I’ve been doing something lately that I rarely do. I can’t actually remember when I’ve done this before. I’ve been reading books for myself. I know that sounds weird to say, but usually when I read, study, or watch something, it’s so that I can learn for the sake of my job. But lately, because of all the struggles I’ve been going through, my reading hasn’t been learning about other things, but about learning about myself. That’s lead me to a bunch of books, some given by my counsellor, others by my own research, that don’t just talk about a subject, but speak directly to me, and they have really been helping me to heal.
One of the books that I read was called “12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry” and I absolutely ate it up. It was a series of 12 mini-biographies about a bunch of historical pastors who went through hard times and how they faced them.
I read about men like John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, who was arrested for preaching the gospel and spent almost thirteen years in prison. While he was in that prison cell he was not only writing one of the greatest books of all time, but also suffering incomprehensible spiritual attacks. He was deeply sad, angry, lonely, and afraid. But when he was told he could go free if he would stop preaching, he said, “If I were out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.”
I read about Charles Simeon who, as a young man, was appointed to be pastor of a church that didn’t want him. The congregation responded by refusing to come and locking the doors of their pews so no one could sit down. Anyone who came had to sit in aisle seats that Simeon paid for himself. In response to his, the church wardens threw the seats out into the street and then stood outside heckling, threatening the people coming in. Then, when Simeon was leaving they threw rocks or eggs at him, or waited to beat him up. He stayed at that church for twelve years.
I read stories of pastors facing disappointment, heartache, racism, tragedy, depression, financial ruin, and political coercion – and when the question was inevitably asked, “How did they respond? How could they face all this and remain faithful? Why didn’t they quit?” the answer always came “They held onto the Word of God and Prayer.” And every book I’ve read so far has had that same resounding anthem.
The Perils of Youth
We’re going to take a little break from the Heidelberg this week, so please open up to Psalm 119:9–16 and let’s read it together:
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Psalm 119 is written as an acrostic love song to the Word of God, each section giving another reason why the Bible contains the very words of life and the neglect of it brings death. In this section, the concentration is on how a believer can live a holy life.
It begins with the question: “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The author has in mind to give wisdom to help people avoid the pitfalls and perils that come with youth, but I would argue that this section of the psalm isn’t merely for the young.
Consider what it’s like to be a young person, aged 15-25. What are the defining characteristics? There are good things and bad, right? Most youth are strong, virile, passionate, excitable, energetic, and want to try new things. Their bodies heal quickly from injury and are more flexible, growing stronger every day. They feel emotions with great intensity – when they are sad their world is destroyed, but when they are happy they are elated. When they find interest in something, it captivates their attention and they can spend hours and hours on it.
But there are also some bad things with youth, right? They are ignorant and are easily manipulated and fooled into believing lies. Their desire to try new things can lead them into dangerous, addictive, and destructive habits. Their youthful bodies make them think they are indestructible so they take greater risks, but their underdeveloped brain and lack of experience cause them to face unnecessary danger. Their passions, while a wonderful gift, can run wildly out of control, driving them to think and believe extreme things that simply aren’t true. “Everyone hates me! I’m the ugliest person ever! My parents are the worst people in the world!! Everyone is doing the same stupid, scary, dangerous thing – but I have to do it because acceptance from my peers is the only thing that matters, and I’ll literally die if I don’t get their approval!” (Not that they say it exactly like that…)
But, those thoughts aren’t only the purview of youth, are they? Be honest. Those of us who are older still struggle with those thoughts, don’t we? They may be more refined, with the sharp edges sanded off by the years, but they are the same thoughts.
We struggle with loneliness and acceptance. We want to live out our purpose and change the world, struggling to wonder if we are in the right job, the right marriage, the right city – and wondering if we should bug out and start over. We do stupid, selfish things with our money in an attempt to make ourselves feel better or to impress others. We experiment with ways to fix our feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anxiety just as much. Sure, we do it in more refined ways – with wine, medication, vacations, a false social media identity, bossing people around, quitting our jobs – but we also do it with food, pornography, and drugs. We get fooled by advertisers and become extreme in our devotion to things like sport teams, name brands, diets, and personal comfort or experiences. And each of those immature things corrupts our relationship with God and causes impurity to enter into our souls.
So, when we read, “How can a young man keep his way pure?”, let’s not assume that it’s not about us. Let’s restate it this way: “How can someone who struggles with immature thinking keep from corrupting their life?”
And the answer is: “By guarding it according to your word.” Conversely, how can a person make sure they corrupt their life? By neglecting, or forgetting, God’s word.
I wanted to take a quick break from the Heidelberg before I went on vacation because there has been a resounding theme to a lot of the conversations I’ve had with many of you, and that is the neglect of God’s Word and prayer. And I’m not talking about the normal, Christian humility where we all say, “Yeah, I could be praying more.”, but a true neglect of personal quiet times, reading God’s word and prayer.
My guess is that this is happening because of the many struggles that we are facing as a church. Over the past couple years the families in our church have been through physical and mental health issues, faced sickness and death, have struggled with hurting marriages, strained family relationships, and broken friendships. We’ve seen addiction issues, depression, and anxiety. We’ve seen financial problems and job loss. And of course, most of you know about the struggles we’re having as a church. My family has been going through a tough time, but the church as a whole is struggling too.
All of these struggles are a sort of crucible that we are going through together and as individuals. A crucible is a pot used by metal workers in order to melt their metal in a furnace. They are designed to withstand incredible heat when put into a fire so that the metal can get to the melting point. When the metals are melted in the crucible, a bunch of gunk and impurities separate from the metal and floats to the top (called dross), and it’s scraped off and discarded leaving the metal more pure. Leaving the dross in causes the metal to be weak.
How does God refine the impurities out of his people?
Proverbs 17:3 says, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts.”
God purifies his people by giving them situations by which their faith and obedience and discipline and love are tested.
Isaiah 48:10–11 says, “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”
God sends affliction, or trials, or troubles to His people on purpose so that by them we can see our impurities, the dross that is gunking up and weakening our metal. So we can understand the ways that we are profaning the name of God and giving glory to or trusting other people and things than Jesus.
To Jeremiah, who lived around the time of the exile, when the whole nation had become hypocrites, God said that one of his mission was:
“I have made you a tester of metals among my people, that you may know and test their ways. They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders; they are bronze and iron; all of them act corruptly. The bellows blow fiercely; the lead is consumed by the fire; in vain the refining goes on, for the wicked are not removed. Rejected silver they are called, for the LORD has rejected them.” (Jeremiah 6:27–30)
God sent waves of affliction and trouble to them, gathering them in the crucible of Jerusalem, and placing them in the furnace of affliction, but they were like a bad alloy, or a metal that was entirely dross – just a bunch of bubbling junk. At no point did their trials cause them to repent, to relent from their sin, to turn back to God.
We here are going through trials in this church for a purpose. You are personally going through tough times, but they are not without cause – they are designed by God to show you something about yourself, something about God, something about your faith.
