How is your smile these days? The market is flooded with dentifrices that can improve the condition of your teeth, but that isn’t the same thing as improving your smile. You see, a smile is more than showing your teeth – that can be a symbol of hostility and not friendship! A smile is more than the uptick at the corners of your lips – some very grumpy people have that as a natural feature. Your smile comes from within if it is real.
How are you doing on the ENCOURAGEMENT side of life? Do you feel beat down by the news surrounding you? Are your friends sharing more and more about illnesses and troubles with you? Are you finding it harder to find peace and happiness in a world charged by extreme voices? Is everything in your life becoming more painfully divided – red state, blue state, conservative, liberal, “pro” this and “anti” that? Are you having a harder time keeping a positive attitude when negativity seems so willing to swirl and curl around your feet like a slithering pithon?
Maybe the problem isn’t where you live, but where you choose to draw encouragement – and that is what we want to explore today in the first chapter of Daniel. Let me set up the story…
Four young men found themselves far from home and surrounded on a campus by pagan parties and godless professors – but they made a difference with their lives that affected their whole nation. How did this happen? They made a singular choice: they would not be pressed into the mold of their times. They took God’s Word seriously, and lived it in front of people who knew little of their God, and had no respect for their beliefs. The four young men did not become belligerent, but did not blend in either. They walked with God when few others did – and that choice made all the difference.
The answer to lasting encouragement is not acquiescing to the world. The answer is not blending into popular opinion. Most believers have enough grounding in the Spirit to know that. At the same time, the answer is NOT found in stubbornness and irritability either. The answer is found in coming to peace through the discovery of “wisdom from above”. Looking at life through the window of God’s wisdom will restore a lasting smile to our face. It is time to smile again!
Look for a moment at James 3:13-18:
3:13 Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. 18 And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
James said, in effect, Walk softly and with a calm compassion among lost men. Consider their plight – to view only the shadows of truth through darkened windows; to hear only muffled sounds of broken conversation from a great distance. Remember, our life has been forever changed by encountering our Creator. We stand in the gentle rain of God’s wisdom – unique, clean, crisp and clear. We experience the cleansing touch of the Creator – being washed by love and warmly embraced as a loved child. Our work now is to learn gentleness that we may sow calmly and yield fruit approved by the One Who called us to this work. Only those who show peace will truly be able to offer peace. Let me say it another way…
Key Principle: Because life is filled with negative people and situations does not mean the believer should be negative.
Even in the garden with weeds, I farm in my Gracious Father’s field! Our attitude truly effects our presentation of Jesus to the lost world…so today we want to address that attitude, and how we can look at life differently. Let’s first recognize a few important concepts:
• Our attitude is the tint you apply to the windshield of your life. You see through it according to that tint – and respond to what you see. The issue is that we put the tint on the glass. Consciously or unconsciously – the tint is our doing.
• If you think carefully about it, there is very little that distinguishes one person from another that is not easily changed – hair color, shape, dress. The one thing that can make the person stand out is there attitude! I suspect that many of us have encountered people who are lovely in physical form, but ugly in attitude. Their attempts to look nice were a waste – because their attitude showed their lack of character – and that overshadowed all of their other beauty enhancements.
• Our attitude may be the single factor that has the biggest impact on people. When we are hit with hardship, but answer with kindness – character is displayed through the instrument of good attitude. It is our attitude that is perhaps the most important governing factor to how we handle adversity!
Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azaryahu were four young men who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time – from man’s perspective. They were young – but surrounded by godless influences. They were smart – but they were placed into training in an academy founded on paganism and anti –Yahweh thinking. They were bound under the yoke of the world…yet they were used of God and powerful instruments in His hand. How did they accomplish this? They played life by a set of rules that we want to recognize today, because God preserved them for us:
Rule #1: Recognize God’s hand in your circumstances.
You and I are in God’s hand! See it in the perspective of God’s Control. Note: “The Lord gave” (1:1-2). Daniel’s story began with a record that “In the year 605 the capital city of my people was besieged” (1:1) and “we lost the battle” (1:2a). “Our king was taken into captivity and Temple sacked” (1:2). Look at it closely:
Daniel 1:1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 The Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the vessels of the house of God; and he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and he brought the vessels into the treasury of his god.
