Implementing A Vision Amid Discouragement
The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / October 29, 2006
Following a two-week respite, we return our attention this morning to our study of Nehemiah. Nehemiah—the man and the book—has been the supplier of many helpful principles in our consideration of the theme: “Vision For Life”.
Affirming the biblical statement, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18), I have identified “The Great Commission” of our Resurrected Lord as an appropriate vision for St. Giles Kingsway to pursue. In order to make this vision memorable, you may recall my paraphrase for The Great Commission: Bring In Others. Teach Jesus.
What has Nehemiah taught us thus far, to help us in this pursuit? Nehemiah has demonstrated that from the conception of a vision onward, the pursuit of a vision requires us to be diligent in prayer.
Secondly, Nehemiah has been a refreshing example of how we are to engage our minds in pursuing a vision. In other words, diligence in prayer is not at the expense of good planning.
Along a similar vein, we noted that when Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem he did not immediately begin to rebuild, but rather, he spent much time probing the work site in order to determine the best reconstruction strategy.
Following much prayer, planning and probing, it was time for Nehemiah to present his plan to the people gathered in the city.
The response of the people, you may remember, was exactly what any leader would hope for, “Let’s start building now!” they exclaimed (2:19). Nehemiah goes on to record that “they got everything ready” and proceeded to rebuild the wall.
Smooth sailing from there, right? Not at all. Many were opposed to Nehemiah and his plan of reconstruction. Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the people from the city of Ashdod are among those named to be causing Nehemiah no end of grief (4:7).
Though the project was well under way at this point, its continuation was in real jeopardy. In addition to diligence in prayer, good planning, extensive probing, and a compelling presentation, we see in Nehemiah the reason why every leader of a vision must possess skill in problem-solving.
Visions, as pictures of what could be and what should be, naturally involve changes to the status quo. Needless to say, change is difficult for many people. There are many matters where I sense my own resistance to change. Don’t ask me to change the kind of toothpaste I use, or the kind of coffee I drink. Don’t imagine me wearing a suit that is not brown or black. And please—please don’t ever expect me to cheer against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
These references are quite silly, I realize, but they are reminders to me of how difficult even small changes can be for some people. Visions, as ‘not yet realities’, involve a certain amount of change. And while Bringing In Others and Teaching Jesus is hardly a radical departure from our current course, I reckon that intensifying this pursuit will require amendments to how we do ministry. Certain projects will need to be placed on the periphery. Other projects will need to gain a greater portion of our attention and resources.
Consequently, such changes may breed opposition. And yet, if our vision is God-honouring, we must develop a godly stubbornness to pursuing our vision in the face of opposition. We must develop skill in problem-solving.
The problems mount for Nehemiah as we continue our way through chapter 4. The opponents of reconstruction were unsuccessful in halting the work, but some damage has been done. The walls were not about to crumble, but the morale of the builders was on the brink. The most prominent enemy was now the powerful foe named discouragement.
Anyone who has ever attempted to build, repair, organize, or operate something knows the debilitating power of discouragement. If we cannot overcome discouragement, we will struggle to move forward. Choose whatever imagery you wish—it’s like paddling a boat against a strong current; it’s like trying to run while knee-deep in mud. If we cannot overcome discouragement we will not see our visions realized.
I wish I could say that I never get discouraged. I wish I could say that nothing frazzles me, or causes my spirit to sink. Indeed, I am well acquainted with the feeling of being pushed to the brink. But thankfully, the testimony of Scripture confirms that it is when we are near total despair, God breaks in. Yea, when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me, Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
We need not remain discouraged. Despair need not be our master. We would do well then to examine some of the causes of discouragement and to consider some of the remedies available to the child of God.
‘The word on the street’ is recorded for us in verse 10, “the people of Judah were singing a sorrowful song:
‘So much rubble for us to haul!
Worn out and weary,
Will we ever finish the wall?’”
The first cause of discouragement is when we focus on what is lacking rather than on what has been accomplished.
Frankly, I am a bit surprised by the first line, ‘So much rubble for us to haul’—what’s this about? The rubble has been there for over 100 years and they are talking as if they are surprised to see such a mess! And what about all of the progress they have made? The people have gone from having no wall to having a wall that is halfway built.
There can be no doubt that the amount of rubble was diminishing, but rather than celebrate what had been accomplished, the people were beginning to focus on what was still lacking.
