Sometimes life sucks.
Don’t stop reading yet; that’s the reality, though, isn’t it? Things happen to people. People happen to people. Bad things happen to good people and some of it’s virtually unbearable. And in the face of that, here we are ascribing to a faith in a sovereign, all-powerful God who permits these things to pass, and yet is good.
If you’ve made it this far in life without totally giving up on God, you’ve probably wrestled with these questions already. You don’t need me to set out philosophical theodicies in the space of a short online article. But if you’re going through something right now, what you might need is a little reminder from a powerful piece of scripture that faith means persevering in the darkness with that which you believed in the light.*
In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego take a brave step in the face of a moral dilemma. King Nebuchadnezzar, attempting to unify his empire, sets up a massive golden statue complete with all-singing, all-dancing festival and decrees that everybody must bow down and worship it. In the ancient Near East religion was the social glue and this was his shot at cementing a renewed national identity. But for these three Jewish exiles, who were high up in his service, it was the point at which they had to say “this far, but no further”.
Most likely they were content to quietly abstain from being part of the festival. But someone noticed and told old King Neb, so things came to a head. What interests me is how they answer him, and in particular one phrase (from Daniel 3:16-18) stands out.
‘‘King Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and He will deliver us from your Majesty’s hand. But even if He does not, we want you to know, your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Now, we could focus here on a clear display of faith in God rather than ‘fear of man’. We could conjecture on the fact that they genuinely believe God will deliver them, and we could query how we might gain that sort of faith. But if you’re really going through something right now, what I think you’ll need is this bit: “Even if he does not…”
For these three friends, the point at which God did not deliver them would be the point at which they had fallen to brutal, torturous death. And yet, they want their audience to be clear that if that was to happen, it would not change anything regarding who God is, or their faith in Him. The message is this: Even when he does not deliver us, God has not deserted us either.
This piece started life as a sermon. In the week that I prepared it, individuals in my church faced all kinds of battering, whether from the enemy or just life. Miscarriages, hospitalisation and unemployment. Burglary, bereavement and betrayal. It all happens, and that was just one week. In the face of all that, all I could think was that God is so glorified by our “even if he does not…” faith.
You probably know how the story ends for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. When faced with the fiery furnace, sometimes God steps in and amazingly, miraculously intervenes. Sometimes He doesn’t. Paul and Silas were supernaturally released from prison. Stephen was stoned to death for his faith. Why? I don’t know. And actually, I don’t need to.
I’m all for hard questions and being honest with God. I don’t believe we should shut our eyes and just pretend it’s alright. I think faith outworks itself within the context of doubt, or it can’t be called ‘faith’ at all. And yet, when it comes down to it, I want to cling on to the kind of faith exhibited by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Faith that says “even if He does not deliver us, God has not and will not desert us”.
* Somebody must have said this first, but I don’t know. Maybe someone could kindly remind me in the comments section.