And for many people here, one of the things that has bubbled up as dross is a lack of commitment to taking time to read God’s Word and pray – which shows that we are going to other places for comfort and hope. The furnace continues, the heat of affliction grows hotter, and – I know because I’ve talked to many of your – you feel the conviction to repent, to turn to God, to read and study his word, and to pray, but you don’t. And that refusal has caused a lot of impurities to settle in your heart.
- Fears and doubts cloud your thinking.
- Lack of sleep, the need for more and more medications to stop your racing thoughts.
- Constant anxiety or depressive thoughts.
- Obsessing over work or lack of desire to do anything.
- Out of control anger and arguing more and more with the people you love.
- You don’t feel close to God, close to the church, close to your friends. You actually avoid Christian events, people and music.
- Your worship life is gone, and you feel spiritually dry.
- You drink more, eat more, sleep more, hide more, or get busier and busier to avoid thinking.
- Maybe you’ve even gotten to the place where you consider quitting your job, moving away, quitting the church, divorcing your spouse, or even committing suicide,
Why? Because the furnace has shown your dross, the impurities that are weakening your spirit, but you haven’t repented.
Road to Emmaus
Turn with me to Luke 24:13-35 (but keep your thumb in Psalm 119). This is the story of the two disciples who meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus. This story occurs after Jesus has been crucified and rose from the dead, even after Peter and John and Joanna and the Marys saw the empty tomb. And it begins:
“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?’ And they stood still, looking sad.”
Pause there. Jesus interrupts their conversation and asks them what they are talking about – and they can’t even speak. They just stop, stand still, and look sad. Have you ever had that moment where you are doing kinda okay, and then someone asks you just the wrong question and you stop, get that catch in your throat, the sting in the eyes, and you just can’t talk? These men loved Jesus, and the subject makes them deeply sad. Keep reading:
“Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ And he said to them, ‘What things?’”
Ever had that experience where someone asks you how you’re doing and you just decide to tell them? “Fine, you really want to know?!” and you just verbal diarrhea everything that’s been going wrong?
“And they said to him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.’”
Blaarghh… right? “Well, stranger, we’ve got a lot going on right now. We don’t know what happened, why it happened, and we have no idea where it’s leading. We thought God was doing one thing and then it turned out we were wrong. The plans that we thought were set, all the hopes we had, exploded in our faces. Then a bunch of things happened we didn’t expect and people started saying things we don’t really understand.” I’m sure we’ve all been there.
So, what does Jesus do? Look at verse 25:
“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!’”
Let me translate that to modern speak: “You dummies, don’t you read the Bible?” Then Jesus says in verse 26:
“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’”
“You know if you read your Bible more you wouldn’t have been so surprised by any of this. If you had been in the word, listening to Jesus, listening to God, then this would make a lot more sense to you. There is zero reason for you to be hopeless and sad right now.”
And how does Jesus follow that up? How does Jesus bring these sad men comfort? Look at verse 27,
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
He did a Bible study. Why? Because the answer to: Why did this happen? What was the purpose? What is Jesus doing? Is God still in control? Where is this all going? – is all answered in the Bible! The Bible and prayer are the means by which God communicates to His people. Jesus didn’t come up with a bunch of new theories and psychological mumbo-jumbo or memorized pat answers – He went to the source of truth: God’s Word, and explained it carefully, from beginning to end.
This is my point today: Many of you are starving your souls of the Word of God and that is why you feel such fear and sadness. You don’t have answers to what is going on, and don’t have wisdom to deal with it, because you aren’t turning to the source of wisdom. The Bible is how God speaks to His people – corporately and personally, in church and in your private times. You don’t need a pastor or priest or expert to read the scriptures to you and interpret what they say. If you are a Christian, then you have the Holy Spirit of God, the presence of Jesus Himself, with you if you ask Him to be there when you are reading.
You don’t need another book, a special formula, a prayer guide, or a podcast – as helpful as those things are. You need to find a quiet place, open your Bible, read it, meditate on it, pray about what you read, and ask God to help you apply it to your life.
Look back to Psalm 119: it says,
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”
What keeps us from sin and helps us flee temptation? Memorizing scripture.
“Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!”
“Statutes” means “prescriptions or “boundaries” or “limits”. How can you learn the boundaries that your life is meant to run in so you don’t smash into the wall? Ask God to teach you through His Word.
“With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth.”
The word “rules” there is the word for “judgements” or “the deciding of a case”. How can you understand the ways that God sees the world, how justice works in the world, how things can look out of control but are actually following God’s rules? Through the study and reading of the word of God.
Look at the next part:
“In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Look at the words “delight”, “meditate”, “fix my eyes”. The NIV translates that last sentence as, “I will not neglect your word.” (NIV)
How do you find joy in sadness, hope when afraid? How do you find reservoirs of love when you seem to be all tapped out? By finding your delight in the Word of God? How do you do that? By taking time to slow down… meditate… fix your eyes… mull over… chew on… reflect on… write about… think about… talk about… pray about… the Word of God.
“But I don’t have time!” we all cry! And I say this: You must make the time. This isn’t about learning a bit more about theology so you can answer some trivia questions – this is about the sustenance of your soul. This is as important as eating and breathing, and neglecting it is what is making you soul sick and too weak to deal with the crucible God has you in.
The only way to understand the refinement God is working in you, the only way to pass through the crucible, is to get rid of the dross, to become strengthened by praying and meditating on the Word of God often and for long periods of time. There is no substitute.
Turn back to Luke 24 and look at the effect that being with Jesus and studying His word had on those two men:
“So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’ And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
First, it made them want more, so they begged Jesus to be with them.
Second, being with Jesus opened their eyes to the truth! If they would have let Him go down the road, and not begged for more time with him, they would have missed Him and still been in the dark.
Third, their hearts burned within them, meaning they were delighted, excited, impassioned, convicted, encouraged… all by the study of the word of God. That’s what private Bible reading and prayer can do. Being with Jesus makes our hearts burn within us.
And fourth, it caused their faith to grow so much that they leapt into action to spread the good news to others. They were headed from Jerusalem to Emmaus, but after talking to Jesus, “that same hour”, they ran back to Jerusalem so they could tell the other disciples what had happened.
And fifth, their story caused everyone’s faith to grow. The disciples told Simon’s story, the two men told their story, and everyone gave glory to God for the amazing things that they had experienced. From sadness and fear and confusion to joy, hope, and faith – all through the presence of Jesus and the study of His Word.
I encourage you to commit to changing your habits, cutting things out – be ruthless if you have to – and make time to be in prayer and in God’s Word. Take time to repent, to study, to pray, to seek God’s wisdom, to seek Him out about your crucible, to ask Him what dross He is getting rid of, to be thankful for His love, and to be unafraid to ask Him for what you need.
The start of the year, as I said last week, is a time when a lot of people take time to evaluate where they are in life and make some decisions about making some changes, often called “New Year’s Resolutions”. They feel convicted that some area of their life needs to change, and the tossing out of the old calendar seems like as good a time as any to start.
