This sermon is part of the sermon series "Standing Your Ground". See series.
When I was in seminary, the wife of one of my classmates worked as a quality control inspector at a pharmaceutical company downtown in order to support the family. One day, through mistaken procedures, a major order of syringes was contaminated and would not pass inspection. When the wife of my friend reported the contamination to her boss, he quickly computed the costs of reproducing the order and made a "cost-effective" decision: ship the order. He ordered her to sign the inspection clearance despite the contamination. She refused.
Because of government regulations, my friend's wife was the only one who could sign the clearance. The syringes did not ship that day. So the next day, a Friday, the wife got a visit from the company president. He said he would give her the weekend to think it over, but if the forms were not signed on Monday, her job would be in jeopardy.
In fact, much more was in jeopardy. This inspection job was this couple's only means of support. The husband's education and ministry future was also in jeopardy. All their hopes, dreams, and family plans of many years could be shattered as a result of a choice to be made over the next two days. For this young couple, all the abstract doctrinal instruction they had been receiving about personal consecration, world transformation, and credible witness boiled down to this one very real decision: could they afford to remain undefiled from the contamination the world was urging them to approve? Was the witness of holiness worth what it would cost?
The couple's predicament, of course, was not unique to them. In all ages God's people are pressured to pollute the purity of their dedication to God. The pressures come from lots of potential sources: bosses, finances, competitors, friends, relatives, congregations, our own desires for success and significance. This couple faced such pressures, you have faced them, Daniel and his friends faced them. The pressures face anyone who will seek to live undefiled in a world of sin. That's why the Bible, in order to help us face these pressures, speaks so plainly about the risks, reasons, and rewards of holiness.
The risks of holiness
Today we're looking at the Book of Daniel, chapter 1. The account of Daniel and his friends makes it clear that there are risks to holiness. The Bible is practical enough to tell us to get prepared. You cannot do what your position in the culture requires if you don't know what's likely to come your way. And what's likely to come your way as a faithful believer is risk.
What are the risks of holiness? The facts of Daniel's life are simple enough. He was a prisoner of war in Babylon. He had come from a noble family, but Babylon's conquest, deportation, and captivity of the people of Judah apparently dimmed any hope of power or honor that Daniel might have had. Then came an unexpected ray of hope: King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon wanted some young Israelites trained for government service—probably to manage fellow captives. As a result, Daniel and other promising Jewish slaves began training for positions of honor and power. They got to go from being the king's slaves to being the king's governing service. Daniel and his friends just needed to accept the privileges offered. They needed to keep their heads down in order to keep their heads on. To question the king's decisions would not only jeopardize Daniel's future, but in pagan Babylon, it would also jeopardize his life.
But Daniel did question. For reasons not entirely clear, Daniel believed he would defile himself if he took the meat and drink served him. Probably the food had been included in some practice of idolatry, but it's possible that accepting the fine fare simply seemed wrong in the light of the suffering of the rest of Israel. At any rate, the Bible says, "Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king's food or with the wine that he drank. Therefore, he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself" (verse 8). Some idea of the risk involved in such a request is made apparent in the response of the chief-of-the-guards: "I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king" (verse 10). Translation: The king will literally take my head off if I don't keep you—his prize captives—in good shape. You know where the story goes. Daniel said, "Okay, give us vegetables and water for ten days, and see if we look any worse than the others." The guard, whom God had already caused to favor Daniel, agreed to this "Campbell's Vegetable Soup diet."
These facts are so familiar to us and so bathed in the aura of Sunday school story time that we may not be able to connect with their reality anymore. I cannot help but relate them to the accounts of John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign. Regardless of political affiliation, everyone said he was a true war hero. He was the son of a high ranking Naval officer (military royalty), but he graduated 5th from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy. The future looked bleak, so he volunteered for combat duty as a Navy pilot in the Vietnam War. On his 23rd mission, he was shot down and captured. In the crash, he broke both arms and a leg and was put in a primitive prison where no one could be properly treated. Then his captors discovered he was military "royalty" and offered him the opportunity to be released. They essentially said to him, "You'll get out of this hell, out of this pain, out of this disgrace—we just want you to testify to our gracious handling of you." McCain refused to defile himself in this way and spent five and a half years in prison—over half of that time in solitary confinement. His wounds were improperly treated and used as a means to torture him.
