands risk.

See Also

As I read the stories of lives scribbled in the Bible, I see a lot of risk-takers. Noah builds a boat. Gideon tests God. David fights Goliath. Esther faces the king. Jeremiah pronounces judgment. The woman touches Jesus’ robe. Jesus leaves his ministry to 11 guys who still don’t really get it. Stephen gets stoned (literally here, folks). John shares his vision.

If there’s no risk, what is faith? If the outcome of our actions is sure and clear, is that still faith? Faith must lead to action or it’s not faith. Faith means looking across some impossible-seeming gap, knowing that crossing it requires God to come through and act.

In our latest book, Chrissy describes the jolt into action she got when she stumbled upon these words by Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude: “Sooner or later if we follow Christ we have to risk everything in order to gain everything. We have to gamble on the invisible and risk all that we can see and taste and feel. But we know the risk is worth it.”

We continue to consider the risk worth it. Risk is a counter-cultural spiritual discipline. We put ourselves in situations where the outcome is not clear, where we may be injured, where others benefit, where we learn something about ourselves, the world, or Jesus’ way.

Risk may mean honestly telling someone about what Jesus has done in our lives. It may mean giving a sacrificial amount, registering for a marathon, having a meal with a person living on the street or fasting.

If you’re not risking, you’re not trusting.

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