Where We Draw the Line

How to Live (and Die) in Babylon

What does it look like to live as a Christian in a society that increasingly does not like what Christians believe, what we say, and how we live? Or to put it another way: What do we do when we realize that the place we are living is less and less like Jerusalem, and more and more like Babylon?

For centuries in the West, and perhaps particularly in the United States, Christians have enjoyed being in the rooms where things happen. But now the wind of society is less at our backs and more in our faces.

For the first time, perhaps, we need to learn how to live well in Babylon. And we find the resources to do so in God’s word. The experience of most of God’s people for most of the Scriptures was that of living as a minority in a society that at best did not understand them, and at worst actively opposed them.

We have much to learn, for instance, from the first exiles of Israel — Daniel and his generation. And one lesson of Daniel for our increasingly post-Christian day is this: know God and his word, know where to draw your lines, and don’t cross them.

Resolve to Draw the Line

We cannot overstate the pressure Daniel and his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were under when they arrived in Babylon: their nation defeated, their temple destroyed, and now living in the most glittering and powerful city in the known world. They were enlisted in the service of the king of Babylon — and they accepted it. Their education was that of Babylon — and they accepted it. Their names were changed to be those of Babylon — and they accepted it. Their food was to be that of Babylon — and Daniel and his friends drew the line there.

“Know God and his word, know where to draw your lines, and don’t cross them.”

“Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank” (Daniel 1:8). Daniel said, I can do this, and I can absorb that, but I cannot go any further. I have drawn a line; I will not cross it, and I am taking my stand here. A dead fish flows with the current; it takes a live fish to swim against the stream. Daniel and his friends drew their line, and they would not cross it, whatever the consequences.

This is faithful living in ungodly surroundings — otherwise known as the Christian life. It is what Peter called his first readers to do: “Live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God,” he wrote — even though, he warned, those around you “are surprised when you do not join them . . . and they malign you” (1 Peter 4:2, 4).

Given the pushback of twenty-first century secularism, you and I are going to face challenges. The crises will come; the moments will arrive when we are called to go with the flow of our culture rather than obedience to our God in the workplace, or on the sports team, or in how we raise our children, or in what we say from our pulpits, and so on.

Those crises will reveal what is inside us. Don’t assume you’ll stand firm in those moments. Equally, don’t assume you will have to give in. Resolve now. Think through where to draw the lines you will not cross.

Learn Where to Draw the Line

How do we know where to draw those lines? Sometimes, it is straightforward. When God’s word tells us to do something, we obey our King. But sometimes, it is not so simple. After all, compromise is not always wrong. There is a hill to die on, but not every hill is that hill.

Daniel allowed himself to be taken into the service of the Babylonian state, to be educated as a Babylonian, and to be renamed with a Babylonian name. Each would presumably not have been his preference — but he did not refuse. Why, then, draw the line at eating Babylonian food? And why, as an old man decades later, refuse to stop praying in plain sight (Daniel 6:10)?

In the Old Testament, one of the distinguishing features of God’s people was the rules they followed about what they would and would not eat and drink. Dietary choice for God’s people was not just an external manifestation of nothing much; rather, it was an external outworking of their deeply held convictions about what it meant to belong to God. Apparently for Daniel, to give up control of his diet was to go against his conscience and compromise on his identity as a follower of the one true God, in a way that the name change did not.

When it came to his praying, Daniel was facing direct intimidation — and he refused to bow before it. The edict the king made was not aimed at the public good, but at the exaltation of his name above God’s (Daniel 6:6–9). And Daniel drew the line at giving the impression that he was in agreement with the edict and that his allegiance to God came second to his obedience to the king. And so he continued to pray, as before.

What do we see? The line is to be drawn where we are told to disobey God; it is also to be drawn where we are asked to compromise on a matter that our conscience tells us will undermine our identity as a Christian. We cannot be intimidated to quietly accede to something that will elevate man over God. This is how we avoid the pressure to completely privatize our faith while also resisting the temptation to overly politicize our faith.

Time for Both

The New Testament also recognizes the need to think wisely about how to draw our lines. Romans 13 commands us to submit to the governing authorities, but Acts 4–5 shows God’s people refusing as well. There is a time for both. This means that we will not necessarily all draw all our lines in the same places.

To take one example: recently the churches in my home nation of Scotland challenged the Scottish government because they had been told they could not gather for worship at all. I think at that point we had moved into the realm of Acts 4–5, and the line needed to be drawn.

At the same time, the mandate in my home state of Ohio was that if we gathered in public spaces like a church building, we should wear masks and keep physical distance. We submitted to that, for that seemed like a Romans 13 moment, and did not seem, for the time, like a place to draw a line. (Not everyone would agree, of course!)

It is worth asking ourselves: What am I naturally inclined toward? Some of us will be more tempted to draw lines and take on fights when faithfulness doesn’t require it. Remember the apostle Paul’s charge: “So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).

“At times the lines may be drawn in different places, but drawn they should be, and crossed they must not be.”

Others, perhaps especially those used to living in a nation whose moral codes have been broadly Christian, will be tempted to keep our heads down and make compromises when faithfulness looks like drawing a line and gently but firmly refusing to cross it. Those of us inclined this way may need to learn to say “no” regardless of the cost to reputation, bank account, or even freedom, for “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Whatever our disposition, we do need to remember that brothers and sisters will draw the lines in different places than we will, and that this does not necessarily make them wrong. Sometimes it is straightforward to see where the line must be, but not always, and our unity depends on humbly recognizing the difference.

Delivered Through the Fire

What does it look like to live as a Christian in a society that does not like what Christians believe, what we say, and how we live? It means knowing God as Daniel did — that God is in control, that he will keep his promises. He may at times deliver his people from the fire, but if not, he will always deliver us through the fire.

If we know God in this way, we will be willing to draw a line. We will be ready to wrestle with exactly where to draw that line, asking him for wisdom. At times the lines may be drawn in different places, but drawn they should be, and crossed they must not be. That is how we live faithfully in Babylon as we walk forward toward our home in the New Jerusalem.