Growing up I used to hear the encouragement often, “you need to be in the world but not of the world.” The admonishment was an effort to help define the difficult task of Christians to guard against the extremes of assimilation and withdraw when it comes to engaging culture. It doesn’t take long to discover that the prevailing culture as a whole does not conform easily with the ways of Christ. Thus, each Christian has to figure out how to engage culture in faithful ways. The extremes of assimilation and withdraw are not the answer. With assimilation, Christians become so engrossed in the present culture that they lose their Christian witness and are not able to impact the greater culture in positive ways. However, withdraw is also not the answer because in withdraw Christians separate themselves so much from the present culture that they can not meaningfully engage culture. Thus Christians are called to balance the extremes, “to be in the world but not of the world.” While that is a great encouragement, the struggle is to discover how that is faithfully done. Often examples are needed.
The book of Daniel offers an example of how this is effectively done. The stories of Daniel and the lion’s den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace are two of the more famous stories in the Bible and often catch our imagination from an early age. They provide amazing stories of faith, trust, and prayer that encourage us in our own walk. We are often enamored by their bold defiance in the face of evil and often wonder if we would respond in the same way. Yet part of their greatest contribution might be in their example of how to be in the world but not of the world.
Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were part of the first deportation under Nebuchadnezzar, and eventually rise to prominence in Babylon, becoming leaders of the government. As leaders of the government they are clearly involved in the culture in a way to impact it for good or bad. At the same time, these four remain committed to God, and their covenant obedience allows them to continue to be a blessing in the world. They are involved in culture enough that they can speak with authority on it, yet they stay faithful to God in a way that they are able to impact the culture, and not the other way around. In chapter 1, these four men are offered a diet that is contrary to the diet God has commanded the people of Israel to eat, so they refuse to be corrupted by pagan food. Food may not seem like that big of a deal, but they recognize it as an opportunity to honor God to those around them. In chapter 6, Daniel continues to pray to the one true God, even when it places his own life in personal danger. Daniel could have hid his prayers, finding a way to continue to pray in secret to protect his position, but he knew this was ultimately a chance to honor God. In chapter 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow down to the golden image, avoiding the idolatry of Babylon. They stand not only against the king but against the entire system of Babylon and its pagan worldview. In the last two instances, the king actually makes a decree to honor the God of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The final visions of Daniel provide an alternate picture of the world, a world in which all nations opposed to God will ultimately be swept away and God will reign forever and ever. The book as a whole is thus an example of how to walk this dangerous tightrope between withdrawal and assimilation.
While the book of Daniel still requires wisdom in determining how its ancient stories are most faithfully embraced and lived out today, it clearly provides an example of four men who faithfully were able “to be in the world but not of the world.” The characters in this book were able to make a positive impact on the culture while maintaining their distinct calling as children of God. We should learn from their example as we also try to navigate the sometimes difficult task of being involved enough to impact the surrounding culture while not sacrificing our Christian witness.