Some people focus on their physical health, vowing they will eat healthier and exercise more. Others focus on their work life, telling themselves that this is the year they will finally get a better job, get that promotion, take that training they’ve been putting off, get a raise, or change their habits so they’ll be more effective. Some people turn towards relationships, running through the list of people on their contact list and deciding to purge the toxic people and make new friends, get reconnected with old ones, spend more time with their family, or even decide to start a family for themselves. Some decide to be more environmentally conscientious or to do better with their money. Others look more deeply at their spiritual side, vowing to meditate more, get more “centred”, pursue things that bring more meaning, and finally figure out why they have been put on the earth in the first place.
I think all of these are good things. I applaud anyone who puts down the remote and their phone, turns off the computer, gets quiet and does some self-evaluation. Introspection is usually a genuinely positive thing that is a good step towards true, substantial, life-change.
But no matter how much introspecting and resoluting we do, it often doesn’t get very far, does it? For every New Year’s Resolution there’s a breaking of that resolution. We want to be better, but temptation is too strong. Diets are abandoned, the new guitar sits dusty in the corner along with all the books to be read. Gyms are packed full in January but back to their regular clientele by February – not they care considering all the 1 year, unbreakable memberships they sold. The folks who made the resolutions feel like failures – but repeat the cycle for their birthday, when spring comes, when school starts, and then again the next year.
So, what can we do to make sure that those changes stick? Well, there are two things that we need to do before we ever make those changes. We need to talk to God, and we need to find accountability.
Bringing it to God
The first thing we need to do when it comes to these moments of resolve is to make sure we talking and listening to God. There is a real danger if our introspection and decision making is done in a vacuum. What I mean by this is that we as individuals shouldn’t be doing all this evaluating and resolving without including others in the mix. We, by ourselves, are generally not very good at either figuring out what’s wrong with us or how to fix it. We will usually err one of two ways, either toward pride, thinking too much of ourselves, giving ourselves too much credit, and making excuses for ourselves, or we’ll err too much toward the negative, beating ourselves up, evaluating ourselves too harshly, and change things we really don’t need to.
For example, we assume that people don’t like us because of our looks so we spend time changing our body and clothes, and it turns out that it’s because we’re actually a jerk who doesn’t shower enough. Or we assume that we’re amazing at drawing or singing or writing, so we figure it’s time to let the world see our wonderful works, but it turns out that we’re actually terrible at it. Or vice versa, we look at our art or listen to ourselves sing or play or write and we think we’re terrible, but if people saw it, they’d actually really like it.
So, the first thing we need to do when it comes to these things is to make sure that what we are deciding to do, or the thing we want to change, lines up to reality – and that can’t happen without including others in the mix.
And the most important “other” we need to be sure to include is God, for He is the source of all truth and the one who knows us best. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Or Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” Psalm 127:1-2 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
Non-Christians, and too many believers make these grand decisions without ever consulting God or His Word, and so everything is messed up from the very start. John Calvin once said, “Man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols”. The Bible says it this way in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
When we make these resolutions or life-changing decisions without bringing them to God and listening to Him, we will almost always be listening to our own deceitful heart and feeding our idol factory. I’ll use myself as an example: I turned 40 this week so I posted to Facebook asking for any tips. Most of them were about taking care of my physical self because it gets harder from here on in. Buy a scale, watch the diet, exercise more, sleep enough, take care of my knees, start taking vitamins – only one person told me to buy a red convertible and embrace a mid-life crisis. And all those physical things are good advice I need to take, but what happens when I decide to do this without talking to God?
Well, I slip into the error of 1 Timothy 4:8 that says, “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” In other words, it’s possible for me to make all these wonderful resolutions but actually miss the real problem. My issue isn’t that I eat too much sugar, not enough vegetables, and watch too much tv. If I solved all that myself, I would be healthier, sure, but God isn’t simply concerned about my weight and vitamin intake.
The deeper issue is that there are areas of my life I haven’t fully turned over to God and still believe myself to be in control of. I still believe that my way of handling stress, sadness, or temptation is better than God’s. I still believe that God won’t provide comfort or help or peace, so I go looking for it in an idol called food or entertainment. The issue isn’t sugar intake or lack of self-control, the issue is that I don’t trust God enough, I don’t fear God enough, I don’t believe God’s promises enough. Which come down to an inadequate prayer life, a stale worship life, lazy bible reading and study habits… which cause me to drift from God and leave me open to demonic temptation.
When I talk to God about this and list to His word, the problem becomes clearer, more understandable, deeper – and I see that the solution isn’t a weird diet and exercise plan or some vitamins, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, where I decrease and He increases, where I fall at His feet and ask Him to be my greater joy, where I realize that He’s not saving me from merely bad habits, but deadly sins that leave me spiritually weak and an easy target for the enemy of my soul.
And now the solution come more clear that if I am on my knees more, read God’s word more, learn to trust Him more, believe Him more, and ask Him for more grace – that I will learn that Jesus will help me more than my idols will and I will gain more joy from His good gifts of food and work than I did before when they were my slave masters.
Do you see what I mean? It’s no different with any other resolution we may have. We feel convicted to learn guitar, build better relationships, become more successful in our work – and we think we need to simply rejig our schedule and buckle down, but when we come to God with those things He shows us so much more.
Our desire to learn guitar is a deeper desire for acceptance, love, to feel special, to fill a gap in our heart – which are all Gospel issues addressed when we realize we are already loved. Our desire for better relationships, more friends, better friends, or closer ties to family, ends up becoming a journey that shows us where we have grown bitter with unforgiveness, reveals our fear of abandonment, our habit of blaming others, or a realization that we hate ourselves and use others to distract us from that self-hatred – which are all issues that are addressed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a closer relationship with God. Our desire for success and commitment to work more hours ends up, when turned over to God, becomes a realization that we are never satisfied, that we are addicted to adrenaline, that we’re afraid of failure, or that we have been working somewhere doing something that God never wanted us to do in the first place – which are all Gospel issues, addressed by finding our identity and purpose in Christ and the practice of listening to the Holy Spirit more.
So the first thing we must do whenever we feel that sense of conviction or are making a big decision like this, is to invite God into the conversation, but we also need to invite others. This is the greatest disadvantage of our society’s turn towards radical individualism. When the only voice in our head is ours, and the only standard for good that matters is whatever we decide, we’re in trouble. When the only people we’ll allow to talk to us is the echo chamber of people that think and act like us, we’re in trouble. Certainly the greatest form of accountability is reading God’s Word and listening to the conviction of His Spirit, but we can’t do that alone either. We were designed to be in community. When we become a Christian by trusting in Jesus as our Saviour, He gives us a lot of gifts, and one of those is to be made a member of the Body of Christ, the church. (1 Cor 12:27).
