by Mans Ramstad
Four stories from the Book of Daniel serve as examples to those serving God in creative access countries.
God has called me to life as a foreigner in a creative access country. This life is full of blessings and unexpected joys. But it is also difficult. Like most ethnic groups, Chinese people possess self-confidence and attitudes of cultural superiority. This is in part because they have been isolated for a long time and represent the longest single contiguous culture in the world. Particularly since the revolution of 1949, Chinese people have been very patriotic and the country highly politicized.
Foreigners can worship freely, but only with other foreigners or in registered churches. China has a mysterious and vague authority system, with power being used arbitrarily. Orthodox thought (even in the realm of religion) is determined by the government and subject to whimsical change. How are foreigners to live in this context so as to influence China for good without being corrupted by it?1 Just as God called Daniel to Babylon, so he has called many workers to creative access countries around the world. A deeper look at the life, ministry, and character of Daniel can help workers who find themselves in similar conditions to glorify God as best they can.
Daniel served under three different rulers. In 605 BC, young Daniel was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. Because he was able to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2), he was given a place of prominence in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom. After Nebuchadnezzar died, Daniel fell from favor. Later, he was recalled to interpret the writings at Belshazzar’s feast. Finally, Daniel was made one of three commissioners under Darius. He was over the age of seventy when he died in 536 BC.
Daniel lived in a totalitarian world. Some would use the word statism (absolute worship of the state) to describe the situation in Babylon at that time. When Daniel and his friends were invited into the inner court, their biblical names were changed to pagan names (1:6-7). Each person had his or her own god (1:2; 2:11), and the people were united in their opposition to true biblical faith (3:6). Yet Daniel was able to live in this environment with integrity and purity of faith. He was humble, in step with, and a worthy messenger of God (10:11-12). Four stories from the Book of Daniel will serve as examples for important elements cross-cultural workers need to keep in mind when serving God in creative access countries such as China.
1. Training and learning the new culture. Daniel and his three friends—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—were invited into the royal court as counselors to the king (1:3-5). These four men were chosen because they were handsome, intelligent, discerning, and “had ability for serving in the king’s court.” God gave them this intelligence and these gifts (1:17); however, they also worked hard to make themselves ready to serve. In order to perform their roles, they learned the literature and language of the Chaldeans, studying for three years before they entered the king’s service (1:5). These men were able to provide a real service which the government perceived as necessary. Even pagans recognized them as wise (5:11-12).
No matter how many degrees we have earned in our home country, we all need a period of intense training and learning in order to be able to serve in the new country to which we have been called. We need a “local education” before we are of use locally. What are some of the ways we can do this? Here are a few:
• Learn the local language.
• Have cultural guides who can mentor us into cultural competency.
• Receive spiritual training to learn the spiritual climate and needs of the place we are serving.
• Incorporate local orientation into our professional world so that what we bring professionally is of local value.
2. Balancing cultural sensitivity and faith conviction. In Daniel 1:8-16 we learn that Daniel and his friends were expected to eat the rich foods and wine from the king’s table. Because this was a violation of their Hebrew lifestyle, they were in a bind. Would they conform to the cultural pressures, or would they hold to the tenets and practices of their faith?
What we see in Daniel is not aggressive resistance, but a sensitivity to his hosts and a quiet confidence that God would provide for them (1:8a). Daniel doesn’t threaten the chief official or his personal guard (1:8, 12); rather, he asks permission to abstain from the king’s food and the right to keep from defiling himself. In our calling, we are daily in cross-cultural contexts that challenge our faith and our culture. It is difficult to know when these challenges are cultural differences, and when they are a potential compromising of our faith. Issues such as consuming alcohol at banquets, entering temples, eating food sacrificed to idols at funerals, and sending gifts as a way of smoothing official relationships are all challenges that require deep spiritual discernment and cultural sensitivity. Daniel was able to use cultural sensitivity and yet also hold true to his faith conviction. In the end, God honored and protected them, and their pagan hosts saw God’s power at work in their lives.
3. Respecting and serving officials. In Daniel 2:1-49, King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream. In verse 12, we learn that because the wise men couldn’t interpret his dream, the king threatened to kill all the intellectuals, including Daniel and his three friends. Finding no one else who could interpret his dream, he turned to Daniel. Daniel spoke with discretion and discernment (2:14). He was a blessing to his captors and willing to work for the good of a pagan government (1:19-20). Likewise, there is a certain pressure on us to serve the leaders over us and make real contributions to their cause. We can’t just put in time or rest on our laurels and assume we are being of benefit.
