When you walk through the fire

It’s the beginning of a new year, and we are reminded often of the good plans God has for us – “plans to prosper and not to harm us, to give you a future and hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11).  But what do we do when God’s plans include walking through the fire?

i_believe_in_God“I believe in God, the Father Almighty.” This first line of the Apostolic Creed is fundamental to the Christian faith (Hebrews 11:6): the belief in a God for whom nothing is impossible, and God who is a loving Father who has our best interests in heart.  In this God we trust.

Yet this great truth is the problem for many devout believers who sincerely trust in God for something – healing, provision, breakthrough at work, peace in a relationship – but God does not come through.   Over and over we affirm that God is almighty and good, and that he hears our cries and answers our prayers – but then a loved one dies, your company folds and finances dwindle or marriage ends in divorce court.  Or your desires are unmet in spite of all the promises you received, and you start another year lonely, or childless, or frustrated at work.  What do we make of these situations?  How do we relate to a loving, Almighty Father that allows for the suffering of his children?


 The cause of suffering

As mentioned in a previous post Suffer Well, suffering has two basic behavioral consequences in a believer.

"Introspection" - bronze statue by Frank Somma (2004)
“Introspection” – bronze statue by Frank Somma (2004)

Firstly, he/she may gravitate towards doubt of self, leading to unhealthy introspection, believing that the suffering is either a result of God’s punishment for sin or some “open door” through which Satan has access to hurt us.  Job’s friends believed this and accused him of secret sin. (Yes, “sin leads to death” (James 1:15) and yes, our God “disciplines those he loves” (Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:5-6), but like a good father he warns beforehand and makes it clear what you are being corrected of – his aim is correction)).

Accusing God.
Accusing God.

Secondly, the one suffering may doubt God’s character or ability, leading to accusation, that either God is unjust (as Job did) or unable to save. This can escalate to agnosticism or even atheism.

However, the Bible contains a myriad of godly characters who has undergone suffering – neither because of their sin or God’s unfaithfulness.  These accounts were recorded during times of hardship “for our learning… encouragement… [and] hope (Romans 15:4) during similar circumstances.  One such helpful recording is of Daniel’s three friends who refused to bow down and worship a statue which emperor Nebuchadnezzar erected (see Daniel 3:14-30).  By their own declaration these godly men believed “our God is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand…” (v17).  Yet they ended up in the fire; God did not prevent them from suffering.  What can we learn from this account of the three Jews in Babylonian exile 530BC?  How does it encourage us or give us hope in our own suffering?

"The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace" -  3rd Century wall painting discovered in the Priscilla Catacomb, Rome
“The Three Men in the Fiery Furnace” – 3rd Century wall painting discovered in the Priscilla Catacomb, Rome

God is not the author of suffering and death

In Genesis and Revelation we see the nature of God in creation: no suffering, no death, no sikcness, no enmity.
In Genesis and Revelation we see the nature of God in creation: no suffering, no death, no sickness, no enmity.

As illustrated in this account, God is not the one who initiates suffering and death – the pagan king was.  God’s character and desire for his creation is clear in the Genesis creation account (Genesis 1 and 2) – there was no death, sickness or suffering until the fall.  We see this also in the promised re-creation of the New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 20 and 21) where again death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelations 21:4). God is the author of life; Satan is the author of death and destruction (John 10:10). Since the fall of creation sin in our hearts and our world will result in pain, suffering, sickness, and death.  This is exactly why Jesus came – “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8) so that mankind may again have life more abundantly” (John 10:10).  God is not the author of suffering, but he is drawn to our suffering to redeem mankind from it.

A good life does not save us from suffering.

As seen in our text, a good moral life does not prevent us from suffering.  In fact, even a devout godly life does not protect us from all harm as we see in this account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who refused to worship idols, and yet were thrown in the fire.  A casual glance at Biblical and church history will assure you that good people suffer – in spite of their godliness and often because of their devotion to God.

Consequently, suffering is not always the result of our sinfulness or imperfection.  Our suffering many times is the result of other people’s cooperation with evil (as in this case – the idolatry and oppression of Nebuchadnezzar), or simply the result of the fallen world infested with genetic imperfections, diseases and natural disasters.  Our righteousness does not always exclude us from these hardships.

God enters into our fire.

