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‘BUT IF NOT . . .’
When Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego were threatened with the burning fiery furnace if they did not bow down and worship the image which Nebuchadnezzar had set up, they said, ‘Our God Whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. BUT IF NOT, . . . be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.’ (Daniel 3 v17-18).
The previous chapters have been written in the hope that they may be used to prevent what is known as ‘nervous or mental breakdown’, in which the patient becomes temporarily unable to cope with the ordinary demands of life and work. But for the sake of Christians who may read this book during a breakdown or after it, I am adding this chapter. One reason for doing so is that if you are passing through the experience of any sort of a breakdown, or if you are struggling to recover, what has already been said MAY simply bring you into a deeper state of guilt, condemnation and despair.
So let us think together briefly about that ‘BUT IF NOT’. Suppose you have not been delivered, suppose the breakdown has come, suppose the dark waters have closed over your head, what then?
One important thing to remember is that not all ‘breakdowns’ are due to unrelieved tension. Specialists are not able to state the cause dogmatically, there are often several factors; and your illness is not necessarily the result of the tension which we have been considering. To realize this may be the means of saving you from much self-condemnation and feelings of guilt.
There are several things which we can learn from this story of the burning fiery furnace, even though the experience of the fire came as the result of different circumstances. Firstly, there was the Presence of the Son of God with them in the fire. You may be quite unconscious of His Presence, in fact you will probably feel that He has forsaken you and turned His back upon you, and it will bring you no comfort to be told that He is with you. Nevertheless, the fact remains, and others looking into the fire from outside may see that He is there. His Presence means that He will not allow the fire to do you permanent harm, He will have it all under His control, and one day you will know that He was doing for you what He did for those three men, loosing their bonds. THEY went into the fire bound, they came out free. God will one day bring YOU out into a place of freedom, and you will realize that He has been at work in the fire, and in the darkness, doing in your personality that which could have been accomplished in no other way.
Next, notice that the fire failed to change the intention of the three men. They kept steadfast in will that they would not serve Satan and would not deny God. It is possible to maintain a like intention even when stripped of all pleasurable ‘feelings’. The fire we are speaking of nearly always strips away feelings, except those of guilt and suffering. We little realize how we depend on ‘feelings’ until they have gone. Yet even when the darkness is very deep, there can be maintained an intention to obey God and to be faithful, as far as possible, to Him. I think this is what matters to God. In ‘Screwtape Letters’ C.S. Lewis makes Screwtape say, when writing about the troughs of human experience, ‘Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.’ Of course it is possible for even the will to be broken down through excessive physical or mental torture. We have all heard of cases where Christians who have been persecuted, have given way under physical torment or the mental anguish of brain-washing and have denied the Lord. What a comfort it is to know that the Lord knows and understands how much pressure we can bear, and in many cases He has given another chance to confess Him.
The story of Archbishop Cranmer, who recanted but afterwards repented, and died bravely as a martyr is a case in point. But if you know that in spite of breakdown and mental suffering, there has been deep within you the intention that you will not change your allegiance from God to Satan, this knowledge can lead you to see that the very thing which you thought was showing that you were not a Christian, is in fact revealing that you are; for you could not have maintained that intention apart from the work of God within your soul.
Satan may take advantage of your being stripped of all pleasurable ‘feeling’ to bring deep doubts concerning the reality of your conversion and the forgiveness of your sins. The assurance of your salvation is lost, and you are flooded with the remembrance of past sins; and now your ‘feelings’ of guilt and of being forsaken seem to prove to you that you are not forgiven, that you are not God’s child. If this happens, you must go back to the faithfulness of God and the Word of God. The Word of Jesus stands forever, ‘Him that cometh to Me, I will IN NO WISE cast out’ (John 6 v37). If you came to Him, and received Him as your Saviour, He will never give you up whatever you may feel and whatever you have done. You can face Satan with the Word of God and assert, in spite of all your feelings or lack of feelings, that:
‘The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
He will not, He will not, desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavour to shake,
He’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.’
You can also ACT, as far as is possible, as a child of God, whatever your feelings. This particularly applies to convalescence when you can attend church services, and read your Bible and pray even if it all seems automatic and unreal. It is through these channels that God will again reveal Himself.
There is one more thing about the fire which I would like to mention, and that is that it did not last for ever, there came the moment when the three men stepped out of the peculiar and unfamiliar circumstances of the fire into the ordinary surroundings of life. Your fire will not last forever. There will come the day when the darkness will pass and light dawn, when the song of praise will once again well up in your heart and the circumstances of life will become normal. It may seem a very long time, but as you look back, you will see something of what God was doing, and it may be that through it He will give you a message that can be used to help others.
Maybe you are not going through such an experience of ‘breakdown’ or illness yourself but are closely associated with someone who is, and you long to be able to help but do not know how. Be very patient. Pray much, especially that Satan may not get an advantage and hinder what God is doing. Do not alter in your attitude towards your friend. This may speak to him or her of the unchanging rock-like character of our God. Be compassionate, remember Job’s cry to his friends; ‘Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O ye my friends; for the hand of God hath touched me’ (Job l9 v2l). Stand by prayerfully in case the Lord shows you something which you can say or do to help. Remember that the fire will not last forever, and you will yet be given the joy of seeing your friend delivered and joining you in praising God for what He has done.
You may say, ‘But I know a Christian who never did come out of this fire in this life, death came before deliverance and healing were given.’ It is still true to say that for a child of God the fire never lasts forever. Suppose what you think to be the worst happens and death comes before deliverance? Suppose the darkness never lifts in this life? Is not death deliverance? Is it not the beginning of light that will never fade? And will not the fire and the valley of the shadow, when for ever past, seem short compared with the eternal glory? ‘Our light affliction which is for the moment, worketh for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory.’ (2 Corinthians 4 vl7, R.V.)
We may not understand God’s way, but we can trust our Father, and when we get Home, He will explain all.