The year is 1940. Winston Churchill is elected Prime Minister of England. Pretty soon his leadership would be put to the test as the fury of Adolph Hitler was unleashed in World War II. Hitler’s bombers devastated English cities, with one bomb after another. How would Churchill handle this? In the midst of so much discouragement, Churchill could be heard on the radio saying,
“We shall not fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France; we shall fight in the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air; we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be…we shall never surrender…I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. And, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ And indeed it was.”
We have been learning about another man who is about to approach his finest hour. He too is battling enemies and discouragement all around. Prior to this, there was excitement. Imagine praying and waiting for something that the Lord has put into your hearts for months and finally having an opportunity to see it come to fruition! This was Nehemiah’s story. God had been preparing Him to be a worker for His work. This preparation we have seen involved brokenness, dependent prayer, deliberate planning, more prayer and trusting God’s quiet hand of sovereignty throughout it.
Sounds easy enough doesn’t it? Well, Nehemiah learns right away that he will have to fight through something even greater still. It is discouragement. It is not even so much that he is discouraged, but he has to face a discouraged people, weighed down by opposition and the overwhelming need…for years. How is he going to encourage these workers? How is he going to rally them to start looking up in hope again? How will he help his people see that their finest hour is not behind them but still to come?
So far we said that Nehemiah was not:
I. Discouraged by Opposition (Neh. 2:9-10)
II. Discouraged by the Overwhelming Need (Neh. 2:11-16)
Here is the only thought for today, which we will try to unwrap:
III. Opposition and the Overwhelming Need are Opportunities for God to Orchestrate His Plans (Neh. 2:17-20)
Nehemiah was called by God to leave his comfortable job in Persia to do a work for God in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, broken down for almost 100 years. He had to wait for months with the burden, get the King’s permission and resources to finally make it to Jerusalem, another four months later. He finally made it there to find out that not only does he have opposition, but the damage was devastating and overwhelming.
Last time we saw how big a worker Nehemiah was by the way he handled discouragement. I totally think he had the shoulders strong enough to carry these burdens and a heart big enough to keep going because God had prepared him in the months before for his finest hour. You see, nothing is wasted by the Lord. He leads you beside still waters to prepare you for the dark valleys ahead.
Look at Neh. 2:17-18. Nehemiah apparently does not take the first camel out of Jerusalem back to Persia. He stays and he is trying to rally his troops to get the work of God done. What we have here is an outline of the speech he gave. This is one of the greatest motivational speeches of all time. In this, we can learn how to deal with discouragement and why it is an opportunity. Note this first thing:
a) It is an opportunity to honestly assess our situation (Neh. 2:17a)
We are not sure how much time has passed since his night inspection before he makes this speech. It could be the next morning, but we are not sure. But notice how he starts. He clearly defines the problem. “Guys, things are bad.” He does not sugar-coat the problem. One of my favorite quotes from Pastor James MacDonald is that “God’s love is not a pampering love, but a perfecting love.” We don’t want people to pamper us either, but people to help us grow honestly. He does not ignore the problem either, but simply states the truth.
One of the ways the fog of discouragement can begin to burn up is by allowing someone to speak honestly into our lives. The people here got used to living in mediocrity, sin and tragedy. It’s been 14 years since they were building anything. You can live with garbage for so long that you get used to the stench. They no longer see the problem and have been avoiding the truth.
When I was in undergrad at Wheaton, my favorite professor was Dr. Lyle Dorsett, who now works at Beeson Divinity School in Alabama. He was such a godly professor, just filled with the Spirit of God. The aroma of Jesus Christ would just fill any room he was in. Anyway, I would always try to meet up with him at his office or for a meal. This would be difficult, because he would have a sign-up sheet outside his door and it was always filled! I think the reason why people loved meeting with him was that he was genuinely interested in people’s walks with the Lord. You always left wanting to run harder after the Lord. In fact, the first question he would ask you was always, “Koshy, how’s your soul?” Because of this, I always had a time of prayer beforehand, confessing any sin and make sure I had done my devotions. But he would see through all of that and in love, gently rebuke you. I so needed that. It wasn’t always pleasant, but it was needed.
We need to continually assess honestly how we are doing. For those of us who are married, it is wise to sit down now and then and ask yourselves, “How are we doing in our marriage?” Do you have someone to speak honestly into your life? Do you have someone to look past your Sunday face and see the walls broken down in your life? Have you let anyone in to see the ruins? If you want to work out of discouragement, you will need this. Secondly,
b) It is an opportunity to move forward with renewed motivation (Neh. 2:17b)
Nehemiah has really identified with his people. Remember how he took ownership over the people’s sins as his own sin in Neh. 1:6ff? Now notice he says, “the trouble we are in” and “let us…we may.” He humbly identifies with the people here again. Imagine if he said, “You folks have gotten into a bad mess. You know what you need to do? You need to rebuild that wall. If you need me, I’ll be in my office. After all, I wasn’t part of the problem. You people will have to get with it and do the work!” This is because when you cast blame and criticism, you destroy motivation. When you humbly identify with the problem, you encourage motivation.