God enters our suffering. (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace by William Maughan, 1985)
God enters our suffering. (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace by William Maughan, 1985)

Suffering believers often feel abandoned by God.  The question asked many times “Where is God when it hurts?” is clearly answered in this account of Daniel’s friends: God enters the fire to be with his people in their suffering and strengthen them.  This is clearly demonstrated by Christ’s incarnation: Jesus became man to identify with us in our suffering (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; Hebrews 4:15) and to ultimately bring an end to the suffering brought about by sin and Satan (Revelations 21:2-5).

And still today Jesus is “Emmanuel – God with us” (Isaiah 7:14) who will “never leave us or forsake us” (Hebrews 13:5).  Especially during hardship the Psalmists sings “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted” (Psalm 34:18).   No amount of suffering, pain, death or loss – “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ” (Romans 8:38).  God enters our fire – we never suffer alone.

Our suffering has purpose

Why does a loving God then allow suffering? If he is with us in our suffering, why does he not simply save us from it?  The mocking Jewish elite asked this same question to Jesus hanging on the cross 2000 years ago (Matthew 27:41-44), but Jesus endured it because he knew there was purpose to his suffering (Hebrews 12:2) – the salvation of the world!

Our text shows us that the suffering of the three righteous men at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar also had purpose, and we find hope that our suffering has the same three benefits.

Firstly, we note that their suffering lead to their immediate promotion (Daniel 3:v30).  This is a pattern in the Bible – the one who suffers well is promoted directly after his/her suffering.  Think of Job who was double as wealthy after his loss (Job 42:10), Joseph who became ruler over Egypt after his imprisonment (Genesis 41:41-44), David who was crowned king after his persecution (2 Samuel 5:3), Peter who became leader of the early church after his “shaking” (Luke 22:31-32 and Acts 2:14), and Jesus who earned the title “King of kings, Lord of lords” through his obedient suffering (Philippians 2:8-11 and Revelations 19:6).

As mentioned in a previous post Suffering your good tutor we can rest in the truth that “Nothing irredeemable can happen to a Christian” – or as Paul said it “all things work together for the good…” (Romans 8:28).  For the Christian who hold onto God in Christ, regardless of what you are going through, you are better off afterwards – both in this life and the life to come.  Suffering well always lead to promotion.  Nothing we encounter can put you back – God can turn every situation around for your good and his good.

Secondly, the suffering of the three friends of Daniel functions as an amplifier of their witness of and faith in God, so that everyone knew them and was attracted to them after the suffering to hear and investigate their story (Daniel 3:27; refer Philippians 1:13).  Their faith in God and faithfulness to him drew the attention of the king and his governors.  Furthermore, because of God’s preservation and presence in the fire, the king issued a decree that no one may “speak anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” (Daniel 3:29) for fear of their life. Effectively, their faithful, hopeful suffering lead to the honoring of Israel’s God throughout the vast Babylonian Empire, by the King’s decree.  Because they suffered well, the name of God was known and held in honour throughout the fast Babylonian empire; in other words, their suffering was part of God’s plan of salvation of the world. Joseph discovered the same after his imprisonment and promotion – what his brothers intended for evil, God intended for the preservation of millions of souls from widespread famine (Genesis 45:5-8).

Throughout the ages, the blood of the saints has been the seed of the church.  In other words, the faithful, hopeful suffering of God’s people has lead to the salvation of millions of souls throughout the ages.  Likewise your suffering amplifies the witness of your faith in God and lends credence to your message of hope in God – if you suffer while trusting God and remaining faithful to him.

Thirdly, as in the case of the godly martyrs who endured Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, suffering helps one grow in the knowledge of both yourself and God.  Trying times helps one discover the end of yourself and you realize how much you need the Lord’s grace to survive the fiery ordeal, as Paul realized (2 Corinthians 12:9). This produces a beautiful humility.

But suffering also helps one grow in intimacy with God like never before, as we see in this rich example of the three Jewish martyrs who experienced Jesus “walking in the midst of their fire” with them (Daniel 3:25).  Suffering forces one to draw near to God with no pretense, and the result is an honest perception of who God is, as Job discovered (Job 42:5).    This intimacy with God leads to uncharacterized confidence to pursue the impossible, because you have come to know the power and faithfulness of God through your hardships.

Taking it home

In closing, there are three take-home messages from this story in Daniel 3.

