Read: Daniel 3
If you had to, would you have the courage to die for your faith? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego went into a fiery furnace rather than deny their Lord. Their story can help to show where the courage of faith comes from.
Human societies vary widely in the things they value and the behaviors they honor, but they are all alike in one respect. They all admire courage. As Ernest Hemingway famously defined it, “Courage is grace under pressure.” Consider the acclaim that has been showered, and rightly so, upon Chesley Sullenburger, the pilot who safely landed his crippled airliner in the Hudson River. That truly was grace under pressure.
But there’s another kind of courage that is perhaps even more important. I like this statement about courage:
Courage is necessary in many forms and in many situations, not merely in the extreme situations of war. We need it constantly, even if perhaps we are not aware of this . . . every day . . . we must face things that threaten the good, we must face fear and pain constantly, and these situations always require fortitude.Piotr Jaroszynski, “The Virtue of Fortitude,” from Ethics, The Drama of the Moral Life, translated by Hugh McDonald
That’s the kind of courage I would like to have. Courage in this sense is not just a momentary act of bravery or heroism. It is the strength to endure, to be faithful; it’s the kind of courage that enables us to stand up to fear or to pain, perhaps even for an entire lifetime, and not falter or break. There’s a great story in the Bible that shows this kind of courage in action. It’s found in the book of Daniel. It’s the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the story of the fiery furnace.
Daniel and Friends
The book of Daniel opens in the year 605 b.c. The Babylonians have raided Jerusalem — they will eventually destroy the city twenty years later — and they have taken some of the young men back to Babylon. These captives were the cream of Jewish society, the best boys taken from the best families. They were brought to Babylon to be assimilated into Babylonian culture so that they could eventually serve in important positions in the empire. And among the young men are Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
In a way, it was an honor and privilege to be chosen for this Babylonian training program. But it also presented a threat to the faith of the young Jewish men. The king of Babylon provided food and drink for the trainees from his own table. Coming from the king’s table, it would have been rich and elegant fare, the choicest of everything. But for the Jewish youths, the food presented a temptation. It wasn’t kosher. If they ate it they would be breaking God’s Law, the Torah, which for them meant betraying the Lord’s covenant.
So for these young men the food test in the royal palace raised a crucial question about their most basic loyalty. Who were they really; whose were they? Were they Babylonians? Did they belong to the king or to the Lord God of Israel? In refusing the king’s rich food and limiting themselves to what was lawful for them to eat, the young men were making a statement about their faith, about their ultimate allegiance. “We are not our own,” their actions proclaimed; “we belong body and soul to the Lord.”
Facing the Music
But then a more ominous threat arose. King Nebuchadnezzar decided to erect a huge statue of himself (or perhaps of his favorite god, we’re not told which) in the plain of Dura, outside Babylon. And then he passed a law demanding that everyone, at the sound of a blast of music played by the royal band, should bow down and worship before this idol (Daniel 3:1-7).
Since the penalty for refusing to do this was immediate execution by being burned alive in a fiery furnace, everybody got low in a hurry when the music sounded. Everybody, that is, except Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The king was furious, but perhaps because he had a soft spot in his heart for these noble Jewish youths, rather than burning them immediately he called them in for a little talk. He asked if it was true that they had defied his edict. He told them they could have a second chance to obey, and if they did, all would be well. But if they did not, into the furnace they would go, “and who,” the king mockingly asked them, “who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?” (v. 15).
“Well, actually, king, our God is able to deliver us,” the young men replied (v. 17). “But if not,” they added — that is, if he chooses not to deliver us, and we burn in the furnace — “be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:18).
“Our God is able to deliver us”; that is faith speaking. “But if not . . . .”; that’s courage. In the event, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood up to the king, literally. And he made good his threat to cast them into the furnace. And their God did choose to deliver them. And we read:
Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” (vv. 24-25)
Learning How To Resist
We know how that deliverance happened. It was a miracle, pure and simple. But what about the courage? Where did that come from? How do you develop the kind of heroic faith displayed by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? As I’ve pointed out, the obedience of those three young men began long before they faced the fiery furnace. That’s one clue. Courageous faith comes from a lifetime of commitment and practice. Their courage began when they first came to Babylon and made a small decision to be loyal to the Lord.
You and I need to decide right at the outset what our principles will be. Are you going to identity yourself as a Christian? Will you live for Christ? Will you commit yourself to chastity? Will you be a person of honesty and integrity? Will you be faithful to your spouse? Faithful to Christ? The time to answer all that is before you have to face the great test. Having the courage to not deny the Lord in a crisis is usually the result of habitual obedience to God in the smaller choices of our day-to-day lives. Principles are like money: if you start to throw them away on little things, pretty soon you discover you don’t have any left. But if you choose to obey God in those little things, you discover that you will grow rich in character and courage.
Here’s a second insight offered by the book of Daniel into where courage comes from. These young men did not have to stand alone. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, together with their good friend Daniel, found strength to maintain their witness by being together. In fact, the Bible says they lived together, they ate together, talked together, and, especially, that they prayed together (see 2:17ff). Later, when Daniel’s own time of testing came — you remember Daniel and the lions’ den — it was the regular habit of prayer that gave him the strength to resist idolatry. “Watch and pray,” Jesus told his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion, “that you may not enter into temptation” (Mark 14:38).
Few of us are natural heroes, courageous by nature. The disciples, you remember, all forsook Jesus that night and fled when the crisis came. Peter even denied him, not just once, but three times. Perhaps if they had listened to Jesus and prayed, it would have been different. But maybe not. The truth is, I believe that the courage to stand for God is a gift. The same person who fails one time may be forgiven, and then sustained by God’s grace the next.
Courage truly is grace under pressure; our pressure, but his grace. Those same disciples who fled would eventually all seal their testimony to the Lord with martyrdom. You see, I don’t think it really depends on us and our natural strength. The faith and courage to face the test comes ultimately from the Lord himself.
Let me tell you about a young woman I know. I’ll call her Daniela because I think she is worthy to take her place right alongside Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Daniela lives in a country where Christians are often persecuted. She became a believer about five years ago, and has since grown in her faith and witness for Christ. Recently she was arrested by the state security police. A hood was thrown over her head, her hands were handcuffed behind her back, and she was hauled off to be interrogated.
For hours on end Daniela was threatened and intimidated, subjected to a terrifying ordeal. “But,” she later said, “I found that somehow a strength was given to me that I didn’t know I had. I wasn’t afraid of them. I told them I was a Christian, no matter what they would do to me.” Where does the courage of faith come from? It comes from the Lord, as a gift to his beloved, in the moment of trial.
“Our God is able to deliver us. But if not . . . .” Those three little words speak volumes, don’t they? Our God is able to deliver us — from danger, from prison, from illness, from trouble, from poverty. In whatever fiery trial we must endure, there is always Another there alongside us, a fourth Man walking in the fire. And his appearance is like the Son of God. He can deliver me from any trial; this I believe. But if not, if he chooses not to deliver me, I will yet remain faithful to him. This I want to say with all my heart.
Don’t you want to say it too?