Dealing with Discouragement Part 1 (Neh. 2:9-16)
I was reading this past week about the “Father of Modern Missions”: William Carey (1761-1834). Parents, I strongly encourage you to make it a habit to introduce your children of the heroes of our faith. It will be good for you and for your children to know of men and women who have gone before us.
Anyway, God birthed a burden in Carey’s heart when he was younger about missions all over the world. He actually worked as a shoemaker. Later, in a sermon, Carey said the famous line, “Attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.”
God eventually did great things through Carey. He went to India and served the Lord there for 40 years. He founded “26 churches and 126 schools (total enrollment ten thousand), translated Scripture into 44 languages, produced grammars and dictionaries, and organized India’s first medical mission, savings bank, seminary, Indian girls’ school, and vernacular newspaper (in Bengali). Carey was [also] responsible for India’s first organized printing operation, paper mill, and steam engine.”
But when I think of William Carey, I do not think of any of these things. I think of one thing: he was a man who constantly faced discouragement and persevered through it. Not only did he have a church that was not too happy with the burden God had given him, his wife was also not on board. When his five year old son Peter died, his wife Dorothy had a nervous breakdown, from which she never recovered. She literally went insane. He had no Indian converts for almost seven years. Later, his wife died. He married a second time a year later, but she passed away just 13 years later. Another son died the following year. After being in India and working hard on translations for 20 years, his printing press, burned to the ground, thus losing years worth of work. But right before his death, he told a friend, “When I am gone say nothing about Dr. Carey-speak about Dr. Carey’s God.” I cannot believe he was able to move on despite all that he went through so, I know what he means when he says, “speak of Dr. Carey’s God.” And God helped him through one discouragement after another.
This is probably not shocking to you, but one of the major tactics the Enemy uses in the work of God is discouragement. I was reading this past week of an anonymous pastor [who] wrote the following: “In the first five years of my ministry, I had a sign on my desk that read, ‘Win the World for Christ!’ In my second five years of ministry, I put up a new sign that read, ‘Win One or Two for Christ!’ Since that time I have this sign on my desk: ‘Try Not to Lose Too Many!’
I can totally relate! With every work, there are four major battles you face. These will be all sources of discouragement. First, you will battle yourself. The devil will say, “You can’t do this. Who are you? Why are you signing up? Your motives aren’t pure.” Self-doubt and insecurity creeps in and you can get discouraged. You will likewise battle others and their opinions. Someone criticizes your plan or ignores your request for something or is quick to point out what areas you can improve instead of encouraging you and you can get discouraged. You will also battle the work. The need is great. The numbers are few. Resources are limited. Nothing ever changes. It’s overwhelming and you can get discouraged. You will also battle the Enemy. He doesn’t have to do a lot. He sees the other battles and stirs you up even further toward discouragement.
Today and next time, we will wrap up the preparation portion of doing God’s work and we are going to talk about dealing with discouragement. We have been working through the book of Nehemiah verse-by-verse. The theme the book has been building God’s people for God’s work. The first six chapters are about God’s work and chapters 7-13 are about God’s people. God will use Nehemiah to do an amazing work, a work that will be done in 52 days (Neh. 6:15). But building God’s people will take him a lifetime.
If you remember, in 586 BC, the Jewish people were invaded by Babylon and had their city devastated. The walls were destroyed, along with the Temple. Worship of the one true God was stopped. Thousands were taken away in exile to Babylon. Babylon gets conquered by the Persians and the Persian King Cyrus allows them to go back to their city, with 70 years having passed. Two groups go back in two different times and some rebuilding happens, including the Temple being finished.
However, just as they start rebuilding the walls again, opposition comes and stops the work. Having a city wall gave the city identity. It was a symbol of the fact that their God was being worshipped there, protecting His people. The people are discouraged. Has God forgotten them? What happened to God’s promises?
They didn’t know that all of this time, God was preparing someone away from Jerusalem. Since he was a little boy, God had been engineering his circumstances to eventually land him a job right next to the king. God was carefully orchestrating His plan. God keeps His promises. It doesn’t always come when we want it, but He keeps them all.
We saw God prepares His workers for His work. He puts a burden in their heart (that is His burden) and breaks their heart with the burden. This burden is given back to God in prayer. God takes this burden and uses you, the burden bearer, to become the blessing bearer. But before that happens, we learned that God teaches you perseverance, dependence in more prayer, deliberate planning and all throughout this process, learning to give God the glory as you notice His hand on your life more and more. Nehemiah after four months of planning and praying, finally got the opportunity to be God’s vessel for God’s use. God worked in the king’s heart and opened a way for him!
I wonder if Nehemiah was doing cartwheels down the hallways of the palace after the king said, “Yes”? The pace was picking up and things were starting to happen. The vision had been launched! The waiting is over. Now all he needed to do was get to Jerusalem and get to work. Easy right? Smooth sailing from now on right? What he is going to find when he gets there? An excited team ready to work and help? Actually there is more preparation before the work begins. He is going to have to face the biggest test yet before the blessing. I hope you are starting to see that God is just as interested in the process as He is in the product? He cares about what He does in you as He will do through you.
