When I Was Your Age – Lessons From Biblical Teenagers
A few weeks ago, someone hacked into my email account and sent out a bogus email, saying that I was stuck in the Philippines and needed financial assistance to get home.
It was a scam and those who know me recognized it as such. Thank God they did and didn’t send this identity thief any money.
Of course, identity theft is a serious problem in the 21st century. The U.S. government has set up a website to deal with the problem. It’s IdentityTheft.com and I hope you never have to use it. The IRS and FBI websites also have sections dedicated to identity theft.
According to the FBI website, “Identity theft occurs when someone assumes your identity to perform a fraud or other criminal act.”
The FBI also points out that “identity theft is nothing new. We’ve been dealing with criminals faking IDs for decades, from check forgers to fugitives on the run. But the threat is more pervasive and the scams more sophisticated than ever, including new online elements.”
The FBI is absolutely correct: Identity theft is nothing new. Long ago in the history of Israel, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and when they first began their attacks, they kidnapped the best and brightest of the royal family and took them to Babylon.
Among those early exiles was a group of teenagers about 15-years-old that included Daniel and three of his friends. (Daniel 1:3-4)
The Babylonians attempted to steal their identities through a process that sociologists call cultural assimilation. According to Wikipedia, “Cultural assimilation is the process by which a person or a group’s language and/or culture come to resemble those of another group. The term is used to refer to both individuals and groups, and in the latter case it can refer to either immigrant diasporas or native residents that come to be culturally dominated by another society. Assimilation may involve either a quick or gradual change depending on circumstances of the group. Full assimilation occurs when new members of a society become indistinguishable from members of the other group.”
Did you notice the word “indistinguishable” in that last sentence? That’s actually what the Babylonian identity thieves wanted to do to Daniel and his friends: Take away their identity as Jews and make them indistinguishable from Babylonians.
The Babylonians didn’t come up with an evil plot to do this. They were subtle and diabolical. They were going to have Daniel and his friends eat the king’s food and educate them for three years, teaching them the language, literature, and philosophy of the Babylonians. They also gave Daniel and his friends Babylonian names because they were going to serve in the Babylonian government.
The “crime” perpetrated through the Babylonian identity theft is idolatry. These names referred to the worship of Babylonian idols, but their Hebrew names pointed to God.
Daniel wasn’t taken in. Despite being an exile in a foreign country, he remained faithful to God and his Jewish heritage. Here’s the story of how he did:
But Daniel was determined not to defile himself by eating the food and wine given to them by the king. He asked the chief of staff for permission not to eat these unacceptable foods. Now God had given the chief of staff both respect and affection for Daniel. But he responded, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has ordered that you eat this food and wine. If you become pale and thin compared to the other youths your age, I am afraid the king will have me beheaded.”
Daniel spoke with the attendant who had been appointed by the chief of staff to look after Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. “Please test us for ten days on a diet of vegetables and water,” Daniel said. “At the end of the ten days, see how we look compared to the other young men who are eating the king’s food. Then make your decision in light of what you see.” The attendant agreed to Daniel’s suggestion and tested them for ten days.
At the end of the ten days, Daniel and his three friends looked healthier and better nourished than the young men who had been eating the food assigned by the king. So after that, the attendant fed them only vegetables instead of the food and wine provided for the others. Daniel 1:8-16 (NLT)
I hope you read the rest of the chapter (and the entire book). You will see how Daniel and his friends rose to prominence within the Babylonian government by staying true to their Jewish identity and being faithful to God.
So what lessons can we draw from this early chapter in Daniel’s life?
Lesson 1: Daniel’s mind was made up beforehand what he was going to do.
When you find yourself away from a supportive community, you have to remember who you are and have your mind already made up that you’re not going to be sucked in by the surrounding culture. You can’t wait until you are in a compromising situation to decide because you might discover that the pressure to assimilate is too intense and you give in. You have to already be a person of integrity. Former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson said, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”
Lesson 2: Daniel was respectful of the person in charge.
He was not belligerent, he didn’t vent, and he didn’t scream: “I am not eating that! I don’t know where it came from! That stuff’s not good for me to eat!” He made a simple request to not eat the king’s food (the finest portions of meats, delicacies, wine and desserts) and just eat vegetables. Daniel wasn’t talking about staying or becoming a vegetarian. He understood that the food offered to him and his friends had been devoted to idols and to consume it meant they would be honoring these false gods. Daniel also knew God’s restrictions about what foods he was allowed to eat and he wanted to honor God by sticking to that diet. Similarly, you don’t have to get angry when someone in authority asks you to do something that would dishonor God. Be respectful and kindly make a request in keeping with your personal and godly convictions. You might be surprised that the person over you will grant your request.
Lesson 3: Daniel was wise.
He knew he wouldn’t be famished by just eating vegetables. He had grown up eating that way, and some verses earlier in the chapter say he was physically strong and good looking. That’s why they took him captive in the first place. Because he knew sticking to his diet would not leave him puny and weak, he made a wise proposal to the person in charge. Making wise choices comes from previous experiences.
Lesson 4: God was at work in Daniel’s life.
Reading about Daniel, it’s obvious that he had a relationship with God from an early age – long before he found himself as an exile in the king’s court in a foreign land and certainly long before he was thrown into a den of lions. So when he became a teenager and was captured, he didn’t join in with the crowd around him. He was willing to stand alone if need be. Honoring God was uppermost in his mind. He also recognized that his gifts, talents and other abilities were a gift from God (James 1:17; 1 Corinthians 4:7) and meant to be used in service to Him and to others. God honored Daniel and his friends by enabling them to graduate at the head of their class (Daniel 1:18-20). Daniel’s life is a testament of faithfulness to God. And yours can be too, if you allow God to use your life for His glory and the good of His kingdom.
Personal application: Living the way God wants us to live is for our benefit. Living the way the culture wants us to live is for our detriment. So the question is: Are you going to live for God or live for the culture? A good verse to remember as you try to maintain your identity and not be assimilated into the culture around you is Romans 12:1-2. Here is how it reads in two translations you might not be familiar with (emphasis added):
J.B. Phillips Translation
With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
Next week: Daniel’s Friends: The Survivors of Fire