A Resilient Life

What do you do when life doesn’t turn out as planned? What do you do when a relationship ends, vocational hopes die, someone wounds you deeply, or your health fails? Do you want to become a more resilient person? A person who not only survives in the face of life’s storms but thrives?

Join us as we study the old testament prophet, Daniel, and how he teaches us to be resilient.

Today we begin a series we’re calling A Resilient Life based off the life of Daniel in the Old Testament. We’ll start today by looking at the beginning of the account of this remarkable man. What I want to start with is this — Daniel never expected to end up in Babylon. I want you, at the beginning of our study, to try to picture Daniel in your mind. He was one of the brightest and best of Israel. We know a fair amount about what he was like from chapter one, verses three and four. He was from a family of high social status. He was physically flawless. He was a strikingly handsome man. If my wife were teaching this message, she would tell you to picture Idris Elba. Although I think Idris Elba is shorter than me. He’s much shorter than he appears on screen. And he’s older than me. Well, he’s a month older, but he looks a lot older than that. They’re able to do quite a bit with makeup in Hollywood you know. So basically picture someone who looks like Idris Elba but only more handsome and less average. Daniel was bright. He was quick to understand. It says he was qualified to serve in the king’s palace, which means he had a high level of emotional and relational intelligence. He was good with people. He was devoted to God and God’s community, and he would have had all the dreams that young men like that have. Back in Judah his future would have been quite predictable. The whole world was in front of him. He would go to a great school and then on to amazing success in whatever field he chose, have a great marriage, live in an enviable home, raise a wonderful family, occupy a prominent place in the temple. He would do great things for God and for God’s people. But life didn’t turn out the way he planned. There’s a whole world of heartbreak in the first verse of the book of Daniel. In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. (Daniel 1:1) The heartbreak is this — God made a promise long before this to Abraham, “I’ll be your God, and your people will be my people. And I will give you a promised land, and I will make you a great nation that will bless the world.” That promise had sustained the people of Israel for century after century. That’s all they had. The community of God’s people had a lot of ups and downs through the years. They were in slavery in Egypt for many centuries. They were delivered under Moses. They wandered in the wilderness for forty years. They went into the promised land. And after a period of time they reached their peak under David and Solomon. And Solomon built this glorious temple. Then there was a long, slow decline. The kingdom was divided into a Southern kingdom, Israel, which was destroyed. And all that was left was the Northern kingdom called Judah. And then when Daniel was a young man, Nebuchadnezzar comes, and with very little effort destroys all that’s left of God’s dream. The temple is a memory. The sacred contents were now preserved in the temple of pagan gods. Daniel would come to adulthood and spend his life in a foreign land. He would give his best service to an alien king. He lost his culture. He lost the relationships he cherished. He would have to speak a foreign language. He would live and die in a place that he never wanted to be. He would never go home. He even loses his name, and his name was quite significant. Verse seven says Daniel and his three friends are each given new names. Each of their old names, their Hebrew names, had a reference to God in it. Either the little syllable “el” – Dani-el, Misha-el – from Elohim, or the syllable “yah” – Hanani-ah, Azari-ah – from Yahweh. Their names reminded them that they belonged to God. And the new name that Nebuchadnezzar gave was his way of saying, “You have a new king now. Give yourself to me. Allow Babylon to define your identity.” The name Daniel meant “the Lord will judge.” It’s a great name. “The Lord will be my judge.” You see, through his whole life, every time Daniel had heard his name spoken, it was a reminder, “The Lord will set things right. The Lord will see that justice is done.” His very name had been a promise every time he heard it, every day of his life. But now he’s not Daniel anymore. The Lord was not setting things right. In fact, it looked like his whole promise was shattered. So what do you do when you end up in Babylon? Because you will. Babylon is where you find yourself when life doesn’t turn out the way you planned. Maybe it happens when a relationship or even a marriage that you had such dreams for ends. Maybe it happens when your greatest vocational hopes die. Maybe it happens when someone you know and love wounds you deeply. Maybe it happens when you realize your health is failing. Maybe it’s when you realize a deep prayer that you’ve prayed will never be answered the way you want it to be answered. You find yourself in Babylon, cut off from the life you wanted and planned on, and you may never get home. And worst of all, you wonder if God even knows. How could God let this happen? Has he forgotten his promise? Does he even notice? What do you do when you find yourself, like