One of the most popular and helpful features in Excel is the “if” function. Without boring the computer illiterate, this function allows you to make a logical comparison between values in a range of cells and what to expect. If that is too confusing to follow, suffice it to say that it’s an entirely predictable function. Used properly, it will always return a particular result if it finds the appropriate value in its search range.
We sometimes live the Christian life as if it is guided by an Excel function—that is, thinking that if we behave certain way we can predict the outcome. If we pray hard enough, God will give us the exactly what we ask for. If we take our children to Sunday school, God will save them. If we obey, God will bless us with unending prosperity. But then we are shaken when things don’t go according to plan.
“If” Christianity often flounders when the function returns unexpected results—when God doesn’t meet our expectations. When that happens, it is invariably our expectations that are at fault. This is one of the lessons we draw from Daniel 3.
Daniel is entirely absent in this chapter, which focuses on his three friends and their unwavering obedience. But a standout lesson in this chapter is that these friends did not operate by “if” faith but equally by “if not” faith. Threatened with fiery death for refusing to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue, they boldly declared, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (vv. 17–18).
We could spend our time this morning thinking about what it means to embrace and live faith-filled “if not Christianity.” But perhaps an equally beneficial use of time would be to consider how to respond when “if Christianity” lets us down. How do we respond when expectation and experience do not match? Usually, we grow disillusioned. We grow to think that God doesn’t care. In such times, we need to realign our expectations with God’s actual promises. Here are five things to do when experience doesn’t match expectation—when “if Christianity” doesn’t return the result you expect.
First, understand that you are not alone. You are not the first person in history to experience unfulfilled expectations in your walk with the Lord. You are not the first Christian to wonder why God has not stepped in to deliver you as you would like. When Moses boldly obeyed God and marched into Egypt to deliver Israel, things didn’t go as expected. Instead of immediately granting relief, the Egyptians made life even harder for God’s people. “Then Moses turned to the LORD and said, ‘O Lord, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all’” (Exodus 5:22–23). The psalmists frequently wrestled with the same disconnect between expectation and experience (see Psalm 42:9–11). You are not alone.
Second, remember the times that God has graciously met and exceeded your expectations. Asaph understood this principle and wrote, “I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds” (Psalm 79:11–12). It can be difficult as you live in the moment to see beyond immediate circumstances, but remembering God’s kindnesses in the past can be helpful.
Third, and along the lines of the above, be encouraged by the faith of others. I was talking to a church member recently who was relating a lifelong physical affliction with which he has struggled. As he talked, he paused, looked at me, and said, “Now, to be clear, I am not asking God to take this away. It has kept me dependent.” It was a wonderful encouragement to hear of the faith of a brother who does not live under the burden of “if Christianity.” He understands that God has a good purpose in his affliction and his faith is an encouragement to others.
Fourth, and very practically, consider that your disillusionment might simply be a symptom of exhaustion. We tend to minimise the importance of rest, but the Bible does not. It was after an exhausting and victorious encounter with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18) that Elijah hit the lowest point of his ministry (1 Kings 19). He needed rest, and a renewed vision of the greatness of God, to continue walking in faith. Sometimes a little rest and perspective is all we need when we are disillusioned by “if Christianity.”
Finally, rejoice that God does not condemn you when you are disillusioned. “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). He understands your weakness and is available to strengthen you in your time of need. You can go to him in prayer, asking for the strength you need, and trusting him to provide it.
If would be wonderful if we could all embrace the “if not” Christianity of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. As you reflect on Daniel 3 this morning, ask God to help you to respond to your struggles with “if Christianity” in a faith-filled, God-honour way.