If there was a time when the workers had ‘the glass is half full’ optimism, it had now given way to ‘the glass is half empty’ pessimism. The rubble that once inspired their work had now become the thing that inspired their complaints.
It seems to me that this shift of attitude holds particular relevance for the local church and her members. Undoubtedly, there was a time when, after coming to Christ, you joined a congregation with your sleeves rolled up and immediately you put your hands to the work. You found a place where you could contribute. You engaged in one or more of the aspects involved in pursuing a vision.
And then something happened. Our experiences might differ a bit, person to person. Some of you were criticized. Some of you were under appreciated. Some of you lacked support. Some of you were being openly undermined. Progress began to slow and the rubble that once inspired you now intimidated you.
Instead of celebrating what you had accomplished, you began to be distracted by what was lacking. As a result, you became discouraged—and very likely those around you caught the spirit of discouragement.
The second cause of discouragement is when our strength fails. It was said of the workers that they had become “worn out and weary”. We don’t like being discouraged. Most of us don’t mean to be pessimists, it’s just that when we’re exhausted—when our strength fails us—the natural drift is towards discouragement.
Many folks, aware of their discouraged state and unsure of the best remedy for their failed strength, simply give up the work. It is natural—it is normal—to want to quit when our strength fails and when our zeal for the task is diminished. Nehemiah had to address this natural drift and, as we will later see, there is a better way than quitting.
The third cause of discouragement is when our confidence fails. The lament being sounded was, “Will we ever finish the wall?” Again, this is a shift from a former way of thinking. Surely, the work would have never begun unless the people believed that the wall could be rebuilt. Having set out on what they once thought was an obtainable vision, they now found themselves doubting whether the job could get done.
Moreover, the builders were mindful of the mounting opposition—the workers were acutely aware that there were people who wanted not only to hinder their work, but who actually wanted to inflict harm on them. With a growing number of factors working against them, the builders lost their confidence.
A focus on what is lacking, failed strength, and a loss of confidence—add those components together and you have profound discouragement. Multiply that discouragement by the number of people affected and you have the ingredients necessary for grinding an important project to a screeching halt.
I reckon that Bringing In Others and Teaching Jesus is the most important thing we can do as a community of faith. And because we are not immune to the causes of discouragement, we ought to arm ourselves with appropriate remedies.
Against the first cause of discouragement—focusing on what is lacking instead of celebrating what has been accomplished appears to have an obvious remedy. Shift our focus to the positive—celebrate what has been accomplished. Indeed, this is a prudent response, and yet more is required.
It is vital that we celebrate the reason for our progress. Progress in God-ordained visions are powered by God. If we find ourselves at the halfway point, we need to pause and consider how we got here.
When we do this, we’ll likely find ourselves echoing the words of John Newton, ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.’
Like David the shepherd boy, we need not consider the stature of the giant before us; we need only to consider the power of the God who is behind us.
The workers in Nehemiah’s day were looking at the rubbish when they should have been looking at the Lord. ‘Never mind your enemies!’ Nehemiah tells them, ‘the Lord is great and awesome’—look at Him.
The second remedy for discouragement is related to the first. Just as turning our attention to God enables us to celebrate and anticipate progress, so too does turning to God address the issue of failing strength and confidence.
The ceiling of what we can be done without Divine assistance is significantly lower than what we can accomplish with God’s help. As the prophet Isaiah explains, “(God) gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Even the young grow weary and tired and vigourous young men stumble badly, but those who wait upon the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not faint” (Isa. 40:29-31).
If you are like me, you are confronted daily with things that you doubt you have the strength for. However, if God has called you to something, He will power your efforts. The Puritan Christopher Love says it well, “As God commands His children to obey Him, so He conveys power and ability to enable them to do what He commands.”
Our text reveals the same. The builders are exhausted, pessimistic, and fearful. Some have quit on the work, while others are on the edge of despair. Discouragement is carrying the day—but Nehemiah won’t give in. And Nehemiah refuses to let the people give in. The vision is too important; the project, too sacred. Accordingly, Nehemiah points the people to the Lord. And then we read in verse 15 that they “went back to work on the wall”.
The work of Bringing In Others and Teaching Jesus is a sacred work. It is too important to drop. If you are exhausted, if you are doubtful, if you are afraid—a sufficient remedy is within your reach. The Lord is great and awesome and He will help you.
Indeed, the Lord is great and awesome and He will help us to succeed to the glory of His name. Amen.