Faithful in Exile
The stories of Daniel and Esther are helpful to us in working out how we should navigate the demands of authority. Daniel and Esther were both in exile (canonically these are two books separated by hundreds of pages in our bibles but chronologically they happen in the same period of history, during the exile), and we Christians are also living in a kind of exile, as the apostle Peter makes clear in the address to his first epistle:
To God’s elect, exiles, scattered…(1 Peter 1:1)
Exiles have different hopes and loyalties from the society around them and this inevitably results in a clash of values, and the kind of complex situations Daniel and Esther had to navigate. These two books provide us with contrasting approaches to this.
Daniel (and his friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) is uncompromising in his commitment to the God of Israel and the practical implications of that, yet wise in his interaction with power. Daniel never hides who he is, doesn’t seek confrontation, but has clear lines he won’t cross. Esther’s guardian Mordecai is somewhat different, in that he commands Esther not to reveal her origins and identity when she enters the royal household.
When Daniel enters royal service he refuses to eat royal food (Daniel 1:8) while Esther does eat what is given her (Esther 2:8-9). The Bible doesn’t suggest Esther compromised by doing this but the comparison with Daniel is interesting. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego disobeyed the king’s command to worship an idol (Daniel 3:16-18) while Mordecai disobeys the king’s command to honour Haman (Esther 3:1-4). This disobedience was on the basis of Jewish identity but Mordecai’s refusal to honour Haman could be seen as an unnecessary inflexibility rather than the principled stand of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego against idolatry.
The starkest contrast between the stories of Daniel and Esther is that the account of Daniel’s life is saturated with references to God whereas the Lord is never named in Esther. In both stories the sovereignty of God is central and Daniel, Mordechai and Esther are all Bible heroes but it does seem that Mordechai pursues a more ‘political’ approach than does Daniel. The Lord is in the foreground of Daniel’s story, in the background of Esther’s.
So how should we act when the world wants us to bow to the things it values? Sometimes it will be crystal clear that to do so would be sin but at other times there are more shades of grey which we have to navigate. It is always wrong to worship an idol, but should we show some flexibility in honouring a Haman? Daniel never hid his identity, but are there times when it is wise to keep quiet about who we are in Christ?
Here are five principles that might help us.
1. Remember we are exiles
We Christians are in the same kind of shoes as Daniel and Esther: we too are exiles. This means we shouldn’t ever get too comfortable in the world as it is. In fact, we should probably worry if we do feel too at home. If we are it might be a sign that our discipleship is compromised.
2. Know who we are in Christ
Identity is the key issue of our age, and is the central issue around which all our current cultural storms rage. Daniel and Esther knew who they were – Jews, God’s people – and this shaped how they lived. We need to be similarly clear about our identity and all that is ours in Christ (1 Peter 2:9-10).
If Mordechai made a mistake it was in insisting that Esther keep this identity private when she first entered the court. That he should do so is understandable: he was seeking to protect his niece. But arguably it made life more difficult. In contrast Daniel always owned his identity and that gave a clarity to his life, even if at times it made put him on a collision course with his enemies. Going undercover as Christians might seem a life-preserving move but it probably isn’t the right one.
3. Live faithfully – and wisely
We need to be alert to the idols our society constructs. These won’t always be as obvious as a golden statue but that doesn’t make them any less real. At the same time we shouldn’t seek confrontation, but should honour what can be honoured. We need to be clear on what really are gospel issues and not compromise on those while showing flexibility around secondary issues.
4. Be unsurprised if faithfulness results in hardship
Peter writes, Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. (1 Peter 4:12)
Daniel and Esther knew the reality of this and we need to be ready for it. This isn’t trivial or insignificant. Refusing to bow to the idols of the day can be very costly. None of us want to be labelled a bigot, much less endure a twitter storm or a difficult meeting with the HR department, but if we are going to remain faithful there will be a cost to be paid.
5. Remember the reward
The final word in the book of Daniel is one of commendation,
As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance. (Daniel 12:13)
We have got to have hope of similar commendation, or why endure the hardships of exile? We may as well go ‘home’ to the world if we don’t believe the reward that is ours in Christ. The new testament offers a similar guarantee to Christians as that given to Daniel,
When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:4)
We have got to have confidence in this reward, in Christ being the pearl of great price who it is worth pursuing over and above all else. It is that which will empower us to remain faithful in exile and navigate the complexities of our day.