We must recognize two very important truths:
First, life is out of my control.
A man who battled cancer for two years made this clear to me: “Doc, all the things that matter most in my life are the things I don’t control at all.” He continued: “Life’s experiences were largely meant to bring us to the humbling point, where we could strip away our self-reliance and see our need for Christ.” He was right – we don’t control the important things. The Christmas wedding that ended in a car accident that killed the bride this past week is a profound statement that our plans don’t run the table in life.
Second, life is never out of God’s control.
If my city is overrun by pagans, and my worship center sacked and closed to me – that doesn’t mean that God lost control – it means that God is choosing to speak through me, and not my culture. His requirement in my life is NOT LESSENED because there are fewer people around me that believe truth. He knows the time I was placed into – because His plan did the placing. When I bow my knee to His Sovereignty, I acknowledge before Him the right He possesses to direct the plan He has made. The record of Daniel begins, not with a notice of DEFEAT, but a notice of GOD AT WORK.
That is the first step to dealing with my attitude. My countenance rises when I recognize that my circumstances have not victimized me – they are a part of the plan God made for me. That will straighten my posture and renew my confidence. I may not be in control, but God is never out of control!
When I was in High School, Sylvester Stallone was getting beat up in a boxing ring, and running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, lifting his hands high at the top of the steps – as Rocky Balboa. I don’t recall most of the story. What I do recall is that at one point he was in the ring and getting pummeled in the way that only Balboa could handle. Everyone thought he was losing – but his manager knew different. He said something like: “He isn’t getting beaten, he’s getting mad!” The point of that story is NOT that getting mad was a good thing – but rather the underlying truth. What looks like a defeat ISN’T if there is a plan underneath the gains and losses…
Let that sink in for a moment. When God is in the plan – there are no real “losses” or “victories” – ultimately there is only the plan. When we look at the situation in Central African Republic, we need to recognize that today. When we look at our courts, peeling away from Scripture (and even common sense), we need to recall that. When we follow Him, we have the confidence He can use us in any way He chooses – and that is our delight, not simply our “veil of tears” burden!
Rule #2: Collect the knowledge you need to navigate well.
Keep reading in Daniel 1:
Daniel 1:3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, the chief of his officials, to bring in some of the sons of Israel, including some of the royal family and of the nobles, 4 youths in whom was no defect, who were good-looking, showing intelligence in every [branch of] wisdom, endowed with understanding and discerning knowledge, and who had ability for serving in the king’s court; and [he ordered him] to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5 The king appointed for them a daily ration from the king’s choice food and from the wine which he drank, and [appointed] that they should be educated three years, at the end of which they were to enter the king’s personal service. 6 Now among them from the sons of Judah were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. 7 Then the commander of the officials assigned [new] names to them; and to Daniel he assigned [the name] Belteshazzar, to Hananiah Shadrach, to Mishael Meshach and to Azariah Abed-nego.
It is obvious that these four men would not be able to live out their lives in monastic isolation and the bubble of Biblical training. Humanly speaking – they were captives. Their education was being deliberately staged and patterned by pagan thinkers – godless men in combination with idolaters – not a Yahwist in the lot! Home schooling wasn’t “on the table”. What to do?
That is where the second rule will come in handy. As beleivers, we will get along much better if we understand the situation surrounding us well and comprehend the actual conditions we are living in – along with the requisite expectations (1:3-7). We must be BOTH students of the Word of God, and careful students of our times – viewing the world through the lens of opportunity to reach out in love and care. How do we do that?
First, assume that EVERY PERSON can teach you something of value and you can learn important information in EVERY SITUATION!
