I’ve been spending a lot of time in the book of Daniel lately. This is my current favorite book in the Bible. If you’ve read the blog for very long, you’ll also know that I’ve written a fair amount on it (and I actually should pick up on that again soon).
In the past few days, I’ve been particularly struck by Daniel 1:8, “But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies, nor with the wine which he drank…” Daniel’s choice was radical. It rubs greatly against the grain of our Western culture. Daniel wasn’t looking for what was permissible; he was setting his heart on what was holy. In other words, he was setting his heart on what was transcendent to the society he found himself in.
Technically, Daniel did not have to take a raw+vegan+water diet in order to maintain a basic level of righteousness. This is actually quite an important point: Daniel didn’t choose his diet because it was required of him by God or by the Law. Let’s think about what he could have been eating and drinking.
Wine was an extremely common beverage in ancient times. It was sometimes actually safer to drink than water, because there was much less question of what had gotten into it and where it came from. Wine was even mandated at the Passover feast. It was completely acceptable at a large number of Jewish social gatherings. In short: Daniel was no teetotaler. He didn’t refuse wine because he considered alcohol to be a mortal sin. We could ask the question, then, “Why not? Why not continue to drink wine in moderation and self-control? Does the geographic location really matter that much?”
The meat question is no different. Surely Babylonian cuisine indulged in some of the meats classified as unclean under the kosher laws. But not all of it was so. We might ask Daniel again, “Why not? You ate lamb and beef in Judah. Why not eat it in Babylon, too? Or at least have some fish, where there is no worry about blood still being in the meat.”
We could keep going on this. Bread (nothing unkosher there). Fancy prepared food. Milk. A whole host of other foods that were no doubt part of the king’s delicacies, that had no specific prohibition under the laws of Moses. Conceivably, Daniel could have just said, “You know, I’ll pass on the pork and shellfish today, thanks,” and have stayed within the bounds of what was perfectly permissible.
But Daniel wasn’t worried about what was okay. He wasn’t asking himself, “Why not?” He was running the other way, so much so that we would probably brand him as a religious nutcase in our day. “That Daniel guy… bless him, he seems pretty nice and all… but he could really stand to tone it down a little.”
“Why not?” was not good enough for Daniel, because he knew what was at stake for his heart. At this point in his life, he was in his early to mid-teens. He had just been taken from his parents and home. All religious support was gone, except for his three buddies who were in the same spot as him. He was now selected for service in the very courts of King Nebuchadnezzar. He was at the center of the biggest, wealthiest empire in the known world. He was receiving top level education with the opportunity for a fantastic job. Great comfort and luxury was within reach. Babylon could offer him everything on a silver platter. But there was only one problem — Babylon had utter disregard and disdain for the God of Israel.
Daniel chose to forgo all but the very most basic food, not because it would be sin for him to have it according to the Law, but because he did not dare become attached to the king’s delicacies. He knew that Babylon was about more than wealth, prestige, and physical pleasure (which, in and ofthemselves, are not bad things). He knew that Babylon came with a demonic spirit that opposed God and sought to steal the hearts of His people away from Him. And Daniel, wisely, would have none of it. He would not allow his physical appetites to entice him away from his devotion. He would not allow rich food to become the bait that ensnared him in Babylonian culture, one day at a time.
Instead of asking, “Why not?” Daniel asked the much wiser question, “Why?” Why should he throw his devotional life away over a piece of meat? Why should he trade a dull spirit for the legitimate pleasure of wine? Why should he turn a blind eye to the destructive allure of Babylon in order to relax and enjoy her fare?
We would do well to adopt this same approach to our current culture. It’s true no matter where you live, but especially in wealthy Western countries, we face many of the same subtle traps as Daniel did. We can go down the road at any time and get any food we want. If that seems like too much trouble, we can just get on the phone or computer and have the food come to us. If we’re bored, we have a million easy, instant, and economical ways to be entertained. Advertisers and service providers are only too happy to offer us whatever it is we decide we need and want.
As Christians, this is when we face the danger of that question, “Why not?” We recognize all kinds of options that are not explicitly prohibited in Scripture, and we therefore buy into them without much further thought. Why not get the magazine that will help me keep up with the latest fashions? Why not play that video game that all my friends are into? Why not go see the Oscar-winning movie? Why not have a responsible, casual drink with my friends every once in a while?
Our arguments all sound good, and technically, they’re all correct. There’s nothing wrong with being fashionable. There’s nothing wrong with playing a video game or watching a movie, provided the content is not unrighteous. There’s nothing inherently wrong with alcohol, as long as we don’t get drunk (Jesus drank wine and never sinned).
We ask of these things, “Why not?” and if we can’t think of anything, we jump right on in.
However, sometimes “why not?” is not good enough. Why not study up on the trends in order to be fashionable? No reason. But our culture idolizes physical appearance, and the more we buy into the world’s image of beauty, the more time, money, and emotional energy we will pour into it. The more we get drawn into it, the less it is the innocent sentiment, “I like to dress well and look good”, and the more it becomes flat-out vanity, consuming our lives.
Why not be entertained through movies and video games as much as we want? No reason, assuming we stick to the clean ones (which is getting harder and harder to do). But the more we begin to give our time and fascination to these things, the harder it is to be fascinated with the Lord of glory. The more we laugh at, cry at, and are kept on the edge of our seats by the world’s value systems, the more we will find our hearts in silent agreement with those value systems. We may even find the things of the Spirit becoming foreign to us when they don’t gel with the latest feel-good blockbuster.
Why not enjoy a responsible drink with friends every now and then? No reason. But alcohol in our culture is nearly always used in drastic excess. Very few people in our society drink becasue they like the bevergae. Some drink to forget. Some drink to relax. Some drink to prove that they’re finally grown ups. Some drink to prove that they’re still young and exciting. Some drink to lose inhibitions. Some drink to work up the nerve to hit on other people who have already lost their inhibitions. Many, many people drink as a doorway and excuse to engage in all forms of immorality. Thousands drink because they literally can’t say no to it anymore.
While alcohol is a neutral entity, our culture is not neutral towards it. It’s possible as a believer to go to a bar with friends, have only one drink, purely enjoy one another’s company, and leave without having sinned. But our culture is constantly attempting to entice us to “just one more drink”. “Just this time.” “You’ve got to loosen up once in a while.” “You work hard; so you deserve it.” “Live a little.” All the way to, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” And so on. Each step in that direction invites more pressure and temptation, even before we’ve entered into the realm of sin. One cocktail will not land a person in spiritual trouble. But tacit agreement with the world eventually will — probably much sooner than we think.
I’m not advocating any specific holiness formula as far as what technically permissible things we can and cannot touch in this society. What I am advocating is that we change our approach to those decisions. While it’s fantastic to start at, “Does the Bible forbid it?” we don’t necessarily want to stop there. Rather than shrugging and asing, “Why not?”, we need to proactively asky “Why?” Why is this worth it to me? Why do I think it enriches my life? Why am I giving my time, money, and physical/emotional energy to it? Why do I feel such a need to agree with the prevailing culture in this area?
Those are rather scary questions to ask. But if we don’t have good answers to the “why”, we would be wise to do what Daniel did and take a good step back from it. I believe that if we want to see what Daniel saw, and be a bold messenger like he was, we have to live like he lived. This may not mean only veggies and water, but it will mean letting go of some legitimate pleasures to avoid some very real snares and pursue a much higher calling. It’s not particularly comfortable. It’s certainly not convenient. But I am convinced that it will be worth it, every time.