Notice he offers motivation. He calls everyone to rise up and build something so they would no longer be a disgrace. As Commentator Ray Brown notes, “The sight of those collapsed walls for well over a century has created the impression in the pagan mind that Israel’s God has abandoned his rebellious people and is no longer on their side. So Nehemiah draws the prospective workers’ attention to spiritual values and ideals.”
In other words, this is not just about rebuilding some broken walls. This is about God’s fame and reputation we are dealing with. He’s motivating them at the deepest level. There are two types of motivation. You have the extrinsic motivation. This is motivation to get some external reward. If Nehemiah used this, he would have said something like, “Ok, everyone who will help build these walls will get their name written on a gold brick we are going to sell later. In addition, we will give you non-interest loans when we’re through here.”
Nehemiah is trying to get at intrinsic motivation. This is at your heart of hearts. This is the part God sees and rewards. So he is saying something like, “Let us do a thing for God! Let’s leave a legacy with these walls that says that God did something amazing here! Let’s be people whose hearts are completely His, the kind of people God will strongly support!”
One of the ways the Lord would get us to find true encouragement with Him is for us to check our motivation. 99% of the time when I am discouraged about something, it is because my motivations are not pure. Well, it can never be 100% pure, but we need the Lord to touch us at the deepest level and get us going again.
You may remember I shared a time I was leading Bible study when somebody in the group I felt was disrespectful to me. Later we ironed out our differences, but during that time, I was frequently discouraged. Then one Sunday, right before church began, Jenny and I were sitting in the pew when this verse flashed up on screen: “For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do” (Heb. 6:10). I read it and forgot about it. Later that evening, I had Bible Study again and struggled with the same individual. That night I was sitting by myself, feeling defeated, incompetent and in despair, wanting to quit. It was then that this verse came shooting back in my mind, as if the Lord had opened a powerpoint application to show me the verse I saw at church that morning!
God got me at the deepest level. I was discouraged because I felt like I was doing all this hard work and this person didn’t care…which may lead you to think, “Does anyone care?” God reminded me that He sees. He knew I wanted to quit and He hit me there reminding me that the Hebrews didn’t quit (“as you still do”). Beloved, no one can get to our heart like the Lord Jesus. He is always wanting to get to our heart. Extrinsic motivation is sometimes necessary, but the goal should always be for intrinsic motivation. Ask the Lord to purify your motives. If you are trying to encourage someone, this is the motivation you want them to have and what you should be praying for.
I am really thankful that so many of you are persevering through the Bible Reading Plan. To be honest, there were times I was reading because I didn’t want to look bad or because others were ahead of me. But the more and more I have kept going, I can tell you that what’s happening for me is that I open it up and am starting to think, “Lord, give me a word for my soul today. I can’t go on without your daily bread.” I am not always there, but I know God is using that to get me at the deepest level. This goes for attending Sunday school, leading children’s ministry, leading worship, singing songs, attending a service or whatever you are doing. Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Be motivated to do something for the Lord and His pleasure!
c) It is an opportunity to remember what God has done (Neh. 2:18)
Nehemiah is not just a motivational speaker. He is a God-fearing, God-led leader. He doesn’t want to just motivate people for the work of God, but to lift their hearts to the God of the work. For these people, it may have seemed that God was absent. Nothing had ever changed. They had all given up. Why do anything? Why care anymore? Then Nehemiah comes along and says, “I know you’ve lived for years surrounded by these broken down walls. You don’t think God is even noticing anymore. But I want you to know that God has been working in my life and He is at work even now among you!” Nehemiah says he’s there not because he was a skillful persuader or because he prayed so much or even because the king was so generous, but the hand of God was upon him (Neh. 2:18a). I am sure he said more and for the first time, everyone joined hands again to serve God saying, “Let us arise and build” (Neh. 2:18b).
One of the hardest things about ministry is the fact that the work never ends. What makes it even harder is that you are left wondering if God is doing anything through your labor and prayers. But one of the things I pray for each of you as you serve and for myself is to have glimpses of God’s fingerprints in the work. I can tell you that there is nothing that beats that. Not the latest summer blockbuster. Not the thrill of a ball game. Nothing. That is the stuff that lasts. I would encourage you to get a shoebox and every little glimpse you see of a God-moment, whether it is through what someone says, does or an attitude change or anything that reminds you that God is working, should be jotted down and stored away. Then, when the work is tough and people are ungrateful and/or unresponsive, you can remind yourself that He who started a good work in you is faithful to complete it (Phil. 1:6).
