Rising Above the Hostility of This Age

Text: Daniel 1:1-21

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” —Romans 12:2

It’s one of my son’s favorite workout songs—one I often hear blaring from the garage when Zach is lifting weights. “Rise Above It” is the theme from the movie Cool Runnings, the story of four Jamaican athletes who set out to make history by becoming the first Olympic bobsledding team from their nation. They must overcome extensive adversity and malicious opponents to attain that glory.

“Rise Above It” was the idea behind the conversation I had over lunch last week with a couple of inner-city boys I’ve been mentoring, one twelve and the other fourteen. We talked a great deal about current events and the turmoil in our nation, and most importantly, how to rise above the fray of all the social propaganda and political divisiveness, so we can truly see the world’s deepest need from the lens of biblical truth and gospel-centered justice and reconciliation. It is through this corrective lens that we realize the greatest virtues we can contribute to any society don’t come from merely “conforming” to what the culture demands that we be, but by becoming what God—the Almighty Creator—divinely “purposed” us to be “for such a time as this.”

God never puts us in a time and place to merely conform to our environment, but to “come out and be separate,” as a people who look, live, and think different than the world’s system. We are not here by accident or coincidence. We are not here to evolve into hostile people simply because hostile people want us to conform to their image. We are here to stand out in this historic moment, and reflect that we serve a greater Kingdom than this world’s man-made institutions. Romans 12:2 instructs believers: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The difference between conforming to this world versus discerning and fleshing out “the will of God” is fought on the battleground of the mind. Our minds are under a constant daily barrage to think a certain way, which in this hour often evokes conforming to malice. We must rise above it. If we are to “shine like lights in the middle of a crooked and perverse nation” (Philippians 2:15), we need to think differently than a society that is in defiant rebellion against God. We see a perfect example of this in today’s devotional text. It’s a short history lesson about Daniel and his three friends, teenage exiles, trying to faithfully serve their God in the midst of a godless society in Babylon—a land of tyranny, pagan idolatry, and cultural conformity.

In Daniel 1, we see a brainwashing strategy in motion. The narcissistic King Nebuchadnezzar sought to assimilate these exiled youths into Babylonian culture by obliterating their religious and cultural identity and creating dependence upon the royal court. He ordered that these Hebrews under his subjugation must attend Pagan University. The goal of Pagan U was to strip these guys of their former identity—national and cultural heritage—while indoctrinating them with Babylonian language, customs, and beliefs. Their birth names, which once reflected their faith in Jehovah, were changed to reflect the gods of the land. They were schooled in the language and mythological literature of the Babylonians. The bullying and intimidation tactics of Pagan U would’ve been more than enough to cause any faint of heart to compromise, but these were no faint-of-heart teenagers. They didn’t just go with the flow and give in to what social psychologists of our day define as the “groupthink” mentality. It wasn’t easy, yet these bold young people didn’t abandon their faith and convictions for cultural conformity.

Though they were appointed a daily provision of the king’s delicacies, Daniel and his friends resisted them. Why? Verse 8 says: “But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food…” They considered the king’s food defiled for at least three reasons. First, it wasn’t kosher. Second, it was very likely sacrificed to idols. Third, eating the king’s food implied fellowship and conformity with Babylon’s institutional and cultural defiance of God. Surely this would label them as being uncooperative and bring them under threat of punishment. Nevertheless, Daniel didn’t do what the culture demanded of him because his priorities weren’t about staying relevant, preserving his social status, or amassing likes on his social media posts; Daniel’s first order of business was an unflinching conviction that he would not “defile himself” by compromising what was all-important to His God. He and his friends risked everything, reputation and livelihood, to remain faithful to their God-given purpose.

But we see another principle at work here. While Daniel and his friends refused to conform, they also showed respect to the pagan authorities in the king’s court. This undoubtedly worked in their favor when Daniel proposed to them a “better” meal plan. His solution was embraced because their stance wasn’t one of hostility and vitriol. God gave them favor with those in power, and those in power not only listened to them, they were influenced by the youths’ faith and wisdom. “They stood before the king. And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom.”

Imagine if their whole purpose or agenda in life became relegated to the triviality of just fighting King Nebuchadnezzar. They would’ve missed their whole mission. What a shortcoming of their destiny that would’ve been. Instead, God had a much bigger plan. It was to focus on His agenda and for them to become grace-filled agents of light in a dark world. They couldn’t do that with malice in their hearts. They had to recognize that their battle wasn’t against flesh and blood, or other human beings, but against “the god of the age that was blinding the minds of unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 4:4). We see this unfold throughout the entire book of Daniel.

Consider that this world is transitory and not your home—you are just passing through. Know that there isn’t time for conformity for the sake of preserving social status. God put us here in this specific time to shine as lights in a dark place, and like Daniel, we have a small window of opportunity to make a difference—to be an agent of grace and not an ambassador of malice. Make the days count. Reconsider your diet—instead of feasting daily on a buffet of negative media, turn to God’s Word for a healthy nourishment of Good News. Remember that there is a wrong way to be right. Standing up for God’s truth in a wrong spirit (vitriol, animosity, disrespecting and disparaging your opponents) is toxic to movements of grace. Learn from Daniel and his friends. God favored them because they had character to resist, courage to stand, and gentleness and respect for those of pagan worldviews (1 Peter 3:15-16). That’s why their legacy is enduring. What will be your legacy? Think about that as you seek to abide in Him in these times.

PRAYER

Dear God, help us in our struggle to resist conforming to this world’s pattern. The lure of conforming to the agenda of human malice is so powerful in these times. Let our heavenly mission not become hijacked by earthly motives. Holy Spirit teach us to discern your perfect will, that we would know how to shine as lights in a dark time. Renew our minds with discernment and understanding, guard our hearts with compassion and mercy, fill our words with grace that speaks truth along with dignity and respect. Keep us about our Father’s business and let us not get tripped up by cultural conformity. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. How might a non-Christian acquaintance describe you? When have you taken a Christian stand in a non-Christian setting?
  2. What were the characteristics of the teenage captives? (Daniel 1:3-4)
  3. What was Daniel’s resolve and how did the chief official respond to Daniel’s request? (Daniel 1:8-14)
  4. What was the result of the test? (Daniel 1:15-16) What did God give to the four men and what did Nebuchadnezzar conclude concerning them? (Daniel 1:17-20)     
  5. This week, what is something you can do to rise above the cultural hostility and toxic malice of our times? How can you win the battle of the mind—to resist fighting against flesh and blood and turn your focus toward the spiritual warfare that exists with the “god of this age”?

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This VBS curriculum is based on the Old Testament book of Daniel. The theme teaches children how to live with courage in uncertain times. It was designed as a camp curriculum for children 8-12 years of age. Can also serve as a 5-week Sunday morning children’s ministry teaching series.

Cool Runnings: Leadership Lessons, Dreams, and Adversity

This past weekend, the fam pulled out the old DVD, Cool Runnings. My children and I love this classic wintry adventure of the original Jamaican bobsled team. Here are some lessons on dreams and leadership that I took away from this film:

Continue reading “Cool Runnings: Leadership Lessons, Dreams, and Adversity”