If you start at the bottom of the work chain, you get the best view of every step of the work – if you will do what you do to the best of your abilities. If you and I truly value (and show it) even the person we disagree with the most, we will learn more and get into shouting matches less. The internet is probably the WORST place for this, and the next door neighbor the best. The internet is a great place for grouping – but not a sincere place for learning. Most of the so-called “information sources” aren’t about balance and point-counterpoint argumentation – they are tailor-made for dedicated audiences of one side of a discussion. They quickly descend into SHOUT FESTS and NAME CALLING exhibitions – where we can see the most creative part of the discussion is the symbols people use to say vulgar words that would otherwise be excluded from the comment section. If only people would place as much emphasis on the thinking of their own argument. Remember, everyone can teach you something – even if it is only a window into the thinking of a poorly formed argument. Don’t insult people, even if they insult you. You can stop a discussion at any time, but don’t make people feel small – it harms the Gospel.
Second, don’t measure your effectiveness by societal symbols, but rather by personal interactions and obedient choices on behalf of Christ.
Here is where many a church went in the wrong direction during the years of my career. Some in the church thought our country was Christian, and therefore relaxed explaining the Gospel to their neighbors. They thought the job was being done on radio and TV, and if that wasn’t enough – there were plenty of churches in town to do it. What they forgot was the Gospel isn’t primarily accomplished by a media blitz – or Jesus would have just sent a video instead of coming. All the “Jesus Films” in the world won’t transform the world. Most of the time, the Gospel must be seen in a life before it is adopted in a new heart. The films are a great help to teams that will present Christ in the flesh – but we cannot simply digitize the Bible and wait for people to adopt it – that WON’T work.
Others went the opposite direction. They measured Christianity’s effectiveness by the size and budget of mega-churches. They counted the numbers of Promise Keeping men to measure our faith. Some of those same people assume, now that the “Crystal Cathedral” is defunct, that Christianity is ‘on the ropes’ – and they are wrong. It was ALREADY in deep trouble when the attendance, the corporation model and its budget was the measure for the value of the truth the church contained.
A believer’s identity isn’t primarily found in outward symbols – church buildings, clerical costumes, attendance numbers at public rallies, etc. Christianity is primarily seen in the daily lifestyle choices of those who know and follow Jesus Christ and His Word. That is the argument of “sound doctrine” of Titus 2. Daniel and his friends knew the world could change their Hebrew names, but not take their Hebrew heart away from them. Look at their names, just to recall their heritage:
Daniel 1:6 “Among these were some from Judah:
• Daniel – (name meaning ‘God is my judge’,
• Hananiah, (the Lord has been gracious),
• Mishael, (The one who comes form God),
• Azariah (The Lord is my helper).
Now look at what the chief official replaced the references to their God with as he gave them Babylonian names:
• Daniel, Belteshazzar (the secret of their God Bel),
• Hananiah, Shadrach (“the inspiration of the sun god”,
• Mishael, Meshach (he who belongs to the goddess Sheshach.)
• Azariah, Abednego (servant of Nebo – the morning star).
The world WILL NOT LONG TOLERATE any symbol that truly exalts God. Christmas will be reduced to “Winter Holiday” simply to extract the wonderful name that will one day make every knee bow. The fight to win a culture can only be won by a Christian community that will take on personal choices to live up to the standards of the Word. Note that although the young people were given names of pagan gods of Babylon their lifestyle choices demonstrated their Hebrew names.
Let me say it clearly to every believer: The Supreme Court doesn’t truly harm Christianity as much as our public failure to live the standard of God’s Word as believers. Their decisions may seem sweeping and vast, but they come on top of years of Christian lifestyle compromises that muted our voice and blunted our message. Our churches speak of marriages, but many of our own don’t stay committed to them. We speak of Biblical education for our young, but cannot find enough people with time to be a part of a program where we could help teach them. The world won’t be radically impacted by comfortable Christians – only committed ones who make comfort a secondary issue. Make your testimony one that speaks to the true legacy of what is important to you. Expend yourself in things that God lays upon your heart!
Oscar Wilde was quoted years ago as saying: “If you don’t get everything you want, think of the things you don’t get that you don’t want!” Look around you, and collect knowledge of the expectations, arguments and lifestyles – but keep living your call.
Rule #3: Keep your true life goal at the center of your decision making.
Make up your mind that you will stand for God with a positive voice as He enables you and then attempt to work in the system to accomplish the task (1:8).
Daniel 1:8 But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king’s choice food or with the wine which he drank; so he sought [permission] from the commander of the officials that he might not defile himself.
