Stripped of everything and everyone. Led a wandering people into the Promised Land. Left with a mission to save her people – at the cost of her life. Tossed into the flames.
Job. Joshua. Esther. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
What were the responses of these individuals to seemingly impossible situations – situations so dire, so dangerous and difficult, that there was no earthly hope remaining?
Job. Job was a man “blameless and upright” who “feared God and shunned evil” – and “he was the wealthiest man in the east” (Iyov/Job 1:2, 3 CJB). God blessed him greatly: expansive flocks, numerous servants, many sons and daughters, ease. Protection. Favor. Then begins a saga of what seems nothing short of total devastation as the Adversary (Satan) is allowed to test Job’s faithfulness to God. Within a span of moments, Job’s servants are slaughtered, his flocks are destroyed or stolen, and all his beloved children are killed in a freakishly strange accident. From head to toe, his body becomes a mass of sores. His wife bitterly prods him to curse God. And Job’s so-called friends gather to pity his misery, “offering faulty and simplistic explanations of God’s dealings” (Stern, p. 952), urging Job to repent of supposed sins in order to restore God’s former favor. Job has questions for God, wondering at God’s justice and dealings with humanity – with him – and, in the end, comes to this:
“‘I know that you can do everything, that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…. Yes, I spoke, without understanding, of wonders far beyond me, which I didn’t know…. I had heard about you with my ears, but now my eye sees you; therefore I detest [myself] and repent in dust and ashes.”’ (Iyov 42:2, 3, 5-6 CJB)
I am utterly undone; there is nothing for me apart from you.
Joshua. Joshua is a leader trained under the hand of Moses and tasked with leading God’s people Israel to their rest in the Promised Land when Moses no longer was permitted to do so. Joshua steps into hard situations, facing the opposition of fellow spies who could see only the giants inhabiting the area rather than the wealth of the land and the abundance of God’s favor. In the face of fear, whining, and disobedience from his people he declares God’s promises confidently, conquering cities with song and bringing the people with him into the victory God was providing.
“‘Therefore fear ADONAI, and serve him truly and sincerely. Put away the gods your ancestors served beyond the [Euphrates] River and in Egypt, and serve ADONAI! If it seems bad to you to serve ADONAI, then choose today whom you are going to serve…. As for me and my household, we will serve ADONAI!’”
(Y’hoshua/Joshua 24:14-15 CJB)
Whatever may come, whatever they may choose, my choice is made.
Esther. The setting: the Jews had been taken into captivity and were now living in the land of the Medes and Persians – strangers in a strange land where ADONAI, the Lord God Most High, is not known. The story begins: the king of the Medes and Persians, in search of a new queen, gathers the most beautiful of the young virgins for, essentially, an extended beauty pageant. The winner? Esther. Having won the king’s favor above all the other women of the land, she becomes the chosen queen. Plot twist: the king’s wicked and self-absorbed advisor, Haman, has also curried the king’s favor. In a fit of temper over the perceived lack of deference toward himself from Esther’s Jewish cousin, Haman tricks the king into signing a proclamation that will have all the Jews slaughtered. (It does seem excessive, doesn’t it? Selfishness always has a way of creating evil excesses.) But Esther herself is also a Jew, and cousin Mordecai pleads with her to rescue her people by going unsummoned before the king – a veritable death warrant. The tension builds to a climax:
‘Ester had them return this answer to Mordekhai: “Go, assemble all the Jews to be found in Shushan, and have them fast for me, neither eating nor drinking for three days, night and day; also I and the girls attending me will fast the same way. Then I will go in to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish”…. On the third day, Ester put on her robes and stood in the inner courtyard of the king’s palace….’ (Ester 4:15-16, 5:1 CJB)
Though I cannot see the end, I am here for such a time as this.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The Jews are taken into captivity by the king of Babylon; among these captives are four faithful followers of God: Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. With their God-given wisdom and steady commitment to righteousness these men win the favor of the pagan king of Babylon. However, this favor is put into jeopardy when the proud king has a massive statue created of himself – a statue which he demands all his subjects worship to honor him as a god among men. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to worship any other than ADONAI, the Most-High and only God. Their punishment? The furnace is stoked to seven times its usual heat – so hot that the guards are incinerated by mere proximity – and these three men are cast into the flames:
‘“Is it true that you neither serve my gods nor worship the gold statue I have set up?….
