But If Not
Faith in God no matter the circumstances
In the third chapter of the book of Daniel we read one of the most famous lines in the Bible. Several years ago, when Christopher Nolan released the film Dunkirk, a story began recirculating about a British Naval Officer at Dunkirk who cabled three of these words back to England, “But if not…”
It was 1940 and the British army was trapped between the sea and the oncoming Nazi military force. In the face of utter annihilation an officer of these soldiers requested rescue from the British Navy. The message in that brief communique was simple; they would either be rescued by their country or they would die fighting on the beaches, but there was one thing they would not do–they would not capitulate to the Nazi’s.
Those three words come from Daniel 3:18, and they galvanized a countrywide rescue mission. Around the time of the film’s release a number of devotionals were written comparing the biblical literacy of Britain in the 1940’s with American Biblical illiteracy today. Certainly there is something to lament when we consider the loss of Biblical understanding. I heard a story about Camille Paglia, the academic and critic, who recounted a recent experience teaching Western literature at university. When she referenced Moses a student raised their hand and asked who that was. Paglia went on to wonder how she could possibly teach Western literature to a class that didn’t even know who Moses was. Not only in academia, but also in our churches biblical literacy has declined.
While the decline of Biblical literacy is something to observe, it is not what I want to focus on. What I want to focus on is the epic nature of the quote. It has the features we look for in a heroic quote. Like, “Go ahead. Make my day.” Or, “Then we will fight in the shade.” And one I’m particularly fond of as a Texan, “Come and take it.” Like the heroic quotes, these Biblical words are courageous, resolved, and laconic. They are meant to inspire. They are meant to encourage our faithfulness to God.
The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace is a one with which most of us are probably familiar. And if we are not familiar with the story proper, we have probably heard some reference to it. In this story the greatest military and political power in the world, Nebuchadnezzar, had created a giant idol of himself, and zeroed in his focus on three men when they refused to worship the image.
Their response was resolute and defiant of Nebuchadnezzar: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
Their words, “But if not” do not betray some doubt in God’s ability. In the stories recounted in chapters 1 and 2 they’d seen him act mightily. They knew God could rescue them from any and every circumstance. Their words displayed a resolve to love the Lord their God with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength.
There are countless times throughout the week, month, or year when we are tempted to bend the knee to sin. The pressure to disobey might feel like more than we can bear, but it isn’t (1 Corinthians 10:13). There might be temptations at work, home, or from the culture. Maybe there is some private sin with which you are struggling. Whatever it may be, this story teaches us that we have a God who is greater than our trials and temptations. That he is present as our Deliverer, and that only the One True God is worthy of our lives.
Rev. Will Stockdale is Ministry to State's Director of D.C. ministry.