It is this community that Christians are meant to be part of most, where our closest relationships outside of that of God and our family are formed. Not our sports team, community clubs, affinity groups, or even para-church and ministries, as wonderful as those are. Christians are meant to be part of a growing, diverse, Christ-centred, church. It is with the church that we share our hopes, struggles, sins, fears, and convictions. It’s within the community of a Word-centred church that Christians experience God’s teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness. It is in the church that we grow the most in our faith.
Now, there are some churches that have taken up the world’s view on things and have decided to become more and more homogeneous, more and more alike, more uniform, separating people from those that are unlike them, and that’s not good. It is in our diversity of ages, experiences, maturity, preferences, hopes, fears and struggles, that we grow most. Sure, it’s nice to hang around people that are like us – same age, same experiences, same backgrounds – and it has its place, but that’s not where we grow most. We do ourselves a disservice when we remove ourselves from the diversity of the church.
For example, say you’ve been thinking and praying about some changes in our life and have come to some resolutions and conclusions. You’ve felt God’s conviction, have read God’s word, and think you’ve got a good handle on things. How do you know you’re hearing right? How do you know you’re not stuck in an echo chamber, just hearing what you want to hear? What about your blind spots? And if you did get it all right, how will you get started? And you know you’re weak, so how will you make sure you stick to it? “God will do it for me!” is true, but God most often works through His church.
We need to listen to people that are wiser and older than us, people who have struggled with similar things and have seen God’s victories, people who have been reading the word and praying for longer than us. We need people to help us choose good books, good helps, good tools, based on their experience. We need people younger than us to give us inspiration, energy, unique perspective, to ask questions we never thought of, to introduce us to tools and concepts we’ve never considered, and to cheer us on. We need elders to lend us wisdom, deacons to visit us in our struggles, small groups to pray for us, and the presence of children to hold us to a higher standard. We need to see amazing, Godly people that give us a standard to strive for, and see a whole bunch of messed up people so we know we’re not alone in our striving.
The church is where we experience the “one anothers” of love, encouragement, spurring to good deeds, serving and being served, instruction, honour, kindness and compassion. (1 John 4:12, Heb 3:13; 10:24, Gal 5:3; Rom 15:14; 12:10, Eph 4:32)
Listen to the words of James 5:13-20,
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
James is a very practical book of the Bible. If we have issues in our life that need changing, what James calls “sufferings”, what are we to do? Bring it to God and pray. Then what? Tell the church and ask others to pray. What if you’ve sinned? What if you’ve totally messed something up? Are you to keep that secret because sinners don’t belong at church and everyone will just judge you? No. Confess the sins to people at church and pray that God will heal your heart and the situation. Why? Because prayer has power, and the prayer of many has more power. What if someone wanders away from the truth, follows lies, and gets all messed up? Someone from the church should go get them, tell them the truth, and bring them back (Gal 6:1).
All of this is God working through the church. We’re never meant to do any of this on our own.
I’m not sure what’s been going on in our heart and life over the last month or so, but I am sure that every single one of you experience some sort of conviction to change something in your life – maybe multiple somethings – and you feel you need to do something about it. Some of you are trying to ignore that feeling because you’re too lazy or too afraid of failure. Others are ashamed of their issue and want to keep it secret – either because it’s something that will get them in trouble, or something they think is too shocking to share, or they think their alone, or their afraid of being judged. Some have already started and failed at their change, and feel guilty about it. Some look at the mountain of changes they feel they need and are utterly overwhelmed. Some have physical handicaps, others emotional weakness, that make it harder. Some have spiritual and religious problems they can’t get past, others have addictions that keep them bound to failure.
My simple point today is this: Allow those convictions, those desires for change to drive you to your knees before God, into His Word, before the face of Christ in prayer – to be the fuel that runs your prayer life and makes you desperate for God’s forgiveness and healing.
And then, once you have started working with God, bring it to the church. Vow that you are going to be honest, once and for all, about what you are struggling with. Vow that you are going to drag the sin into the light so it can lose its power and finally be dealt with.
In invite you to call me so we can talk about it. Talking to your pastor is a great place to start and walking with you and helping you is one of my greatest joys. If not me, then talk with one of the deacons or a Sunday school teacher or a Christian friend. If we can’t handle it, we’ll help you find someone that can – and then stick with you along the way.
Not only that, but make the commitment that you are not only going to make sure you are at church for as many Sundays as you can get here, but that you are going to join a small group, the youth group, a study group, or some other place where Christians are invited to share, pray, and grow together. Not simply because you are supposed to, but because you believe that it is when the church gathers that God chooses to do most of His work.
“For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.
How long will all of you attack a man to batter him, like a leaning wall, a tottering fence? They only plan to thrust him down from his high position. They take pleasure in falsehood. They bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse. Selah
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Selah
Those of low estate are but a breath; those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath. Put no trust in extortion; set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, set not your heart on them.
Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. For you will render to a man according to his work.”
(Psalm 62 ESV)
What is Your Foundation
This psalm is all about, as verse 10 says, where we put our “hope” and “trust”; on what foundation our “heart is set upon” when we are, as verse 3 says, “attacked”, “battered”, and “tottering”.
One of the amazing things about being part of a church is the diversity of experience we find among the people who come. There are some people who have had a blessed week and others who had one that felt like they were in battle every moment of every day. There are some who have had a seemingly blessed life where they grew up in a home with both a mom and a dad, warm and well fed, felt loved, safe, and secure – while others grew up orphans or children of divorce, abused, neglected, and afraid. And yet we all come and sit together, sing together, worshipping the same God, reading the same Bible, as one church. That’s no accident. We need each other and we need each other’s differences.
I don’t know what your week was like but I’m sure it had its ups and downs. There were times when you felt you had it all together and other times when you felt like it was all you could do to keep your whole life from flying apart. Some here had a week of temptation where there were so many good things happening you almost forgot that you needed God at all, while others had such a miserable week that you felt that God had abandoned you – or was actively against you. Some had a fairly normal week where nothing out of the ordinary happened, while others felt like someone stuck their schedule in the blender and hit frappe! And yet we all come here and sit together to sing the same songs and listen to the same message.
I heard a wonderful story from someone over the past few weeks where they came to me and said, “You know, Pastor Al, the more people I get to know at our church the more I see that everyone is struggling with something. I mean, there are a lot of problems in our church! And it crossed my mind that maybe I should leave this church and try to find one where people don’t have so many issues. But then I realized that I have problems too and I would much rather be in a church full of people who admit that they have problems and are trying to work it out together than a church that pretends they are perfect and expects me to pretend too.”
That was a hugely mature thing to share. And it’s true. We all have problems. I don’t know a single person here who doesn’t have some kind of big issue in their life. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational issues abound at our church. But we are not special – that’s literally everywhere. We just happen to have a group of people that, for the most part, are willing to admit it!
So, whatever your upbringing or week was like I believe that Psalm 62 has an important message for us. Whether you feel “attacked”, “battered” and “tottering” right now or not, the truth is that Jesus has promised that at some point in our life, “the rain will fall and the floods will come and the winds will blow and beat against our house” (Matthew 7:27ish) and the security and foundation of our life will be tested. That’s abundantly clear. It’s not about if bad times will come but when. And the only way that we will weather these times will be if our lives our built on the right foundation. Christians know this – we repeat it all the time. David knew this too.
