I was set a challenge this week, by one of the overbearing blokes of Stornoway Free Church. ‘Shut up, woman’, he ordered, ‘your blog titles are too long-winded – and who permitted you to have ideas, anyway?’ Or words to that effect; no doubt I am paraphrasing somewhat. ‘Write about this, and stay out of trouble’, he said finally, firing a Biblical reference at me and departing.
He had quoted Daniel 3: 18 and, specifically, these seemingly negative, doubting words: ‘but if not’, uttered by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, when King Nebuchadnezzar is telling them of their imminent punishment in the fiery furnace. Their answer is along the lines that we always expect from believing people: do what you will, our God will protect us, and pluck us out of the flames.
‘ . . . but if not . . .’
So well-versed in Scripture was the wartime generation that a naval officer at Dunkirk telegraphed only these three words home and had the Allied plight immediately understood. The situation was desperate. Indeed, in the ordinary sense, the situation was hopeless.
Was that officer telling his loved ones to prepare themselves for German invasion, then, for the loss of all Allied hopes of success? Not any more than Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were preparing for the possibility that God might leave them to a fiery death. He was, in fact, telling the people at home that whatever happened, God would be with them.
We have our own ideas about how we would like the Lord to salvage a situation. It may be that we pray for a desperately ill loved one to be cured; it may be that we want him to stop our enemy’s mouths; it may be that we beg him to not send us into a particular situation. These are all prayers I have uttered, some of them many times. And in every significant example I can recall, God gently shook his head, ‘no’.
At this point, the unbeliever scoffs. The book of psalms brims over with examples of the enemy mocking and asking, ‘where is your God now?’ In the world, they see our relationship with the Lord as being similar to that between a small child and Santa Claus, or perhaps Aladdin’s genie. He is not, though, a capricious granter of wishes. God hears my prayers before they leave my heart, before I know them myself. But he is wiser than to let me direct him in how these should be answered.
When I prayed for my husband to be cured, and was comforted by the verse, ‘this sickness is not unto death’, I was hearing only what I wanted. I was stopping short of the next clause ‘but to the glory of God’. In my understandable human pain, I wanted God to make everything all right, to make it stop hurting there and then. In his infinite goodness and wisdom, though, he took my request and granted it more fully and completely than I would ever have the grace or courage to ask for myself.
In times of sore oppression – verbal, rather than physical, lest anyone feel the need to accuse me of exaggeration – and slander, I prayed that God would silence those who lifted their voices against me in hatred. The chorus only intensified and became nastier and more vitriolic. Far from stopping their mouths, God seemed only to lengthen the lead to give them more latitude. And, in the end, the freedom of that leash became the rope from which their unkindness swung, for all to see. He caused them to stop their own mouths.
There have been situations I wanted no part of and asked God to let me go around. These requests he has also denied. I have lived through confrontations, through spiritual and emotional difficulties that I would have just as soon avoided. More times than I like to admit, I would ask God, ‘why have you put me through this’, and concluding over and over that my soul seems to require an inordinate amount of honing! But hone me he does. Every trial, every mistake, every misunderstanding between me and my brethren, every word I say out of turn, every relationship that I enter into, every partiality I show, every decision I make for good or ill, God is there.
That is what those three little words mean: ‘but if not’. They are immediately followed by an affirmation that, even if God does not deal with them as they have proclaimed, still they won’t turn from him. It is the same submission to his will that caused Christ to ask for the cup to pass from him, and then to add ‘not my will but yours’.
‘But if not’, however it sounds in the mouth of an unbeliever, is the very opposite of doubt. It is faith, born of an intimate knowledge of this God, who does everything perfectly. It is the confident proclamation of the believer who knows that he may not always take them out of the fiery furnace, but neither will he leave them to suffer it alone.
I hope this blog encourages you to believe, or to remember that God is with us always – but, if not, he is, just the same.