Many older evangelicals view the USA in ways that resemble Israel in the Old Testament: God has chosen to pour His blessing on this nation and to commission it for His purposes of extending freedom throughout the world.
Many younger evangelicals view the USA in ways that resemble ancient Babylon: we live in a society that is increasingly hostile to God’s truth and God’s people.
Neither framing of our current situation fully captures the reality. The United States is neither Israel nor Babylon, and both frameworks face problems when applied too closely to today’s situation. Still, the metaphor of “exile” remains an apt description of Christians who are sojourners in this world (1 Peter 2:11).
We are exiles in every age, in every country, but perhaps we sense that reality more powerfully in places where Christians are marginalized, with privileges stripped and penalties imposed as a way of pressuring us toward cultural compromise.
I recently edited several Gospel Project sessions from Dr. Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary. His sessions cover the book of Daniel, which describes the time when Jews who were exiled to Babylon showed incredible courage and faithfulness.
Akin lays out four ways in which the Babylonian empire sought to bring the Jewish exiles in line with their pagan ways. These strategies show us how the world, in every era, can pressure Christians to conform.
“The first step in making Babylonians out of the four Hebrew teenagers was isolation from their homeland, family, and friends. The Babylonian strategy was to seize upon their vulnerability once they were separated from all that was familiar. Over time, they would be more likely to abandon their faith and become like the Babylonians.”
Being in exile doesn’t harm the Christian. Not being with God’s people does.
We often assume that younger evangelicals who wander from their faith for a season have encountered intellectual arguments that dismantled their shallow belief system. Argumentation may play a role, but the bigger factor when college students walk away from the faith is that they’ve usually walked away from the Church, the place where God’s Spirit is at work among God’s people.
Isolation from other believers and immersion into a world of false assumptions make it difficult to maintain your Christian convictions.
“The second step was to take these sharp and impressive young men and enroll them in an educational school for three years (vv. 4-5). They needed to be indoctrinated in the ways of the Babylonians—to become experts in the Babylonian language, philosophy, literature, science, history, and astrology. Religion would have been part of the curriculum too.”
Worldly indoctrination takes place all the time, through education, entertainment, societal expectations, etc.
Many Christians are unprepared to face the doctrines of a society that believes:
faith in God is a personal, private thing with little to no bearing on the public sphere
all religions are valid paths to discovering one’s own fulfillment
the purpose of life is to enjoy yourself by finding what makes you happy, over against what family, church, or society tells you
the human person can be reinvented and recreated in line with whatever identity a person chooses.
If we are to see how indoctrination plays a role in conforming us to the world, we must learn to see these and other doctrines on display in our society.
“The third step was to totally immerse these followers of God into the world of Babylon (v. 5). They would need to change their minds and their lifestyle, to eat and drink like the Babylonians. The strategy was to entice them with the delicacies and privileges of their new life.”
The world will celebrate those who reject their religious heritage or their initial beliefs.
Just look at the news stories about celebrities or singers who no longer believe what their traditional churches taught about God. Or the Christian leaders who sever themselves from the church’s historic teaching about sex and marriage. What the Church mourns, the world celebrates. What the world celebrates, the Church must mourn.
The only way to resist the lure of assimilating to the world is to rest in the love and approval of God. The voice we listen to the most—the Lord cheering on our faithfulness or the world cheering for our compromise—will have outsized influence in the path we choose.
“In the ancient world, changing one’s name was a big deal. It went to the core of a person’s identity. Giving the Hebrews new names in Babylon was a way of confusing them, reorienting their lives away from their past and toward the pagan gods of Babylonian culture. . . . Daniel and his three friends would have to fight to remember their identity and remain faithful.”
In WWII, when the Jews were rounded up and placed in ghettos and then concentration camps, they were given numbers instead of their names. The Jewish young men in Daniel’s time were given new names, in order to confuse and alter their sense of being and identity.
Amazingly, Daniel and his friends discovered that in being true to their God-given identity, they were able to bless the Babylonian nation. Daniel climbed the ranks of the king’s administration. His friends’ courage wowed the king.
Had God’s people abandoned their identity, they would have failed to bless their captors. By maintaining their distinctive vision, no matter the pressure, they brought blessing to the world.
All Christians are to live as sojourners and exiles, blessing the world around us by refusing to conform to its patterns of thought and behavior. As Augustine said, sometimes we must stand against the world for the good of the world.
In every age, the world implements strategies of isolation, indoctrination, assimilation, and confusion, and in every age, the church must resist with confidence and courage, trusting that our faithfulness will be a gift to the nations we know will one day bow before the world’s true King.
Trevin Wax blogs at KINGDOM PEOPLE for the Gospel Coalition.