In context, this is a psalm of David, who is surrounded by enemies who seek to not only kill him but to discredit and destroy him. Look at verse 3-4. He’s been attacked for so long that he feels like a wall that has taken so much punishment that it’s about to fall down or a fence that only has one post standing before it falls down altogether. This isn’t a one-time attack, but a consistent barrage of assaults from all sides. And what’s worse, is that the attack seems to be coming from people that he trusted. It says, “they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse.” This psalm could be about the time when his son Absalom revolted against him (2 Sam 15-16) and many people whom he trusted were either lying to him, manipulating him with false information, or trying to stab him in the back.
I’m sure some of you have felt like that. I know I have. Let down by people close to you. The whole world flips over. It’s like black has turned to white, up is down, friends are enemies. But it doesn’t have to be personal, the attacks can come from anywhere or anyone – the person hurting you doesn’t even have to be human, it can be a spiritual attack. Even so, the point of the psalm still stands: When the earth shakes beneath you, and the foes surround, where do you run for refuge? David boldly proclaims that even though his entire world is shaking, his family, friends and supporters have become his enemies, and he’s gone from sitting on the throne in Jerusalem to being on the run again – just as in the days he was fleeing Saul – until he even has to go to war and kill his own son… He will still trust in God.
Jumping to the Ask
One commentary I read said,
“There is scarcely another psalm that reveals such an absolute and undisturbed peace, in which confidence in God is so completely unshaken, and in which assurance is so strong that not even a single petition is voiced throughout the psalm.” (An Expositional Commentary on Psalms, Vol 2, Pg 509. Boice)
That’s an interesting point – there are not petitions in this psalm. He doesn’t ask for anything. This is a worship psalm coming from a man who is in terrible distress. We often jump straight to the ask, don’t we. Something bad happens and we cry out to God, “God, make it stop! Fix the problem! And here’s how I want you to do it!” That’s not how this psalm works – and that’s not really how prayer works either.
Look to the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). How does it start? Does it start with “give us our daily bread, forgive us our sin, deliver us from evil”? No, it doesn’t start with the ask. It starts by putting our heart in the right place.
It starts with reminding us of our relationship: “Our Father in Heaven”. We’re not merely crying out to an impersonal force, but to our loving Father. As Paul said in Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” “Abba” is the childish term “Daddy”. “My Daddy in heaven”.
Then it moves on to humbling us by reminding us of our place in the universe: “hallowed be your name.” “Hallowed” means “honoured” or “holy” or “greatly respected”. As we’ve talked about before, it’s not about you and me, everything is about Jesus. Colossians 1:16, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” Or 1 Corinthians 8:6 which we studied a few weeks ago, “…for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
Then we are taught to say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is a resignation that God’s glory and God’s plan are more important than we are. This is a statement of our hope and trust in Him. “God, you are my King and I am your citizen. Your will is more important than mine. Your plan is better than mine. Your way is better than my way. I trust you to do what is best.”
And then, after we have set our hearts aright, knowing we are talking to our Father who loves us like a daddy, but is also to be respected and honoured. After we have placed our wills beneath His and declared that we trust him… do our petitions start: “Give us this day our daily bread… forgive our sins… deliver us from evil.”
This Psalm shows that David’s heart was so right with God, even while he was being “attacked”, “battered”, and “tottering” from the storms around him, that he still trusted God as his firm foundation.
Verses 5-7 really sum up the rest of the psalm well, and is an echo of verses 1-2, so let’s concentrate our study on them and pull out some application.
The first thing I want you to notice is that David takes some time to talk to himself, preach to Himself, sing to Himself. Remember, this is a psalm that is meant to be sung publically. David may have composed this while on the run and sang it to the people who followed him into exile. He starts in verses 1-2 with a general declaration of his trust in God to all who would listen. Then in verses 3-4 he states the problem by publically addressing his enemies and God. But then in verse 5 he talks to himself: “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God.”
Why does he do this? Because he was tempted to go elsewhere, to fortify his strengths by other means. David was king and was feeling terribly weak, emotionally low, spiritually oppressed, betrayed, and very alone. The people around him, driven from their homes to follow him, must have been crying out, “What shall we do? What will you do to fix this, King David?” and his advisers were no doubt coming up with all manner of plans: “Make a pact with a neighbouring country. Hire mercenaries to fight with us. Attack the people around us and take food and weapons from them. C’mon David, we need to do something!”
And the battle was raging inside him too. He was a man of deep passions. Remember, this was a guy that almost wiped out a man’s entire household because he refused to share some food (1 Sam 25). He pretended to be insane by smashing his head against walls and foaming at the mouth to get out of a tight spot (1 Sam 21). He saw a beautiful woman and killed her husband to be with her (1 Sam 11). He was cunning enough to live in enemy territory for years, even fighting against them from within their own borders, without being detected. I have no doubt that there were a thousand plans flying through his mind as to what he wanted to do.
I’m sure you’ve felt this way too. All hell breaks loose around you and within you. You flail, grasping for something to hold onto to steady yourself. Something to make you feel stronger, in control, or at least to distract you from the pain and confusion that overwhelm you. You reach for a bottle, some food, your phone, Netflix, a razor blade, to calm the storm within for only a moment – but it never makes anything better, does it? Now instead you have your problems and guilt, scars, and sickness. You grab a weapon so you can force the situation in another direction – but it only escalates things. You reach for your wallet because your strength is in your money – but it never really fixes, it does it? You grab onto a counsellor or friend or spouse and beg them to fix everything, to give you the answer, to stabilize your life, and when they inevitably fail you, you reject them. You throw up a series of requests to God, but He doesn’t answer “yes” fast enough, so you turn away from your Bible and your church.
The situation you find yourself in, the storm that is beating against you, the earthquake that is happening within you has a very important purpose – to show you where you run to for hope and help, and then to test the strength of your foundation.
A while back, actually on Ethan’s 8th birthday, a tornado hit Ottawa. It was quite an experience as the wind destroyed a lot of places around town. After it died down we took a walk around our neighbourhood and it was incredible. There were lots of trees down all over the place, and broken phone polls, but the one place that really impacted me was the bus stop. A bus stop is a nice place for shelter when it’s raining – but isn’t much good in a tornado. The walls collapsed, the foundation moved, and it was utterly destroyed.
A lot of the destructive things we turn to during times of crisis seem fine to us – that’s why we don’t deal with them. They’re like the bus shelter. Lust, gluttony, addiction, violence, money – all seem to work fine when there’s a bit of rain – but when the storm really hits, they utterly fail us. I fact, when the storm hits, that refuge becomes dangerous. It no longer works for us, giving us a momentary high, but works against us, corrupting our souls, hurting our bodies, ruining our relationships, separating us from God, and damaging our lives. Many of you know what I’m talking about. Imagine taking shelter from the tornado in this bus shelter. What would have happened to you? That’s what you’re doing when you keep going back to whatever it is you run to in crisis… and it’s dangerous… and potentially spiritually and physically lethal.