We find comfort in the truth that God will never forsake us – especially not during hardship!  “I am with you when you go through the fire… you shall not be burned, the flame shall not consume you…” says the Lord (Isaiah 43:1-2). But don’t isolate yourself, don’t walk through the fire alone – “God is among His people” (Revelation 21:3).

We find hope that our suffering has meaning, it has purpose – God makes “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)  You will be better off after this suffering than you were before it!

Lastly, this story makes us consider and prepare our hearts: can we say with these three godly men “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace … but even if not… we will not serve your gods… (Daniel 3:17-18).  They knew God could save them, but God said no.  Jesus pleaded his Father to make a way around the cross, but God said no (Matthew 26:39, 42).  Paul pleaded the Lord to save him from his torment, but the Lord said no (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).  David trusted his Shepherd to lead him “through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4) – will you?  Will you serve God when the he says no and you must walk through the fire?

flames
Will you trust God to follow him into the fire?
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Never give in!

Sir Ernest Shackleton

Men wanted: for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. Sir Ernest Shackleton.” 5000 men responded to this blunt advertisement posted in London newspapers January 13 1914, applying for the Imperial Trans- Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton selected a crew of 28 who proved to be optimistic, patient and courageous – the minimum requirements he sought for in a man who boarded a ship with him.  They set sail from London in the ship aptly named “Endurance” on the first day of August 1914 and stopped over at the whaling station on South Georgia for fresh supplies.  After a month they departed for the Antarctic on December the 5th for one of the most grueling adventures undertaken by man, unaware that they would not touch land again for another 497 days.  On return to England three years later Shackleton published the account in his book South in 1919, documenting the journey, events and experiences of their expedition, including the following five legendary survival accounts.

Due to an unusually cold winter the ship entered pack ice much sooner than expected.  Just one day’s journey from the Antarctic the Endurance got stuck in pack-ice on 18 January 1915, drifting gradually away from the South Pole for ten months with the ice until the ship tipped and was crushed to pieces on October 27, 1915.

Endurance slowly breaking through pack ice
Endurance slowly breaking through pack ice
Endurance stuck in polar ice
Endurance stuck in polar ice
Endurance crushed by pack ice
Endurance crushed by pack ice

The men saved what they could and drifted for another five months on the ice until the ice started melting and the food became scarce.  On 31 March 2016 Shackleton woke up from a soft crackling sound to find that the ice beneath him split in two; he instinctively reached his hand to grab the sleeping bag of the man sharing his tent just as he was slipping into that icy, black water. During the ice-splitting they were also separated from their life rafts for some time but they managed to retrieve it again.  The next day he gave the command to board the three life boats.

The life-saving achievement was the harrowing journey through the Weddell sea to a rock called Elephant Island, 100 miles in the three small life boats, navigating one of the roughest seas with 60 foot waves blown by gale-force winds.  The three boats had to be dragged on top ice floes at night to rest.  They managed to reach Elephant Island, and eventually found a suitable camping terrain.

Boats on Elephant Island
Boats on Elephant Island

Their third legendary survival story started on 24 August when Shackleton and five others boarded the small 22ft life boat called the James Caird  and made way for South George, from where they departed about 500 days earlier 800 miles away. (That is the distance between Cape Town and Johannesburg!)  After a grueling 17 day journey in the stormiest sea, navigating by dead reckoning with a compass and sextant only with merely four sightings of the sun, the six men reached the island exhausted.  This is still considered one of the greatest boating achievements ever.

Crew boards James Caird for South Georgia
Crew boards James Caird for South Georgia
Landing on South Georgia
Landing on South Georgia

The next survival feat was equally impressive, born from necessity as the men landed on the wrong side of the island.  To get to the whaling station for help and rescue of their friends Shackleton, captain Frank Worsley and second officer Tom Crean began to cross the ice-bound mountain tops of South Georgia  – never before attempted, including the 9000ft Mount Paget.  During their 36 hour ordeal without any rest they travelled across two snowfields, four glaciers and three mountain ranges: all of these unmapped and life threatening.  The last bit of their journey, being severely fatigued, dehydrated and shivering, Shackleton lowered his two friends down a partially frozen waterfall before abseiling down himself and waking the harbor master at Stormness whaling station, asking for help.

