We’ve seen it, we’ve heard it, and it’s inundated our newsfeeds. The Christian baker refuses to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding and the bakery is then forced to close. The county clerk refuses to issue same-sex marriage licenses and a storm of anger erupts around her employment status. The culture of the U.S. has rapidly changed and Christians aren’t entirely sure how to respond to these changes, and when they do, it tends to evoke deep, emotional responses on both sides.
But this isn’t simply a battle between Christians and non-Christians. Even among Christian believers the opinions span the spectrum. Despite the fact that Christians might offer up scripture here and there to support their position on these matters, the truth is, scripture isn’t terribly specific when the context of the quoted passage is taken into consideration. How then, are we supposed to apply scripture and make these types of decisions? When do we compromise and choose a response for the sake of love and relationship, and when do we draw the line and make a stand?
Unlike many bloggers and writers, today I’m not offering my opinion on these newsworthy topics. I’ve been hesitant to do so because I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all solution. I believe it takes thoughtful discernment to understand all the factors that play into each situation, including our own sinful pride and potentially clouded judgment. This discernment is quite honestly what seems to be missing from so many equations.
Equipped with Discernment
In the previous lesson, I discussed the pattern of God’s will for our lives as it has been revealed multiple times throughout the Bible. I said that the Wilderness stage of that pattern is intended to be a time of preparation; a stage in life where God equips us to live out our future purpose. If we have a hope of ever using effective discernment, we must first be equipped with it.
While Judah was in the stage of captivity in Babylon, Daniel and his friends were in a personal stage of Preparation. They were quite literally being trained in every sort of education and discipline. The Wilderness of Preparation is designed to teach us about God’s faithfulness so as to build in us faithfulness toward him. His favor in response is not merely a reward for our faithfulness, but a confirmation of his.
We see these four young men remain faithful to the Lord through diet an attitude. They build relationships the entire time. God confirms his faithfulness with good health and an unusual aptitude for learning and discernment. King Nebuchadnezzar liked them the best. Let’s go further though, and look at how discernment is developed in this stage of preparation.
Scratching the Surface of Discernment with Love
In Daniel chapter one we see Daniel and his contemporaries being whisked off into Babylon to undergo intense pagan indoctrination. They study the literature, learn the language, change their names, and train for royal positions within the Babylonian kingdom. They draw the line, however, on the food they eat. Most scholars agree that Daniel considered the food defiled because of the Hebrew dietary laws and restrictions, or the idol practice the food underwent, or both. Does this mean that in so doing, he’s established a universal “line” for all God-fearing believers?
If we look forward to Acts chapter 15 we see a similar outcome. In this chapter of Acts a rift has developed between long-times Jews and new Gentile Christians. These Judaizers (as they were referred to) insisted that the new Gentile converts needed to follow the Law of Moses and get circumcised. This mandate threatened the very spirit of grace, and the Apostle Paul fought vehemently against it. He traveled to Jerusalem to make his case and persuade the believers to stay true to grace. In the end they all agreed with Paul, but compromised with the following requirements in a letter from James to Antioch:
“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: you must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:28-29 NLT)
Some believe James was primarily concerned with these practices because they directly related to pagan idol worship. Is it possible James thought about this exact scenario in Daniel as the basis of his recommendation? Who knows? I believe Paul compromised and agreed to this letter for the sake of unity, love, and relationship. I’m sure he agreed with James on ridding the emerging Church of any pagan practices, but I doubt he wanted any “requirements” associated with Jesus.
Why do I think Paul compromised on this subject? In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul spends a good portion in chapter eight answering their question as to whether or not eating meat offered to idols is wrong.
So what about eating meat that has been offered to idols? Well, we all know that an idol is not really a god and that there is only one God. (I Corinthians 8:4 NLT)
However, not all believers know this. Some are accustomed to thinking of idols as being real, so when they eat food that has been offered to idols, they think of it as the worship of real gods, and their weak consciences are violated. It’s true that we can’t win God’s approval by what we eat. We don’t lose anything if we don’t eat it, and we don’t gain anything if we do. (I Corinthians 8:7-8 NLT)
So if what I eat causes another believer to sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live – for I don’t want to cause another believer to stumble. (I Corinthians 8:13 NLT)
If Paul truly believed there was nothing lost nor gained by the decision to eat meat offered to idols, then he must have endorsed the letter forbidding the consumption of meat offered to idols because of his love for the Church, and his desire to see them wholeheartedly pursue Christ, which outweighed this technicality. He’s even willing to never eat meat again for the sake of love and relationship. He goes on to say that liberty and freedom in Christ will always be consistent with love for others.