Lastly, discouragement through opposition and the overwhelming need is:
d) An opportunity to persevere in our faith (Neh. 2:19-20)
Look what happens as soon as encouragement comes. I would have loved for this portion to end here, but just as eagerly as they put their hands to the work, the enemy puts his hand to stop their work. This time a third character is introduced: Geshem the Arab. I wonder if the Jews are like, “What? Not again?!”
You decide to build anything for the glory of God whether it is a godly home, a pure mind, an honest character, etc…be sure that everything that opposes God will be out to oppose you. Jesus warned his disciples that following him does not mean having your neck graced with a garland of flowers, but to put a cross on your back, denying yourself and following Him (Matt. 16:24).
Notice their tactics: public ridicule, personal intimidation and attacking of their motives. Public ridicule was to produce embarrassment. Intimidation is to produce fear. These are still tactics today by the Enemy to keep us from the work of God. Not only that, they question their motives: “You’re doing this to rebel against the king!” (Neh. 2:19). By the way, we should never judge anyone’s motives: “You did such-and-such because…” When Jesus says, “Judge not that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1), he is not referring to actions, but to people’s motives, which only God can see.
Anyway, notice Nehemiah’s response. He could have very well tried to defend himself with their arguments, which we would not blame him if he did. He had the king’s permission. He had the king’s provision. Legally, they were in the right. But he appeals not to the King, but to God. He used the Enemy’s tactics as an opportunity to bring glory to God and to give his people a God-vision about rebuilding the wall.
The Enemy’s plan is always to get your eyes off the Lord and to look around. He wants you to see things from a humanly point of view. He wants to bring despair and fear to take hold of you. But the way to victory is to always look up. It is to remind yourself of God’s Word and His promises and who we are in Christ. So he says, “This is God’s work. We are God’s servants. This work will be accomplished by God’s power. The Enemy has no place here. This is for God’s glory.” After all, this is none of their business. He is right away dividing the lines between his opponents.
So what happened? Well from Neh. 3:1 it seems that people started to rise up to do the work of God. Opposition and the overwhelming need became an opportunity to see God orchestrate His plans.
We have a lot of work ahead of us. The Retreat is next week and then VBS is coming up as well, not to mention the regular work here. Let’s not be discouraged by an opposition from anyone or the Enemy or the overwhelming need. This is God’s work. We are God’s servants. This work will be accomplished by God’s power. The Enemy has no place here. This is all for God’s glory!
This week I read about something that happened during the 400 meter dash in the Special Olympics as author Kevin Young was watching. As runners were being helped to their marks, a gentleman in a three-piece suit jumped up in the stands yelling, "Lenny! Lenny!" An overweight middle-aged man with Down's Syndrome looked up in the direction of the voice.
The gun sounded and the runners leaped forward—all except Lenny, who was dead last and losing ground. He had a preoccupation with his hands, which he wrung furiously as he tried to make his way around the track. Pointing to him, the gentleman in front of me turned and addressed my section of the crowd. "That's my son, Lenny. Isn't he doing great?"
When Lenny reached the last turn on the track, the other runners had already finished. The gentleman began to shout encouragement to his son, throwing his fists in the air in a triumphant gesture. “Great job, Lenny! Way to go, son. Keep going, you're doing great!”
He turned to his section again, and reminded everyone that his son was about to finish. Everyone applauded dutifully, feeling somewhat embarrassed. When Lenny crossed the finish line, the man made his way down to the track and hugged his son, who was exhausted, drooling, and still wringing his hands.
The commentator notes, “While I watched them embrace, I began to weep. As I thought about what I saw, it seemed as though God was saying to me, ‘You're like Lenny in this race I have called you into. You're challenged, perplexed, far behind the pack. Most days, you're a pitiful pile of exhaustion. But I'm here cheering you on. I love you the way that man loves his son.’”
God calls us to blood, sweat and tears as we get ready for His work. There is and will be discouragement. There is discouragement from opposition. There is discouragement from the overwhelming need. However, with each discouragement, it is also an opportunity to witness God’s power as He orchestrates His plans. With our blood, sweat and tears, He shows us His marks as well. Blood. Sweat. Tears. For the joy set before Him, He endured (Heb. 12:2-3). So shall we.
Quoted in Davey, 49.
Adapted from Chip Ingram, Holy Ambition: What it takes to make a difference for God, 146 (Chicago, Il: Moody, 2002).
Quoted from preachingtoday.com, Kevin Young, "Cliffhanger: Reaching Out for the Father" Pray! (Jan/Feb 2003), p. 40-41.