Ever since those Egyptian Christians gave their lives on a beach in Libya in February at the hands of ISIS, for all the world to see, I’ve had questions in the back of my mind: What if I were facing the death penalty because I was a Christian? Would I have the courage to continue to profess my faith knowing that I would be beheaded? Or even if I did continue to profess faith, would I be falling apart on the inside? How would I handle it?
In a way, of course, I’ll find out—we all will. Although it’s unlikely we’ll face violent martyrdom at the hands of enemies, we will still face what the apostle Paul refers to as the “last enemy,” death. When that time comes, will we face it with courage and hope?
Questions such as these even cropped up in the comments section of a post a couple of weeks ago.
In his most recent book, Against the Flow, which examines the Book of Daniel in light of contemporary concerns, John Lennox also deals with these questions in relation to the courage of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Lennox observes that while God delivered them, he didn’t deliver them from the fiery furnace; God delivered them through it.
This makes all the difference: In other words, God still let the three friends experience the worst suffering—that which came from the dreadful anticipation of their fiery end. Unless I’m badly mistaken—and I wouldn’t want to know for sure—the intense but brief suffering of burning alive could hardly add more than a fraction of the suffering that they had already endured.
There is an important matter of principle here. God is a great deliverer—but he will not deliver us from having to make our own decisions. This is not because he is impotent but because he wants us to be strong. The development of our character depends crucially on the fact that we make responsible decisions before God for ourselves. For God to “decide” for us would be to de-humanize us and essentially turn us into amoral robots.
When children are very small, parents often have to decide for them in order to teach them. But it is sad when we see a situation where parents have to decide for grown-up children, since that is often a sign that something has gone wrong in the development of their character.
So there is a sense in which God, precisely because he loves us, will not save us either from the need to make such decisions or from the decisions themselves. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to make up their own minds as to whether they were going to put God first. That does not mean they had no guidance. Their guidance was all the accumulated experience of God’s trustworthiness up to that fateful moment. They therefore had decided to trust him once more, no matter what it cost. Then God convincingly vindicated them.
Again, my question: Would I have the courage to make the right decision?
But Lennox adds a helpful and comforting insight. On one of his visits to Russia after the Berlin Wall fell, he met with a Christian who spent years in a Siberian labor camp
for the crime of teaching children from the Bible. He described to me that he had seen things that no man should ever have to see. I listened, thinking how little I really knew about life, and wondering how I would have fared under his circumstances. As if he had read my thoughts, he suddenly said: “You couldn’t cope with that, could you?” Embarrassed, I stumbled out something lie: “No, I am sure you are right.” He then grinned and said: “Nor could I! I was a man who fainted at the sight of his own blood, let alone that of others. But what I discovered in the camp was this: God does not help us to face theoretical situations but real ones. Like you I couldn’t imagine how one could cope in the Gulag. But once there I found that God met me, exactly as Jesus had promised his disciples when he was preparing them for victimization and persecution.”
Lennox goes on to quote Matthew 10:17-20, including Jesus’ words, “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.”
We can be confident, then, that the Lord will give us a sufficient amount of grace to handle whatever comes our way, whenever it comes our way—and not necessarily a moment before!