Following God in a Secular Workplace: Conform or Transform, Part 1 of 3

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There is a story I have told many times about four men, raised to serve God. At a young age, they are sent off to a secular university for an intensive three-year education: the equivalent of an accelerated Bachelor of Arts degree. They are educated in language, literature, history, culture, religion, and probably also in science and mathematics. In other words, they receive a typical liberal arts education. They do well in school, for they are intelligent, with an "aptitude for every kind of learning . . . quick to understand." They are also good athletes, "without any physical defect"—the types likely to earn varsity letters in two or three sports.

Intelligence and health, however, are not enough to make their lives easy, at least not if they are intent on following God. Their faith is tested in many ways during and after their education. But their faith remains intact, and they have a tremendous impact on the secular culture in which they find themselves. They don't just survive; they thrive. Through their bold and consistent witness, the name of God is proclaimed throughout the whole country. Theirs is an incredible true story of how followers of God in a secular culture, rather than being conformed to that culture, actually have a transforming impact.

The four men are named Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah—though the latter three are more often known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. You can read their stories in the book of Daniel. The book provides a valuable model for Christian students heading off to a secular college and university. However, most of the book of Daniel takes place after the three-year stint at Babylon University, when the four young men have entered the working world as consultants working for the government. And so their story provides an even more important model for Christian men and women seeking to thrive in the secular workplace and to transform it.

In the first paragraph of the book, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, plunders God's temple in Jerusalem and carries the plunder off to the treasure house of his own god. In this time and place, his actions conveyed a clear message: The god of Babylon is more powerful than the God of Israel.

So the first question for Daniel and his friends is whether they will continue to believe in the power of their own God, the God of Israel. It appears that their God couldn't even protect them in their own country, so how could he protect them in faraway Babylon?

Just a few verses later we learn that the King changes the names of the four men. In their culture, names were both meaningful and important. The name Daniel means "God is my judge." Hananiah means "Yahweh is gracious." Changing their names is a direct attack on their identity. The newly given name Shadrach means "the command of Aku." (Aku was the Babylonian god of moon.) Meshach means "who is what Aku is?" Abed-Nego means "a servant of Nebo." (Nebo was another Babylonian divinity).

Don't forget that they are being educated in Babylonian language and literature—with much of that Babylonian literature being mythic (or religious) literature that proclaims the Babylonian gods and their ways. In short then, not only is the faith of these four young men in God's power challenged, but their very identity as followers of God. Will they conform to the new Babylonian identity corresponding to their newly given names? Or will they continue to follow the true God as they were raised to do?