February 6, 2005

DARE TO BE DIFFERENT

“The God we serve is able to save us… But even if he does not… we will not serve your gods.”  Daniel 3:17-18

Adolph Hitler was a master manipulator. The Nazi dictator knew how to change people and control their actions. Hitler knew the power of schools and universities to shape young people’s thinking, so he made sure German educators taught the party line. Hitler knew that young people like to feel part of an elite group, so he formed the Hitler Youth. Hitler knew that pictures persuade, so he used colorful flags, photos, and films to show the glory of Nazism. Hitler knew that music moves people, so he held huge rallies with loud music to create an exciting atmosphere and sweep crowds along with him. Hitler knew that people follow popular direction-setters, so he made sure that all public figures openly supported Nazi ideology—if any didn’t, they disappeared. Hitler knew that when all else fails, fear is a mighty motivator, so he backed up all his manipulation with threats of torture and death for any who didn’t do his bidding and bow to Nazi ideology.

The tools of manipulation don’t change much. They stay much the same in various times and places. If you want to control people and shape their behavior, just go down the list. Govern their schooling, train their minds, and cleanse them of family convictions and belief in God. Form a group mentality where it’s cool to fit in and dreadful not to. Create powerful pictures and images for them to watch. Get them hooked on your kind of music. Get movers and shakers, cool kids and important grownups, to set a pattern for the rest of the herd to follow. And use the fear factor. Dictators and criminals can use fear of torture and death, but if even without such measures, there are other fears: fear of being mocked, fear of being ostracized, fear of being sued, fear of being fired.

These methods are nothing new. Already 2,600 years ago King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was using them. He used government schooling, elite grouping, impressive visuals, stirring music, peer pressure, and raw fear to create a mindset of absolute loyalty to him and to Babylonian groupthink. His methods worked on most people—but not on everyone.

A few young men dared to be different. They stayed loyal to their God and stuck to what they believed in, no matter what the king tried. Even a blazing furnace could not destroy their faith or make them bow to what they knew was wrong. Their true story helps us to identify different types pressure to betray God and deny our true identify, and it shows that even when there appears to be no hope, even when everyone else is going with the flow, God’s people dare to be different.

Who Are You?

King Nebuchadnezzar conquered many nations and ruled a vast empire. He had a shrewd policy of picking elite youth from conquered peoples, retraining them to believe and behave like Babylonians, and making them part of his government bureaucracy. By skimming the top talent from all his territories, he could fill government posts with people of great ability, and they could use their charisma and connections to persuade their own people to see Babylonian ways as the wave of the future.

One of the nations Nebuchadnezzar invaded was Judah. He had some of the young Jewish elite hauled away to Babylon to be trained for government service. In Daniel 1:3-7 the Bible says,

Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring in some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility—young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service.

Among these were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.

Put yourself in their shoes. You are a teenager. You were born in Jerusalem, but now you now live in Babylon. You were once a free noble, but now you are a captive. You were brought up believing in the Lord God and learning the scriptures, but now you have pagan teachers. They have even renamed you. Your original names all referred to some action or attribute of God, but your new names all refer to idols and paganism. Who are you?

You are still God’s people, whatever anyone calls you. You still trust God’s Word, whatever your school teaches you. Your heart is still noble and free, wherever captivity brings you. Your heart is still in Jerusalem, the city of God, not matter how long you live in Babylon, the city of worldliness.

For these young men, the first challenge to their faith and their identity came almost immediately. Their studies, their food, their drink were to be all Babylon all the time. They were supposed to eat food and drink wine from the king’s table. But some of the meats violated biblical food laws which governed God’s people at that time. Worse yet, the foods at Babylon’s royal feasts were dedicated to pagan gods. The young men could have said, “We have no choice. We have to eat whatever we’re told.” But they dared to be different. They respectfully asked the chief official to let them have a different diet for a trial period. He agreed, and the four godly friends ended up stronger and healthier than the pagans who ate the royal food.

Those young men did not forget who they were, even after Babylon tried to reprogram them. They dared to be different because they knew God and they knew who they were. You, too, can dare to be different, and the key is to know who God is and know who you are. If you trust Jesus as Lord and Savior, the Bible says, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God… I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:11-12).

