Thomas Schreiner once wrote, “The course of history is determined by God; human beings do not ultimately secure the future by their own actions” (The King in His Beauty, 391). It is when the hearts of men and women rebel against this truth that they begin to skew things like faith.
I know of a woman who has been diagnosed with cancer. The church she belongs to assures her that if she would just have enough faith, she would be healed. They tell her that God responds with favor to those of his people who demonstrate faith. And of course they make what seems to be a logical conclusion. The more faith you have, the more favor you will experience.
So, the woman no longer says, “I hope God heals me” or, “I pray God’s will be done for me.” She now says with renewed confidence, “I know God will heal me. The size of my circumstance does not compare to the size of my faith!” She prays incessantly. She reads her Bible three times a day. She attends church regularly. She gives offering weekly. She does all of these things for one purpose: stronger faith so that her circumstance will change.
It seems to be a consensus in much of America, especially in the Bible Belt, that good things will happen if someone just “believes” enough. This is especially true when it comes to forms of suffering. Cancer is a disease that is rampantly destroying life. It does not discriminate against gender, age, race, or social status. It is commonplace for many Christians and churches who encounter cancer to respond with “faith.” They create attitudes like the one in the story above; that adequate faith can somehow trigger or activate God to heal or bless. It is as if God is a power source merely waiting for us to turn on the switch of faith.
It simply is a common misconception that faith can change circumstances. The value of faith is understood as the ability it has to “get” God to do what we want. All is well and good with this philosophy, until reality sets in. When we pray fervently for our loved ones to be healed only to watch helplessly as they deteriorate before our eyes. This kind of prosperity theology that views faith as a kind of light switch will lead to nothing but despair.
In the end of this theology has one of two outcomes. If the premise holds that faith triggers God to act, yet the suffering does not cease, either faith is not strong enough or God is not powerful enough. If bad things happen because our faith is insufficient, then faith is a farce because no one in the history of the world has been immune from bad things. Even worse, if bad things happen because God is insufficient, there is no hope for our suffering and we are lost in its darkness. When hardships like cancer come, we need much more than a “when you wish upon a star” faith. We need deep, true, real, and genuine faith that can see in, through, and beyond our circumstances.
However, what we see in the book of Daniel (and in all of the Bible) is that faith is not interrelated to our circumstances in ways that many modern American Christians think that it is. Faith is not defined in Scripture by circumstances. Biblical faith is defined by the grace of God and expressed in obedience to God. Biblical faith is received from God and produces obedience. Biblical faith’s relationship to circumstances is one of response. Faith is not determined by nor determines circumstances, but instead responds to and shines in circumstances. As preacher and author Bryan Chapell once wrote, “Biblical faith is not confidence in particular outcomes; it is confidence in a sovereign God” (The Gospel According to Daniel, 53).
The book of Daniel teaches us a few aspects of biblical faith. The basis of biblical faith is God’s sovereign grace. The fruit of biblical faith is obedience. These two aspects of biblical faith are seen throughout Daniel.
In Daniel, God’s people exhibit legitimate and sincere faith in God despite their current condition. God’s people are experiencing judgment. They are exiled in Babylon under the rule of an incredibly ruthless leader as a result of breaking covenant stipulations. However, what we see over and over again is the resolve of God’s people to trust God despite their circumstances.
The narrative accounts in Daniel 1, 3, and 6 most clearly demonstrate unrelenting trust and devotion from God’s people as they face persecution and suffering.
Faith Refusing Food
In Daniel 1, four Judean boys are ripped away from their homes, forced to learn a new culture, and stripped of their identities. They are commanded to learn Chaldean customs and to eat the king’s food (1:5). However, they resolved to trust God and obey him by refusing to partake of the diet prescribed by the king. The food may have been sacrificed to idols or it may have been unclean, we simply do not know. We do know that it was defiled (1:8).
Regardless of this dire circumstance, Daniel and his friends trusted God and obeyed his Word. It may have meant losing their lives, but it was this radical and sacrificial faith that marked these boys. And according to Steinmann, this faith that produced the fruit of obedience resulted from God himself. He writes, “Daniel and his friends are able to resist defiling themselves with the king’s food because of God’s strength that is in them” (30).
Faith Refusing to Bow
Daniel 3 gives us the picture of three of these same boys (excluding Daniel) exhibiting similar resolve and similar faith. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego “function as a model for all Israel” as they are tempted to commit idolatry by bowing to a golden image built by Nebuchadnezzar (Steinmann, 388). The faith of these three men is exhibited in their radical devotion to God. Their faith produced the fruit of obedience to the Torah as they refused to worship false gods. What we see in Daniel 3 is three boys trusting the sovereign God with their lives regardless of the outcome. Their circumstance had no bearing on their faith. They responded to their circumstance with faith no matter what would happen.
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 (Dan. 3:17-18).
The faith exhibited in Daniel is a faith that works. And while faith is seen as a response to God’s grace and goodness, obedience is seen to naturally flow from the spring of faith. As Steinmann notes, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are able to resist Nebuchadnezzar’s order to worship the idol he had erected because God is with them” (30).
Faith Refusing to Compromise
Likewise, in Daniel 6, Daniel himself refuses to stop praying out of uncompromised devotion to God. King Darius was somewhat hoodwinked by his own satraps in establishing a law that forbade worship of anyone or anything except the king for a period of time. This edict presented Daniel with a troubling circumstance. However, he responded with fervent faith in God.
When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously (6:10).
Daniel’s circumstance did not determine his faith. He continued his worship “as he had done previously.” However, his faith did not determine his circumstance either. After being caught in the act of defiant worship of God, the satraps brought Daniel’s case before the King. In Daniel 6:16, we see that despite his bold faith in God, “the king commanded, and Daniel was brought and cast into the den of lions. The king declared to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you serve continually, deliver you!’”
For Daniel, faith expressed itself in works of obedience in refusing to compromise despite his circumstances. And this active faith is the product of God’s grace. Steinmann puts it this way, “Daniel worships God daily without ceasing even under the threat of death, a testimony to the work of God’s Spirit in his life” (30).
The Eternal Value of Biblical Faith
Misunderstandings of faith and its relationship to various circumstances are detrimental to the soul. If we believe that faith determines circumstances we will quickly see how insufficient such a “faith” actually is. However, true biblical faith in the face of any and all circumstances will sustain the soul in the midst of turmoil. Steinmann says of the instances of biblical faith throughout the book of Daniel,
This integrity of faith in the face of persecution is not simply the product of belief in an omnipotent God. Instead, it is the product of faith in a merciful God who will keep his promise to send his Messiah and establish his kingdom. Daniel and his friends can defy errant and arrogant human kings because they are servants of the eternal King, the Son of Man, who establishes his eternal covenant with his people (Steinmann, 31).
The people of God have something much better than a counterfeit faith that functions as a light switch, turning God’s blessings on and off. They have true biblical faith that produces the fruit of obedience regardless of circumstance. When God’s people trust in God in such a way that it overflows in obedience despite suffering and persecution, even unbelievers take notice:
He is the living God, enduring forever; his kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end. He delivers and rescues; he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, he who has saved Daniel from the power of the lions (6:26-27).
Daniel shows us that biblical faith is a product of the mercy of God which in turn produces the fruit of obedience. This kind of true and lasting biblical faith is sufficient to sustain the woman who suffers from cancer while she may or may not be healed. Her confidence is found in the God who sent his Son to ultimately heal sinners through his death, which inaugurated a kingdom that will never end. The faith that originates with God is the means back into his eternally joyous presence. This kind of faith is worth believing in.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.