Daniel, in Babylon? There’s a whole field in the social sciences that involves a study of people who experience suffering, major crises, or trauma. Survivors of World War II prisoner camps. POW’s from the Korean War who went through brainwashing attempts. People who have been in hostage situations. People who have had traumatic accidents. People who grew up in Fresno. I’m just kidding. I made that last one up. Many, as you might expect, just get defeated by Babylon. They end up in the place where they don’t want to be and they experience a loss of hope, resignation, isolation, defeat, withdrawal. However, there are some, usually a minority, who face these very traumatic situations and are characterized by what researchers in this field call resilience — a resilient spirit. They experience, in the face of tremendous challenge and even trauma and pain, a fierce sense of independence — a resolution inside them that says, “I will not give up.” And they find themselves continually exploring creative solutions. They move towards action. And if one thing doesn’t work, they try to find another. And they find within themselves, as Victor Frankel, a survivor of World War II concentration camps talks about, an attitude and spirit that says, “No matter what my captors might take away from me, they cannot take away that ultimate freedom to choose my own attitude, the posture of my own heart.” And because of this, they actually enlarge their capacity to handle problems. So that in the midst of this very difficult situation, they not only survive, they grow. They deepen. Now, what’s the difference? Why is it that some people face Babylon and are defeated, and others face it and are challenged and even, in a sense, exhilarated and grow stronger? Well, they find that there are certain common characteristics, qualities of spirit that tend to mark resilient people. And when we look at Daniel, we find one of the most spiritually resilient persons in human history. At the beginning of his life, as we’ve seen, he lost everything. — “Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem.” Yet with God’s help, in Babylon, Daniel learned not just to survive, but to thrive. So today I want to walk through our introduction to Daniel in chapter one, and help us understand why it’s worth devoting the next couple months to studying this remarkable man. And I want to stop along the way and point out some of the characteristics that make up a resilient spirit. The first characteristic we see is in verse eight, and it’s this: Spiritually resilient people resolve to honor their deepest values. Spiritually resilient people resolve — they make a deep decision — to honor their deepest values. They refuse to live as passive victims of circumstances beyond their control. They refuse to get tangled up in stuff that would cause them to betray their deepest commitments. They resolve to honor their deepest values and honor God. Now, in many ways, verse eight is the hinge point of the first chapter, and in some ways it’s the hinge point of the entire Book of Daniel. Everything turns there. Because up until verse eight, it’s the Babylonians who have determined everything. Up until this point, they’ve been in the driver’s seat. Nebuchadnezzar determines to conquer Israel. He determines to cart off its most sacred objects and its highest potential citizens. He determines to enroll them in his leadership academy. He decides on the entrance criteria and the subject matter. The dean of the school determines their names, their new identities, and the menu — they’ll be fed rich food and wine from the king’s table. And the easiest thing in the world would have been for Daniel to feel like he’s just a passive victim of forces way too big for him. But from verse eight on, the initiative in this story shifts. And the writer shows this in a real colorful way. This is kind of hard to pick up in most translations, but the same verb gets repeated three times. A literal rendering of verse seven would be: “The chief of staff determined new names for them. He determined on Belteshazzar for Daniel…” and so on. Then verse eight: But Daniel determined not to defile himself with the royal food and wine. (Daniel 1:8) It’s the same verb repeated over and over, but this time Daniel is determining. Daniel the captive, the prisoner, makes a decision. And the writer uses a real strong word for a quality decision. It could be translated, “Daniel made up his mind — he resolved in his heart — he would honor God. He would not defile himself.” He just decides. And now he’s got to take action, so he goes to the dean of the school to talk about the menu. He explains that everyone is being fed roast beef and eggs. They’re on a meat and potatoes diet, and he’s into juicing. Now the text doesn’t say why this food would defile Daniel. Maybe it violates ceremonial laws. Maybe it was offered to idols because it was from the king’s table. It’s not real clear why, but it is clear that Daniel felt he needed to draw a line. He needed to take a stand. And you need to know how much courage this took on Daniel’s part. Nebuchadnezzar was not the kind of leader who cut people a lot of slack. In 2 Kings 25, a king named Zedekiah rebelled against him. Nebuchadnezzar captures Zedekiah and his family and had his sons killed before Zedekiah’s eyes, and then had Zedekiah’s eyes cut out. The last thing he saw were his sons being killed by Nebuchadnezzar, and then he lost his