But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine. Daniel 1:8a, NIV
Imagine a hostile nation has overwhelmed your land, annihilated your country’s army and has now marched into your city. As a young, Hebrew child (maybe no more than ten or eleven years old) you see your conqueror’s officials going door to door, maybe killing, and certainly plundering, your neighbors; but even more frightening to you is that they’re carrying off children your age. Sure enough, when they reach your home, some of the accompanying soldiers hold back your sobbing parents while an officer drags you to a wooden cart filled with other frightened young kids all harshly roped together.
After months of rough foot travel through parched deserts and along fly-infested lowlands, you and the other captive children find yourselves escorted into a massive, foreign city. Towering over you, enormous megalithic walls frown, blocking out the sun and sapping the last of your hope to one day escape and return home.
You spend many weeks doing odd, intense work around the city – always chained and watched intently – before a permanent decision on what to do with you is made. That is when an important, but stooped and graying, man named Ashpenaz, comes into your cell, asks you a series of questions and inspects every inch of your body before telling the guard, “Put him with the others.” Fear grips you once again as the uncertainty of what this command means seizes your mind. You submit to the leading of the guard though, as he draws you out of your cell, around a corner and into the small courtyard – you’ve learned by now that you cannot resist without something unpleasant happening.
Your eyes quickly scan the other faces who are there with you; not knowing whether to be relieved or sorry that you see Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah too. They certainly look as worried as you feel, so none of you say anything upon exchanging glances.
A few other young Hebrew boys are dragged out into the courtyard as you await your fate. Finally Ashpenaz steps into the courtyard and makes one more quick inspection – as if he is reevaluating his decisions. “I see that all of you are very afraid.” He pauses a moment before continuing; with the pause itself saying much that could not be articulated. “But you needn’t be. I am not here to kill you or send you into slavery. I am here to take you to the great King Nebuchadnezzar. You will go to his palace, be fed from his table, clothed richly, educated in the manner of the Babylonians, and then one day you may even become one of his trusted servants.”
As you have probably already guessed, the story above is possibly close to the experiences of a certain boy named Daniel (and his three friends who are better known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego). You probably also remember many of his other experiences: being thrown into a Lion’s Den, interpreting prophetic dreams, serving three emperors of two different empires, and having multiple visions of the future. But think for a moment about Daniel’s attitude. If the majority of people in the world were put into his situation – kidnapped and dragged away from parents and all that they had ever known, forcibly marched hundreds of miles to a foreign city, worked like a slave, brought into the palace of a pagan king, and forced to serve their nation’s oppressor – they would likely respond in one of two ways: either 1) adopt the attitude of a victim by blaming everything on your unjust, oppressive circumstances and melt away into a mere shell of a person, or 2) denounce everyone and everything having to do with your persecutor and harden into hate itself. However, Daniel took a third option and did not merely live … he thrived and became a hero to all Jews and Christians.
Daniel made a decision to remain pure early in his life by refusing the food of the king’s table – fearing that it had been dedicated to the false Babylonian gods – and he reinforced and cultivated that decision for purity throughout his life by constant prayer to, and trust in, God. Though notoriety, wealth and power were there for the taking, Daniel chose to stay faithful to His God; even through the resulting ostracism and undermining from the political jockeying of the day. You see that the boy Daniel grew into a man by working hard for his captors – knowing that God had placed him where he was for a reason. He grew into an old and respected ruler by serving his nation’s oppressor faithfully – knowing that God had appointed Babylon and Persia for a purpose as well. And he transitioned from old age into death before he saw his nation restored, but still knowing that God had bigger and better plans for His people than those imagined by the temporally-obsessed Hebrews in exile. Daniel was a true hero because he rose to the challenges of his circumstances and stayed true to his calling.
I think that today we have a very underdeveloped, and even bent, idea of what it means to be a hero. We either raise up as ‘courageous’ some person who scorns traditional values and mores or we latch onto to a fictional idea of grandiosity – personified by comic book superheroes and alternate universe everymen. It seems like there are dozens of movies released each year which revolve around the super-hero. They may have some supernatural ability like Superman, Wolverine or Spiderman, or have unlimited amounts of money to buy all the best gadgets like Batman or Ironman. Maybe they live in a different universe from ours, in which midichlorians (or some such) allow a manipulation of a force that flows through everything. Or they may be some super-intelligent, super-athletic, next-step-in-evolution being which renders the rest of us obsolete. But that’s about as far as our idea of a hero tends to go nowadays; and to be honest, this is something which is very sad. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t enjoy modern stories of supermen, nor am I saying that we are, or even should be, unable to learn something from the way in which they might use their supernatural abilities to help other people (even the driest grass can provide the horse some nutrition).
On the other hand our stories about normal people in our normal world tend to be more dark; focusing on anti-heroes who might do good or might do evil – everything stands on a knife’s-edge without a moral foundation. Often they’re weighing in their own minds, against their own moral standard, whether their actions will bring about some imagined net gain. These anti-heroes are compelling only because their circumstances force them in one direction or another and we inevitably end up excusing them for their follies because a piece of our human nature wants to believe that the ends can justify the means. We even employ a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ philosophy by assuming that if we were given their circumstances we would have felt compelled to do as they did. In other words, we give the anti-hero the benefit of the doubt because of their circumstances and end up playing it fast and loose with our own morality.