So what does David do here? He does what you should do during those times of crisis. He stops himself, preaches to himself, and asks the question, “Ok, I know I have a thousand places I want to turn to and a hundred plans in my mind – but STOP…” and he speaks to himself… “Ok, David, ok, my Soul… where does my hope come from? Who is stronger, my enemies, myself, or my God? Who is going to save me? Where should I run?” And his answer to himself was, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress…”
You’ve tried all these other things and they have all failed you. From where does your salvation come? The word “only” or “alone” occurs 5 times in this psalm. God only. God alone. “My King Daddy in Heaven knows what is happening. I will run to Him. “On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God.” (vs 7)
Wait in Silence
But there is one other part I want you to notice. In fact, he says it twice in verse 1 and 5. He says, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence…”.
Do you remember what Pastor Willie said about Romans 1-3? That it was meant to tell people to “shut up” – to decimate their excuses and force them to realize that they are sinners in need of a saviour? There are a lot of “shut up” passages like that in the Bible, and this is one of them. When the storm is raging, the earthquake shaking, when you feel like “a leaning wall”, “a tottering fence”, about to fall over, the best thing you can do is to withdraw into silence and wait. You actually need to be doing this every day, not just during times of crisis, because it prepares you for the storms to come – but if you haven’t been doing that, then this is something you must do.
The only way you will be able to preach to yourself and to reset your faith, to run to God for refuge, is if you “wait in silence”. That means you need to get away from people, get away from TV, from the internet, from the cell phone, from work, from play, and put away all the distractions and temptations that are trying to pull you towards them – and stop and wait for God.
Did you know the Canadian Government has an official pamphlet detailing what we should do during an earthquake? I didn’t. But here’s what they tell you to do during a major earthquake – and it’s exactly what every other country says. They tell you to make sure you prepare your home before hand – which none of us do – but this is what we’re supposed to do when the big one hits: “Drop, Cover and Hold On!” Go sit under a heavy piece of furniture like a table, desk or bed, tuck in all the parts of your body, and hold on tight to whatever you are under so you will move when the furniture does. And then stay there until the earthquake stops!
Why? Because during that time you need a refuge that is stronger than you and protection from things you can’t see. That’s what this psalm is about. It’s David’s song to a group of people who are facing a terribly difficult time in their life, and a reminder to himself, to stop, be quiet, and trust in God’s strength.
Can you imagine someone going through a big earthquake, looking at their oak table and thinking, “Hmmm… that’s a good spot, but before I get under there, I really need to grab a snack, my phone, a couple friends… no way! Can you imagine them standing in the middle of a store, with things falling all around them, and them saying, “I’m in an earthquake, surrounded by glass smashing all around me, but it’s ok. I’ve got my stress ball, anti-anxiety pills, and I’m trying to think positive about it.” Or can you imagine someone calling you in the middle of an earthquake and asking for advice about what to do? What’s your answer: “Have you tried yoga? I can forward you a really uplifting email I got today. Let me text you a YouTube link to a song that I play during those times…”
No way! You tell them to Drop, Cover and Hold On! Stop talking, get away from the dangerous stuff in your life, drop to your knees, crawl to Jesus and hold on with everything you have! Songs are great, fidget toys are fine, medication is ok, exercise is helpful – but when your life is falling apart, you need to run to a secure foundation and hold on! Jesus only, Jesus alone.
Great Fear, Great Calm
One day Jesus and the disciples were in a boat crossing the sea when a great storm came out of nowhere. The boat was crashing against the waves, it started to fill with water, things look dangerous and the disciples were scared. Where was Jesus? Asleep on a cushion. Jesus wasn’t afraid. He knew that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that would stop Him from crossing that sea, and certainly nothing that could take His life. He was so totally secure, totally trusting in His Father that He slept. But the disciples shook Him awake yelling, “Master, Master, save us! We’re all going to die! Don’t you care that we’re all going to die?” What was His response? “Why are you afraid, o you of little faith? Where is your faith?” And Jesus stood up, rebuked the storm, told it to be still, and then there was a “great calm”.
A lot of Christians are like this. They have Jesus in their boat. They know Him, they say they trust Him – right up until the wind and waves start to hit. Then they accuse Him. “Don’t you care? I’m dying! I’m going to drown! My whole family is going under!”
And what does Jesus say, “Do you really think that I’m not in control of this situation? Do you really think that I don’t care? Do you think I’d let you down? Do you think My Father is absent? That He doesn’t see? That there is no purpose for this? Do you think this storm is an accident? This storm is here to show you something…”
Mark says something really interesting in his telling of this story. It says, “And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:39-41)
They thought they were afraid of the storm, afraid of drowning in the middle of a sea. But the moment Jesus showed His power, “they were filled with a great fear”. Of who? Jesus. From that moment the experience of going through the storm meant something completely different. It became the moment that they started to fully understand who Jesus really is, the extent of His power, and what it means to have Jesus in your boat. The fear of the storm were gone. All that was left was “great calm” and “great fear” – as they stood in the presence of Jesus full of awe at what He is capable of.
I believe this is the message of this psalm, and one we need to hear today. I know you have storms, but allow those storms to drive you to Jesus. Let it be the means by which you learn to let Jesus be your only refuge, strength and salvation. Get quiet before Him. Trust He will protect you. Ask Him to calm the storm – and then wait to see how He will save you.
Nehemiah So Far
If you don’t know Nehemiah’s story, I highly recommend you give it a read, but let me give you a summary of what is going on up until this point. Nehemiah was a Jewish man who had risen to prominence in the Persian Empire to become one of the most trusted men in King Artexerxes’ inner circle. He had already allowed the people of Israel to return to their land after the 70 year Babylonian exile, but things weren’t going very well for those who had returned.
If you recall, Jerusalem was basically leveled by Nebuchadnezzar, but under Ezra, they had come back and rebuilt the temple and re-established the Jewish feast and sacrifices. They had wanted to rebuild the huge wall that protected Jerusalem, but after some opposition, the people gave up and left it in ruins.
By the time we get to Nehemiah, Ezra is the leading priest in Jerusalem, the temple is built, but the walls and buildings of the city are still in shambles, they are ruled by greedy landlords, and the hope and religious life of the people is falling apart.
The story of Nehemiah kicks off with his brother Hanani coming and telling Nehemiah about the problems in Jerusalem, especially about the walls. The problem had been around for about 50 years, but but the news hit Nehemiah in a new away, broke his heart, and he began to pray about it. As he prayed he sensed that God was calling him to be the one to come and rebuild the broken city.
One day he came before King Artexerxes, as he had many other times, but this time he looked very sad. This was a problem because it was incredibly dangerous to look sad in front of a Persian king. His presence should be so delightful to you that if you don’t look happy to see him, he could kill you! But Nehemiah’s heart is so broken he can’t hold it in any longer and the king asks what’s wrong. Nehemiah feels great fear, says a quick prayer, and then makes his
“big ask” to have some time off to go and rebuild Jerusalem.
