These are tough days to be a Christian. They always have been difficult, and each generation deals with different difficulties in different ways. But the hostility nob is getting turned up and it’s easy to want to react in anger.
Thankfully, there is a book in the Bible that was written specifically to help God’s people develop an imagination for living in the middle of a hostile culture. It’s the book of Daniel.
The last part of the book includes wild visions where we see history from above, as it were. We see God on his throne, and we see massive empires rise and fall before him. This is essential for a people living in hostile conditions, because we often see the posturing moves of the powerful and especially of governments and we cower before them.
We need to have the veil of the heavens pulled back so that we can see God on his throne, so that we can see these seemingly unstoppable empires and other powers for the passing fads that they really are.
We tend to be like the Israelites when Goliath came forward and taunted the armies of God. Everyone knew just how much Goliath’s shield weighed; how much the iron head of his spear weighed; how much his bronze breastplate and greaves weighed.
We tend to get so focused and in awe of the weapons of the mighty that we forget that we’ve got God on our side and that he can humble even the greatest giant with the smallest stone.
So, the last part of the book of Daniel pulls back the curtain and shows us that the powerful are just passing fads and that God remains firmly seated on his throne. All will be OK in the end.
That’s essential for our imagination. But there’s another ingredient that’s equally essential that the stories from the first part of Daniel were written for and that’s to give us an imagination for how to go about living day-to-day within a hostile world system. This is the view from below.
You see, these stories weren’t written down just because they happened. Every biblical writer wrote what they did for a reason. And Daniel was written because we tend to freak out in the midst of hostile conditions and we just need to see someone do it well so that we can have an imagination for doing it well ourselves.
So, let me set the scene.
The Babylonians had swept into the strategic land of Judah and besieged Jerusalem. Eventually, they overran it. They tore down the city walls so it couldn’t be defended anymore. They stole all of the gold and other expensive decorations from the temple and burned it to the ground. They took the king and the royal family back to Babylon where they killed the family in front of his eyes before blinding him, making their deaths the last thing he ever saw. And then they rounded up all of the best and brightest, the strongest and the smartest and took them back to Babylon to serve the empire, leaving behind the elderly and the poor and the handicapped and the weak.
It wasn’t genocide, but it was cultural and religious genocide. Or at least, it was an attempt at it.
Daniel and his friends Hannaniah, Azariah, and Mishael were part of the band of the wealthy and educated and talented who were taken into captivity in Babylon. And to add insult to injury, they were given new Babylonian names when they got there.
A quick Hebrew lesson. When a name ends in -el, like Daniel, that -el is Hebrew for “God.” Daniel’s name means “God is my judge.” And when a name ends in -iah, that is Hebrew for Yahweh, the name God used for himself in covenant relationship with his people.
The Babylonians erased the God of Israel from these young men’s names and replaced them with names that included the names of Babylonian gods. Daniel’s name became Belshazzar, Bel being a Babylonian god. Similar changes were made to his friends’ names.
Just think about all of these things piled on top of these young men. So much pain. So much humiliation. Every time someone said their name, they were reminded of what had been done to them.
Babylon was a hostile environment.
In this hostile environment things got even worse.
In the first story of the book of Daniel, these young men are told to eat the ritually unclean food from the king’s table.
In another story, they are told that they must bow before a golden figure, which was probably sexual in nature, or be thrown into a blazing furnace.
In another story, Daniel is told to stop praying to his God and only pray to the king as if he were a god or be thrown into a den of lions.
So, what do they do in these situations? And how will their reactions shape the way we react in our own hostile situations? Because, again, that’s the reason why these stories were collected and written down: to shape our imaginations for how we’ll act in our circumstances of hostility.
What we find is surprising.
There are definite elements of resistance. It is essential that the people of God resist the dominant culture. They didn’t give in and we’re not to give in either. But for the most part, the people of God assist the dominant culture.
And really, that’s what we struggle with, isn’t it? When do we resist and when we do assist the surrounding culture?
As we read through the stories in the first six chapters of Daniel, the two ways we see Daniel and his friends resisting culture were when they were told to break the definite guidelines of the Bible and when they were directed to worship something or someone other than our God. Two very strong Nos. But only two.
Here they are again:
1. When they are told to break the definite guidelines of the Bible.
2. When they are told to worship someone or something other than the God of the Bible.
In each case, they spoke truth to power. They didn’t bend the truth to accommodate the powerful. For some of us, we need to hear this. Speak truth to power. Don’t bend before power.
But there’s a second half to what they did. When they spoke truth, they did so respectfully and reasonably. There was no arrogance, no hostility, no disrespect.
Did you catch that? They didn’t meet hostility with hostility. They didn’t meet arrogance with arrogance. They were always — every single time — respectful and reasonable.
In fact, combined with their conviction, Daniel and his friends exhibited humility and honored those in power over them. And because of that, they continually received back respect and even a higher standing within the hostile culture.
You see, more than just resisting, Daniel and his friends gave themselves to assisting the surrounding culture. Even though the Babylonians had ruined their lives, defeating the kingdom of Judah, destroying the temple, ripping apart families, and dragging them into exile to serve the Babylonian empire — even with all of these justified reasons to hate, to resist — the Babylonians, Daniel and his friends worked diligently as government administrators, serving and promoting this empire.
What Daniel and his friends did is like the most conservative of evangelicals devoting their careers to promoting the Obama administration and other liberal government administrations — and actually out-shining everyone else in those administrations.
The term we tend to use for people like Daniel and his friends is Sell-outs. They’re colluding with the enemy, right?
That’s not how the writer of the book of Daniel sees it.
Interestingly, although he receives his wisdom and revelation from our God, Daniel gets lumped in with the astrologers, enchanters, magicians, and diviners. And get this, he doesn’t object! Just imagine your pastor and a few other Christian pastors getting called to the state capitol by the governor and being lumped in with palm readers, astrologers, and tarot card readers. And they together were asked to advise her about future policies as if their spiritualities were of equal validity.
Daniel never objects. Rather, he uses his position and the opportunities it brings to speak God’s truth and reveal the nature of the one true God to those who don’t know any better.
He doesn’t expect them to know any better and neither should we. What we should expect is to speak truth graciously to those who don’t know it yet.
There is some resisting to be done. But way less than talk radio and rabid blog posts would have us think. Worship our God only and stick to the Scriptures. Beyond that, assist those around you to the best of your abilities and in such a way that the biggest complaint they can raise against you is that you pray. Not only will the culture around you succeed, but you’ll succeed, and the fame of our God will grow.