Being a political leader outside the Promised Land
When Christians speak of positive engagement in politics by believers, the image that often springs to mind is William Wilberforce fearlessly opposing the slave trade in Parliament. Or perhaps the Earl of Shaftesbury introducing legislation to prevent children from working in coal mines.
The image is very noble and heroic, and in the mind’s eye one pictures the Christian commanding the attention and respect of the room, speaking the truth of the Gospel into the highest corridors of power. We should never lose sight of the great changes to society that Christians can achieve in public life, nor dull our expectation of what the Lord is able to do through us to bring glory to Him through the public square. We must also remember however that for many, serving God in the world of politics is much less glamorous, and the change brought to their environment is much less evident. In particular the world of student politics, in which it is far from easy to be a Christian, can feel very distant from the ideal we set out at the beginning.
This article is going to focus on one person who was called into a political situation that they probably would not have chosen had the choice been theirs. He was snatched away from his own country, served a king who oppressed and enslaved his people, and yet brought glory to God through serving this pagan king. The story of the prophet Daniel demonstrates to us today that being a leader in politics does not limit us to the perfectly imagined scenarios we dream for ourselves, but that God can use us even in scenarios where we feel isolated, dislocated, and can struggle to see the good we are doing.
When we join the story, the Lord has grown weary with His people constantly turning their back on Him, and so He gives the nation of Judah over to the King of Babylon. Daniel is among the Hebrews carried into captivity, the brightest and best, and along with his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, they are made to learn the customs of the Babylonians and to serve their king. As the book of Daniel unfolds we see Daniel and his friends not only survive in Babylon, but thrive as senior ministers under first the Babylonians, and then the Persians. This was very far from the land promised to the Hebrews, and yet God prospered these men in an alien land and culture. What lessons can we learn for today from Daniel’s experiences?
Daniel excelled at what he did
Given that Daniel had been forcibly enslaved, it would have been entirely understandable for him to decide to pay lip-service to his Babylonian masters, and get by with the bare minimum of effort. It is striking that this is not the course that he and his friends chose to take. We know these young Hebrews were very gifted, for we are told they were “showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace.” We go on to learn that none of those chosen to serve the king excelled as much as Daniel and his friends, and that even after Bablyon is conquered by the Persians, Daniel is established as a chief minister and ‘distinguished himself’ among the chief ministers. Daniel in fact lived out the command that the apostle Paul would later write to the church in Colosse: “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). To Daniel, the fact that he now served a foreign king did not in any way diminish the recognition that he brought glory to God through working excellently.
Daniel chose his battles carefully
In the first chapter of the book, we see a contrast between Daniel’s responses to two expectations the Bablyonians had for their captive servants. The captive Hebrews were expected to learn the language, law, and customs of the Babylonians. This has an obvious immediate learning for each of us – just as Christ condescended to become human and so to identify with us, so we too must identify with those we seek to communicate the good news of the Gospel to. What is striking however is that in due course Daniel chose to contest one of the expectations of his Babylonian masters, but not perhaps the one we would expect. In due course the Hebrews were given new names; Daniel’s new name was ‘Belteshazzar’, a name which pointed to the god Baal that the Babylonians worshiped, while his friends’ new Babylonian names also referred to Babylonian gods. One would expect that they would contest this, but in fact the Hebrews bore their new names with no recorded dispute. Instead, they declined to eat and drink the meat and wine set aside for them by the king, because it had been sacrificed to idols. We go on to read that God gave them favour so that this principled declension did not set them back, but actually prospered them. This demonstrates the great wisdom that is required when stepping into political life, to know which battles are important to fight, and which lines not to cross, but also to know when to be gracious and to bear with circumstances that we might not choose, but are not essential to oppose.
Daniel built relationships
Throughout the narrative of the book of Daniel, what is striking is not only the favour the Lord showed to Daniel and his friends, but also that Daniel did not retreat into a bubble while in exile, instead building positive relationships. The reason that Daniel was able to petition to be excluded from eating the royal portions of meat and wine was that he had favour with Ashpenaz, the chief official charged by the king with their care. It would have been easy to withdraw or fail to co-operate, but Daniel built the relationship. Later on, when the king resolves to put his wise men to death, Daniel learns that the king desires to have a dream interpreted for him because the commander of the guards, Arioch, was prepared to listen to him. This conversation could not have taken place without Daniel having first made the connection with him so that Arioch would be prepared to listen. Moreover, we see that Daniel recognised that despite his unique capacity to interpret dreams, he needed the help and support of his friends. He urges his friends to pray with him, and when the king promotes him for interpreting the dream, Daniel recommends that his friends are also promoted. For the CU student involved in SU politics, it is equally vital that they are supported by their group of trusted friends by being connected with their CU and belonging to a local church, and also that they are building constructive relationships with those they work with in their role in the SU.
