Overcoming Problems in God's Work: The Enemy's Distractions (Neh. 6:1-14)
Life is full of distractions. Have you ever sat in a really bad traffic jam thinking it must have been a really bad accident that caused this, only to find out that it was a simple fender bender pushed off on the side of the road causing passing drivers to slow down, lose focus of the road, to look at the accident, or gape at it (that’s why it’s called a Gaper’s Delay)? We may get angry and frustrated at all the drivers who were guilty of this, but we too are looking at the accident as we drive by as well right?
We are so easily distracted! There are so many times when I wake up wanting to accomplish a lot in that day and I got my list going, only to put my head on my pillow at night realizing that I did a whole lot of things, but not the main things. Ever feel that way? The worst feeling is when Jenny will often ask me if I did such and such task that I had said I would do or she had asked me to do. Usually I say, “I was going to, but things came up.” I am hoping she does not ask me what things were so important that kept me from the task at hand. The reason is, if I had to be honest, I would have to say, “Emails came up. Then facebook came up. Then an email about a facebook message came up. Then the game came on. Then the mail arrived. Then Abbie wanted me to play with her. Then I wanted to play with Abbie’s toys. Then my hunger came up. Then a nap came up.” It is so hard for me to pray silently or read the Word silently, because before I know it, I am on the island of LOST, eventually thinking, “How did I end up praying for Jack and Kate right now?” This is why if no one is around, I pray out loud, I walk around or type out prayers. Distractions, distractions, distractions! We deal with it all the time! Whether it is daydreaming, the television, emails or phone calls to answer, or a child pulling at your shirt tail, it is easy to have good intentions, but really difficult to follow through on them, especially with distractions all around. They are not always bad distractions, but distractions nonetheless.
Do you know that a major obstacle in doing God’s work is distraction? Actually, it is a major obstacle from people even knowing God. The enemy is hard at work keeping people busy and occupied with so many things so that they do not have to think about their soul, until it is too late. But his major tactics are geared toward believers. He wants to distract us from the work of God. I am not talking about your prayer or devotion time, but your life course. Satan is not looking to put a little dent in your fender, but looking for a major crash. Perhaps this is why the author of Hebrew exhorts us to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). We need to look at Him all the time, because everything around us beckons us away. And if we are not careful, we might live our life chasing the distraction and end up in front of the Lord one day saying, “Sorry Lord, things came up.” I would hate to be in that position!
We are winding down the first half of the book of Nehemiah as we have been learning about God’s work: how God prepares us for it, prospers us in it and in the last few weeks, how God helps us overcome the problems in God’s work. We looked at the enemy’s ridicule in Neh. 4:1-6, the halfway hurdle in Neh. 4:7-23, internal strife in Neh. 5 and today distractions from serving God in Neh. 6:1-14. How do we deal with distractions from serving God? We are going to look at three different distractions Nehemiah will have to face. Let’s begin with this thought:
I. When distracted by good opportunities, stand firm on godly priorities (Neh. 6:1-4)
We haven’t heard from Nehemiah’s enemies for a whole chapter. But guess what, they are back! They were there at the beginning of the work, in the middle and now at the end. We saw them attacking externally through ridicule and threatening physical violence, but here they go personal. This is because they are running out of time and so they are going to make a final push and this time it is a direct assault at Nehemiah. Cyril Barber says, “When Sanballat had his co-conspirators realized that they have been outmaneuvered, outgeneraled, and outwitted by Nehemiah, they decide to attack him personally.… Their wounded pride will not be appeased until Nehemiah has been humiliated.” Like in football, they are going to try to sack the quarterback.
The attacks never seem to end. The enemies are relentless. A huge moment is coming up. It’s been almost 100 years since the Israelites came back from the exile. Remember God had called Nehemiah from his job in Persia to rebuild the walls of the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where the nations would see the glory of God. It was where people worshipped God. To have its wall built meant their identity was secured. People could live there in safety again, not fearing enemies attacking them. They had tried once to rebuild the wall, but stopped when enemies threatened. This time, through the leadership of Nehemiah, it hasn’t been easy, but they finally persevered. The wall is almost done and right before a major victory, the enemy shows up again.
