Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sabbath Musings: But if not...

Today in Sunday school our teacher taught from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament.  Daniel is a short book whose its content can be categorized into two main themes: the miraculous experiences of the captive Hebrew who remained true to their faith in spite of their secular surroundings, and Daniel's prophetic visions and interpretation of dreams.

In the first chapter, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego (we'll call them S-M-A for short)refuse the royal fare which likely violated the Law of Moses restrictions on food.  Confident that the Lord will support them in their obedience, Daniel suggests to their master (the prince of eunuchs) that the four boys subsist on grains and water for 10 days.  After which time, he continues, the prince of eunuchs should compare their countenances with the other youth.  Their master agreed, and after ten days "...their countenances appeared fairer and fatter in flesh than all the children which did eat the portion of the king’s meat (Daniel 1:15)."

Chapter six displays the extent of Daniel's faith when he continues to pray to God in spite of King Darius' decree outlawing prayer to any deity other than the king.  As he is being cast into a den of lions (the prescribed punishment), the king calls out to Daniel the following:  "Thy God whom thou servest continually, he will deliver thee (Daniel 6:16)."  How amazing to hear this confidence expressed by the Median king!  Everyone remembers how this familiar Bible story ends, so I'll move on to the third story from Daniel (a bit out of order, but this is the one I wanted to discuss).  But first, notice that in both experiences the Hebrews were blessed by God for their obedience in very tangible, immediate ways.  More on this in a moment...

In Daniel chapter three, S-M-A refuse to worship an enormous golden idol as commanded by King Nebuchadnezzar.  Before receiving their punishment of being thrown into a furnace so hot that it slew the men who carried them, S-M-A proclaim,

"If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.  But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up (Daniel 3:17-18, italics added)."

Moments later, the king can just make out the three men in the furnace.  Amazingly, S-M-A appear untouched by the flames, and a fourth being can be seen accompanying them.  When they emerge unscathed, the king retracts his decree and promote the men to higher positions of authority.  Like the other experiences, the Lord blesses them for their bold obedience. 

The words of S-M-A really struck me as I read them.  "But if not..."  Notwithstanding their faith, they recognized that their deliverance from the fire was no sure thing.  It's very easy to gloss over that crucial clause and focus solely on the miraculous denouement.  In fact, the theme of Daniel (setting aside the prophetic visions and dreams), certainly seems to be that Heavenly Father blesses and protects his obedient children. 

But does he always?  I say yes, but conditionally, for these blessings do not always arrive in the immediate or dramatic fashion that we read of in Daniel.  In fact, sometimes things just turn out plain bad for the obedient in this life.  John the Baptist's head ends up on a charger to satisfy King Herod's daughter, Abinadi suffered death by fire (he, unlike S-M-A, was not protected by the flames) after delivering his testimony, a mob killed Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum at a lonely jail in Illinois. 

Think for a moment and you can probably come up with some examples a little closer-to-home.  I think of a faithful tithe-payer who lost his job and struggles through months of unemployment.  Also a family whose healthy, beautiful daughter tragically died while asleep in her crib.  Or a righteous young wife and mother who suffered grotesque disfigurement and permanent injury from a plane crash. 

As I recalled these examples, I began to think that the message from Daniel was a little unfair and one-sided.  Sometimes trials are faithfully met, but promised blessings or divine protection seemingly withheld.  We can choose to obey the commandments for a variety of reasons, including a hope of promised blessings, a sense of duty, and love for God.  Someone who obeys primarily out of hope of promised blessings, however, may find his or her testimony wavering when they do not see results akin to Daniel in their own lives.  After thinking along these lines for a while, I recalled that phrase from S-M-A:

But if not! 

Their obedience was never contingent on miraculous deliverance from the furnace.  They chose to obey regardless of the earthly consequences, because their faith went beyond the arrival of earthly blessings.  Certainly they hoped for deliverance, but they trusted in God's promise to the faithful that "all things shall work together for your good (D&C 105:40)," whether in this life or in the life to come.  When placed in faith-trying situations, we would do well to remember the lesson of S-M-A.  How grateful we can be when protected from the flames and when the lions' mouths are shut!  But how will we respond if we begin to feel the heat of the flames?  May we be steadfast and immovable and, like S-M-A, boldly proclaim, But if not!

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