eyes. You’ve heard of leaders with hands-on management style or hands-off management style. Well Nebuchadnezzar had a “heads-off” management style. If someone crossed him, he cut off his head. How many of you have ever had a really tough boss? How many of you had a boss that was so tough that when he terminated people, he terminated people? That’s Nebuchadnezzar. That’s who Daniel is dealing with here. But Daniel determines something. Daniel remembers his name. Daniel doesn’t view himself as the helpless pawn of circumstances beyond his control. Daniel resolves in his heart. There’s just this magnificent courage and initiative here. And then we’ll see a lot of wisdom behind it. And spiritually resilient people are that way. They resolve that they will honor God. And then they figure out whatever it takes to do that. They don’t accept as an excuse that they live in forces that are too powerful for them to control. They seize whatever initiative is available to them. Now this is going to take some effort on Daniel’s part. He goes to the dean of the school and kind of makes his request. And the dean says, “But if I say yes to you, you’ll end up looking weak and you’ll lack energy. And the king will have my head.” That’s his answer. And now we start to see Daniel’s persistence and just street smarts. Daniel says to himself, “Well, that’s not exactly a ‘yes,’ but it’s not exactly a ‘no.’” And he goes to the guard who is the next level down on the org chart and proposes an experiment. He says, “Let’s try this diet for ten days, and then you be the judge.” Daniel exercises amazing initiative, courage, and faith that God will be at work. And God is. In fact, we see in verse 16 that the guard is so impressed with what happens to Daniel and his friends that he takes everyone’s steak away and puts the whole school on the vegan diet. And Daniel goes to the head of the class. He becomes the valedictorian. But we need to understand, this only happens because when everything looked like it was lost and he was up against very powerful forces, Daniel resolved in his heart he would not get tangled up with anything that would cause him to betray his deepest values. He resolved in his heart he would honor God. So let me ask you, do you have somewhere in life where you’re tempted to betray your values? There’s a husband who never intended to lose his family, but decided it was okay to flirt around the boundaries of adultery, and now he’s pulling himself from the wreckage of a broken marriage. He got tangled up in Babylon. There’s a business person who decides that cutting an ethical corner here and there will make a ride to the top quicker. Now she’s afraid everything around her might fall apart any day now. So many people never intended to sabotage a marriage or a friendship. They just drift into resentment or bitterness or revenge, and they suffer a relational train wreck that’s destroying their heart. Sometimes we get tangled up in more subtle enemies — hurry or success or a bad relationship. Some of you are here today, and you see yourself as helpless victim, a pawn of circumstances beyond your control, decisions other people made. And God is calling you to be like Daniel. Make a resolution in your heart that will take courage and wisdom to carry it out. You can do this. This is required for spiritual resiliency. This is required if you’re going to survive and thrive in Babylon. I’ll tell you a secret. All of us live in Babylon. So many people say: “I would get to know God better,” or “I would get involved in ministry,” or “I would live with authentic joy,” or “I would build into a life of another person,” or “I would seize life by the throat and live it the best I can… if only.” “If only I weren’t so busy.” “If only I had a better group leader.” “If only my season of life weren’t so demanding.” “If only other people didn’t make certain choices.” See, we all live in Babylon. We all live in a world that will try to tempt us or intimidate us into settling for less than God’s best. Please hear me on this. This is your one and only life. This is your day. What do you need to resolve in your heart? Do you need to end a relationship that’s dishonoring God? End it! Make the call. Do it today. Do you need to repent of unethical practices in your business? Repent and set things right. Do it now. Do you need to seek first the kingdom of God by reordering your time? Reorder your time. Is there some area in your life where you need to pursue healing and you haven’t been doing it because you’ve been seeing yourself as a victim? Then stop it and begin to pursue healing. Do it today. This is your day. This is your life. You must resolve in your heart. You must do this. I’ll tell you why so much is at stake here. In the future, Daniel and his friends would have to make some very difficult decisions. There was one point where they were commanded to bow down and worship the king or be thrown into the furnace. And they said, “Okay, throw us into the furnace then because we’re not bowing down.” When Daniel was told one day, “Cease praying to your God or you’ll be thrown to the lions,” Daniel said, “Throw me to the lions then because I’m not going to stop praying.” See, if Daniel and his friends had not drawn the line here, had not declared to the world and themselves where their deepest allegiance belonged, they never would have had the strength to face the furnace or the lion’s den. Some of you have gotten tangled up in