Here is the tough part of the line. Daniel couldn’t do all that was being asked of him – so he needed to find a creative and sensitive way to object, without being belligerent.
The Missionary Hudson Taylor demonstrated faith and inner calm in a challenging situation in 1853, when young Hudson Taylor was making his first voyage to China. His ship was delayed near New Guinea because the winds had stopped. A rapid current was carrying the ship toward some reefs and the situation was becoming dangerous. Even the sailors using a longboat could not row the vessel out of the current. “We have done everything that can be done,” said the captain to Taylor. But Taylor replied, “No, there is one thing we have not done yet.” There were three other believers on the ship, and Taylor suggested that each retire to his own cabin and pray for a breeze. They did, and while he was at prayer, Taylor received confidence from God that the desperately needed wind would be sent. He went up on deck and suggested to the first officer, an unbeliever, that he let down the mainsail because a breeze was on its way. The man refused, but then they saw the corner of the sail begin to stir. The breeze had come! They let down the sail and in a short time were on their way! (A-Z Illustrations).
In both of those cases – that of Taylor and of Daniel – what was the secret to success? It was not simply prayer, though that was included. It was not simply obedience, though that was included. In each case, the men recognized their calling, and followed choices inside of that calling. Taylor’s wind came after Taylor sought God (as the Bible instructed) and got assurance. Daniel’s deferment came after he committed to do what God said in his Word. Both knew their call would only be significantly fulfilled by commitment – no matter what the outcome. Compromise, when it comes to obedience to God’s Word, is settling for less than our call. Keep your life goal – to honor God with your days – at the center of your thinking when making even small life choices.
Rule #4: Don’t get self-centered and believe you can create success alone.
Remember, we serve God, not our own ability to manipulate situations. When we have what appears to be a “success”, we must humbly remember it is God who gave it to us. (1:9). Our life is more than what we can accomplish – it is what God can do through us when we yield our members to Him. That is the excitement of following God! I can do “all things” through Him Who strengthens me. Look at Daniel 1:9:
Daniel 1:9 Now God granted Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the commander of the officials,
Don’t miss that Daniel wasn’t arrogant, nor did he “command God” to do anything. He is God in Heaven, and I am a man on earth – let my words be few… as Solomon long ago reminded. Later in this journal of God’s work, Dan will face a lion’s den. His friends will face a furnace of fire. Their delivery was not certain. The point of our lives is not to obey for personal benefit – that is cloaked religious selfishness. Rather it is to make much of Jesus – and to honor our King! Our sacrifice is but a small thing if it will allow those who follow our time see His glory.
Self-centered Christianity sold well in the last thirty years. “Give a dollar so you can get ten” thinking was never about worship at its core. The favor Daniel received was by God’s hand – but the opposite could have happened – and God would still be God. With every successful outreach, let us recall God’s good hand; with every painful setback let us seek God’s path of direction. In nothing become self-centered – that is the antithesis of Christianity. He is the story, I am the messenger. He is the Lord, and I am His servant…period.
Rule #5: Be sympathetic to the other side without giving in on truth.
Daniel knew how to listen with understanding to the fears of the ungodly around him (1:10). He tried his best to meet them half way and still not compromise God’s call (1:11-16). What did it hurt to try to live truth in an inoffensive way?
Daniel 1:10 and the commander of the officials said to Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has appointed your food and your drink; for why should he see your faces looking more haggard than the youths who are your own age? Then you would make me forfeit my head to the king.” 11 But Daniel said to the overseer whom the commander of the officials had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, 12 “Please test your servants for ten days, and let us be given some vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 “Then let our appearance be observed in your presence and the appearance of the youths who are eating the king’s choice food; and deal with your servants according to what you see.” 14 So he listened to them in this matter and tested them for ten days. 15 At the end of ten days their appearance seemed better and they were fatter than all the youths who had been eating the king’s choice food. 16 So the overseer continued to withhold their choice food and the wine they were to drink, and kept giving them vegetables.
