In Daniel 3, three young men refuse to worship the statue that had been constructed in their midst. The pompous, erratic king craved the affection and loyalty of his people so much that he threatened to execute detractors. Those who wouldn’t bow would be thrown into fire. The three men blatantly disregarded the king’s orders.
The king asks the young men why they refused to bow. He gives them another chance to do so, to compromise their allegiance to God. Their response, in verses 17–18: “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”
The phrase that catches my eye here is, “But if not . . .” As the story goes, the young men persist in their disobedience. They are thrown into the fire. And, unexpectedly, as far as the king is concerned, they are untouched by the fire. God does, in fact, deliver them. But I come again back to this phrase, “but if not.”
The response of these three young men opened up two possibilities: God might deliver them, or God might not deliver them. They seem sincerely to have believed that God might not deliver them in this situation. In both scenarios, though, what did not waver was their allegiance to God. In other words, how God chose to be present in this situation did not influence their trust in God.
You might say, “Well, this is all irrelevant, since God did, in fact, deliver them.” I have personally been challenged—directly and indirectly—by people to “have faith” that God would deliver always, every time. Even to leave the door open to God’s possible non-intervention, they told me, was to show my own lack of faith. Some would say that God will always deliver, if only we have a faith that is strong enough. The obvious implication is that if we are not delivered, then we did not have faith.
This is devastating theology. And it’s bad theology. These three young men showed willingness to consider that God might not deliver them. They thought that God might allow them to be burned by fire. The fact that God did not allow it does not change (a) that they were open to it and (b) that their trust in God was strong, even though they were willing to consider the possibility that they would die in their faith.
Luckily, this story isn’t the only one we have to work with. In Mark 14:32–42, we find Jesus at the end of his life. He’s in a garden at night. He’s praying. And he—Jesus Christ—prays, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me . . .” He prays that God would take “this cup”—referring to his upcoming betrayal, suffering, and death—from him. He wants to be delivered. His prayer continues, “yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He sets his own desire to be delivered alongside his desire to be obedient to and trusting of God. And we know how that works out. He is not delivered. He is burned by the fire, so to speak.
So which is it? Will God deliver, or will God not deliver? When Christians find themselves in the midst of challenging life events, they rightly wrestle with how they should view those experiences. Some Christians suggest that true faith will trust that God always delivers people from difficult experiences. Other Christians hint at the inevitability of all Christians experiencing suffering and persecution.
I think life would be easier, less messy, if one of these extremes was always right. If God always delivered or never delivered, then at least we could talk about how God consistently works. But the fact that God seems to deliver in some situations, but doesn’t deliver in others, makes things more challenging, I think.
From these two examples out of the Bible, I wonder whether the focus of these approaches to the issue misses the point. In both cases—with the three young men in Babylon and with Jesus in the garden—we see people who completely trust God. In one situation, God delivers. In another, God doesn’t. Yet in both cases, the people involved do not base their trust in God on the outcome of their particular experience. Rather, their experience becomes a space for them to show, to work out their trust in God.
One of the main implications for Christians, I think, is that we can acknowledge that we live in a world that has been created by and is governed by a good and trustworthy God, but that in this world, God allows us to experience hardship.
The one thing that the three men from Daniel and Jesus in Mark have in common is this: they trusted in God even while knowing that death was a real possibility. They knew that dying was an option that was on the table. In one case, it didn’t happen; in the other, it did. And this isn’t the whole story. Throughout the Bible and on into the history of God’s people in the world, some have been spared death because of their faith, others have gone to death because of it.
One of the characteristics that has marked those who are mature in faith is that they have come to the point that the trust God even if they should face death. Their willingness to consider that death might be a possibility for them didn’t show a lack of faith.
Those who trust in God are those who believe that death isn’t the final word. Death isn’t the end of the story. This is not to deny the reality or significance of death. Jesus himself prayed that he might not face his own murder. But it is to place death within a wider frame of reference. Every human will face death, by “natural” means or by other means. However, God is the God of the living and the dead.
I wonder whether too many of us Christians are motivated by a fear of death. Fear is real; fear should not be ignored. But when fear is founded on a desire to control the outcome of a situation, I wonder whether it debilitates us.
If, God, you deliver me, then I’ll praise you. But if not, if you, in your wisdom, do not, then may I be one who trusts you, regardless.