Panoramic view of South Georgia
Panoramic view of South Georgia

Lastly, the survival and rescue of the 22 men marooned on Elephant Island for more than 137 days is commendably in itself.  They used the two life boats to construct a hut of sorts  to stay warm. Due to the roughness of the sea it took four attempts by Shackleton and his men to rescue them, only managing to reach them with the steam boat Yelcho on 30 August 1917, two years and one month after their departure from England.

The Chillean steamer Yelcho
The Chillean steamer Yelcho

 

This story of endurance and courage is inspirational – in spite of the failure to cross the Antarctic – because Sir Earnest Shackleton succeed to bring all 28 the men home safely; they endured and survived the impossible together.  Part of their survival had to do with what Shackleton took with them as their ship Endurance was crushed by the pack ice: in spite of the lack of space in the three life rafts he instructed that they take a rugby ball, the gramophone as well as the big Bible.  He insisted that they daily laughed together, told stories and read the Bible together as encouragement in hope, daily played sports together, and daily sang together. For him, humour, story, song, playing and prayer was keys to endurance – and it proved true.

Football on ice
Football on ice
Gramophone for the penguins
Gramophone for the penguins

Shackleton was a God-fearing man who lived and lead though this ordeal with Godly courage and persistence.  Looking at his example of endurance, and comparing it with examples and teachings from the Bible, what can we apply to navigate through our own hardships with “Endurance”?

(1) Comfort of Scripture

As mentioned above, Shackleton ordered his men to rescue the ships’ big Bible and take it with them on their journey to safety, knowing that the Scriptures are in part a compilation of God’s miraculous deliverance and preservation of people in desperate circumstances, as were they.  Their faith in God’s salvation from this seemingly hopeless situation would be stirred as they read they reflect on the accounts of God’s awesome deliverance of individuals and communities as recorded in the Bible.

New Testament Authors encouraged their suffering communities to look at Old Testament characters (as well as their leader’s examples of steadfastness) to find strength to press on in faithfulness to God.  Paul reminded the persecuted church in Rome that whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4).  James encouraged the poor, persecuted church in Jerusalem to “consider the blessed who remained steadfast” with special reference to Job and the Old Testament prophets (James 5:10-11).  The author of Hebrews encouraged his suffering readers to “consider [Jesus] who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (Hebrews 12:3).  Thus they all pointed to the exemplary lives recorded in Scriptures for encouragement during difficulty.

The history of God’s faithfulness in Scripture comforts us during hardships because we see that we are not alone in hardship – many have been there; and the Biblical accounts testify to us that God is present during suffering to strengthen and preserve,  and that he is willing and able to save.   Thus the Scriptures comfort us and stirs our hope and faith in God.

(2) Companionship in community

Shackleton knew that for the 28 men to survive this ordeal, they should not just live in community, but also practice community.   That’s why he commanded that every one participate in four group activities daily: they eat together, play sports together, pray and reflect on Scripture together, as well as sing, tell stories and laugh together.  These moments of togetherness brought great encouragement and camaraderie amidst the protracted stressful times.  He understood and articulated that for the group to survive, each individual needed to survive.  If no-one gives up, the group endures.

In relation to their survival and community, I find C.S. Lewis’ quote on friendship quite fitting: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival.”   For the crew stranded in Antarctic, their community was a reason to endure in itself; their companionship gave both motive for and meaning to their survival.

(3) Celebration of life

Shackleton wrote in his journal during their long winter drifting on the pack-ice “As we clustered round the blubber stove, with the acrid smoke blowing in our faces, we were quite a cheerful company…Life was not so bad. We ate our evening meal while the snow drifted down from the surface of the glacier and our chilled bodies grew warm.” They were thankful for what they had; their companionship, warm food and their survival was reason to laugh.

Going through life with the optimistic perception of “glass half full” makes endurance possible, and life so much more pleasant.  Jesus put it this way (referring to money in the context of a financially oppressed Judea) The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”  (Matthew 6:22-23).  Shackleton lead his men on in “light-filled eyes”, celebrating what they had amidst a cold, seemingly hopeless situation.

Paul encouraged the persecuted church in Philippi to do the same, to emulate his discipline of focusing on the good and praiseworthy, so that “the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds” (Philippians 4:6-8). Instead of becoming anxious about trying circumstances he instructed them to pray about their situation, but “with thanksgiving”, helping them recognize and celebrate the goodness of God amidst difficult circumstances.  This is a worthy lesson to learn for anyone, anywhere.