But if you won’t worship, you will immediately be thrown into a blazing hot furnace – and what god will save you from my power then?”
Shadrakh, Meishakh, and ‘Aved-N’go answered the king, “Your question does not require an answer from us. Your majesty, if our God, whom we serve, is able to save us, he will save us from the blazing hot furnace and from your power. But even if he doesn’t, we want you to know, your majesty, that we will neither serve your gods nor worship the gold statue…”’ (Dani’el 3:14, 15, 16-18 CJB)
There is nothing and no one else we will choose, so burn us up.
Have you ever been in an impossible situation? Have you ever been stripped, suddenly or gradually, of people, of relationships, of title and position, of health, of livelihood, of security, of hope? Have you ever been crushed so thoroughly that you thought you may never rise again, either literally or figuratively? Have you ever met with opposition so fierce that you were overwhelmed? These questions are mostly rhetorical. To be human in a world still yearning for the soon-coming promise of all things being made new (Revelation 21:1-5) is to know these pains.
As Christians we tend to approach suffering and massive challenges with favorite promises such as Romans 8:28: “Furthermore, we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called in accordance with his purpose.” We remind ourselves and each other that it will get better, that God in His kindness does not forget us. David’s words in the Psalms become encouragement: “For you, ADONAI, bless the righteous. You surround them with favor like a shield” (5:13 CJB). These promises are true – completely, unerringly trustworthy because they are made by our faithful Promise-Keeper, our good and only God.
But if waiting for the blessing at the end is our only aim, our suffering easily becomes small and self-serving.
If I endure in impossible situations only because I am awaiting God’s favor, I have missed the glory of living outside myself. If I persevere only because I am waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled, I am still living as a slave to self and to comfort rather than as one wholly surrendered to the awesome presence of God Most-High. If I live with my focus on pleasant outcomes, my hope still rests in having good things directed toward myself rather than in seeing the One who alone is pure Goodness. I would be serving my own self-interests without needing to surrender myself completely to Jesus Christ, Son of God, who is the Beginning and the End (Rev. 21:6), the Master and Creator of both time and eternity (Col. 1:14-17).
I confess that I often want to settle my hope on the promises God has given me – I know He is faithful, so it becomes easier to look forward to those joys, to that future vision. So much easier, in fact, that I forget to keep my eyes on my God, who is the giver of every good thing. I forget all too often that He is my Hope – not the promises, not the vision. He alone is the Goodness.
‘I said to ADONAI, “You are my Lord; I have nothing good outside of you.”’ (Tehillim/Psalms 16:2)
No good thing apart from Him – I am undone.
“Whom do I have in heaven but you? And with you, I lack nothing on earth. My mind and body may fail, but God is the rock for my mind and my portion forever.” (Tehillim 73:25-6)
What have I apart from Him? He is my everything. Even where all else falls away and my flesh is destroyed, He remains. I am undone.
Doing hard things; choosing what is right over what is easy; choosing what is just over what is safe – we do not endure in righteousness because we are waiting for pots of gold at the end of the rainbow or even for peace after the fury of the storm. Job did not cling to God and pray for the forgiveness of his misguided friends because he knew God would restore double what he had lost. Joshua did not choose God above all else, speak fearlessly, or lead a wandering people because his hope was in fame or reward. Esther did not go before the king because she was guaranteed to walk out alive from the throne room, heralded as rescuer of an entire people. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not bear the king’s wrath because they were assured of their flame-proof skin and the fearful honor of a pagan king. All these so-labeled “heroes” of Scripture did what they did because it was right. They did not do it because they always understood or knew there could be a favorable outcome; they did not do it because they were the most brave, selfless, or saintly individuals to walk the earth. They took up the tasks and faced the circumstances before them because they knew no other way:
The Lord gives and takes away – all these are wonders far beyond me.
