What do you do with a burden? You can try your best to run from it, but it haunts you and chases you wherever you go. You can try to ignore it, but then it sits and weighs on you until you submit to it. You can even try to hide from it, but it will find you and force you to pay attention to it. A burden will stay with you each and every moment of the day and will follow you around haunting you, and all you can do is pray over it. So I have continued to pray.
But God only gives you as much information as you need at any one moment and only gives you as much responsibility as you have proven to be faithful with. And that always seems to make the moments drag by and the future seem so far out of reach. Those are our seemingly unredeemable and endlessly numbered days. Those are the days when you are convinced that your prayers are not being answered. But in reality you are in the middle of them being answered. It is in those moments, those unsuspecting moments that you are being taught, refined, and molded into something usable, as long as you are willing, of course. But it is always easier to see what you have learned and how you were refined when you look back in retrospect. It is just too bad that we can’t see what we are learning and how we are being refined in the moment.
Those two paragraphs sum up my experiences over the last ten years as I wrestled with a burden and wondered if my prayers were ever going to be answered. And did I mention the questions that tag along? God, is this it? Am I doing the right things? Do you want me over here or over there? Do you want me to throw in the towel or keep pressing on? Is any of this even worth it? Am I going crazy?
But how exactly is a person supposed to think, act, or behave when God puts something on his heart of which he can’t let go? It isn’t like they put out manuals on How to Act When You are in the Middle of God’s Will or anything. The closest thing we get to that is the Bible, and to be honest it really doesn’t give you anything more than what you already know. You read about the second-guessers, the self-doubters, the God-doubters, and the disobeyers and all you can do is scratch your head and think, and those are the great heroes of the Bible?
But it is through those broken vessels and their faithfulness that God chooses to do his redeeming, powerful, and transformative work. And I bet that every single one of them felt very ordinary, very unworthy, and extraordinarily humbled that God would choose to use them even in a small way for His larger purposes. But it is through their, and our, inadequacies that we are reminded that it is never we who do anything spectacular in the first place, only God. And to God be all praise, honor, and glory for working and moving in spite of us.
It is not lost on me that I am an inadequate man. I meet weekly with my best friends to confess my sins, my deepest, darkest sins. And they will be the first group of people to tell you that I am not special, but that they love me anyway. I have done more to hurt people and disrupt the work of the Kingdom of God in my lifetime than I have done to move it forward. I am a doubter, a cynic, and a skeptic and I confess to you that I have even been known to roll my eyes when people tell me that God spoke to them. Not that my eye-rolling wasn’t justified a few times, but my cynicism and skepticism kept me from believing that God would, or could, actually speak in a way that a person today would really hear Him.
But God has a way of silencing the fools, and I was about to be silenced.
I was vacationing with my family in Tampa, Florida several years ago. There is nothing I love more than sitting on a deck overlooking the ocean, drinking freshly brewed coffee, and enjoying the warm, radiant sun while losing myself in a good book. My book of choice on this particular trip was Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. I would soon find out that there was not any other book in the world I should have been reading at that exact moment.
Eldredge contends in Wild at Heart that every man has a deep, God-given passion and calling for adventure, risk, and the pursuit of life to the fullest. At one point, Eldredge begins to recount how God would give certain men in the Bible a new name before using them in mighty ways. He then went on to tell his own personal story about how, at a moment when he wasn’t sure if he was doing with his life what God would have him do, God spoke to him in a profound and amazing way, giving him a new name that defined his work and purpose in life.
I have to admit that I was skeptical. I thought he was just employing some good writing techniques, some good ol’ fashioned story tellin’, in order to make his point and draw in the reader. But, as much as I was trying to resist his story, it was drawing me in. It was confronting and challenging my skepticism. So smiling, shaking my head, and staring out at the ocean, I decided that I was going to take a walk on the beach to see if God had a name for me too.
Little did I know that the footprints I left in the sand behind me were the footprints of the man I was about to leave behind.
People who know me know that I am a talker, so being quiet long enough to listen to God was going to be a challenge. I guess that’s how it is for each of us when it comes to our relationship with God. We are talkers. We rarely listen because the silence is too uncomfortable for many of us, and we are just too impatient to wait on an answer. On this particular day, I decided I would ask God a question and then be quiet and listen. “God, do you have a name for me?” I humbly asked.