Who are you? If you don’t know God, you might not be sure who you are. But if you’re a Christian—or if you become one—you bear the name of Christ. That’s what the word Christian means: one who belongs to Christ. Babylon will keep trying to reshape you and rename you, but Jesus says, “Hold on to what you have… I will write on you the name of my God and the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on you my new name” (Revelation 3:12). You may live and work in worldly Babylon, but you are a citizen of heavenly Jerusalem. Mean kids may call you names, the anti-God elite may call you whatever it wants, but the name the Lord gives you is what counts.

Master Manipulator

The young men stood firm in their first test of faith. But the worst was yet to come. King Nebuchadnezzar wanted to make sure all of his newly trained officials would bow to his absolute authority. He wanted them to put his orders before everything, before their conscience or their God, and he designed an event to make it happen. Daniel chapter 3:1-6 says,

King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. He then summoned the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials to come to the dedication of the image he had set up. So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it.

Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “This is what you are commanded to do, O peoples, nations and men of every language: As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.”

If Nebuchadnezzar were living today and didn’t have an empire to rule, he could be an MTV executive. MTV’s goal is different from Nebuchadnezzar’s (MTV’s goal is to take money from teens and their parents and hand the money over to Viacom, the monster media corporation which owns MTV), and MTV’s technology is more up-to-date than Nebuchadnezzar’s, but the basic methods are the same. Give people some visuals to grip their eyes, some music to grab their ears, a cool crowd to fit in with, and a deadly fear of being different, and you can get them to do almost anything. You can get them to buy stuff marketed on MTV and imitate the raunchy behavior; you can get them to buy a tyrant’s ideology and bow to his idol; you can get them to do most anything. MTV knows this; Hitler knew this; and Nebuchadnezzar knew it thousands of years earlier.

He used a grand visual. Others might use a swastika flag or a propaganda film or a sleazy video as their anti-God visual. Nebuchadnezzar used a splendid 90-foot statute for everyone to marvel at and worship.

He used the power of music. Others might use Nazi bands or anti-God music pouring from a TV set or an iPod. Nebuchadnezzar used a big musical production—“horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music”—to set the mood and serve as the signal to abandon faith and bow to his idol and his ideology.

He used the power of peer pressure. Others might use the Hitler Youth, or pressure to be cool, or a longing to fit into “mainstream politics,” or a need for approval by the “scholarly community.” Nebuchadnezzar made sure that all types of leaders—“satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials”—were all doing the same thing in unison.

He used the power of fear. Others might use the threat of a Nazi death oven, dread of weirdness and geekiness, or fear of losing a job. Nebuchadnezzar, like Hitler, made use of a death oven, a blazing furnace.

It was a tough combination to resist, and Nebuchadnezzar got pretty much the result he wanted. “As soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the peoples, nations and men of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up” (3:7).

But If Not

Well, not quite all. A tiny handful dared to be different. The king had spies in the crowd, keeping an eye out for anyone who wouldn’t follow orders. These spies—pagan astrologers and fortune tellers—were Nebuchadnezzar’s Gestapo. They reported to the king, “There are some Jews whom you have set over the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—who pay no attention to you, O king. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up” (3:12). Daniel was evidently somewhere else at the time, perhaps on official business, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were in the huge crowd the king had assembled, and when everybody else was bowing to the image, those three stood out.

Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipes and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (3:13-18)

In the darkest days of World War II, Hitler’s Nazi army trapped a weaker British force near the seaside town of Dunkirk. Escape seemed impossible. The Nazis paused for a few days, preparing to deliver the final blow. In that desperate hour, a British officer sent a message to his homeland: “BUT IF NOT.”

Nowadays, when few know the Bible, people might respond to such a message by saying, “Huh?” But in 1940, the officer’s message fired up British civilians. They recognized the words (from the King James Bible) of the three young men who believed God would rescue them from the fire—“but if not” they still would not bow to the dictator’s idol. Neither would the British troops bow to Hitler’s Nazi ideology, even if they died resisting. Inspired by that message, thousands of British boat-owners crossed dangerous waters, braved Nazi firepower, and rescued over 350,000 troops. Historians call it “the miracle of Dunkirk.” The forces of freedom lived to fight another day, and eventually they won.

Faith is full confidence that God can rescue us from anything. Faith is also full commitment to God even if he chooses not to rescue us. Heroes of faith know nothing can kill them if God wants them to go on living. Heroes of faith also would rather die than deny God. “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).