Why mention the risks? Decisions not to defile—decisions to be faithful, to be a witness, to be holy—really can involve terrible risk. When we are removed from the pressures, we may find it easy to say that we would not struggle to risk security and success to maintain faithfulness to our nation or to our God. But it's not that easy! And the Lord cares enough about us to put this clear message in Scripture: holiness is risky business. If we don't know this or won't face this, then we are not ready for the battles that are surely in our path.
It doesn't take war conditions to be in a war for holiness. If any of us were being asked to sign a clearance form for contaminated products and the decision determined the future of our career and family plans, would the choice really be easy? By the way, the wife of my friend did refuse to sign the forms for the contaminated syringes. And she was fired.
We should never minimize the risks of holiness. The Bible does not. We should not pretend that living for the Lord is painless, easy, or always fun—for then we are abandoning and abusing those who have suffered for their stand. Whenever we pretend that holiness is easy, we isolate and undermine those who must take a stand in the world. We should make it clear that while our society may praise idealism, it rarely tolerates living those ideals. And the problems are not just with others. We, too, have personal idolatries that can jeopardize holiness and produce defilement. The idols we are prone to serve are success, security, position, pleasure, or just being well thought of. To sacrifice holiness to secure any of these idols is just as defiling as the table fare Nebuchadnezzar offered. If we do not know this and say it, we hurt one another.
My son contracted a parasite on a mission trip to Haiti that triggered his having Crohn's disease—something that is chronic and incurable. There was a risk in being a witness; there always is. The risks may be very different for different persons. The risks may not be to health but to income or seniority or position. But regardless of the difference in the nature of the risks, we help each other by acknowledging that this is normal for believers. Whether because of the products they make or the practices they approve, there are Christians who feel compromised every day in the workplace. Confusion about what to do, fear of consequences, and lack of faith in God's provision inhibit their holiness, but nothing is more crippling than the sense of being alone: It's just me; no one else has these struggles; God makes their lives easy, but he has forgotten me. Others need our piety to maintain their bravery.
There is a fellowship of risk that enfolds all who strive for holiness. We will each be more willing to stand for the Lord and less prone to fall into discouragement when we are aware of the risks we share with faithful believers—like seminarians before us, missionaries before us, business leaders before us, Daniels before us—and a Savior before us. Do not forget where the story leads. From these captive people will come generations of suffering people who will be relieved by a suffering Savior. We should expect nothing else. The world that opposes the things of God will oppose those who seek to live for him. This is part of the story; we just have to remember it's not the end of the story.
The reasons for holiness
If there are such risks to holiness, then we need to know why the Lord allows them. Why not simply make the work of the faithful easy?
The first reason that God allows us to face such risks is that they are preparation for spiritual battles that always lie ahead. Starting with this first chapter, the Book of Daniel goes from one cliff-hanging, spine-tingling adventure to the next. A quick scan at the next five chapters will reveal more encounters with death-dealing kings, nightmare visions, a giant golden idol, a foray into a fiery furnace, a king turned into a wild animal, and a prophet thrown to the lions. Stephen Spielberg would love this material. Each trial leads to a new and greater challenge—and that's just the point. Contamination keeps on threatening lives kept pure for God. Each initial choice of holiness is preparation for later battles. Our tendency, when facing today's battles, is to wonder why God is abandoning us to such difficulty. Instead, Daniel helps us to understand that the Lord is not abandoning but preparing us for greater work in the future.
Only weeks after assuming responsibilities at the first church I pastored full-time after seminary, I discovered that one of my officers was living with a woman who was not his wife, other officers and many families in the church had their livelihoods entangled with an industry producing pornography, generational antipathies divided some families, and we faced multiple deaths of spiritually mature leaders. More than once I wondered if the Lord had put me to work and then gone on vacation. It strengthened me one day to overhear a godly woman in our church speculate with another, "I wonder what the Lord is preparing Bryan to do that requires him to go through so much testing." That comment was scary in that it made me also wonder what could be worse than this, but the comment also helped me to think that the trials were not purposeless. The Lord was preparing, not abandoning.
