Monday, May 19, 2014

But if not ...

What do you do when God says "no?"  When He answers your fondest and most fervent prayers, but answers them negatively?  What do you do when you live from day to day and year to year in the certain expectation that God is going to do something in your life .... and then He doesn't do it?  Does it shatter your faith in Him, or cause a rift in your fellowship with Him, or perhaps cause you to abandon your belief in Him entirely?

For many people, it can do any and all of these things.  The world is full of Christians who have been disappointed: not disappointed in Jesus Himself, but disappointed because their lives didn't take the course they expected .... or the "vision" God had given them turned out to be from another source ... or because they had expected something specific from God, and God simply didn't deliver.  But that's not the reaction God wants, or expects, or deserves; and, in the Bible, we have multiple examples of people who were willing to follow God, even through the disappointment.

It's a familiar story, at least to Jews and Christians: back when a knowledge of the Bible was part of the cultural awareness of every child in the Western world, anyone you stopped on the street could have at least identified the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who lived under the tyrant Nebuchadnezzar.  As recorded in the book of Daniel, those young men had an expectation of God's deliverance: but they also had the correct attitude, in case their expectations were not fulfilled as they hoped.

Nebuchadnezzar wanted worship - - - and these three young men weren't prepared to give it.  They worshipped Somebody else.

Then Nebuchadnezzar the king sent to gather together the princes, the governors, and the captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, to come to the dedication of the image which Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up. Then the princes, the governors, and captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, were gathered together unto the dedication of the image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up; and they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Then an herald cried aloud, To you it is commanded, O people, nations, and languages, That at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king hath set up: And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth shall the same hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. Therefore at that time, when all the people heard the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and all kinds of musick, all the people, the nations, and the languages, fell down and worshipped the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up. Wherefore at that time certain Chaldeans came near, and accused the Jews. They spake and said to the king Nebuchadnezzar, O king, live for ever. Thou, O king, hast made a decree, that every man that shall hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, shall fall down and worship the golden image: And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth, that he should be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. There are certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men, O king, have not regarded thee: they serve not thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up. Then Nebuchadnezzar in his rage and fury commanded to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Then they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar spake and said unto them, Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, do not ye serve my gods, nor worship the golden image which I have set up? Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made; well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. 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 3:2-18).

Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

And of course you remember the rest of the account: Nebuchadnezzar, in his egomaniacal fury, had the furnace heated so hot that even the nearby attendants were immolated ... and, true to his threat, threw the young men in.  But there was a fourth Man in the furnace with them: Jesus Christ Himself.  And He did indeed deliver them, so perfectly and completely that their clothes didn't even bear the scent of smoke.  And Nebuchadnezzar, for a time, worshipped the true God as a result (Daniel 3:19-30).

It's one of the great miracles of the Old Testament, and even includes a pre-incarnation "visit" from Jesus (a "theophany," for any theologians who might have wandered into this blog by mistake).  But for me, the most significant phrase in the account is the little addendum that the young men tacked on to the end of their reply to the king: "but if not....."

What if God hadn't delivered them?  What if Jesus hadn't shown up, and the young men had been burned alive?  The answer is obvious: they would have maintained their faith in God, and died with a song of praise on their lips. 

Although Christians are persecuted and martyred all over the world, in our own day, those of us in the Western world haven't really experienced anything of that magnitude ... yet.  We have other concerns, by the grace and mercy of God.  My brother in Christ has a terminal disease; I pray for God to heal him.  A man and woman fall in love, and place their future in God's hands, and ask God to give them a life of joy and service together.  A man is convinced that God wants him to have a certain professional position, and prays to that end. A Christian woman prays that her unbelieving husband will be saved.  And every Christian parent prays that their newborn baby, or their toddler, or their teenager, will find Jesus Christ, and spend their lives in His service.  But it doesn't always happen, does it?  God always answers our prayers; but he sometimes answers them with the word "No."  And it's a tough thing to bear, and disappointments hurt.  But in praying for anything, we should always remember those three little words: "Lord, please allow my brother to be healed, or my child to be saved ... but if not, I'll still follow You, and by Your grace, I'll conform myself to Your will."  So often, we demand that God conform Himself to our will!

The thing that's so bitter, for Christians, is when we're so very sure that we're praying according to God's will, because we're praying scripturally.  The Christian husband, praying for his unsaved wife or his unsaved children, claims 2 Peter 3:9, and knows that God isn't willing for them to perish.  And yet, sometimes, as far as the human eye can discern, they never do come to Christ.  Sometimes the brother (or even the baby) dies, no matter how much prayer we put into it.  Sometimes the marriage, or the hopes for the marriage, falls apart.  That's tough and bitter and heartbreaking - - - and God knows that we're heartbroken.  The question is, do we give up, or do we continue to follow Him, regardless of the manner in which He answers our prayers?

The most perfect example of this, of course, is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.  He also had His moments of "but if not" ... most notably in the Garden of Gethsemane.

And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt (Matthew 26:39). 

Every Christian knows, in his or her heart, that those final eight words should accompany every prayer; and, often, they do.  But when the cup doesn't pass ... what do we do? Do we allow our disappointment and heartache and fear immobilize us, or embitter us, or cause us to turn away from God?

Or do we thank God for answering our prayer, even negatively (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and continue walking in fellowship with the One Whose wisdom is past finding out, and Who always leads us away from today's disappointments, into tomorrow's promise?

We should pray about everything, big or little: James reminds us, ye have not, because ye ask not (James 4:2).  But one of the keys to victory in the Christian life, and especially in our prayers, are those three simple little words: "but if not....."

Because "if not," if it's not God's will to answer our prayers as we wish, nothing has really changed.  He's still God, and we're still His children, if we've received Him according to John 1:12.  And if He doesn't answer today's prayer in a positive way ... there's an eternity of tomorrows awaiting us.  The idea is to focus on God, not on the need, or the desire, or the prayer; and to follow Him because of Who and What He is ... not because of what He can do for us! 

That's the faith that brings beauty from ashes, and victory from defeat.  And who knows?  Maybe the prayer will be answered in a positive way, after all!  Ask the young men climbing out of the furnace!

1 comment:

  1. Amen. It's not always an easy attitude to maintain, but it is what God expects of us. Sometimes it helps to remind myself that no matter what I'm going through, it doesn't compare to what Jesus went through, and that He went through all that for me.