In May 1940 the British Army was pinned down on the beaches of Dunkirk with a German Panzer Division tightening the proverbial noose around its neck. Escape looked improbable if not impossible for the 365,000 British soldiers, death or capture the sure outcomes. Yet, in the midst of this crisis and impending catastrophe, a communication was sent back to London that consisted of only three words, “but if not.” It was a message to the British parliament and people that if a rescue is not possible that the men will fight bravely and not cower in the face of Hitler’s Army. Inspired, the British nation rose to the challenge and thousands of boats crossed a calm and foggy English Channel in answer to prayer and delivered the bulk of the British expeditionary army from certain disaster.
The words “but if not” sent back to London from the beaches of Dunkirk where out of the book of Daniel and relate to a dangerous and daring episode in the life of Daniel’s friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan. 3:16-18). Unwilling to worship under penalty of death before the image of gold erected by King Nebuchadnezzar, the three Hebrews remind the King that God is able to deliver them in the face of his threats “but if not” they will never comply with his command to commit idolatry (Dan. 3:18). Despite the threat of a fiery furnace, these godly men express a sweet submission to God borne of a burning love for God and His glory. Their statement expresses a bold belief in God’s ability to do anything, but their belief is not presumption. They understand on the one hand that God is able to do exceedingly, abundantly above all that we can ask or think (Eph 3:20), but on the other hand they understand their deliverance may not be His perfect will. They were sure about the power of God; but they were not sure about the purpose of God.
There is a beautiful balance here that is worth emulating. True faith in God knows His power to save, sustain, and safeguard, but that bold belief in the bigness of God must guard the freedom of God to act sovereignly as He wills (Dan. 3:17-18; 4:34-35). With the example of the three Hebrews to follow we must remind ourselves, in our natural desire to be free from sickness, hateful enemies or desperate circumstances, to recognize and respect God’s freedom to act in ways contrary to our instinct for survival. God is able to heal but He may not; God is able to deliver but He may not; God is able to answer prayer but He may not; and when that is the case we must, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, continue to worship regardless (Dan. 3:18; Job 13:15; Matt. 26:42). Listen! Recognizing that God may not do something He is able to do [and us be good with it] is not a collapse of faith but a confession of true faith that simultaneously recognizes God’s sovereign ability and sovereign autonomy.
Believing in the God of miracles, and yet happily serving God without the miraculous, is the height of faith. To add “but if not” to our conversation with God or men is not a faithless act of preparing for the worst, but an affirmation of compete trust in God, in a sovereign and all wise God.
When circumstances challenge our faith let us believe that God gives His best to those who leave the choice to Him!