If you don't think that way—that the present trials are preparing you for future purposes—then present trials will overwhelm you. I have mentioned often to students my experience of being in line at my own seminary graduation, looking down at the line and recognizing that every single one of us had been through a major life trial during seminary. Suddenly, I realized that Satan had done what he could to stop us. If that's all we see, then discouragement will destroy us. But if we are able to see that the Lord is also preparing his servants—never allowing more than we can stand, but stretching, molding, and strengthening us for greater work in his kingdom—then we can face today's battle with the resolution and hope the Lord intends. That's the way it was for Daniel and his friends. Today's battles were preparation for future ones. But the Lord was preparing them to be his instruments. If I had not had trials in seminary, I would not have been ready for those in the local church; if I had not had trials in the local church, I would not have been ready for those in the denomination; if I had not had those in the denomination in the past, I would not be ready to help the wider church today.
The perspective that present trials are preparation for tomorrow's battles underscores another reason that the Lord allows the pressures of defilement: protection. By being prepared, we are being protected from the consequences of our enemy's victories. Daniel faced greater battles than the test of his diet. As a consequence of committing to serve the Lord with integrity, Daniel was without defilement. The term for "defile" in this negative usage includes the notion of desecration. The implication is that Daniel wished to be spiritually protected from the taint of sin. His holiness kept his heart close to God. As a result, Daniel not only grew in the knowledge of Babylonian literature and learning, but he also had understanding of visions and dreams from God (verse 17). The understanding Daniel had of God's ways indicates that his holiness helped preserve a closeness with the Lord—a fellowship of Daniel's spirit with the Spirit of God—so that he could face Satan's assaults with wisdom and courage. Prepared by the lesser battles of the present, Daniel was also protected in the greater battles that were to follow.
During my summers as a college student, I worked for a major road construction company in western Tennessee. As an assistant to one of the supervisors, I earned excellent pay. That was important because the university I attended was very expensive, and neither I nor my family had the money to pay for my education. Besides, jobs were hard to come by, so it was vital to my future that I hold this one.
One morning, my supervisor told me I was doing such a good job for him and the company that he was going to give me a special privilege. He owned a hunting lodge in a nearby county, and he wanted me to spend a day or two there enjoying the outdoors. I thanked him for the offer but explained I needed every day of work I could get for college expenses and could not afford the time off. "Don't worry about that," he said. "You just do a little painting and repair at my cabin while you're there, and I'll keep you on the payroll."
I was off like a shot. By that evening, I was at the cabin savoring a meal of fresh, fried catfish and looking forward to a day of uninterrupted ease. Then the telephone rang. It was my father calling. When he had gotten home from work that evening, my mother had explained where I was and under what arrangements. Dad phoned me right away. "What are you doing collecting company pay for private work?" he asked. Well, I had not quite thought of it that way. "Dad," I said, "I can't go back to my boss now and tell him what he asked me to do is unethical. He may get offended, and I may lose this job. How am I supposed to get through school if I don't have this job?" Dad replied, "I know you need this job to prepare for what you want to do. I also know what you need to prepare for life, and this is not it."
I went home. I knew he was right. As I've gotten further from the situation, I have understood even more how right he was. My father accurately saw that careless ethics early in life could lead to further compromises and greater hardship. If the deceit, however slight it seemed, had worked that time, what kind of precedent would it have established in my life? Would I have looked back at some point in a successful career and said, "See how beneficial it was for me to be unethical at that point?" If so, what decisions might I be tempted to make at difficult moments in that career? What greater danger might I place myself in by believing that past compromise helped me? My father's insistence on non-defilement was preparation for life and protection from greater sin and consequences down the road.
If we do not practice holiness today, God's standards do not protect us tomorrow. The consequences of sin are pleasant only for a season, but the ultimate result is great hurt. God loves us enough to protect us from this future hurt by calling us to present holiness. The trial is never without purpose. God protects us from greater harm by giving us the opportunities to learn how to depend on him now, so that the later trials and temptations do not overwhelm us. This is why we need to make sure we have a present commitment to holiness. Because of pressures and difficulties, some of us may have said recently, "I will serve the Lord better later." Forgive me if this sounds too harsh: No, you will not. Whether your present trials are personal, private, moral, financial, or familial, if you are not preparing for tomorrow's battles with holiness today, you will not be spiritually strong enough to stand for the Lord later. Today's trials are the training ground for tomorrow's battlefield. The time to be undefiled is now. Later is too late.