Look at Neh. 6:1. The wall is done, except for the gates. This is like building your house, but your front door is not set yet. How comfortable are you to sleep at night? Probably not much, especially if you live in dangerous parts of town! So yeah, almost there, but not quite! I wonder if Nehemiah, finally seeing the finish line ahead, feels confident the work will be finally completed. Just then, notice what happens in Neh. 6:2. He gets a polite invitation for a getaway vacation. Ono happened to be an oasis---a retreat location for the wealthy. It had fertile land with trees and water.
Take a look at the map. Can you see Ono? Which province is it close to? Samaria, which was where Sanballat was from! It was 25 miles northwest of Jerusalem. James Boice says, “At such a time, the invitation seemed to be a concession speech by a person who had just lost a political campaign. ‘Nehemiah, it is no use pretending that we have not been opposed to your project. We have been. It has not been in our best interests. We have had our differences over it. But you have succeeded in spite of us, and now there is no use to carry on our opposition. For better or worse, we are going to have to live together, you as governor of Jerusalem and ourselves as governors of our own provinces. So let’s be friends. What we need is a summit conference. Why don’t we meet on the plain of Ono? It is a neutral site about equidistant from each of our provinces. You pick a village in Ono, and we’ll meet you there.’”
Sanballat’s trying hard to lure him away from the work. I mean dialogue is good right? Talking is better than fighting right? You’ve been laying bricks for a while, Nehemiah. Let’s talk it over and relax at Ono Resort and Country Club. See how subtle the Enemy works? This is just like how Satan works as well. He makes it look like he is offering something for your best interest and then when you give in, he destroys you. He cloaks his opposition under the guise of cooperation. When he can’t beat you, he will join you and then take over and destroy you. Somehow, Nehemiah smelled something fishy was going on. We are not sure how he was able to discern this. Perhaps he had his informants in the enemy’s camp or perhaps he just had a gift for discernment. Why take me so far? Why alone? He connected the dots to figure out their real plan.
Look at his response in Neh. 6:3. I love this line: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” Why was it a great work? It was a great work because a great God had called him to do it for Him. This trip was a distraction. And Nehemiah knew going down to Ono meant the work would be stopped. So Nehemiah stood firm on the priorities that God had laid on his heart. Notice in Neh. 6:4 that they came four times with this request and he had to say “Oh, no!” each time (sorry that was cheesy).
He knew this opportunity sounded good, but in the end, it would do him more harm than good. It would take him away from finishing the work God had given him to do. Ken Mitchell, a pastor out in Jacksonville, FL shares the story about a man who taught him early on what it meant to stand firm to godly priorities. He shares:
Years ago I worked part-time on the loading docks of various trucking companies. At one company I met a fellow part-timer, a fine Christian man named Rufus Kidd. He had just completed his associate's degree in transportation and was seeking a full-time career. Since the company was beginning to open up to minorities at that time, Rufus, an African-American, went in to interview for a position.
Later, I asked him how the interview went, and he said they offered him a job in sales, something that would pay well and offer unlimited opportunity. I was excited for him, but he said he wasn't going to take it. Although it was everything he wanted, in order to take it he would have to give up his ministry with singles at his church. He said he would wait for a job to come along that would allow him to continue to teach his class.
What an example of commitment—and of finely-tuned priorities! Rufus sacrificed his chance to leave the sweltering docks and gave up a brand-new career to continue his "routine" service in the Kingdom.”
Wow, that is a modern day Nehemiah! I know as soon as Jenny was pregnant and we were thinking about serving here, we had to talk about what we were going to do about babysitting, daycare, etc. Jenny was working at a good job at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and knew she had to soon quit. In discussing this, we had to go back to a time when we were first thinking about pursuing a relationship. One of the questions Jenny asked me then was, “How did I picture a pastor’s wife? Was she at home watching the kids as fulltime ministry or was she more involved with the church ministry?” I had never thought about that before! We had a conviction then that as much as possible, that Jenny, as a pastor’s wife, would also serve in some capacity alongside me. So when she started looking for jobs in this area, we had to give up the jobs that required working weekends. Trust me this was not easy and people around us continue to suggest it, and she would have made a lot more money, but we had to say like Nehemiah, “Sorry, I am doing a great work, I cannot come down.” Amen!