Daniel was schooled in the discipline of prayer, and he turned to prayer in this difficult time (2:18), asking God for help and wisdom. He acknowledged that everything he had came from God (2:2-3) and boldly told this to Nebuchadnezzar (2:28, 47) and later to Belteshazzar (5:18-20). He was able and willing to witness to these political leaders with confidence and a clear conscience. Consequently, Nebuchadnezzar recognized that in Daniel was a “spirit of the holy gods” (4:8). Daniel respected the king and recognized him as being put there by God (2:37), even when he wanted to kill Daniel. Daniel had compassion for those who didn’t know God’s grace (4:27; 9:14; 6:21).
Daniel’s experience is a challenge for us as we seek to obey (1 Tim. 2:1-2), pray for, and be a blessing to national leaders, who may at times even seek to work against us and against the purposes of God. We must remember the following when we seek to respect and serve officials and local leaders:
• We’re commanded to obey them (Rom. 13; 1 Tim. 2:1-2).
• Our attitude toward them is connected to evangelism, both of that person and others to whom we would witness (1 Tim. 2:1-4).
• Peace is a necessary component for abiding and healthy ministry (Acts 9:31; 1 Tim. 2:1-4).
Those familiar with ministry in limited access countries will also be curious about how to handle the delicate balance between respecting the government and being complicitous in some of its unhealthy aspects. Depending upon the country and the official leader involved, there are varying levels of corruption among the powerful of the world. If we respect them and serve them, it is possible that we are abetting their corruption. For this we need to be discerning so that we do not fall prey to situations like that. Then, we need to have boldness to either stand up to corruption or remove ourselves from the situation. I will speak more on this later.
4. Facing resentment or jealousy. Daniel was known for doing his work better than others (6:3). Consequently, his leadership team resented and envied him and wanted to find a political flaw in him so they could bring him down (6:1-4). Because nothing could be found against him, they flattered King Darius into making a law requiring everyone to bow down to him. Of course, Daniel was unwilling to bow down. Although Daniel had the respect of Darius, because of his word, the king had to throw Daniel to the lions. However, he reassured Daniel that his god would surely protect him (6:16). What an amazing attitude for Darius to so respect Daniel’s god! Daniel, in turn, respected Darius (6:21), even when he had cast him into the lion’s den.
Suffering unjustly is an opportunity for people to see the glory of God at work in our lives (1 Pet. 2:13-17). We can learn from Daniel to do our work with integrity and excellence and to respond to naysayers appropriately. We can learn perseverance, character, and hope (Rom. 5:1-5). Daniel had an open faith and trust in God, and this served him well in a context of hostility.
Daniel’s three friends can also teach us a few lessons. In Daniel 3, we learn that Nebuchadnezzer began a campaign forcing everyone to bow down to the idol representing himself. Daniel’s three friends would not bow down (3:12). This resulted in the three men being thrown into the fiery furnace. However, they were protected from the flames by God’s power when he sent an angel to protect them. As a result, Nebuchadnezzar respected their God, and we read, “And the king caused them to prosper” (3:30). In the modern setting, we will not likely be thrown into a fiery furnace, but we will be challenged with intimidation and threats from officials and institutions suspicious or opposed to the gospel. We may even be kicked out of the country. How will we respond to these challenges? Will we run and hide? Will we hide or deny our faith? I hope not. Daniel’s three friends were blessed for their faithfulness, and the way they responded lent credibility to their faith before the observing leaders.
The Strength of Daniel’s Witness
What allowed Daniel to function so well, remaining faithful to God and with such integrity? Below are three reasons Daniel’s life and ministry were so effective.
