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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What is the will of God (for me)?

“What is God’s will for my life?” This is a question we hear asked more frequently than others.  It is coupled to one of the great existential questions of life: “Why am I here?” and more specific “What is the purpose of my life?”  Not surprisingly, it is one of the main themes of the Bible and also one of the things Jesus frequently spoke about – regarding his own life and the lives of his followers.

Jesus said he came down from heaven only to do his Father’s will (John 6:38).  Even as a young child Jesus made it clear that he was “about his Father’s business” (Luke 2:49).  Therefore he did nothing on his own, but he sought only to do his Father’s will (John 5:30), which strengthened him – even physically (John 4:34).  He told his followers that not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21; compare 21:31), and these ones who do God’s will he regards his brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:30; compare John 1:13).  In the end, Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross was in obedience to the will of his Father (Matthew 26:39; Galatians 1:4; see also Hebrews 10:5-10) destroying the works of the devil (1John 3:8).  Jesus literally lived and died to do the will of his Father – an example for us to follow after.

The Apostles followed his example of selfless obedience to the will of God for their lives, and also encouraged the churches to do the same (Philippians 2:5-8).  In fact most of the New Testament Text in itself answers the question “What is the will of God (for me)?” in a particular situation.  Some of the instructions are explicit regarding God’s will, for example “do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17), in order to “do the will of God from the heart” (Ephesians 6:6).  This will of God is not automatically known, therefore our minds need to be renewed “to know the will of God” (Romans 12:2) and the Spirit of God helps us to pray the will of God (Romans 8:27).  We are called to “stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Colossians 4:12), with “endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.”  (Hebrews 12:36)

It is clear that obedience to “the will of God” is extremely important, and even desirable, so what is the will of God?  What do the Biblical authors mean when they use this and similar phrases?

God’s will of decree (sovereign, predetermined, immutable)

Will of Decree

In many instances in the Bible, when the phrase “the will of God” (or similar) is used, it refers to God’s pre-determined plan for his creation.  This encompasses all the times and events in history which will take place, because God wills it and orchestrates it in his sovereignty.  As such, this “will of God” is immutable (or unchangeable, Isaiah 14:26-27), universal (or everywhere, Isaiah 14:26-27), efficacious (or certain, Isaiah 55:10-11, Hebrews 6:17-19), all-encompassing (considers all variables, human decisions and even evil plans, see Genesis 50:20, Colossians 1:16) and eternal (or for all time, Psalm 33:11).  This plan or “will of God” is unfolding (or progressively being revealed, 1 Peter 1:10-12).  The following well-knows passage in Isaiah captures God’s will of decree well:

Isaiah 46:9-11 “Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.

God’s will of decree is clearly seen in fulfilled prophesies as recorded in the Bible, in particular the birth, life death of Jesus Christ.  God’s redemption plan in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ is foretold in the Old Testament (Psalm 22, Isaiah 53) and revealed in the New testament (Acts 2:22-24, Hebrews 10:5-10, Ephesians 3:1-12), and in particular the many events surrounding his conception, birth and early years (Luke 1:26-38, 67-79: 2:8-14, 25-35, 2:46-50).

The knowledge of God’s will of decree comforts us with the truth that he is in control, always, everywhere.  Biblically, God’s will of decree has two sure outcomes: firstly, God’s reign will be universal (Philippians 2:10-11) and his glory known everywhere (Habakkuk 2:14), and secondly a good outcome for the Christian (Romans 8:28).

 God’s will of desire (moral, ethical, voluntary)

will_of_desire

The second use of the phrase “the will of God” (and similar phrases) implies that which is pleasing to God, that which he longs for in his creatures.  This is also known as the moral or ethical will of God and is already made known to us in the exemplary life and Christ Jesus (Colossians 1:9), or found in the commands of the Old Testament laws and the New Testament instructions.  Examples of God’s revealed will of desire include “this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3), “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) and “the Father is seeking” “true worshippers [who] will worship him in Spirit and truth” (John 4:23).  His heart for salvation of all people is expressed in this will of desire: “God is not willing that any should perish, but that al should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) for he “desires all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4; Matthew 18:14) as they “look on the Son and believe in Him” (John 6:40).  The apostles wrote the letters to help the early churches understand what God’s will of desire is in their specific circumstances, as in this instance regarding suffering unjustly, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” (1 Peter 2:15)

These expressions of desire and instructions are labelled God’s will, but unlike the will of decree described above, humans have a choice in the matter.  It is clear that obedience to these instructions has salvivic consequences as implied in several New Testament texts.  Apart from the above verse mentioned in the previous paragraph, 1 John 2:15-17 serves as an example Do not love the world or the things in the world… And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

Obedience to God’s will of desire results in eternal life and eternal rewards when Jesus returns to judge the world (Revelation 22:12).