Daniel was prepared for opposition
The book of Daniel records two occasions in which Daniel and his friends faced lethal opposition. In both cases the catalyst was jealousy, but the means by which those opposing the Hebrews sought to damage them related to their faith. In chapter 3, King Nebuchadnezzer indulges in a vanity project worthy of any modern despot, making for himself a giant golden statute, and instructing that at the sound of music everyone should bow down and worship the statue. In due course some court astrologers, playing the role of good party yes men, denounce Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (now named Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) for failing to worship the statue. Later on, Daniel would be opposed by the other chief ministers serving under the Persian King Cyrus. Initially they would try to find fault in his work, but not succeed. They then brought in laws that the people could only pray to the king, knowing that Daniel would continue to pray to God. The lesson we should bear in mind here is that the Hebrews knew that standing for God would bring them into opposition. While on past occasions the Babylonians relented on making them eat defiled food, and spared their lives for interpreting the king’s dream, Daniel and his friends were prepared for the point at which God would not spare them from confrontation. Daniel’s experience in particular reminds us that politics is an environment filled with jealousy, envy, and persons seeking personal advancement. We also know that the Enemy is determined to make us choose between our faith in Christ, and a seemingly more comfortable alternative. Knowing that we will face opposition will make us less surprised and better prepared for when such opposition does arise.
Daniel relied completely upon God
The story of Daniel is not about an exceptional man and his exceptional friends. While he was undoubtedly a very talented and gifted man, this would have been utterly fruitless but for his devotion to and reliance upon the living God. From the very first challenge of daring not to eat the defiled meal, Daniel has the faith to say ‘put us to the test’, trusting that God will honour his step of faith. Nor did Daniel take his gift of interpreting dreams for granted. When he recognised his very life depended upon interpreting King Nebuchadnezzer’s dream, he not only sought God in prayer, but also asked his friends to do the same. Indeed, his first response when the dream was interpreted was to give thanks to God, recognising where the gift of interpreting dreams came from in the first place. The application point is fairly straightforward here – in the difficult world of student politics, nobody can make it without maintaining their walk with God, and prayerfully relying upon Him.
Daniel kept his eye on the most important thing
Not only did Daniel recognise his reliance upon God, he and his friends also recognised that serving and honouring him was the most important thing, even above the duties set before them by their Babylonian and Persian masters. Perhaps the most striking example of this is when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego informed King Nebuchadnezzer that regardless of whether God would rescue them from the fiery furnace with which they were threatened, they would not bow down to the idol he had created. Similarly, Daniel did not pray in secret when the law was passed decreeing that prayers could only be offered to the king, but continued to pray as he always had done. In both cases, these men knew that they were placing themselves not only in direct confrontation with their masters, but also into mortal peril. For us, we may also face the prospect of losing everything for the sake of serving God. Like Daniel, we can only do this by keeping our eyes on the most important thing, and loving Jesus more than the circumstances in which he has placed us.
God was with Daniel
This final point purposefully begins with “God” rather than “Daniel.” Up until now we have spoken of concrete steps that Daniel and the Hebrews took to thrive whilst in exile, recognising in each one of those steps that they depended upon God to empower them for every work they undertook. Their success however was only possible because God himself was with Daniel and his friends. When Shadrah, Meschach and Abednego are thrown into the fiery furnace, King Nebuchadnezzer is astonished to see a fourth man in the flames, who “looks like a son of the gods.” In a similar vein, Daniel is able to tell King Cyrus that he was not harmed when thrown into the Den of Lions because God shut the Lions’ mouths. Let us be clear – the threat was very real! The guards carrying Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego to the furnace were killed by the fierce heat, and the Lions would go on to kill Daniel’s accusers when they were thrown to the Lions after his exoneration. The greatest difference between those who died and those who lived, is that God himself was with them. That is an incredible encouragement for CU students, who know that Christ is always with them through the Holy Spirit, enabling to do the work he has placed before them.
Whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of Christ
Perhaps you are reading this piece and contemplating running for your Student Union, but fearful of the challenges that lie ahead. The testimony of Daniel and his friends should be a huge encouragement for you as you consider this. Daniel did not consider being in an environment distant from his ideal as reason to lose hope or disengage, but rather embraced the opportunity to glorify God through faithful service. The countless days of administering the king’s court may seem very far from the Levites worshiping in the Temple, as Daniel would undoubtedly have preferred. Yet Daniel and his friends brought pagan kings to recognise the truth of God, perhaps even making it possible for the exiles to hold on to their faith where they might otherwise have forgotten. Regardless of how small your serving in student politics may seem, you can bring glory and honour to God through diligent service, by remembering to keep him as the main thing, and by relying upon him day by day for wisdom and strength to face your challenges.