Four Principles from Daniel for Sustaining Faith in Today's World
A teenager and his friends, to say nothing of an entire nation, had to navigate this question themselves. Thankfully their wisdom has been preserved for us.
In his new book Hearing the Message of Daniel, Christopher Wright explores the perennial problem of living in but not of the world by exploring the book of Daniel—beginning with the young Jewish mens’ surprising response to Babylon’s program of indoctrination.
Though most sermons focus on their courage to say “no,” Wright explains why it is important that they said “yes” three times—giving us four principles for sustaining faith in today’s world.
1) Say “Yes” to Pagan Education
Rather than refusing pagan education, Daniel and his friends applied themselves, gained distinction, and were helped in their learning by God himself. Wright notes two important things about this first principle:
- “their childhood grounding in the faith of Israel was strong enough to cope with Babylon’s university course”
- “the education they excelled in gave them access to positions in society and government from which they were able to have remarkable influence” (30)
Wright affirms Christian schools, yet he isn’t convinced they’re the only legitimate way to respond in our increasingly secularized culture. “They needed to know what the Babylonians believed; they didn't need to believe it themselves" (29).
He believes there’s a lesson here for us: we need to listen to the word of God, as well as to the world around us. That’s what Daniel did.
2) Say “Yes” to Political Career
Despite Babylon’s paganism and corruption, and having exiled God’s people, Daniel and his friends entered political service to serve God, modeling how Christians should engage the world.
Though some insist we should withdraw from secular society, Wright affirms that “God rules the world, and Christians, if they are to be the light of the world, must be more than altar candles shining in church buildings” (32).
As a former Senate staffer I appreciate this affirmation. I certainly experienced a few raised eyebrows from believers when they heard I worked for Uncle Sam. I also appreciate his advice for such believers:
Rather than questioning or criticizing brothers and sisters in such roles, we should be praying for them and encouraging them in the paths of integrity. (32)
3) Say “Yes” to Name Change
As part of their indoctrination, Nebuchadnezzar insisted the new civil servants should adopt Babylonian names, which incorporated their gods. For Israelites, whose names often included the name of their God, this would have been unconscionable. Yet Daniel swapped his name for Belteshazzar.
Though we’re rarely ever forced to change our name, there’s an underlying principle we should pay attention to.
Perhaps with the same kind of maturity that Paul called for in relation to idols, they knew that these gods were nothing and their names were nothing; so they could swallow hard and take those pagan names on their lips and on their lapel badges, knowing full well that the living God of Israel was not only still their God but the only God. (33)
In what way might our current cultural climate require us to make such a personal change that Daniel had to make?
4) Say “No” to Unclean, Covenantal Loyalty
There was one thing Daniel and his friends refused however: the king’s food.
“After accepting so much, why take a stand on a matter so trivial as food?” (35). Among the possible reasons, Wright identifies two that seem to make the most sense:
- The king’s food would have been unclean by Levitical food laws. “By refusing the king’s food, they were affirming their distinctive way of life as Jewish believers” (35)
- The food would have symbolized “covenantal loyalty” to the king. “To eat from the king’s table could…have been seen as declaring total dependence on the king and total loyalty to him” (37).
On the one hand, Daniel and his friends were making a seemingly small, yet principled gesture: they maintained their distinctiveness. On the other, they refused to give to king or country what they could only give Yahweh: hesed; covenantal loyalty.
“Sometimes Christian convictions or a Christian conscience need such symbolic expression” as Daniel’s; “We need to watch our loyalties, commitments, and convictions and constantly submit them to critical examination in the light of our one final loyalty to Christ himself as Lord” (36, 39).
“[Daniel] was written to encourage believers to keep in mind that the future, no matter how terrifying it may eventually become, rests in the hands of the sovereign Lord God—and in that assurance to get on with the challenging task of living in God’s world for the sake of God’s mission” (18).
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