Thanksgiving and celebration makes hardship tolerable and gives one strength to carry on. These disciplines gives strength in trying times by focusing attention on that which causes joy and gladness – truly, “the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10).  By focusing attention of the good it trains one’s perception to see what God is doing, recognizing that God is near, and “He will never is leave you, nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

(4) Continuing in hope

Shackleton never allowed his crew to give up.  They were always moving forward, always planning and preparing for tomorrow.  In his mind, and from his mouth, it was clear that they were going to get home to England.  He never gave up on hope, and never allowed the crew to slide into hopelessness, because he knew that hope is necessary for endurance.  If a person believes that nothing is going to change for the good, that person sinks in the mud of depression and hopelessness, and finds no reason to fight and or live on.  But if one believes that pushing forward today will be rewarded in the end, it is worth it.

The author of Hebrews frequently motivate endurance with the promise of reward (hope), for example you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise” (Hebrews 10:36) and later encouraging the readers to “run the race with endurance, looking to Jesus… who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, compare with 1 Thessalonians 1:3).  Jesus found strength to continue through tremendous suffering, his eyes fixed on the joyfilled reward at the end.

Paul imitated Jesus’ example, as he was a man who experienced great difficulty, including afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, …slander, …being poor” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10).  In another place he records “imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).  How did he endure these hardships?  He kept his eye on the reward, a “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8) saying “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18; see also 1 Corinthians 3:14, Colossians 3:23-24).   Paul joyfully pushed one through suffering in hope of eternal rewards in the Lord.  He reckoned that suffering briefly for eternal rewards was worth it, making these moments of pain bearable.

(5) Courage from God

Finally, God gives strength to press on in difficult times – to those who “wait on the Lord” (Isaiah 40:30-31).  I have over the years learnt from David, who knew the Lord as “my strength” (Psalm 18:1, 118:14, 140:7), to “seek the Lord and his strength” (Psalm 105:4) when my I feel weak or ready to give up.  I have learnt to “wait on the Lord [to] strengthen [my] heart” (Psalm 27:14), and also to “strengthen [myself] in the Lord [my] God” (1 Samuel 30:6) as David did in hopeless situations.  With the Shepherd-king I can witness that “the Lord gives strength to his people” (Psalm 29:11) when I set time aside to pray to God for courage, strength and hope to continue doing what he calls met to do, although everything in me wants to walk an easier road.

Paul also testified that Christ Jesus has given him strength in trying times (1 Timothy 1:12), and could therefore pray for the Ephesian church that God would strengthen their hearts (Ephesians 3:14-16) amidst the persecution, encouraging them to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10).   Thus we learn from Paul that one should find strength in God, but also that through encouragement and prayer from others one is strengthened by God.  From his example we learn that we should encourage one another joyfully and hopefully press on, to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees” (Isaiah 35:3) of those facing hardship around us.  Strength is found in God’s community.

Making it personal

If you are reading this as someone going through hardships now, I want to re-tweet the thrust of John’s message to the persecuted churches in Ephesus: “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” (Revelations 13:10, 14:12).  Although your suffering might not be religious oppression, you must know that your endurance is noticed and commended by Christ himself (Revelations 2:2, 19).  He will put and end to your suffering One Day (Revelations 21:3-5) and if you endure in faith to the end, he will give you your reward from him (Revelations 22:12).

And in the words of Paul: Run the race in such a way that you may revive the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24).Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12), and may “the God of endurance and encouragement” (Romans 15:5) strengthen you with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11).  “Press on, that [you] may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of [you]” (Philippians 3:2).

It is appropriate to close this lesson on endurance from the exemplary life of Sir Ernest Shackleton with the words from Winston Churchill, since he was the man who sent the last telegram to the Endurance crew as they left the London harbor for their trans-Atlantic expedition on August the 1st, 1914.  Later that day the war with Germany broke out, leaving the whole of Europe in turmoil for the next forty years.  On October 29, 1941, Churchill then Prime Minister visited Harrow School to hear some of the traditional songs he grew up with and address the learners.  Standing in the podium he stared at the youngsters long and hard, and then uttered the following short and urgent admonition: “Never give in – never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” [audio recording] During tough times let this phrase ring in your ears, as you remembering the enduring examples of Jesus, Shackleton, Paul, the prophets and the saints through the ages. Never give in!