And one of the things Nehemiah is going to have to struggle through is not letting discouragement become a stronghold in his heart. This is probably the number one enemy in doing God’s work. Let’s start with this thought. Nehemiah is:
I. Not discouraged by opposition (Neh. 2:9-10)
So Nehemiah makes the journey. The trip from Susa to Jerusalem would be 1000 miles. Even if he takes the shortest route possible, it would have taken him at least two months. In fact, Ezra’s trip 14 years earlier, took him four to five months (Ez. 7:8-9). He does not know what to expect when he gets there. Notice in Neh. 2:9 that because he had planned really well, as expected, he provided the letters that granted him permission to travel. So he has the king’s letters in one hand and the promises of God in the other. But we also see that the king not only gave him permission and provision to fund the project, he also gave him protection with his very own military escort. This must have been a thrilling time for him. For so long he felt like a caged bird and now he was set free!
At some point, he must have gone to Asaph (Neh. 2:8) and gotten the lumber he needed. Then finally, after three or four or even possibly five months, he looks up and comes to the horizon of the city. This must have been an emotional moment for him. In all likelihood, for the first time in his life, he has stepped on his native soil. For so long he has heard about God’s city, had even wept over it for days, weeks and months and now he was here!
However, it doesn’t take long before you step out in the work of God to face opposition. Imagine you are new to school or new to a job and or new in town and before you even unpack your bags, you already hear that people do not like you. It is not surprising here that the enemies of the Jews heard that Nehemiah was in town. It is not every day a Persian official and an entourage probably carrying a lot of lumber shows up in town.
We find that Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite are introduced here. They will be key players in this story. Nehemiah has not personally met them yet (he will in Neh. 2:19), but has heard about what they think of him coming to Jerusalem. Sanballat, it turns out, is a key official for Samaria, a key neighboring enemy nation of the Jews for centuries. Samaria had become a stronger political power since Jerusalem went down, so any news of Jerusalem becoming a city again will be seen as a threat to their own dominance.
Tobiah is an interesting character, because apparently, he is related by marriage to some of the Jews (Neh. 6:17-18and even with a Jewish priest Neh. 13:4-7). He is married to a Jewish woman and his son, followed his father’s footsteps and also married a Jewish woman. In fact, Tobiah’s daughter-in-law’s father actually helped in the building project! (Neh. 3:4, 30). So Tobiah has people on the inside probably feeding him information. See, the Enemy does not necessarily need people on the outside to get his work done. He very well uses the people who are right in the middle of the work of God.
Opposition is inevitable in the work of God. Motion always causes friction. The only way to never face any criticism is to do nothing. You start flying your flag to the top of the pole for Jesus Christ, you can be sure to face opposition. Perhaps you have not faced any opposition for your faith. The question then is, “Are you flying your flag half-staff?” Do people around you know that you are a follower of Jesus Christ?
We will see more of this opposition later in Neh. 4, but let me just say here that opposition can bring discouragement. I remember when as an undergrad at Wheaton, in excitement when I first felt a call to ministry, I called my parents to tell them. My mom’s first words were, “I guess you don’t have to study now.” I felt like I was being opposed by my own parents?! Later, they realized God’s hand was on my life and are on board now. But initially, that brought a lot of discouragement. I can go on and tell you countless other stories, but the one thing that God keeps encouraging me is the thought that I need to be a slave to Jesus Christ and not a slave to man’s opinions. Lord, help us! Secondly, he is:
II. Not discouraged by the overwhelming need (Neh. 2:11-16)
We saw the opposition can bring discouragement. How about some more bad news Nehemiah? He’s going to see how bad the devastation is and man, talk about further discouragement! It does not appear that Nehemiah is discouraged by all of this, but I am sure the people are. Not only has opposition discouraged them, the need is overwhelming and nothing has been done for 14 years. They have given up hope. It’s been over 100 years now. There is a history of defeat and failure and a numbness has crept over the people’s hearts.
Look at what Nehemiah does. In Neh. 2:11, knowing already he has opposition, he arrives in Jerusalem. He has the permission of the king. He has the financing. He has passion and excitement. At this point, I would have been as Stephen Davey says, “set up a trailer on the site, unload his gear, unpack his tools, hire the bricklayers, roll in the heavy equipment and interview subcontractors….and say, ‘Let’s build some walls around here!”
But he doesn’t do that. He says he was there in Jerusalem for three days. I guess from the four months of learning to wait, plan and pray, Nehemiah did just that. First of all, he must have been tired from traveling for so many months! By the way, rest is very important in the work of God. Often it takes being physically tired for the Enemy to use that to fuel discouragement. This is why one of the first things the angel tells Elijah when he fell asleep being tired and depressed was to “arise and eat” (1 Kings 19:5). Secondly, he needed some time to plan, pray and wait. Our first instinct when we see there is a lot of work to be done is to impulsively get started without first investigating, learning and surveying the situation. Otherwise, we see the huge work to be done and we run away from it. Nothing beats first-hand experience and being a student first. Besides, one of the ways to maintain the right perspective and confident is to have that private prayer and thinking before the Lord. Jesus told his disciples, “Come apart to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31). He said this so they would not fall apart!
