When Your Life Doesn't Match Your Plan for Your Life

Southern Living. Country Living. Coastal Living.

Maybe it’s because I’ve lived my whole life in the American South, but those magazine titles call forth warm, cozy feelings of serenity in style, cooking, and home decor. As a little girl, they spoke to me of what expectations I should hold for the future. Sure, they’re romanticized (how is it that toys are rarely visible in any of the homes, even when small children are present?), but each offers an idealized image that’s engaging enough for us to grab one in the check-out line.

But furnace living? No one asks for that.

We say we like chapter 3 of Daniel because of the boldness of Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, but if we’re honest, I think there’s another reason. We like Daniel 3 because the three men emerge from the flames without even the stench of smoke on them.

Sometimes life is like that. I, like those three, believe God can do it. But what about the times when He doesn’t? What happens when the trial is ongoing, the medical condition chronic, and the pain without resolution? Are we willing to live in the furnace if that’s the path that God chooses for us, the way that glorifies Him most?

I first considered these questions when I was diagnosed with two incurable autoimmune disorders after the birth of our first child. Now as the mother of six who together have a laundry list of special needs—epilepsy, HIV, cerebral palsy, fetal alcohol syndrome, and early childhood trauma—these questions echo daily.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, 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.” (Daniel 3:16-18 ESV)

We live in a world in which we're called to bow down to the idol of comfort, as if our ultimate aim in life is ease. When disability or chronic illness enters that world, we can't heed the call anymore to fall down and worship something we were never meant to adore, no matter the consequence. Those of us who trust God know he is able to deliver us from our diagnoses, via miraculous healing or medical breakthroughs, but we also know he doesn't always choose that outcome.

Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated. And he ordered some of the mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. Then these men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace. Because the king's order was urgent and the furnace overheated, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. (Daniel 3:19-23 ESV)

We crave the cure. We idolize normalcy. We yearn for an exit from our seven-times-as-hot furnaces. We watch others be burned by this world's harshness and hope we will be spared.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” (Daniel 3:24-25 ESV)

I wonder, as they met the one scholars believe to be the preincarnate Christ, if the three were content in the furnace then. I wonder if they wanted to stay when Nebuchadnezzar called them out. I wonder if my faith in God would be as deep if I lived at the foot of the idol rather than the heat of the furnace.

(No, I don't honestly wonder that last one. I know. It wouldn't be.)

Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the burning fiery furnace; he declared, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here!” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king's counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them. (Daniel 3:26-27 ESV)

I'd love to say my hair is never singed, my countenance never harmed, and the stench of the idol I want never upon me. I'd be lying, though.

At the start of this post, I might have thrown you off with different names than you expected. We know the names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, but those were given by their captors. I prefer to think of them by their Hebrew names, each honoring God: Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael. They might have lived in the furnace for a time, but they emerged as captives still in Babylon, not really free yet.

Maybe you're living in the furnace. Maybe you've made it through the worst and come out on the other side—smelling of smoke or not—but still find yourself captive to realities you wouldn't have chosen. Maybe this isn't the life you dreamed of in the magazine.

Maybe it was never supposed to be. 

Maybe the beauty of the furnace is in how it delivers us from the idols we might have chosen otherwise. Maybe the purpose is that we rise up with Nebuchadnezzar in worship. Maybe this is an opportunity to testify to God's goodness as we yield our bodies and those of our children to his perfect will.

Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king's command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. (Daniel 3:28 ESV)

Maybe we all need more Furnace Living.