things that have caused you to betray your deepest values, and you’re feeling the pain right now. Will you resolve today, “I will honor God. I will not hand over this one and only life that God has given me to any power in Babylon — not to any person, not to any relationship, not to any job, not to any boss, not to any addiction, not to any force, not to any schedule. I’ll resolve in my heart that I will honor God.” Alright, the second thing is: Spiritually resilient people take initiative. Believe me, I know that on a subject like this there will be this thought that goes through your mind. It may be going through your mind right now. Yeah, it’s all well and good for you to talk about this, but you don’t know what I’ve been through. You don’t know about the loss I’ve suffered. You don’t know how unfairly I was treated in my job. You don’t know how badly my upbringing was. You don’t know the difficult person I’m married to. You don’t know the kind of dreams that have never, and will never, be fulfilled for me. You don’t know how much I’ve suffered. You don’t know my problems. And do you know what? You’re right. I don’t know. No one knows the unseen scars and wounds and hurts — the disappointments that mark the heart of anyone else. No one knows. I just know this. In some of you, if you take nothing else away today, you need to take this away. People who live with the habit of taking initiative live better lives than people who live with the habit of complaining. There is a choice, and it is in your hands. And you’ve go to stop waiting for something — some force, some circumstance, some job, some person — to come along and rescue you. When my daughters were younger they loved princess stories. They had books with all of the princess stories. They watched all of the princess movies. I realized something as I was reading the story of Snow White to them one day. This is a horrible model for my girls. Here is a woman hiding from her stepmother because she feels helpless and afraid. So she takes a job doing menial labor for seven short, cranky guys because she thinks she could never find more fulfilling work. And she’s sitting around passively, waiting to get rescued, singing “Someday My Prince Will Come.” I wanted my girls to know — “Never do that.” “If you’re ever in that situation, you confront your stepmother face to face. Tell her to come to grips with the aging process. Tell her you have no intention of being the fall guy because of her neurotic insecurities about fading sexual attractiveness, so find a good therapist. “Tell the seven short guys to get a life. If they can’t handle the basic challenges of personal hygiene and housekeeping, they’ll have to find some other co-dependent to enable their domestic passivity. “And stop waiting for some prince to come around and rescue you. “Build deep relationships. Find meaningful work. Do good things. Take big risks. Serve the poor. “And when it’s time to choose a prince, let Daddy decide who that prince will be.” When you face your Babylon, and you will face Babylon — some of you are in Babylon right now — there’s a choice you’ll have to make. And the truth is, you make that choice all the time, every day. And it is a choice between taking action or complaining. It is a choice between life and death. It is a choice between trusting that with God all things really are possible, and giving into defeat and despair. Some of you are facing some major difficulties right now. And many of the things we face in life are out of our control. You were handed some genetic material. You had no choice about that. You grew up in a family of origin for better or for worse. You had no choice about that. You were plopped into a certain environment. You didn’t have much choice about that. But the writers of Scripture say way down deep — deeper than your genes and deeper than your environment and deeper than your family — you were made in the image of God. And partly, what that involves is the fact that somewhere, way down deep inside you, you can choose. You can decide. You are a spiritual being. You are an immortal person created in the image of God, and you can decide to take action or you can complain. And every time you make that choice, a small part of your character and your spirit are affected. And every time you choose to complain — every time you allow Babylon to defeat you and cause you to quit — you make it that much more likely that the next time it will take a little less of Babylon to defeat you. And the next time a little less than that, until one day, you just don’t even move. You have no initiative left in you. Just complaint. I don’t know what challenges you face. I don’t know what your Babylon is. I don’t know what burdens have been laid on your shoulders. But I know this, you are a child created in the image of God, and His hope and help is available to you. And I know that spiritually resilient people understand that the habit of taking initiative and trusting God leads to a better life than complaining and living in despair. Alright, another thing is: Spiritually resilient people are committed to living in community. They recognize that it’s a life or death deal. For Daniel, he found this in a little community group that he formed with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. And we’re going to see these characters again. But they really were kind of a little community group. They would go through this school together. They