The rewards of holiness
The preparation and protection afforded by holiness indicate that God's commands for purity are neither arbitrary nor capricious. The Bible's call to holiness reflects our God's desire for us not to walk away from the goodness he wants to provide in our lives—goodness that accompanies holiness.
God made provision for his goodness to be evident in the life of Daniel and his friends by protecting their welfare. Apparently the vegetable soup was good for them: "At the end of the ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king's food" (verse 15). God preserved their health. And it also unquestionably means that God preserved their lives so that a capricious king did not deem them unfit for his service and lop off their heads. God kept Daniel and his friends safe.
More than that, God overwhelmingly blessed Daniel and his friends with spiritual gifts; they were made ten times wiser than all his wise men, and Daniel had understanding of dreams and visions. His protection of his relationship with the Lord was rewarded with a special closeness and communication that allowed Daniel to understand the things of God. This is a very simple reminder that if we are responsible for leadership among God's people (as pastors, lay leaders, or parents), our wisdom is inevitably tied to our piety. God gives understanding and usefulness to those who are faithful to him. Piety and spiritual discernment are inseparable.
God is more than capable of protecting our welfare, and one of the rewards of our holiness is the preservation of our welfare. Remember the wife of my seminary friend, forced to leave her job at the pharmaceutical company? God did not abandon her. Because she would not sign the clearance forms for the contaminated syringes, the order was not delivered to the customer on time. Officials of the customer company investigated the delay and discovered how this wife had protected them from the contaminated syringes, even at the cost of her own job. The company for which the syringes were intended then hired her and increased her pay. She finished putting her husband through seminary. I experienced something similar with my road crew supervisor. When I followed my father's advice and told my boss I could not do private work for company pay, he simply said, "OK," and did not fire me.
God is more than able to provide for the welfare of those who stand for him. But now you and I have a problem, don't we? These "success stories," whether of characters biblical or contemporary, turn out so nice and neat. But, of course, life does not always come packaged with so pretty a ribbon tied around it. God is able, but is he always willing to rescue the holy from earthly trials? In fact, this gift of Daniel's welfare is not wrapped nearly as nicely as it may at first appear. Yes, Daniel is preserved for now, but he is also in captivity now. He will remain a captive his entire life—until he is over 90 years old. He will see his people enslaved for many decades. He will see them made to bow to pagan gods. He will never again see his homeland. And the visions and prophecies God will grant him include predictions of the suffering of his people for many generations to come. So in what way can we speak of God really preserving the welfare of Daniel and his people with any sort of honest reflection of the greater reality?
The first way is by being reminded that there is a greater reality. This life is not the end of all things, nor is it the bulk of our existence. We are immortal beings whose spiritual welfare is being prepared and protected beyond the confines of our earthly existence. Some of us may not receive the tangible rewards of holiness till we are in heaven with the Lord. Yet, "God is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him" (Hebrews 11:6). The rewards of holiness are guaranteed, but they are not always immediate or discernable or even present in this life. The question we face—the matter of faith we are being challenged to consider—is whether the spiritual rewards are real enough to weigh against earthly risk. And that is what the life of Daniel is really meant to confirm: that God is able and willing to provide what is best for his people for eternity.
Daniel's stand for holiness clearly had an effect on others. When Daniel stood his ground, he did not stand alone. In near focus are his three friends: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The simple message is that our holiness serves a witness to those near us. By our holiness we demonstrate our trust in, and loyalty to, our Lord. But more than those close to Daniel are affected by his witness. Of great reward to him, and to any who stand for their Lord, is knowledge that by our faithfulness to God in hard situations, we are participating in the proclamation of his gracious nature.
We are meant to see Daniel's life not as a guarantee or uninterrupted glee, but as a token of the irrepressible grace of God. Why are Daniel's people in captivity? They have sinned. They have turned from the God of their forefathers, warped his worship and compromised with his enemies. They deserve none of his attention, much less his mercy. Yet, by the earthly blessings of the life of Daniel, we and they are made to understand that God is yet present among his people. He is still helping Daniel. God's power has not left them. He is still providing for them. They have been faithless, but he remains faithful to his covenant and to his people. He has provided a witness from among the nobility (perhaps the royalty) of Israel—the nation through whom he promised a Redeemer for the nations of the earth. And when that witness and his companions honor God, the Lord shows his presence by his supernatural activity, his power by Daniel's preservation, and the continuation of his promises by the prophecies he gives to Daniel. Amidst the present and future suffering of God's people, Daniel's life is really a lens by which God shows that divine love is real, his covenant is unending, and his promises more sure than anything this earth can offer. Though we may walk away from him, he will not walk away from us. Even if we fail to live as Daniel did in this account, God perseveres in his love as he shows through Daniel's life.