God’s will of direction (destiny, purpose, wisdom for situation)

God's will of destiny is the purpose or goal that he has for us in life, or in a particular situation
God’s will of destiny is the purpose or goal that he has for us in life, or in a particular situation

The third way in which the phrase “the will of God” (and similar) is used implies one’s destiny, purpose or the intended direction of one’s life or a particular situation.  In Psalm 139 the psalmist sings about God’s intricate involvement in every aspect and acute awareness of every moment of one’s life – even before creation.  God’s call of the patriarchs, judges, prophets, kings in the Old Testament, as well as his call of the apostles in the New Testament shows that God does call one by name for a specific purpose.   In Jeremiah’s call we read clearly that God has this plan in mind before his birth (Jeremiah 1:5); so also in the call of Paul the apostle (Galatians 1:15).  Jesus lived with this reality of God’s will of direction for his life, referring to “the will of my Father” repeatedly in the gospels, especially in John’s gospel.  The image is what the psalmist sketches in Psalm 127 of a father directing and propelling his children towards their goal (target) in life.

God’s will of direction is also used in Scripture to indicate the wisdom of God for a specific situation, i.e. “What is the will of God for this difficult situation? What does God want us to do?”  as David did in 1 Samuel 30:8.  Much of New Old Testament prophesy is an answer to God to confused people in troubled times regarding this answer from God, where God’s expressed will comes through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit  (2 Peter 1:21).

This is the will of God we tend to pray about more as we prayerfully search for God’s guidance while making decisions regarding marriage partners, business partners, career choices, financial decisions or holidays.  And rightly so!  God’s will of direction confirms that God has an intended plan for each of his creatures, and that in his wisdom he knows best for each situation.  He invites us to ask him in relationship about these plans he has.

So what is the will of God for me?

God the Creator governs the world and nations, allotting their seasons and territories (Acts 17:26), steering the events towards the culmination of his redemptive plan for creation upon Christ’s return.  This is God’s will of Decrees; our lives form part of this great plan of God which will certainly take place regardless of our participation or opposition.

But we have a role to play in God’s will for our lives.  The first is often neglected in the pursuit for God’s will, with devastating effects.  (New Testament authors write about this as the error of Balaam).

Firstly, God’s will of desire for my life is that I will respond to his gracious invitation for salvation in Christ Jesus and that I will participate with his transforming work in shaping me into the image of his Son Jesus Christ, to embrace his character and mission.  Thus God’s will for my life is firstly to become a certain person, before I do a particular job.  God wants me to walk worthy of Christ in the everyday elementary things in life; I must represent and emulate Christ in his loving, humble, kind, obedient, joyful nature (Romans 8:28). The Bible says that this emulation of Christ is essential in fulfilling God’s will since  faith without character transformation will lead to a fruitless Christian life – the corrupted nature will thwart sincere efforts of good works and obedience to God (see 2 Peter 1:3-10).

Secondly, God’s will of direction for my life is unique; it is my calling.  And my calling is usually not towards full time Christian ministry; God calls people to teach, to build, to steward projects or finances, to govern.  God’s calls people to do essential everyday things, also “non-essential” everyday things such as arts and music.  The lives of Amos the sheep-farming prophet, Deborah the mother-judge-deliverer of Israel and Paul the tent-making-apostle-preacher teach us that you can do many things in one lifetime and be perfectly in God’s eternal will for your life.

How do I know what is God’s will of direction for my life? This question will be unpacked in a later blog, but let me leave you with this: start by sincerely asking your creator to lead you into his intended path for your life.  And while you wait, listen and respond to his promptings, comfort yourself in this mindset:

“I TRUST MORE IN GOD’s ABILITY TO LEAD ME THAN IN MY ABILITY TO FOLLOW HIM.”  Let the Good Shepherd lead you on in his path for your life!

sheherd-leading-sheep