We seem to have an enormous difficulty presenting normal people as heroes amid depressing – but every-day – circumstances. Which seems like a rather new development; humanity used to be aware of, or at least able to create, those types of heroes. We used to be more intimately familiar with men like Moses, David and Elijah than Green Lantern, Daredevil and the Incredible Hulk – but no longer. We used to appreciate historical heroes like Patrick and Jan Sobieski (see previous posts Be Thou My Vision and Deus Vincit for more on those two) more than Cyclops and Colossus – but that seems to have changed. Granted, some of the best heroes created by writers over the years have been in fictional worlds, but they were still human, interacting with their world under relatively plausible circumstances. Nevertheless somewhere, amidst the boom of THX and visual spectacle that is CGI, we left substance behind in favor of massive explosions and dizzying stunts … and we’re the poorer for it.
However I doubt we truly even understand the extent of our loss. It’s not just that we are poorer for having less substance in our heroes. It’s the fact that it affects our philosophy and our theology – which, in turn, affects our everyday spirituality. Without those stories of ordinary heroes, fighting and overcoming everyday issues, we tend to either lessen our own, personal expectations of ourselves or we slip into some notion of fatalism – as if our circumstances are who we are. Saying to ourselves, “I’m not a superman, I can’t overcome this.” or “If there were justice in the world, I’d be much better off.” or “Some guys just get all the luck.”
This fatalistic view of life today seems further buttressed by an overarching spirit of victimhood. “I’m oppressed because I’m (fill in the blank)!” We create so many excuses out of our circumstances for our actions that we don’t have time or imagination enough to find solutions … and we have even less time for stories of heroic human resolve by those who HAVE triumphed over their circumstances. If you want to know how insidious this fatalistic idea can be, ask yourself how many times you’ve made excuses for the behavior of someone else (or yourself) just because ‘he grew up in a dangerous neighborhood’, or ‘she didn’t have much money growing up’, or ‘he was bullied as a kid’, or ‘she was never her mommy’s favorite.’ It’s not that these things shouldn’t frame the way we empathize or give grace and mercy to these people (shouldn’t we give empathy, mercy, grace and the benefit of the doubt to all?). On the other hand though, does it make any difference to them spiritually if we extend some measure of grace which God doesn’t? In other words, can you impart salvation to a person by excusing their actions based on their demographic group or their lack of opportunity? And how can you, as a person who cannot live that person’s life or know the intentions of their heart, properly judge anyway? This sword is double-edged. We’re warned to ‘judge not, lest you be judged’ (Mt 7:1), and we’re also instructed to love even those in the world who hate us (1Jn 3), but when the excuses of a person pile up to a point where they lie in a state of paralysis, giving them a buck or two isn’t going to accomplish as much as a prayer for their hearts or a word/story of encouragement about overcoming obstacles.
And THAT’S THE POINT, isn’t it? If we are only what our circumstances make us, if we are only the fateful collection of demographic data points filled out in a voter registration card, then we really don’t have any chance of doing anything worthwhile apart from some equally-random fortuitous/calamitous situation and response. However, we know through the lives of heroes in scripture that this randomness in life isn’t the case! Do you truly think that randomness contributed to Moses being set adrift on the river Nile while all the other Hebrew boys were slaughtered? Or that he washed up at the feet of Pharoah’s daughter? Do you think it accidental that Rahab had a house with a window on the wall? Do you think it a coincidence that ravens brought a famished Elijah food in the desert? Do you think it an act of fortune that Jonah showed up in Nineveh just as the city’s hearts were ripe for repentance? So why would you think it random for you to be in your situation? Or why would you think it impossible for someone in even the most horrendous life circumstance to rise above their ordinary humanity – even if temporarily saddled with victimhood and anger – and heroically overcome through the strength of God?
By all means, have pity on the destitute and the hurting and the suffering, but don’t saddle that person with the soul-destroying idea of equating them with their circumstances. In doing so you dehumanize them by denying that they hold within them that part of us which God created in His own image – a part which is truly heroic and even (if I may be so bold) divine! Daniel did it after all, why can’t the hurting person of today? And why can’t you?
True heroism is rising above one’s weaknesses or the ‘arrows of outrageous fortune’, and conquering those circumstances through the strength of the God! The same God who offers grace and mercy to satisfy His perfect justice. Daniel wasn’t perfect, and neither are any of us, but he overcame his imperfections through his dedication to a perfect God … and God used his life as a beacon for those of us caught in victimhood and anger. The next time you’re sitting in the theater, watching a modern-day superhero or anti-hero doing evil that good may result, remember that our only real and proper goal in life is to glorify God and trust to His saving grace through the blood of His son, Jesus Christ. To be a true hero, you simply must realize, and act on, the most important thing in life: drawing near to the God of all strength and comfort … He will help us overwhelmingly conquer and become heroes in this dark age.
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all – how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For Your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.