This was an outlandish request that came out of nowhere! He wanted to leave his position as royal cupbearer to become Governer of Judah, his home nation, and rebuild the defensive walls of a city that had been conquered. This could have easily been interpreted as the precursor treason and even war – but God was with him and the king decided to help. He gave Nehemiah his position, letters of passage, soldiers to protect him, and all the lumber they would need for the project. God was clearly answering prayers!
When he arrived in Jerusalem he took a quick three-day break to rest, think and pray, and then took a secret night tour of the damage so no one could see him – especially his enemies. After seeing what needed to be done he called a meeting with the whole city and surrounding area and then told them what God had laid on his heart. He told them the plan, that God had already done miracles to provide for them, and that because of God’s help it would be a success. The people agreed and they all set to work.
As soon as Nehemiah went public, the opposition kicked into high geer. Three men named Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem lobbed their first volley. They accused him of rebellion, sedition, and implied that if they didn’t quit rebuilding that they would tell the king who would come and wipe them all out. Nehemiah wanted Jerusalem to be strong and secure, to be in a deep relationship with God, and know He is their strength. But the enemies wanted Jerusalem afraid, weak and dependent, able to be manipulated and easily threatened, and a strong governor building a new city of people with a strong faith, behind a huge, stone wall would be a problem.
Practically, this hurt the enemies pocket books too. If the city started living by Mosaic Law, then they would start keeping the Sabbath, not charging interest, taking care of the poor, sharing their goods, and generally being more content – which was really bad for business. They would lose their financial grip on the city. The moment the people started to get into a healthy relationship with God and one another the enemies became very active.
Have you ever experienced this? If you have been a Christian for any length of time, then you probably have. You feel a tug at your heart, discover something that causes you to weep, something that you know needs changing – in your life, your family, or your community – and you feel a distinct call from God to do something. God starts to provide, and things start to look like they are going the right way. You feel like you’ve found your purpose. You are working, God is active, people’s lives are changing for the better – it’s all good.
And then WHAM! out of nowhere comes opposition to your work. Your relationships get more difficult, finances start to get strained, people start to treat you unfairly, the rules seem to be against you, people seem to misunderstand you, and your helpers abandon you.
Here’s what’s happening. Maybe you’ve been told that whenever you are in God’s will things will be easy, but that’s not usually the case. Most often, when anyone attempts to do God’s work, God’s way, for God’s glory and the good of those around them, there will be opposition. I’ve faced a lot of trouble in my time, as have many of you, but never so much as when I’m working on a God ordained project. Actually, that’s one of the ways that we can know we’re on the right path – by the level of opposition. I’m pretty sure that’s why a lot of us are facing some of the struggles we are these days – because we are trying to follow God’s will and our spiritual enemies are stirring up trouble against us.
And this isn’t just for people in ministry like pastors, missionaries, elders, deacons and teachers. This is for all of us who are trying to follow God’s will for our lives – whether he called you to be a mother, husband, parent, encourager, administrator, counsellor, reconciler, worker, artist, musician, or any other kind of servant. When you find the groove God has carved for you most often, the enemy will rise up to try to discourage you and stop you.
What I want to do today is take a look at some of the ways that the enemy tried to discourage Nehemiah and Jerusalem as they tried to do the very practical work of rebuilding the walls, and draw out some points to help us know how to respond when the enemy rises up against us and our own projects.
So, take a moment to consider what God has been asking you to do lately, or what you know your spiritual gifts or mission in life is. As you’ve been praying, reading your Bible, and talking to fellow Christians, what has God been impressing upon you to do? And then let’s take a look at what Nehemiah faced and how He responded.
“Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, ‘What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?’ Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, ‘Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!’” (Nehemiah 4:1-3)
Here’s the first attach, and it’s the easiest to spot and most relatable. As soon as we claim to be followers of Jesus, or especially when we say something like, “God’s word is true, He has given men a mission, and I’m going to do what He says.” That makes people crazy these days. So their natural response is ridicule.
If you’ve ever shared your faith or been obvious about your belief in Jesus, then you’ve probably faced ridicule. The internet and media are full of people mocking Christianity.
This is standard operating procedure for the enemy. Joseph was mocked by his brothers. Moses was mocked by all sorts of people. Goliath mocked David. Pharisees mocked Jesus. This is the first thing the enemy does. He uses ridicule and insults to hurt our feelings. Anyone who is known for having amazing faith in God has faced abuse for it.
They start by mocking their strength: “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves?… Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?… if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!” They were a broken people in a broken city; a bunch of farmers who were mostly poor and starving. They wern’t professional wall builders. They weren’t warriors or strong men. They didn’t even have good materials! They’re trying to use broken, burned, brittle rocks to build a strong wall. It’s impossible! What a joke!
What was the enemy saying? “You’ll never be able to do it. You’re too weak, too stupid, too unskilled, too tired, too broken. You’re not the kind of people that do this kind of thing. You should quit while you’re ahead. You think God is going to magically make you a success? That’s not how it works in the real world! There’s no way God called you to that mission. You don’t have the ‘right stuff’? You’re too sinful, too ignorant, too weak.”
Were they weak? Yes! But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? As we said last week – it is when we are weak when we are strong, because it is then that God can do all the work so He can get all the glory!
You’ve probably heard this kind of thing before. I know I’ve heard it many times with the churches I’ve pastored. “We don’t have the budget. We don’t have the people. Preaching the Bible is boring and irrelevant. No one wants to listen to that anymore. No one can sit through a sermon anymore. If we don’t have the best music, a great sound system, awesome visuals, and a big church with lots of ministries, then we shouldn’t even try.”
What’s the implication? Everything is wrong with this project. All the materials are wrong. We should just give up.
Have you heard that kind of thing for your own ministry and life mission? “No one stays at home and cares for the children anymore. The job that you love doesn’t make enough money, you should quit. Families don’t just hang out anymore, you need to be busier. The people you are trying to help are a lost cause. You are too young, too old, too inexperienced, too nervous. You are the wrong stuff, and you should just quit.”
I’m sure you have heard this. We’ve all faced the insults and mocking of the enemy when we try to do what God asks us to do.
Nehemiah’s Response: Prayer
What was Nehemiah’s response? First, it was prayer. Look at verse 4-5:
“Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.”
He turns the problem over the only One who can do something about it. We can’t shut the mouths of our enemies. We are not to return evil for evil. We’re supposed to be like Jesus. As 1 Peter 2:23 says,
“When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
Romans 12:17-21 says,
“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
This is how a person who has faith in God responds to people who ridicule, mock and persecute them. They trust that God will deal with them. In other words, don’t worry about punishing those who are causing you problems, God will take care of them. Turn the problem over to Him and He’ll see that it’s taken care of properly. God has promised to protect and defend you (2 Thess 3:3; Deut 31:6; Psalm 23, 46:1; 2 Cor 4:8-9). Your job is to do what God has asked you to do.
