A war of unseen forces. Sounds like the beginning of a fantasy or scifi novel. But that’s just what God says we’re in. A war. Our enemy: Unseen. Our weapons: Divine.
“For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”
The strategies of our enemy are varied and effective. Two in particular I’ve seen more and more are ridicule and intimidation. Take the story of Nehemiah. He chronicles a time after Babylon had utterly destroyed Judah in 587 B.C. and exiled the Israelites. Seventy years later, when Babylon had fallen to the Persians, the children of God were given the opportunity to return to their homeland. A small percentage did, but the city of Judah was not restored to its former glory. The protective wall remained a ruin and left the inhabitants vulnerable. Another 70 years pass and Nehemiah, a humble cupbearer to the King of Persia, records his sorrow over his beloved city. He asks the king for permission to rebuild the wall, and by God’s amazing provision, the request is granted. Almost immediately he faces his first roadblock, ridicule:
But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. I answered them by saying “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it. Neh 2:19a NIV
One thing we can be sure of: As soon as we begin marching forward we will get push back. If we are taking ground for God’s Kingdom, or in Nehemiah’s case, perhaps more so, if we are taking back lost ground, we will face resistance. The officials “mocked and ridiculed” Nehemiah and his crew. In this type of opposition we find others trying to shame or embarrass us for living out God’s calling. I Cor 2:13-14 says without the Holy Spirit giving wisdom, spiritual truths will sound foolish. Ridicule gets to me. I’m not a boat rocker, I’m a peace maker. And in the right circumstances peace is what’s called for. But in others zeal for God is necessary. How often do I censor my conversation because the person I’m talking with doesn’t believe in Jesus? Too many times I hesitate in sharing my faith so I don’t risk an eye roll or sigh. Or worse, what if I’m asked a question I can’t answer? They’ll think I’m an idiot. Best to say nothing and protect my comfort. Boy did Nehamiah jump right in there! “God of heaven will give us success,” he says. Such confidence and uncompromising passion for his God. I need more of that!
If I can get past ridicule, can I withstand bullying? People lording some kind of special knowledge or threat against me?
“What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?” Neh 2:19b NIV
Challenge and intimidation is another way unbelievers will try to attack. How dare we suggest there is only one way to God. We read an archaic text full of contraditions and claim it to be truth. Look at all the evidence we have through science that disproves anything in the Bible. How can one religion be right and all the others wrong? The list goes on. Boiled down we are accused of “rebelling” against the prince of this world: Satan. I Peter 3:15 tells us to ” . . . be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, with gentleness and respect.” Nehemiah had an answer:
I shot back, “The God-of-Heaven will make sure we succeed. We’re his servants and we’re going to work, rebuilding. You can keep your nose out of it. You get no say in this – Jerusalem’s none of your business!” Neh 2:20 MSG
Maybe this isn’t the gentleness and respect Peter had in mind, but it was the right way to respond. Straightforward, ardent, heartfelt. It’s a reminder that my responses to critics don’t have to be lessons in apologetics. In fact we’re told not to cast our pearls before swine (Mt 7:6 NIV). In other words, if you share your faith with someone who only wants to “ridicule and mock” you are presenting something precious to a person who really wants nothing to do with it. Conversely, someone truly searching for answers will want to hear the reason for your hope!
Nehemiah’s heart was broken for his people, but he wanted to restore God’s reputation even more and show that when the situation seemed hopeless, God was there working all things to good. Nehemiah wasn’t a soldier, priest or noble. He was a layman who had been given the unique opportunity to have the king’s ear. Where did his brilliant bravery come from? Although Paul wouldn’t lay it out for the Ephesians for nearly 500 years, Nehemiah takes on the “full armor of God” Paul describes. These six accessories are essential to see success in our Christian walk:
1.) Belt of truth: Nehemiah says: “The God of heaven will help us succeed.” In his prayer to God asking for success he reminds him of his promise to Moses:
Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful to me, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’ Neh 1:8-9 NLT
Nehemiah cinched on his belt of truth knowing God’s word was true. He was confident in God’s faithfulness and didn’t waver in the face of opposition. My own opposition came during the housing market crash in 2008. A job was moving us to Texas and our home sold within 48 hours. However, in the coming weeks, as banks tightened their loan criteria the deal fell through. By this point we had packed up and moved. A long story short, for a year we waited in limbo for our house to sell and to find a home in Texas. It was one of the most challenging years of my life. And one in which God consistently showed himself faithful. His truth, “I will never fail you, I will never abandon you” from Hebrews 13:5 (NLT) became what I clung to. That belt held up so much of my dragging faith during that time.
2.) Breastplate of Righteousness: Nehemiah knew he was protected because his heart was pure. As he poured out his heart to God he confessed his sin. He knows by his own righteousness nothing could be done. But he relies on God to make him righteous through his forgiveness and faithfulness. He straps on the breastplate to protect his heart. Proverbs 4:23 puts it this way:
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. (NIV)
It’s easy for my motivation to become corrupt when I haven’t turned lose of sin in my life, turned it over to God and turned away from it.
3.) Shoes of Readiness (from the gospel of peace): Nehemiah had no doubt God was paving the way for his request. “We his servants will start rebuilding,” he tells the naysayers. Nehemiah’s confidence was unwavering. While others wanted to incite division and stir up trouble, Nehemiah confidently tightens his laces and marched forward with his message of God’s power and provision for his chosen people. A good pair of solid running shoes, maybe a pair of Keens, even hiking boots are necessary for this kind of readiness. At the very least I don’t want to be caught barefoot!
4.) Shield of Faith: From beginning to end we see Nehemiah’s faith in God’s favor. From his first fearful conversation with the king to his bold leadership in telling the priests their role in the rebuilding (Neh 13:30.) He deflected the firey arrows of his enemies with his broad shield. I’ve always pictured a shield similar to what Captain America carried. Round, versital, able to be used in offense as well as defence. But to Paul’s audience of roughly 60 A.D. the shield they envisioned would be enormous. The Roman soldiers’ shields would have been large enough to completely hide behind. That’s how big our faith needs to be!
5.) Helmet of Salvation: All too frequently I question my course of action. A job, a move, a conversation. Seeds of doubt settle in my heart and torment my mind. I can be paralyzed from making decisions by my insecurities. Not Nehemiah. In his prayer he pleads: ” . . . grant me success today . . .” and he never looks back! He presses his helmet onto his head and proceeds with confidence. It’s one thing to be confident of our salvation in our hearts. But here we see salvation also needs to be protected in our minds. God, who loves us so much, sent his son Jesus to pay the only penalty that would bring us into relationship with him. He wants the love of our heart, our soul and our mind (Matt 22:37). It’s a package deal.
6.) Sword of the Spirit (the Word of God): Nehemiah knew his history. God had chosen the sons and daughters of Abraham to be his own people and built them into a mighty nation. His promises were recorded. Nehemiah dismissed his critics with this history lesson: ” . . . you have no share, legal right, or historic claim in Jerusalem” (Neh 2:20). I just love it. Such confidence, and sass. Without the backing of scripture I’m pretty much shooting in the dark.
There won’t be a part of us left unprotected if we will follow Nehemiah’s example of following God. He was confident, unwavering, marching forward. He saw an opportunity to take back not just his people’s but God’s reputation, asked for blessings in his effort and then took ground, never looking back! We’re called to build, not just walls, but God’s Kingdom on earth. We are to raise up the Church, not necessarily the institution, but the people, the bride of Christ. We have our work cut out. And we can’t do it half dressed.