I am not telling anyone here what to do with your career or job situation. You have to discern it for yourself. What I am saying is what Andy Stanley said, “To accomplish the important things you must learn to say no to some good things.” It will be the good things that will attempt to distract you from the important things. It will happen so subtly that if we are not careful, it will be too late to fix.
So for example, when you might be tempted to take that overtime shift, which will mean you can no longer see or tuck your kids in at night, parents, then you say to yourself, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” As you struggle with the temptation to squeeze one more “good” activity into your schedule that is already bursting at the seams, think about your family and church and whisper to yourself, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” When you go home after service after serving here and the thoughts come, “I should not do this anymore. There are better people here than me.” It is then you say, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” If you are single, don’t get distracted with what could be or should be relationally. Allow God to shape your character while you wait for him to bring the right person into your life. This season is a great work. Guard your purity and integrity at all costs. Be too busy with that so you cannot come down!
Secondly, take note of this second thing, the second distraction Nehemiah dealt with:
II. When distracted by gossip, resolve and resign to the Lord in prayer (Neh. 6:5-9)
Sanballat moves to a different tactic in Neh. 6:5-9. Look at Neh. 6:5. They drop the pretense of friendliness and go after Nehemiah’s reputation. The key word is “open.” Letters to officials were rolled up and secured with seals so that only those with authority could open and read them. Sanballat wanted the public to know the contents of the letter because he hoped to undermine Nehemiah’s reputation and authority. If an open letter was passed from hand to hand and it was neither sealed nor folded in half, how many people do you think would have read it by the time it came to Nehemiah? Probably quite a few! These rumors can divert Nehemiah from the work, divert people from the work, get Persian authorities involved and destroy everything. By the way, this was not a new plan because in Ezra 4, they actually got it to work and the work stopped back then. Now there was an actual wall up, so it could appear that these rumors were in fact true.
The rumors in Neh. 6:6-7 revolved around two things: 1) The Jews were going to rebel. 2) Nehemiah is going to be the King, as he even has prophets getting ready to proclaim it on the streets. How do you think this is going to sound when King Artaxerxes finds out about this Nehemiah? Persian kings tolerated no resistance from their subjects. Any hint of rebellion was immediately and ruthlessly put down.
Look at his response in Neh. 6:8-9. He denies it immediately and commits himself to the Lord in prayer and then goes back to work. He may have been tempted to start his own anti-smear campaign and send open letters to his enemies. Again, the enemies would love this because it would distract him from the work and cause division among the people. Gossip can be a distraction that stops the work of God.
Beloved, there are so many ministries, churches, corporations, etc. that have crumbled through gossip and slander. James 3:5 says the tongue is small thing but what huge damage it can do. A small spark can set the forest ablaze! What can you do when there is gossip threatening your reputation? First of all, make sure it is not true. If it is true, you have another problem. But take the situation as an opportunity for a good heart check, which is always good for you!
Usually with false accusations, the source is never declared. Notice the vague reference in Neh. 6:6: “it is reported among the nations.” So by making it ambiguous, it makes people think that because everyone is saying it, it must be true. So if you hear gossip, ask kindly about the source. Never trust information that does not come from the proper credentials. Usually gossips do not like to be confronted. If they are confronted, they will then gossip about you! So be careful.
Also, resist the temptation to divert your energy in cleaning it all up. You have to discern and pray for wisdom as to how much time you want to put into chasing the rumor trail and defending yourself. I would say, let it go. Peter says that Jesus, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued to entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23).
99.9% of the time, it will distract you and cause you to neglect the work of God and so it is not worth it. I remember when I decided to lead this bible study with a bunch of my friends (back when we first got married and I did not have a job), word came back to me that people in the Indian community thought I was starting a church and had already picked my elder board. I never even mentioned anything like that ever! I do not know who the source was with that rumor, but I was not going to chase it down and try to clean it up, because doing so would divert me from the task at hand. Instead I denied it and trusted God that it will blow over and it did.
