by John McGowan

When I was 36 years old, I was diagnosed with advanced stage colon cancer. It came at a time when my personal and professional life was full, thriving even. I was busy running a small law firm with a growing practice. My wife and I were heavily involved and serving in our church while enjoying all that comes with homeschooling energetic seven and eight-year-old boys. God was good, and we were blessed. 

As I started treatment, I had the support and prayers of so many wonderful, caring friends and family members. I was blessed to get texts, calls and messages of encouragement daily. I appreciated very much the “God has this” and “praying for a full recovery” type of messages. But it turned out there was another message that God wanted me to receive and lean into. 

A few weeks after my diagnosis, my sister-in-law gave my wife and I a framed picture that contained the simple words “But if Not, God is Still Good” in large print with a reference to Daniel 3:16-18 underneath. It was meant as a loving reminder of the proper Christian perspective when difficulties come. It hit me right between the eyes, or more so in my case, the gut. 

In the third chapter of Daniel we find Nebuchadnezzar erecting a huge golden statue while making the accompanying edict that when the call comes “whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.” (v.6) That edict posed a serious problem for three stiff-kneed friends of Daniel. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Jewish captives in Babylon, knew that to do Nebuchadnezzar’s bidding would be to break the law of their God who had written on the tablet of stone given the Moses, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20:3)

As we learn later in chapter 3, the command was eventually given by Nebuchadnezzar for everyone to fall down and worship the golden image. But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego stood firm. They did not pretend to kneel or bow half-way. There was no compromise to save their own skins at the risk of offending God. (v. 7-12) This made Nebuchadnezzar furious and he demanded that these three young men be brought before him to face the fire, quite literally. What happens next is amazing. The King gives them another chance to fall in line and obey the command. “Now if you are ready … and you fall down and worship the image which I have made, good! But if you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?” (v.15) Do this and you live. Don’t do it and you die. Pretty plain speaking from Nebuchadnezzar.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego responded with some pretty plain speak of their own. “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand O king. But if not, let it be known to you O King, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.” (v.16-18) Wow! In the face of a horrific death, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego spoke two equally true and equally powerful truths to Nebuchadnezzar. First, they knew that God could save them from the fiery furnace, “our God whom we serve is able.” (v.17) Yes and amen! My friends and family that comforted me with this truth during my illness were absolutely correct, God is more than able to cure any illness and resolve any earthly problem we face. 

But what I really needed to be reminded of was the next statement, “But if not …” What are we to do with the knowledge that God might or might not deliver us from a particularly painful and scary situation? For Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, while acknowledging that God was under no obligation to rescue them, they wanted it publicly known that they still chose to worship Him and not Nebuchadnezzar or the golden image. O what courage – they were not afraid to pass from the presence of the king of Babylon into the presence of the King of Kings. 

Of course we know that eventually these three men were indeed thrown into the furnace because of their refusal to bend, but were miraculously saved from any harm by the Lord (v.23-26). By God’s mercy I have been cancer free for several years now. I do not want to suggest that I handled my ordeal with the same courage as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. I did not. I had plenty of moments of wobbly knees, as my wife knows more than anyone. But I can testify that submitting completely to God’s sovereignty over the situation was the only thing that allowed me to say that it was well with my soul. In fact, my wife and I still recall that time in our family’s life, before we knew of the eventual outcome, with affection. God drew us to Him and each other in a way that could not have been accomplished otherwise. God was good, and we were blessed. 

Christian, there will be trouble. I encourage you to embrace that truth before it comes knocking. Notice how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not tell the King to give them some time to think about what they were going to do. They did not hem and haw. No. They said, “we have no need to answer you in this matter.” (v.16) In other words, “we aren’t even going to consider your offer.” Like Daniel had done earlier (chapter 1:8), they already “purposed” in their hearts that they were not going to defile the Lord in Babylon. Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes to “Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the difficult days come …” (12:1). Purpose now, before difficulty comes, to proclaim God’s goodness through it all. Finally, and most importantly, take comfort in the eternal hope we have in Jesus who overcame the world.

In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).