Nehemiah’s Response: Back to Work
Which leads us to Nehemiah and the people’s second response. They got back to work. Look at verse 6, “So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.” They turned their problems and anger over to God and got back to work. They didn’t sit and stew, didn’t fall apart, didn’t get caught up in a big debate. They just got back to work and worked even harder. They ignored the enemy who was saying they couldn’t do it and proved that God was going to give them victory.
And now, the wall was half done and things were going well right? Their success shut up the enemies, right? Sadly, no. Look at verse 7-8, “But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it.”
Does their success cause their enemies to back off? No. It causes them to work together! Jerusalem and Nehemiah weren’t just rebuilding a wall – they were rebuilding their relationship with God and each other – and Satan and their enemies hate that.
How does Nehemiah respond? Same as before! Verse 9, “And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.” Pray and get back to work – this time with security guards! When the enemy is coming against us, we are to pray and get back to work. When the enemy redoubles their efforts, we are to pray and do what is necessary to protect ourselves – both physically and spiritually.
What does this mean practically? Well, whatever your mission is, it means you need to bathe the mission, yourself, and your mission field (whether that’s your family, your community, or your job) in prayer – and keep working. And when the enemy steps up their game – you step up yours too.
Prayer shows that you trust God to deal with your enemies. It also says that you intend to do things His way. That means that you allow God to fight for you – but that doesn’t mean you have to be stupid. Jesus says in Matthew 10:16, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Get stronger locks. Buy a better firewall for the network. Take a long, hard look at your schedule and lock in the time you need to pray, prepare, serve, worship, eat and rest. Do the important things that make sure that the enemy doesn’t get a foothold in your life.
Let’s end with one more place that the enemy attacks. Look at verse 10-11,
“In Judah it was said, ‘The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.’ And our enemies said, ‘They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.’”
What do we see here? Discouragement and Intimidation. This is “in Judah”. All of the battles, ridicule, late nights, and stress of the work caused a huge amount of emotional fatigue and depression. They were physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. They say, “There is too much rubble. [We’re] By ourselves…” Was there any more rubble on the ground than when they stared? No. It’s not like they were going out and importing more rubble to spread around. In fact, there would have been less since they were using it to build the wall. Were they alone? No! What had changed? They were tired. After so much fight and frustration, they were starting to get pessimistic, depressed and worn down. It happens to all of us.
The enemy capitalized on this by spreading rumors: “We’ll come and kill you and you won’t even see us coming!” Did they have a wall? More than half of one, yes! Did they have security guards? Yes! Was God on their side? Yes! Had He ever let them down? No!
What had happened? Some of the workers had taken their eyes off God and were only seeing the problems. They stopped looking up and only saw the mess, the enemies, and the junk surrounding them. It looked too hard and they got discouraged.
And something else was happening too. We learn in chapter 6 (6:17-19) that there were some people among them who were actually working for the enemy. Instead of being encouragers they were discouragers who were sowing seeds of discontent. They didn’t think God was going to do the work, so they kept telling people how hard the work was, how there wasn’t enough help, that the enemy was too big, that Nehemiah was a bad leader, that they were too hungry and too tired and that no one cared. They told the people around them to forget about working together and to think of themselves more. Proverbs 6:19 says that God literally hates these kinds of people.
I’m sure you’ve felt this too. Things go great for a while. Decent successes, the enemy thwarted. Sure, there’s hard work, but you are full of faith. But after a time – a few hours, a few days, a week, a month, a year – the rubble around you doesn’t get smaller, but starts to look like it’s growing, the problems seem endless, the work seems harder. People around you, who you thought were supporters, start to get tired, wander off, or fill your ears with complaints. They drag you down and you start to get disheartened. Now, instead of worship songs and thanksgiving prayers, you start to pray like David in Psalm 13:1-2), “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” This is taking forever, God. How long is this going to take? Where are you?
Discouragement is one of Satan’s favourite weapons. If he can’t knock you down with one punch, he’ll wear you down over time. If he can get your eyes off of God, away from those who are trying to encourage you, away from the worship songs that remind you of God, away from your times of prayer – and get you to skip small group, skip church, skip your quiet time, stay up too late, eat poorly, and ignore your friends – then he doesn’t have to stop us with anything huge because discouragement will take over and we’ll just quit.
He’ll wear us down until we don’t have the strength to take even a little punch. Where we would never have thought we would do that really bad thing – get drunk, do drugs, be violent, cheat on our spouse – now, after wearing us down with ridicule and mocking and rumours and constant grumbling about how hard things are – all it takes is a little push. You’ve probably experienced this.
Nehemiah’s Response: Reminders
So how did Nehemiah respond to this discouragement? What can we do when discouragement starts to take over and we feel like the job is too much? He reminded them of the truth. Look at verses 13-14:
“So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, ‘Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.’”
Who does Nehemiah turn to? God. “I know you are discouraged and afraid. I know you are losing heart. But you need to remember the Lord, who is great and awesome! Think of what He has already done and what He has promised to do. He has brought us back from captivity, rebuilt the temple, restored the priesthood, restored the feasts, and helped us to build more than half the wall… don’t get discouraged yet! God has the resources to do this and He has proven He is on our side! Get your eyes off of the enemy, off of the rubble, and raise your eyes towards heaven. Shot your ears to the lies, insults and fear; to all those who say we are going to lose. Walk by faith, not by sight, and know that God has already declared this victory. It is our job to keep stacking stones.”
What else does Nehemiah do? He reminds them why what they are doing is so important. Why they can’t quit. Because this isn’t just about them.
The mission God has given us in this world isn’t just about our own growth and contentment. Our pain and struggles and fear isn’t just about us. Our life is not about us, but about God and those around us. We can’t quit because there are people that depend on us. “Remember the Lord”, and remember why you need to keep on fighting, keep on building, keep on striving, sword in one hand, trowel in the other: for your family.
Your life isn’t just about you. It’s about your mother and father, spouse, children, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, your church, and all those who will follow in your legacy. You don’t just fight for you – you fight for them. Your faith and obedience will ripple for generations – as will your sin. If you give up it will affect more people than you realize. You and I are not fighting merely for a prize we get to keep, but for everyone around us too.
The individualism that has overtaken our culture – where my choices, my behaviours, my beliefs, my decisions are mine alone – is not how the world works. We are part of a family, community, and what we do or don’t do ripples out and touches everyone.
Whether you’re going into High School, College, University or Post-Grad, Pastor Al gives some important reminders to students returning to school this semester.
1. Guard your reputation.
2. Remember why you’re there.
3. Find a good church.
4. Keep your devos going.
5. Try to find balance.
How Can You Help Carnivore Theology?
1. Pray for us!
3. Record a question in your voice on our SpeakPipe page! (We love this the most!)
5. Buy some cool stuff from our new Merch Store! (And check out our friend Kim’s amazing art while you’re there!)