In response to his holiness—Daniel's decision to remain undefiled—God provides for Daniel's immediate welfare, but more importantly for him and for us, through Daniel's holiness God provides a witness of the reality and perpetuity of the spiritual truths that are more important.
If Daniel would risk position, privilege, and life itself for a pure relationship with his God, then that must be quite a relationship, and that must be quite a God. His stand for his God amidst earthly deprivations is a witness to the incomparable grace of his God with all of its eternal blessings. By his willingness to risk everything for his God, Daniel shows how precious is the relationship with this God of grace.
There are not always tangible benefits or negligible damages as a result of holiness. But this life is only a moment in God's time (Psalm 90). Our immediate concerns are almost nothing compared to the immensity and beauty of the plan God has for our souls. The rewards of holiness may only be tasted in the present, but we will definitely feast upon them in eternity (John 14:2; Revelation 21:4). God safeguards the personal and spiritual welfare of his own with a view to what provides for their ultimate good and the good of the lives they touch (2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18). This does not deny that Daniel's circumstances remained dire in many ways. Yet God safeguarded and guided Daniel in a way that even the worst seeming disasters became instruments of God's grace for him and others. A holy person is a powerful tool in God's hands, even in times of trial—or especially in times of trial, for his witness to our souls, our families, and the nations.
We should remember that there are two groups of people not mentioned in the chapter but definitely in view who are affected by the witness of Daniel. We know from later prophecies of Daniel that the people of Israel will go through many generations of heartache. They will often wonder, "Is God faithful? Does he care? Can he protect?" The life of Daniel stood as a continuing witness to them that, though the present may be difficult, God is greater and he is faithful. God intends for someone else to know that, too: us! We also are witnesses to God's faithfulness though the experience of Daniel. By preserving a person named Daniel, God was preserving a nation called Israel, in order to send a Savior named Jesus, to save someone with our name and ten thousand times ten thousand more of the same. Daniel's willingness to risk everything to make that redeeming God known powerfully expresses how great and precious is the incomparable grace of God toward those who will trust in him.
When our son's trip to Haiti resulted in that infection that triggered Crohn's disease in his body, we worried and wept and wondered if we had been right to let him go. We are blessed to have a Christian doctor who had an eternal perspective about such questions and trials. He said to Jordan, "No regrets. You were in the service of the King, and God will use this as he knows is best." That was an amazing thought for a young man graduating high school and facing a lifetime of chronic illness. The Lord can use us as tools of his glory, even in the hard things—especially in the hard things—to clarify for the world the really important things of eternity.
In our family album is a picture of my son a few years later on another mission trip to hurricane ravaged Honduras. Next to him are his brother and sister, who also said, "This disaster is an opportunity for the gospel. We know the risks, but we also know the rewards of a holy purpose—eternity for those who are enabled to see God's presence and power through the faithfulness of his people. Our lives may lead into suffering here, but living with holy priorities through such pain will make more evident the weight of the eternal promises we say are so much more real and precious. So in our album are more pictures of our son Jordan digging foundations for homes in the dirt, leading impoverished children in song, and leading a Bible study in Spanish. In one of those pictures, a little girl with a red bow in her hair leans over Jordan's New Testament to see what he's reading. She lingered after the other children had gone and claimed Jesus as her Savior.
Eternity will be different because a young man in our day, like a young Daniel centuries ago, took risks for the sake of honoring God. He took those risks for reason, knowing that such witness can bear witness to the greatness of God's grace and the greater reward of his eternal care. For those who know the grace of their God, there really is no greater reward than to know we have been used by him as witnesses to secure the eternal welfare of others. While we may be looking for some great plan to transform our culture, God still calls us never to forget the power of simple piety. The way that we make a difference even as a minority in a culture turned from our God is to honor him with holy lives dedicated to witnessing his grace. As we pursue holiness, our spiritual welfare and witness is God's delight—as well as his greatest reward.
Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.