The danger in reading stories like “The Burning, Fiery Furnace” and “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” is that we tend to apply romantic notions to such dramatic acts of faith. We imagine ourselves as heroes of the Faith, facing down certain death to confess Jesus before a murderous, heathen tyrant. “Of course I would die for Jesus,” we think. Our daydreams teach us that great faith consists in dying for the Lord.
We discover the truth if we reverse the proposition. Facing down death for the Lord’s sake is an act of great faith. Let us never downplay the courage of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah as they withstood the king’s fiery rage. Let us never dismiss Daniel’s fidelity as he continued in righteous prayer. The Hebrew writer says of the heroes of faith, “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated–of whom the world was not worthy–wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb 11.37-38). We are to hold the martyrs in the highest esteem.
So what do we mean when we say that these stories can be dangerous to us? The danger is not in saying that martyrdom is an act of great faith. It is in saying the reverse: that great faith consists of facing down death for the Lord.
We cannot reduce the Faith to matters of physical life and death. To do so cheapens it. First, how many of us honestly expect to stand before a Nebuchadnezzar? Do we imagine somehow falling into the clutches of ISIS or Al Qaeda? I admit, the image leaves a strong impression: hands bound, kneeling, a gun pressed against the temple as a raging jihadist demands that we renounce Christ. And, yes, many Christians have suffered that ordeal. But is that likely to happen to you? The odds of dying in the U.S. at the hands of an Islamist for any reason are miniscule, and actual martyrdom for Christ is almost unheard of in the U.S. We cheapen the Faith and the sacrifices of the martyrs when we daydream fancifully about events that will almost certainly not befall us.
More importantly, we cheapen the Faith when we reduce it to a single act of defiance against the world. Dwelling too much on the question, “Would you die for Jesus?” has us constantly looking forward to when we can finally prove our faith in a blaze of glory. What if the moment never comes? What are we doing with ourselves while we wait for it?
Ironically, the answer comes from King Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar praised Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah because they “yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God” (Dan 3.38). He could not have known how right he was about the nature of their resolve. Paul uses the same language when he writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12.1). What Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah did intending to die, Paul tells us to do intending to live. We ought to be offering up our lives even when there is no furnace, no lion, no sword, no gun threatening us.
This is the martyr’s secret, by the way. Again, we cannot reduce the Faith to a single act of defiance, and there is no exception for the martyr. Where do we suppose the martyr gets the strength to say, “Be it known, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Dan 3.18)? That strength doesn’t come from the moment of his death but from the faithfulness of his life.
Consider the words of Jesus, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16.10). Faithfulness in the little things is what turns us into the living sacrifice that Paul talks about. Are you faithful in the small things of life, or do you cheat God and yourself by taking easy outs? If you refuse to “yield up your body” in these small things, what makes you think you would yield it up in matters of life and death?
Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2.20). Faith is not a single act of defiance. It is a life of defiance. Faith is not a single, grand death at the hands of the raging heathen. It is a series of little deaths that we seek out each day, killing off the old man so that we may put on the new man of Christ.
Are you dying for Christ today?