Also, with false accusations there is exaggeration and inaccuracy involved. This happens because it is passed from person to person like playing telephone. It is also designed to hurt. It does not matter how spiritual or strong a leader you are, unfair remarks and rumors will cut you deep. This is why Nehemiah here prays for strength in Neh. 6:9. Don’t you love the fact that he is always praying? This is the fifth quick trajectory prayers he is praying in this book. He may have had Isaiah 35:3-4 in mind, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense to God. He will come and save you.”
At the end of the day, when faced with gossip, all you can do is resolve and resign to the Lord in prayer. But the best weapon we have is a blameless character. I like what Warren Wiersbe says, “If we take care of our character, we can trust God to take care of our reputation.” Let’s be working on our character so that when gossip comes to distract us, our lives can defend ourselves for us, without us even having to say a word.
Let us also not be the one who spreads rumors. Let us always keep a guard on our mouths. Paul says corrupt talking grieves the Holy Spirit and so instead we must use our speech for building up, not destroying down (Eph. 4:29-31). If we are not sure if it’s true and if its hearsay, or if we know sharing information is not beneficial or building up and the person we share it with cannot do anything about it, it is best we do not share it. Former president of Moody Bible Institute, Dr. Easley used to say that if you ever wanted to test someone to see if he/she is a gossip, then tell that person something personal and see if it comes back to you. Then you can identify the gossip! I pray this will not be necessary here at this church!
But remember not to gossip because the work of God can be stopped because of it. It can be a huge distraction! So we said good opportunities can distract us and we must stand firm on godly priorities. Then we said gossip can distract us and we must resolve and resign to the Lord in prayer. Lastly,
III. When distracted by fear of the future, obey the Lord in the present (Neh. 6:10-14).
There is another trick up the enemies’ sleeve. These enemies are relentless, but Nehemiah perseveres through it all. The latest attack will come from his own people. We meet a so-called prophet named Shemaiah in Neh. 6:10. The phrase “was confined to his home” is hard to interpret. Most likely, it might mean that he felt like Nehemiah’s opponents were out to get him as well and so he locks himself at his house.
At any rate, Nehemiah visits him, with every reason to feel safe with a professed man of God. So he thinks! He may heard about the prophet (he may have been a priest as well) hiding in his home and wanted to encourage him as well as to share his own problems. We are not sure, but Nehemiah was there. Shemaiah then says, “Look Nehemiah, there is a plot on your life tonight. We need you to get to the temple (where according to the law, no one is allowed to touch someone while in the Temple).” The only problem with Nehemiah doing this was that he was not a priest. Only priests were allowed into the area of the temple that housed the altar (Num. 18:7). To do this was sin. To violate the temple in this way would discredit him among his people. With no witnesses of this conversation, this was an ingenious plot to stop the work of God. You can picture Nehemiah running up to the altar in fear of his life and then Shemaiah calling the Jews to the temple and in catching Nehemiah committing this great sin, discrediting him and ultimately undermining his authority as a leader.
There was an exception to the rule regarding only priests in the temple. If you accidentally killed somebody and you had a relative of the victim wanting to take revenge, you were allowed to run to the temple for refuge, whether you were a priest or not. Then you would wait there until a judge could hear the case (Num. 35:6-15). However, this was not one of those circumstances.
This was a trick to make him look like a religious transgressor, because trying to make him look like a political rebel didn’t work. It played on Nehemiah’s fear. Notice the words “frighten” and “be afraid” used several times here (Neh. 6:9, 13, 14). Do you know what fear stands for? False Evidence Appearing Real. What if you die Nehemiah? What if the wall, having come this far, never gets completed? What if your opponents win? What if you fail? A series of “what if” questions thrown at him like darts to distract him by paralyzing him in fear. Look at his response in Neh. 6:11: “I will not go in!” I will not go down (Neh.6:3), he said earlier. Now he says, ”Or go in! I’m not going anywhere!” I think he had come to a place now that not only did he embrace God’s calling in his life, but the calling had embraced him. It had so consumed him that he does not even want to protect his own life anymore. There is something bigger here than his safety. “Should a man like me, a man who has been given this sacred responsibility—this divine assignment—abandon the task to save his own life?” I’m not going to sin because I am afraid of the future. I am going to obey the Lord now in the present, even if it means my life is in danger.
