King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up. ”
-Daniel 3:16-18 (NIV)
I’ve been thinking a lot about the act of testimony lately. In a world that mostly seems to prefer that faith be a private matter that’s never discussed in polite company, how do we as God’s people find ways to speak about our experiences with God? If our friends, colleagues, neighbors, and even family members would prefer that we keep our faith to ourselves, is it even possible to testify about our belief that God exists and that he’s faithful, compassionate, and powerful? Who will hear us when we do if our testimony is perceived as transgressing some sort of boundary?
Tyler Smith and Heather Brown have a testimony. Celebrating Senior Skip Day by swimming in the ocean at Vilano Beach, Florida, they found themselves caught in a current that took them two miles out to sea. For two hours, the teenagers fought to stay above the surface. They were growing weaker, suffering from hypothermia, and there was no one around to hear their cries for help.
Smith prayed out loud for a boat to come by. He says he said something like, “If you really do have a plan for us, like, come on. Just bring something.”
Eric Wagner was bringing his boat from Delray to New Jersey when he and his crew thought they heard a scream over the sound of the wind and the waves. As they scanned the water around them, they saw an arm waving above the swells. They changed course and pulled the two wet, cold, tired teenagers out of the ocean, out of what had been looking more and more like an early grave.
“The first words that came out of my mouth were, 'God is real,'" Heather told reporters after she and Tyler were safe. Eric Wagner’s testimony goes like this: "There were too many coincidences, in my opinion, for this to be a coincidence. I truly believe it was divine intervention. It had nothing to do with me. I was just put there at the right place at the right time, and I did the same thing anyone else would have done, pulled them aboard.”
Bless Tyler, Heather, and Eric for testifying to their belief in the power of God. They’re willing to ascribe to God acts of mercy and salvation that others would doubt or even scoff at. They’re willing to talk about their personal faith in a very public setting, and that’s never easy.
But, indulge me: What if God hadn’t intervened?
I’m glad he did, and I’m Eric, Tyler and Heather are willing to call it what it is and give God the glory. But what if God had not done whatever he did to get that boat where Tyler and Heather needed it to be?
I ask that because a lot of God’s people through the ages have discovered that God doesn’t always intervene in such a convenient and miraculous way. Think of Job. Think of the prophets who suffered for their willingness to be the line of communication between their people and God. Think of Jesus, who wasn’t plucked out of the grasp of death at the eleventh hour.
Think of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, three young guys who probably weren’t much more than teenagers themselves. We know how their story ended, of course, but they didn’t know. They didn’t wait to see if God would deliver them before they found their voice. They testified to an already-angry king that they had no doubt their God was able to deliver them, that he could set them free. But they didn’t tie their obedience to God doing anything. “Even if he does not…,” they vowed, “we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold…”
It’s great to testify when God does something wonderful. But if that’s the only time we have something to say about him, then testimony is only for those who God rescues dramatically.
We can and should, however, testify “even if he does not.”
I get what Heather was saying, and I don’t have a problem with her saying it. But, of course, God is real whether he saved Heather and Tyler or not. We need to be able to say that.
Lament and protest are a biblical way for God’s people to relate to God. It’s all through the psalms, if you don’t skip over it: complaints that God isn’t doing more (Psalm 74:11), questions of “how long?” (Psalm 13:1) and “Why?” (Psalm 44:24). But the psalmists are always asking those questions and making those complaints to God. This isn’t the existential doubt that seems so romantic and fashionable today, even among people who call themselves believers. These people of God believe that he exists and that he’s good, and so they’re trying to make sense of what’s gone wrong in their world. They’re determined to praise him and worship him, even if they aren’t sure at a given moment how they’re going to manage it.
God’s people don’t believe because we understand his good reasons for the pervasive, capricious, and gratuitous suffering in the world. We know who he is, and so we trust his intentions for creation and within creation. We trust that he can save us and will save us even when he does not. We testify to his compassion and grace and power even when at a given moment we can see no evidence of it.
That’s why the psalmists worship even as they protest and complain; their feelings about what’s happening to them shouldn’t be ignored, but neither should they be allowed to determine whether they believe.
That’s why those three boys in Babylon said they wouldn’t give up on God even if he didn’t save them.
That’s why Job kept after God, even though he had no hope of understanding what was happening to him.
That’s why Jesus could weep and beg in the Garden and still say “Not what I will, but what you will."
We weep over the condition of our world. We lash out over the pain in our lives and the lives of the people around us. We despair of ever understanding it or even being OK with it. We protest that God hasn’t done anything about it.
When we do, we’re in good company.
Sometimes lament and protest are our best testimony: they speak volumes about our belief that God is all about justice, righteousness, peace, love, and healing. They show that there are no strings on our faith: we put our trust and hope in God even in those moments when doing so doesn’t save us.
When God rescues you, talk about it like Tyler, Heather, and Eric did. But don’t imagine that’s the only testimony you have.
Say you’ll worship him only, even if he does not rescue you. Worship him when your faith is messy, ugly, and unsettled. God doesn’t need us to prove to someone else how great he is. He wants us to speak about our walk with him, even when we don’t have much to say that we consider good. There’s someone else who needs to hear that God is loving, compassionate, full of grace and mercy, and that he can and will save.
Even when…especially when…he, for a moment, does not.