As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
If I perish, I perish.
Burn us up.
It is not that God fails to protect and shield us with favor – quite the contrary! We can see God working out for good the crazy-impossible situations and sheltering His people with His protective favor. These accounts in Scripture all have quite “happy endings,” as it were. But we could look at these stories then protest that John the Baptist was beheaded (Mattityahu/Matthew 14:1-12) and Stephen was stoned (Acts 6-7) – where were God’s favor and protection then?! Why did Paul so frequently escape dangerous circumstances – stoning, shipwreck, imprisonment, torture – yet others died for doing what was right?
There is a truth deeper than physical security or comfort that every one of these persons understood, whether we can perceive the “happy ending” or not: there is no good thing apart from God. They made the choices they made, doing hard things, because in the end God is All-in-All. In Him we lack no good thing.
These individuals found themselves in a place of surrendering fully to the Lord. They could conceive of no other response, no other way to live. Burn us up. We are invited to make these same choices – choices of how to respond verbally, mentally, emotionally, and even physically. When we choose God’s way, our “yes” to Him is our automatic “no” to fear of man, to fear of death or pain, and to the deceitful glimmer of hope placed in anything other than our God.
When we learn to live wholly surrendered to God, it is not that our lives and circumstances suddenly hold no value. Rather, it is that we see value beyond the moment because we are already living in the reality of eternity, being filled and sustained purely by the presence of God’s Holy Spirit within us. Burn us up.
I declare that God Most-High is my Goodness. I do not fear death, and I would willingly give up my life or bear pain on behalf of righteousness, on behalf of truth and the wellbeing of others. I would do this not because I am marvelously brave or selfless but because I have already made my choice. Burn me up. I make my choice not because I am hopeless or resigned to struggle but because I am thoroughly confident in Living Hope, which is Jesus Christ, my All and my Only. Burn me up.
There are many times when I wail or rail or plead to understand. There are many times when the pain within and the pain without is so great that it surely must be impossible to bear. There are times when I resent the path my feet walk and the tasks set before me, especially when I hold deep promises for which the time never seems to come. There are times when the world seems to crumble around my loved ones, and I wish only that I could remove their pain. Lord, ‘“I do trust – help my lack of trust!”’ (Mark 9:24). There are times when doing what is right faces so much opposition that I feel I might as well be assailing a brick wall with a toothpick, and I am excruciatingly weary. So very, very tired. Yet in all these situations my responses must be shaped by a choice already made, a “yes” already given: I know no other way to live, no way apart from Him. Burn me up.
So I stand, arms spread in humility and need toward the heavens, for I am undone. Whom have I but you, my Lord, Most-High God? Burn me up, for I know of no other way to live. I have no Goodness apart from you. Burn me up, for there is no greater joy, no place I am more well, and no wholeness more complete than total surrender to the One who gives and takes away with such exquisite kindness and relentless holiness. Blessed be His name.
Dear hearts, let us learn to do hard things not because we are waiting for better days but because we already know Goodness. We live in the eternal reality of better days and better promises because our Better has already come: Jesus Christ, our Messiah (see Hebrews). Let us choose justice over security and righteousness over ease because we know the Giver of life, who holds us faithfully in His love for all eternity. May our response become “burn us up,” because we know no confidence apart from El-‘Elyon, our Creator and Sustainer. I bless you this day to walk in the fearlessness of knowing Living Hope as our Lord shows Himself to you. As with Job, may your eyes now see and your heart be overcome by the awe of Most-High God, the All-in-All.
A quick note regarding the “CJB” and the funny-looking words or names you may have seen: All Scripture quotations and references, and commentary, are taken from David H. Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible, which is the chosen version for many Messianic Jews (i.e. Jews who have recognized and accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Savior). I have utilized the transliterated Hebrew versions of words and books of Scripture (e.g. “Tehillim” for the English word “Psalms”) where it was therein used. I am currently studying the Jewish roots of Scripture, which is an adventure you will likely read more about in the future. 😉