Nehemiah figured out he was a false prophet in Neh. 6:12, because a true prophet would not contradict the Word of God (Deut. 13:1-5; 18:20-22). He figured out even more that Sanballat and Tobiah hired Shemaiah. Notice Neh. 6:14 that there were other people involved too, like Noadiah a prophetess and other prophets. Nehemiah was outnumbered, but he held his ground. Because when you are with God, you are always in the majority. A coward gets scared and quits. A hero gets scared, but moves on. Nehemiah was that hero. He was a layman opposed by a body of “professionals,” yet he refused to give in. He prayed about them and left the matter with the Lord. Notice another prayer recorded in Neh. 6:14. He had asked God to remember him, which meant, think upon him and act justly. Now he asks God to think upon these enemies and act justly. He again commits himself to God, trusts Him for his future and moves on.
Beloved in life, we will always struggle with elements of the unknown and fear of the future. What if I never find a job? What if I never find the right person? He’s not exactly what I’m looking for, but what if nobody else comes along? I need to say no, but what if it costs me my bonus? What if I can’t have children? What if this church never grows? What if I fail? On and on it goes. Fear is a form of focus. We can get so focused on what might be that we lose sight of what could and should be. If we start to let these fears in, we come down from the wall and run to protect ourselves. God would have you obey Him in the present. Stay on the wall. God has work for us here to do. Do what is in front of you, realizing this is a divine appointment for you at this time.
Distractions. It can really start to drive you off of the road God has called you to be on. Well, thank God for GPS systems! I am horrible with directions. I mean, horrible. I can get lost just going home from here. One of the things I think that has saved our marriage so far was getting a GPS system. You plug this box in you car and this lady tells you how to get to your destination (well, you can get a guy’s voice, but I have found the lady’s voice to be more nurturing). Now, you don’t have to trust the lady. You can even unplug her. But if you do trust her, you have to listen to what she says. You need to look at the box or listen carefully. She will warn you ahead of time and even beep when you need to turn. I mean, you really can’t mess up right?
But knowing me, I have found ways to get lost, even with the GPS system. You know why? Usually it’s distractions. I get distracted by people in the car next to me, a dead animal on the side of the road, a store I may never have seen before, or even thinking too hard about something. So I get lost. If I were the lady trying to direct me, at this point, I would have said, “How many times are you not going to listen to me idiot? You think I’m going to help you now? You rejected me. You’re easily distracted. You find the way home yourself.”
But you know what is really great about the GPS system? The lady always says, “Calculating Route” or “When possible, make a legal U-turn.” In other words, “No worries. Focus on the road and on me again. Listen carefully to my directions. I’ll bring you home.” That’s what I call…grace!
We talked about repentance last week. One of the things I am constantly repenting of is the fact that I am easily distracted. Sometimes with good opportunities that challenge my priorities or sometimes fear of the future challenging me to take matters into my own hands or sometimes listening to other people’s opinions and being a slave to that. And I start chasing those things instead of staying on the wall.
If you are tempted with some good opportunities right now that may distract you from church and doing the work of God, ask the Lord to give you wisdom and discernment. If you are facing gossip or have gossiped, take some time to turn to the Lord and perhaps seek reconciliation if you are guilty. If you have been thinking far too much about the future, so much so that it distracts you from the Lord and serving, take some time to turn to the Lord with that as well. The Lord once lovingly rebuked another distracted soul: “Martha, Martha, you are troubled by many things, but there is only one thing needful.” (Luke 10:42). Listen to the Lord’s life verse before he left this earth: “I glorified you on the earth, and accomplished the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4). Man, He was so single minded! But thank God today, that if we have swerved off the path, to know that our Lord allows U-turns.
Kenneth Mitchell, pastor of Westside Christian Family Chapel, Jacksonville, Florida as quoted in http://www.preachingtoday.com accessed August 13, 2009.
Wiersbe, Neh. 6:5
Wiersbe, Neh. 6:5.
Wiersbe, Neh. 6:10.