You say, “I am allowed to do anything” – but not everything is good for you. You say,
I am allowed to do anything” – but not everything is beneficial. Don’t be concerned for your own good but for the good of others. (I Corinthians 10:23 NLT)
Interestingly, Daniel had the same freedom to eat from the king’s table, just as he had the freedom to accept the Babylonian names and educational training. Why did Daniel feel compelled to draw the line at the food when it’s clear God really cares about the condition of your heart? We don’t know for sure. Either Daniel didn’t understand this or he held another motive. My best guess is that these young men wanted to preserve some form of worship (when all other forms had been stripped away) and God’s Spirit directed them in this way. The way in which they proposed their suggestion was obviously done in love, and their relationship with the eunuch was established on mutual respect.
Any sticky decision begs a foundation upon which to rest. You must ask yourself, “Whom am I loving on either side of the decision?”
I’m not going to tell you whether or not you should bake a cake, or whether or not to quit your job, but I will outline a set of responsive moves based on the equipment we see God utilize during Israel’s wilderness.
Seek To Know God
The Law – God gave Israel the law as soon as they crossed to the other side of the Red Sea. We know the law is not the means to salvation, but rather a means to KNOW HIM. And knowing him is indeed the means to salvation.
Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3 NIV)
God gave them the law so that they might know him. We can take advantage of the time in the wilderness, and seek to know him. There are a number of ways to do this and they should always end up in his Word, whether it’s Bible study, church attendance, or fellowship with other believers.
Seek God’s Presence
The Tabernacle – God gave Israel the tabernacle, also known as the place of his presence. While in the wilderness, Israel saw his presence and followed his guidance with the manifestation of a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night.
Enjoy yourselves in the presence of the Lord your God along with your sons, daughters, male and female slaves, the Levites who live in your cities, the foreigners, orphans, and widows who live among you. Enjoy yourselves at the place the Lord your God will choose for his name to live. (Deut 16:11 GW)
With the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, we have become his holy tabernacle, his holy temple. His presence provides the direct connection to God that we need for discernment to know our path as well as the power to obey it. Practice his abiding presence through worship and prayer, and give yourself wholly to him.
Seek God’s Vision
A Prophet – God provided Israel with a prophet in Moses. Moses articulated a vision of God’s community in the Promised Land; a vision to encourage them to step forward in faith and obedience when things looked daunting or exhausting.
When you cross the Jordan River and enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, … a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord the God of your ancestors, promised you. (Deut 27:2-3 NLT)
Moses provided the Israelites with warnings and admonishment to obey God’s law, and he gave them God’s vision of a fruitful community through obedience. God’s ultimate vision for Israel was to bring salvation to the world through them and Moses shared this too.
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. (Deut 18:15 NLT)
When God directs us, if we are listening and watching closely, he will frequently accompany this with a glimpse of his vision. This vision is often not a detailed picture, so don’t expect to receive GPS map with exact coordinates. It’s typically a glimpse to encourage us another step forward.
Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. (Psalm 119:105 KJV)
The lamp that we carry only illuminates a step or two ahead, requiring additional insight and guidance from God to keep walking. We need him with us daily, moving the lamp forward so that we can wisely navigate the path until we reach the light. Seek his vision by asking God to give you gift of sight. Lord, show me what you want me to see, so that I might move forward boldly.
Seek God’s Confirmation
Manna – God provided manna from heaven for Israel to eat as a sign of his faithfulness. He was indeed in this wilderness with them.
But in your great mercy you did not abandon them to die in the wilderness. The pillar of cloud still led them forward by day, and the pillar of fire showed them the way through the night. You sent your good Spirit to instruct them, and you did not stop giving them manna from heaven or water for their thirst. For forty years you sustained them in the wilderness, and they lacked nothing. Their clothes did not wear out, and their feet did not swell! (Nehemiah 9:19-21 NLT)
The Jews reflect on all the positive things God provided for their ancestors hundreds of years before, but no doubt there were plenty of those exact ancestors who did not view the wilderness in this way. They saw only the hardship. And don’t misunderstand; the wilderness is not without its hardship. But as you seek God’s direction to remain faithful to him, seek confirmation of his faithfulness toward you. Seek confirmation on his direction for every step in your life. He’s pleased to provide it.
When Daniel chose to draw the line at the food from the king’s table, he used discernment to do so. His request was proposed in love and respect. I believe he made the request for the purpose of maintaining an element of worship so that they might know God more and remain in God’s presence. Daniel comes awfully close to implying he held a vision of better health by suggesting a comparison of him and his friends after 10 days. And sure enough, God confirmed their decision with favor in the form of better health and an unusual aptitude for wisdom.
Daniel’s story isn’t necessarily a story to inspire us all to boldly rebel against any and all cultural deviations. This was Daniel’s journey, not ours. However, like all scripture, there are underlying values and principals to be applied. I pray that we will allow love-of-others to take preeminence in our decision-making and that our choices would be guided after we’ve make a practice of seeking to know God, seeking his presence, seeking his vision, and seeking his confirmation.