Fireproof

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego dared to be different. No matter how hard King Nebuchadnezzar tried to brainwash them and scare them, they refused to worship his idol.

Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?”

They replied, “Certainly, O king.”

He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”

Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!”

So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them. (3:19-28)

More than a hundred years earlier, before those three friends were torn from their homes and threatened with fire, God had foretold exile and persecution. But God also said, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you… When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (Isaiah 43:1-2). God kept his Word. Though pagan soldiers burned when they got to close to the furnace, not a hair of God’s faithful was singed. They were fireproof, thanks to the fourth “man” in the fire. This awesome figure was either an angel or, more likely, the Son of God himself.

Does the Lord Jesus always fireproof the faithful? What about those who have died in the fires of persecution? Early Christians were covered with tar and burned as torches by the cruel emperor Nero. Reformation heroes were burned at the stake. Countless martyrs in various ages have died for their faith. Did God fail them? Not at all. Jesus said, “They will put some of you to death… But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life” (Luke 21:16-19). If you dare to be different, God promises to protect you. Whether you live or die, you belong to the Lord. He numbers every hair on your head and preserves every hair for all eternity. Just as Jesus died and then rose again, so all who die in faith will rise again. “Not a hair of your head will perish.”

Don’t Go With the Flow

At times it may seem safer to go with the flow, to do what’s easiest, to fit in and follow orders. When Nebuchadnezzar was heating his furnace hotter than ever, it looked safer to obey the pagan king than to obey God. But the men who followed the king’s orders and threw innocent worshipers of God into the furnace weren’t safe at all. The flames leaped out and killed those soldiers. Meanwhile, the friends of God were unharmed, thanks to the fourth person who walked with them in the flames.

That was a glimpse of the ultimate truth about reality. Jesus descended into hell to make his people safe from its flames. However, “raging fire… will consume the enemies of God” (Hebrews 10:27), just as fire burned the king’s soldiers. Only those who dare to be different for the Lord’s sake are kept safe. As Jesus put it, “Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39).

Behind all the world’s methods of manipulation is “the ruler of this world” (John 14:30 NASB), Satan, the chief of demons, the power behind all evil empires, the tempter behind all temptation. Satan goes after our eyes and ears, our desires and fears. In countries ruled by dictators, Satan uses statues and pictures of “the great leader,” government-controlled music and media, rigid conformity and social pressure, and cruel threats. In freer societies, Satan uses vile images on a screen, wicked music in a headset, pressure to be cool, and fear of not fitting in. Satan wants you to end up in hell. Satan wants you to go with the flow. Don’t do it! “Resist him, standing firm in the faith” (1 Peter 5:9)

Don’t assume that something must be okay just because everyone around you is doing it. Almost everybody worshiped King Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. Almost everybody in Germany went along with Hitler. When “everyone is doing it,” dare to be different.

It may seem easier and more peaceful to go with the flow. But picture this: Someone is relaxing on a rubber raft floating downstream, while someone else is in a motorboat battling upstream against the current. The motor is noisy, and the person is getting soak by splashing water. Which of the two persons is better off? You might think it would be far better to float lazily downstream than to struggle upstream. But what if a bit further downstream, the river plunges over a huge waterfall onto jagged rocks below? And what if upstream a warm, beautiful home is waiting? Would you rather go with the flow to destruction, or keep struggling upstream until you arrive at that lovely home?

The flow of this world eventually plunges downward into hell. The struggle of faith eventually carries you home to God’s mansion. As the Bible says, “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:17). So don’t go with the flow. Dare to be different. Trust God and always put him first in your life, no matter how hard the world and Satan try to pull you downstream.

God will reward your faith. In fact, if you don’t let God’s enemies change you, you may end up changing them. They may become more open to God and more favorable to you. That’s what happened to Nebuchadnezzar after the three young men stood up for their faith and dared to be different. Nebuchadnezzar said,

“Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.”

Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon. (3:28-30)

If you trust in the Lord Jesus and dare to be different for his sake, the Lord may rescue you, make your enemies favorable to you, and promote you in this life. But if not, you may still be sure that a bigger promotion is waiting in the life to come, when God will surely rescue you and promote you to reign with him for all eternity. Jesus says, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne” (Revelation 3:21).

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.