So Nehemiah does not blog about this or update his facebook status. In Neh. 2:12, he takes a midnight ride with a few of his armed men. He does it at night knowing his enemies are on the prowl wanting to get at him every step of the way. This way, he can minimize that as much as possible. He is very clever, trying to keep, pun intended, his enemies “in the dark.” Most likely he took a donkey, which is surefooted and silent. To be a good leader, sometimes you have to stay awake when everyone else is asleep. Notice he says several times that he was very careful in keeping what God had burdened in his heart to himself. Some things are better not publicized before their time.
In Neh. 2:13, he begins his trek. This map will hopefully help you see what he’s doing. You may notice a lot of question marks. This is because we are not sure exactly if these are where the exact places are located. If you remember, Herod the Great rebuilt this city and so not a lot has been left for archaeologists. Notice also that the city is much smaller now than before the exile, as indicated by the green and striped.
He starts off at the Valley Gate and goes counter-clockwise around the southern part of the city, looking at the various gates and portions of the wall. In Neh. 2:13, he says he “inspected” the walls. This word, also translated as “carefully observed,” was used in the medical profession to “describe the probing of a wound to determine, not only the damage, but also the action needed for healing to take place.” So he does not see the entire city wall, but just enough to formulate a plan.
In Neh. 2:14, he passes by the “King’s Pool.” Interestingly, there is a strong possibility that this is the Pool of Siloam, where Jesus healed the blind man in John 9. If he only knew that the God of the Universe would be walking around this city a few hundred years later! Notice he writes that at this point, “there was no room for the animal to pass.” In other words, there is debris everywhere. The need is overwhelming. There is a lot of work to be done! He has seen enough by Neh. 2:15 and comes back to where he started keeping it all in his heart.
We do not know what Nehemiah was thinking or feeling as he is surveying this brokenness. But the need must have been overwhelming. One commentator notes here of the gravity of the situation: “…even by the most modest estimates, the circumference of the city was one and a half to two and a half miles. Moreover, the destruction was great, and the stones to be reassembled were massive. This was not a case of a group of workers merely constructing a garden fence, a brick wall, or even a large earthwork fortification. The blocks that had been tumbled down into the valleys below were of great weight, and these had to be exposed and then hauled back up to the site of the wall and reassembled. This required many workers, diverse skills, and even, we may suppose, a certain amount of lifting and moving machinery.” Can you say overwhelming?
We can easily be discouraged by the overwhelming need. You have people, but they are not in the best of spirits. You are facing a tough task. You are facing a history of defeat. You are facing inertia. You are facing opponents. But most of all, your people have given up. And you are alone. What do you do?
If I was Nehemiah, I would have been on the first camel back to Persia in the morning! But Nehemiah stays. Someone once said, “You can tell how big a worker is by observing how much it takes to discourage him.” I wonder if Nehemiah stays because all of that time in prayer and planning, God had made his heart bigger to carry this burden? I am just guessing here, but I would not be surprised if that indeed was the case. All of those nights as he tossed in bed and all of those days mourning and praying was not wasted time at all. God was preparing his vessel, making him bigger and bigger so He can pour into Him, so that he will be poured out for God’s people and God’s work.
I want to spend some time talking on working through discouragement. I think it will be an important Word for all of us and I do not want to rush through it, so I will stop here and finish this next time.
As I close here, when I think of this ministry, I am not too worried about the opposition, though I know it will come and sometimes the major opposition is the people themselves you are trying to minister to. I am not too worried about the overwhelming need, either. Yes, numbers are few. Resources are limited. A lot of work has to be done. But I do not want us to be discouraged.
When I was praying and planning this message, I kept thinking, “Man, I wish I was like Nehemiah.” But the Lord kept saying, “He’s just a man. It wasn’t him. It was me in him. Don’t look at him. Look at me!” You may say, “nothing ever changes. It’s always been the same. It will never get better.” If that is you today, I want to let you know today that while you have been saying that, we have a greater Nehemiah who has been surveying the damage in the dark. He’s passed by the brokenness. He knows and whispers to you, “Let us arise and build.”
J. D. Douglas, Philip Wesley Comfort and Donald Mitchell, Who’s Who in Christian History, Illustrated lining papers.(Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1997, c1992).
 http://www.quazen.com/Reference/Biography/William-Carey.48363 acessed 11 June 2009.
Paul W. Thomton, Leadership Journal, Winter 1985, 117 quoted in Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, and Quotes, electronic ed., 233 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000).
Andy Stanley, Visioneering: God’s Blueprint for Developing and Maintaining Vision, 73 (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah,1999).
John Peter Lange, Philip Schaff, W. Schultz and Howard Crosby, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Nehemiah, 11 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2008).
James Montgomery Boice, Nehemiah : An Expositional Commentary, 32 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: BakerBooks, 2005).
Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book : Over 4,500 Illustrations and Quotations for All Occasions, Includes index., 121 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1997).