Some would criticize Dan for “compromising faith” because he wasn’t belligerent and sarcastic in his commentary. They truly believe that any attempt to acknowledge what others are concerned about is a sign of weakness. Think for a moment: is the strength of our argument for God IN the argument itself? I believe not. I believe it is found in seeking God. Our gentle reasonableness should not be read as weakness – but as confidence that from prayer and God’s conviction in the hardest of hearts will come fruitful conversions where there would otherwise be none. No one is argued into the Kingdom of God – they are converted from within through prayer and God’s Spirit pricking their heart. Sarcasm and argument may strengthen the soul of the discouraged believers, but prayer and God’s conviction is what saves the unbeliever.
Let me ask you to do something: Argue less and pray more. Wrestle less with the world in articles and news, and wrestle more for them on your knees. Don’t panic over evil, fight back in Heavenly places. Don’t feel the need to correct the world, just encourage, pray and look for an opportunity to show love to them. Doors will open that never have before. Stop the whining over lost men acting like lost men, and start the winning of souls by the power of the Cross. The chief symbol of our faith was once a marker to the Roman world of their victory over Christ – a Cross. What does that tell you of our message? In our weakness, He will be shown unstoppably strong. Stop being defensive and start being sympathetic to the plight of a dying world – they cannot help but spread death, all the while fearing it.
Rule #6: Choose time with positive people and doing positive things.
Look also at Daniel’s companions. They were not alone, but together. They were learners, positively engaged and delightfully partnered with one another. People that are engaged in growth and life are invigorating and get better opportunities to be used of God (1:17-19).
Daniel 1:17 As for these four youths, God gave them knowledge and intelligence in every [branch of] literature and wisdom; Daniel even understood all [kinds of] visions and dreams. 18 Then at the end of the days which the king had specified for presenting them, the commander of the officials presented them before Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king talked with them, and out of them all not one was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s personal service.
Keep people, words and activities that help you stay up in your sight! Learn new things this year! I love that simple saying in Life’s Little Instruction Book: “Think big thoughts but relish small pleasures”. (H. Jackson Brown, Jr.). It is the small-mindedness of Christians that really grates against my soul. Can we speak of other things besides politics and culture wars? Is not the universe filled with God’s fingerprints?
Don’t worry, we will all get it wrong from time to time. That is why I like to recall the simple words of Oswald Avery: “Whenever you fall, pick something up.” Obviously I am speaking of mistakes, not overlooking serious moral failures in ourselves. At the same time, just choose to be together with other believers. The world will get cold, but huddling can keep us warm. In our recharged warmth – we will be more ready to show the lost a way to the warmth. Cold, worn, dispirited believers bring no one to Christ, but usher many away from Him.
Rule #7: Work out your giftedness and stay at your post for God (1:20-21).
The end of the chapter mentions the tenure of Dan. He was taken in 606, but stayed in the work until 537 – nearly 70 years later! He had God’s hand in his life, but throughout the story he learned to wait until God opened a door. Daniel 1 records:
Daniel 1:20 As for every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king consulted them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians [and] conjurers who [were] in all his realm. 21 And Daniel continued until the first year of Cyrus the king.
Grabbing a headline and gaining a post are one thing – following through for seventy long years is yet another! Daniel watched a lot of bad legislation roll through during his tenure. He lived in a world of politics – a tough world in any age to be a decent man. He faced deceptions from enemies that fronted for the spiritual enemy – and we will watch how he navigated each challenge. Yet, he remained positive in the journey. He did it by refusing to be deceived with the others of his time.
Don’t let the current circumstances of life convince you of the great deceptions of the enemy of your soul.
• He will try to deceive you about his strength. In you, beloved follower of Jesus, is One greater than he who fluffs and puffs in this world.
• He will try to discourage you by confusion. For you, life events may hang like loose threads below a tapestry – but design is not discovered on this side of the cloth.
• He will try to divert you with troubles. Before you, may be problems insurmountable for a time – but you were made for eternity.
• He will try to dishearten you with memories. Behind you, then call of old defeats may beckon to slow your progress – but your best days are ahead in the Father’s house.
Since he is not greater, since your troubles last for but a season, since what is unknown now will become clear one day in the time after time, and since our Father has the power to forgive wholly and forget completely – we must not allow the deception of the enemy to deter us from serving our King with an encouraged heart. (RS)