They were trying to frighten us into stopping work. I prayed, “But now, God, make me strong!”
Nehemiah 6:9 GNT
Those of us who’ve encountered discouragement know that it was the “surprise attack” discourager – a friend, a relative, a sister or brother in Christ – that did the most harm to our passion, our motivation and our faith; much more so than any number of negative words from people outside our immediate circle. I think as we strive to do God’s work we need to be aware that that work will encounter ungodly opposition not just from those we consider “enemies”, but also from those we consider friends. Moreover, I think we also need to realise that we ourselves will be used as discouragers to those around us, and to be on the look out for it.
In rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall after it had fallen a century earlier, in the sixth century BCE, Nehemiah encountered a forkful of discouragement as he undertook the project. Oh, there were the lurid, even comical, interferences of his enemies (Nehemiah 4, 6); but he also had his own people to contend with. In the economic distress following Jerusalem’s annihilation, the poorest and most vulnerable were left to fend for themselves, a situation the rich took advantage of. In Nehemiah 5 the people cry out to Nehemiah because they had to sell their children and their homes to relieve their debt, debt incurred merely to get food. So Nehemiah had it from all sides.
I think, however, that Nehemiah’s biggest challenge lay in that small voice of doubt in his own mind. Nehemiah’s heart must have been beating right out of his chest when he told the king the task he wanted to undertake (Nehemiah 2). What if his request was construed as disloyalty? Rebuilding a city meant that Nehemiah would become its de facto ruler, and Jerusalem was known as a rebellious city. If Nehemiah was anything like us, I’m pretty sure that little voice was running around his mind, pulling its own hair out!
So how did Nehemiah deal with this voice? How did he deal with the many voices of dissension that rose and tried to stand between him and rebuilding that damn wall? I think Nehemiah’s perseverance in this regard is rooted in two things. First of all, he understood that this task would ultimately not be about him. It was about helping to restore in a very real way God’s people to their Lord. Essentially, in pursuing this task, Nehemiah undertook intercession for them. Secondly, that intercession – that prayer – formed the basis of Nehemiah’s approach to his task. Nehemiah’s account of events reads a lot like a prayer in that Nehemiah did all his work fully in the sight of the Lord. This helped him not to lose sight of either the work or himself in its completion.
As Christians we are all, in the most basic way, entrusted each day with God’s love and grace toward ourselves and other people. How faithfully do we carry out this task? Yesterday I was stuck in a queue in a local grocery store for ten minutes, and let me tell you, that was not a very Nehemiah moment for me! But what would have been different if I had not lost sight of God in that (and so many other) moments? If I had understood my task to be intercession, if I had stood in that queue fully cognizant of the fact that I stood in God’s sight? Certainly I wouldn’t have wished annihilation on every one in that store and all their closest relatives – I would have built up, rather than torn down.
“Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant and to the prayer of those who delight in honouring your name. Please give success to your servant today and grant us favour!”
(Adapted from Nehemiah 1:11 CEB)