Too many Christians use the story of Daniel’s night in the lion’s den, not his decades in the governor’s office, to define their relationship with the world.
I understand this. I grew up with Bible stories, VBS, Sunday school, and sermons, so whenever anyone says Daniel, I think lions. For church kids like me, Daniel is always the guy God saved from the lion’s den. This is natural because the story about the lion’s den is full of danger and drama. I like this story, but it represents only a small fraction of Daniel’s life.
We hear way less about Daniel as the governor (satrap) in Babylon. After he rightly interpreted a dream of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel was made “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon” (Daniel 3:48). Nebuchadnezzar appointed his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, to help him administrate the province of Babylon—the most important province of the empire.
Daniel held important positions throughout his life and served under several kings. In fact, Darius’ plan to appoint Daniel over all the kingdom (6:3) led the other satraps to plot against him. After God shut the mouths of the lions and delivered Daniel, Darius declared the God of Daniel to “be the living God.” After the lion’s den, we are told that Daniel “enjoyed success in the reign of Darius and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian” (6:28).
Despite the miracle of Daniel’s many years of success in Babylon, evangelical Christians have usually used his lion’s den experience as the paradigm for their relationship to the world. I have called this a “delusion” not because the “lion dens” aren’t a possibility for Christians, but because they aren’t the only one or for most of us, the most likely one.
If our whole approach to working in the world is defined by the lion’s den, we are likely to retreat from involvement in “Babylon”. After King Nebuchadnezzar found Daniel and his Jewish friends intelligent and “endowed with understanding and discerning knowledge,” he ordered them to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. These were not books from the Christian bookstore or CBD; these were probably works celebrating the bad behavior of Babylonian gods (see The Epic of Gilgamesh). The lion’s den delusion would have pushed them to refuse such training. A focus on the prospect of a lion’s den or a fiery furnace would have hindered the progress and promotion of Daniel and his friends.
The constant expectation of persecution can cause followers of Christ to retreat from the positions of influence God wants us to have in the world. Daniel ended up in a position where he had the power to bring justice and wisdom to thousands of people within the province of Babylon. His decisions and policies probably relieved the suffering of a multitude of people. He could have said, “Well, this isn’t Israel and really isn’t part of God’s end-time plan, so who cares! Let’s just wait until we return to Jerusalem.” Instead he did good. Daniel served successfully long after his lion’s den experience. It did not dissuade him from serving God in Babylon. He did not get burned, then retreat.
When we live expecting the world’s hostility, we do less good. Instead we circle our wagons. We take postures, use language, and make assumptions that actually generate hostility. The lion’s den delusion makes us see persecution where it isn’t and play the victim when we aren’t. The delusion tempts us to retreat into our Christian subculture and wait for an end to our exile.
I have spent four years at a state university and over twenty years teaching at a community college. Most of my academic life has been at secular institutions. There have maybe been a few times when my faith and Christian worldview caused trouble for me, but not much. I have usually liked and respected the people I work with. Therefore, I am grieved when I find either Christian students or colleagues who suffer from the lion’s den delusion and are frozen in a posture of fear and hostility toward the world.
I know there are universities and specific departments where Christians would, if they could get hired, face much more persecution and bigotry than I have. However, it has been important for me to resist lion’s den delusion and embrace expectations based on all the rest of Daniel’s life. I expect the wisdom of God’s Word and Spirit to empower me to do genuine good where I work.
Lion dens and fiery furnaces are real. They may even be a probable result for the few put into major positions of authority in the world. When and if they come, it is important to remember God’s faithfulness to deliver us. He will be with us in the fire. However, it is even more important for us to be prepared for a greater trial—a lifetime of effective service in the midst of Babylon. We need to hear more of this story.
If all we are looking for is the lion’s den, we will never be effective enough as leaders (servants of God) to deserve the honor of such a trial. Before we can expect God to shut the mouths of lions, we need to open ours and graciously speak wisdom and justice in Babylon.