studied and prayed and faced decisions together. They would one day face the furnace together. They would one day help to rule together. This one community group of devoted believers would change the course of a nation. When you live in Babylon, you will not survive (or thrive) outside of community. You just won’t. Julius Segal, one of the primary researchers in this area of resiliency, writes this: Few captives suffered more than Vice-Admiral James Stockdale who served 2,714 days as a POW in Vietnam. On one occasion, his captors shackled his legs and arms and left him in glaring sunshine three blistering days while guards beat him repeatedly to keep him from sleeping. After one beating, Stockdale heard a towel snapping out in a code. The other POWs had devised a message he would never forget. It was five letters — GBUJS — God bless you Jim Stockdale. Segel writes that for these POWs, the briefest experiences of community, of being connected, became literally a life or death deal. Their devotion and ingenuity to making community happen in spite of unbelievable obstacles defies belief. And you’ll think I’m making this up, but I’m not. He writes if one man walked by another cell, he would drag his sandals in code to send a message. Men sent messages to their comrades through the noises they made shaking out their blankets, by belching, snoring, blowing their noses, or bodily noises that I will not name but are mastered normally by 10-year-old boys. This is so ironic to me. Where community is so difficult, people will move heaven and earth and risk their lives just for a moment of it. And in a world where it’s so available, we often don’t devote adequate time and effort to it. Community, deep friendship, spiritual intimacy, they don’t come easy. You have to fight for them. So many times I’ll talk to someone, and they’re struggling with some difficult problem. And I’ll ask, “Are you in community? Do you have a small group of trusted Christian brothers and sisters that support you, help you, pray for you, give you wisdom?” And so often they say, “No. I tried once, but it didn’t work out.” Try again. Try as often as you need to try. Make time for it. Pray for it. Reach out to others for it. We have a number of groups starting at Blue Oaks you can be part of. Take initiative and get connected in community. And those of you who are here today who are group leaders, remember the people in your group live in Babylon, and they get beaten up one way or another all the time. There are people in this room right now who are ready to give up. Maybe one of them is sitting next to you. I wonder if you have any idea what a difference it makes when you take the time to say, “I’m so glad you’re here. I’m praying for you. Your life matters.” See, people need to hear the code — not just hostages and POWs. People in this room need to hear the code. We need, as a community, to not let anyone get out of this room without hearing someone say, “I’m glad you’re here. You matter to me. Don’t give up.” Spiritually resilient people will never be resilient outside of vibrant community. Alright, the last thing is: Spiritually resilient people remember that their life, and even their suffering, has meaning and purpose in the eyes of God. This is very interesting to me. Researchers say that the factor that causes people to give up most often is not when their suffering gets more intense, it’s when they believe their suffering has no meaning or purpose. It’s not the intensity of the suffering. It’s the meaninglessness of it. Again, researchers who study this sort of thing find that suicide notes rarely speak about failing health, rejection, finances, or even physical pain. They say things like, “There’s no point in going on. There’s no reason for me to keep living.” See, Daniel was about to discover something in Babylon that he would never have known if he’d lived his whole life in Israel like he planned. He would discover that there was someone who was at work in Babylon. There’s one character in this story besides Daniel and his friends and Nebuchadnezzar and his servants. I want you to see if you can find his name. We’ll kind of do this backwards. Start with verse 17. See if you can find the character whose name keeps getting repeated in these verses. To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. (Daniel 1:17) Now verse 9. Now God had caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel. (Daniel 1:9) Now verse 2. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand. (Daniel 1:2) Who is it that keeps getting mentioned? It’s God. The writer of this story is convinced that God is at work right from the start. He knows what many of the Israelites did not know. He’s convinced that even the defeat of Judah and the loss of the temple that looked so tragic was not just a random meaningless event. God was not asleep. God had not broken his promise or forgotten his dream. God was up to something in Babylon — in the place of great suffering. God, as it turns out, loved even Babylon. God, as it turns out, even cares about Nebuchadnezzar. Whatever you suffer this day or sometime in the future, God is there with you. God is with you, whoever you are, whatever Babylon you find yourself in. I believe we’ll see this in the coming months — God is up to something in Babylon, so resolve to honor him. Alright, let me pray for you as Christian and the team come to lead us in a closing song. Blue Oaks Church Pleasanton, CA