1. Daniel believed in God’s sovereignty. He believed in a sovereign God who is in control of everything. He had utter resolve to trust in God (6:23). There can be no circumstances in which serving the Lord is impossible. It was the Lord, not the devil, who gave Jehoiakim, king of Judah, into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand in the first place, resulting in Daniel being carried off to Babylon (1:2). The Apostle Paul reminds us that the struggles which came his way happened to him for the cause of the gospel (Phil. 1:12), not as some frightening event outside of God’s sovereign control. We also see Daniel’s trust in God through his prayer recorded in Daniel 9, where he praised the great and awesome God. He saw his own sin (9:15-16) and cried out to God for the sake of his name on behalf of his sinful people (v. 18-19). Daniel’s lifestyle was shaped by consecration to God (1:8-16), and he had a clear conscience in all things (6:22). Consequently, God granted favor to Daniel in the sight of the leader (1:9). May the same be said of us with regard to our life and faith in our host countries.
2. Daniel’s mind was shaped by biblical principles. He was above reproach in all things and respected the laws (6:5, 22). I have often said that I don’t want to get in trouble in China for anything other than faithfulness to God. It is easy to be careless and get in trouble over silly issues like having the wrong visa, staying in places not open to foreigners, driving without a driver’s license, skipping teaching assignments, etc. Sometimes we even build up a martyr complex, arguing that we are being picked on for the gospel, when in fact the problem is our own lack of integrity.
Daniel had a faithful daily time of prayer (6:10-11); he meditated on the scriptures and prayed them into his life (9:2-4). As we offer ourselves up to God in worship, we will be transformed and will know God’s will (Rom.12:2). Why did Daniel open his window to Jerusalem as he prayed?
First, because he knew that trusting in God was more than a personal faith—it had implications for every aspect of his life. Daniel wanted to witness to all those around him that he trusted in God. Second, the open window reminded him of Jerusalem (9:16). And third, he was simply doing “as he had been doing previously” (6:10). He was daily in the habit of prayer and worship.
3. Daniel possessed boldness in his faith. Because of his trust in God and his solid foundation on God’s word, Daniel was able to speak out with confidence and do the right thing. Even though Daniel respected the leaders, he still dared to speak out against defilement (1:8) and idolatry (3:8-18). He warned Belshazzar that when Nebuchadnezzar honored God, everything went fine, but when he became proud, he came to ruin (5:18-23). Daniel dared to speak the truth to leaders, even if it might bring him harm (4:19). Nebuchadnezzar eventually recognized Daniel’s truth (4:37). The people who know their God will display strength and take action, like Daniel did (11:32). He rejected bribes or perks (5:17).
The result of Daniel’s boldness was that he was trusted and respected (2:46; 5:11, 17-19). Because of his “extraordinary spirit” (6:3), which was the Spirit of God, he found favor and sympathy (1:9), and he earned a special position which he was able to use to honor God. In creative access contexts you will be a noticeable presence, with lots of attention and certain pressures. It is essential that you have boldness and a clear sense of God’s leading and purpose in order to accomplish what he has called you there for. I learned a motto years ago for how to serve God faithfully in the China context: “Fear God, respect men, and stand firm.” This is an apt phrase to describe Daniel and a powerful reminder for us in our work in China and in other similar contexts.
You might wonder how Daniel’s life serves as an example of “ministry.” Surely Daniel was not “doing ministry” in the modern sense of full-time vocational ministry. We can learn much more along these lines from the life of Christ or the letters of Paul. But Daniel’s life and witness is an enduring example of the kind of foundation that a life of ministry in a challenging context needs to stand on. It is also an example of the kind of character God calls us to possess when living in challenging contexts.
Daniel trusted in a sovereign God whose plan and will trumps all our plans and fears. Daniel built his life on God’s word. He spent time in prayer and Bible reading three times a day as his regular practice. Likewise, we need to develop the habit of a daily quiet time with God. We also need to memorize God’s word so that it is available to us in time of need (Ps. 119:9-11). Being able to meet God in his word and being able to understand and apply scripture is the core of our calling in discipling others.
Daniel was bold in faith and action. He stood up for truth. We are called to advocate for the poor and disenfranchised, even though it might upset those in power. We need to trust God to do what is right, even when it seems difficult. In this way, God will use us to bring him glory in our country of service.
1. Jonathan D. Spence (1980) has argued that while many westerners have come to China with a calling and a passion to change China for the better, most have been consumed by China and have made relatively little contribution.
Spence, Jonathan D. 1980. To Change China: Western Advisors in China. New York: Penguin Books.
Mans Ramstad (pseudonym) has been serving in China as a tentmaker for many years.
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