Over the weekend, a friend posted a video from graduation ceremonies half a continent away from the Edge of Nowhere, and I was able to hear one of my former students sing “I Am Not Ashamed (of the Gospel).” By herself, she was every bit as good as the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. I got chills listening to it on a sub-par video. If I had been in the audience, I would have been undone.
But getting chills and actually not being ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ are two vastly different things – and the former is far easier than the latter…especially when we see where the latter can lead.
In our journey through the book of Daniel, we’ve hit two life-or-death stories, where God-fearing people face the greatest possible challenge to their faith. The first story is that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (ch.3) and their encounter with the flaming King Nebuchadnezzar and his fiery furnace. The second is where we’ve been cozily camped for months: Daniel 6, where our hero disobeys a law instituted for exactly that purpose: to get him to break it. As a result, he gets to spend the night with a pride of oversized and underfed pussycats.
The stories are very similar: jealous, prejudiced coworkers make destroying God’s people part of their day jobs; the faithful end up in circumstances that should have killed them; but instead God keeps them company until they survive a death sentence.
But there are some subtle differences between the two accounts, too – differences with profound implications for how we view the relationship between Christians and the state (and the culture). In the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, public allegiance to the king was the issue. We assume that the trio was free to worship God privately and probably even publicly – as long as they also bowed down to the king’s statue. But when Daniel’s enemies went after him, they demanded exclusive allegiance to the state. The conspirators reached their influence beyond public displays of loyalty into the privacy of Daniel’s prayer life. Up to that point, the land of Israel’s captivity had been a relatively tolerant climate, as we’d expect in a polytheistic culture. But the tide turned with Darius’s government, which – for thirty days – became intolerant and palpably hostile toward those who didn’t toe the line.
But you know that far lesser powers than government require God’s people to toe the line or face the consequences. Employers, friends, families, community groups, and even churches can all make it clear “that certain expressions of belief, or moral stances, are not ‘politically correct’” (Lucas, Daniel, 154). As the world becomes increasingly secular, pluralistic, and tolerant – and it will – we should expect more and more hostility. Although our culture claims to be “tolerant” – that is, everyone’s beliefs are equally valid – it doesn’t really mean it. The one thing our culture cannot bring itself to tolerate is intolerance or exclusivity.
But to be a Christian is to have moved into a camp that, by definition, is intolerant of other belief systems. To be a Christian is to claim that Jesus is the only way and that the Bible teaches us the truth about him. This is wildly unpopular in our world, in case you haven’t noticed.
As obedient Christians follow God, we have no choice but to move further and further to the margins of acceptability. We are smacked with labels that read “fanatics,” “fundamentalists,” “bigots,” “prejudiced,” and “discriminatory.” Without moving a muscle, we become threats to society, and all that is evil in the world is made to be our fault. If you don’t think this is actually happening, be patient (or read more news).
To borrow an expression from elsewhere in Daniel, such handwriting on the wall may dishearten, frustrate, terrify, or even anger us. But Jesus said it shouldn’t. Hatred, mistreatment, even persecution for following him is all in the line of duty. The world did the same – and worse – to him. Should we expect anything less?
May He give us the grace to say (and to live), “I am not ashamed of the gospel. No matter what.”