I waited, not expecting to hear anything but the sounds of children playing in the water with their parents. But before I even had a chance to clear my mind, a voice that sounded like a peal of thunder and a crashing wave shouted, “Nehemiah!!!”
The hair stood up on the back of my neck as I could hardly believe what I had just heard. It was so unbelievable to me that I immediately doubted it and tried to explain it away, but I knew what I had just heard. The cool guy in me thought, why on earth would I imagine hearing a name as lame as Nehemiah? I had no idea who this Nehemiah was, but I was certain that if I had fabricated the name I would have picked a much cooler name. My shame for second-guessing the most unbelievable moment of my life was outweighed by the lingering skeptic who would not, could not, believe what he had just heard. My doubt, and the skeptic, needed more proof.
“God, I am sorry that I am going to ask again, but do you have…”
I thought my world and everything around me had just stopped. I may have even peed my pants. I ran at a full sprint through the sand, straight to the condo, and up the stairs directly into our room. I didn’t talk to my wife or my kids. I just sat down in front of my computer to find out about this Nehemiah. As I typed in the name and began to read, tears began to fill my eyes.
Nehemiah was a man in the Old Testament who was heartbroken for his people, the Jewish people. The Jews were to be God’s holy, chosen people. They were to be God’s image-bearers in the world. They were to be a blessing to all the nations. But, they had become a dishonor to God through their idolatrous and wicked ways. They had turned their back on God, on His Kingship, and His provision. Instead of being the people of the solution or the means through which God would work to bring and restore His righteousness, justice, and mercy in the world, they become part of the problem every step of the way.
As a result, Jerusalem became a disgrace before God. The wall that surrounded the city had been destroyed by Israel’s enemies. The gates had been broken and ravaged by fire, and in this devastation the Jews living in Jerusalem were vulnerable to attack by their hostile enemies. The Golden Age in Israel was certainly gone and the people were a reproach in the sight of God.
That is what broke Nehemiah’s heart. He knew who they were to be and what they had become instead. How could any of this ever be turned around? The problem of Jerusalem being in devastation, coupled with his people being a disgrace before Yahweh, seemed like a problem too monumental to ever be fixed. That is what Nehemiah wrestled with. That was his burden. And, to add to his frustration, he wasn’t even in Jerusalem. He had a job working for the Persian king as a cupbearer. Not only was he far away from his people and from Jerusalem, he was in no position to do anything about the problem. Daily the burden weighed heavily on Nehemiah and he could not escape it. All he could do was pour himself out to God in fasting and prayer.
As I read the account of Nehemiah and his burden, tears continued to stream down my face. I knew how he felt on the inside. I knew the sadness and the burden that he had for his people and how they had become something very different than what God had always intended for them. I knew the feeling of the walls and gates being torn down, leaving the people vulnerable to attack. I knew what it was like to feel a thousand miles away and to realize that there was no way that a person in such a remote position could do anything to help or alleviate the problem. This is what I had been feeling for the last ten years and what broke my heart for the Church.
I see what the Church ought to be and what it has become. I see the figurative walls that have long crumbled down. I see the gates that have been burned. I see the enemies who have continued to invade while taking captive the people who are to be the means through which God ushers in the richness and fullness of His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We, the people of God, stand behind the walls staring at the devastation of the Church. We who are to be the Body of Jesus Christ in the world are a fractured and divided mess. Some see the devastation and are heart-broken as well, but do not know what to do about it. Others look at the devastation and have become accustomed to it because they never knew it any other way. “The walls and gates are down”, we say, “but what shall we do about it?”
While a burden will weigh on you, haunt you, and not leave you alone, what are you to do when you are in no position to do anything about it? What do you do when you see and hear about the devastation, yet it seems so far out of your control? What do you do when you are a nobody seemingly stuck in a distant land? How do you get to the place where the walls are torn down? What do you do when you don’t have the right degrees and you find yourself working in a job that seems to be so far removed from the people and the broken wall? What more can you do but fast, pray, and cry out to God?
In Nehemiah, I saw myself. I was being changed from a man who had never even heard of Nehemiah to a man drawn to him, his burden for his people, and his faithfulness and resolve to seek God for a solution. It was this man, and his example, who was teaching me about the God who can and will move how He chooses and when He chooses. Nehemiah was a man of fasting and prayer, of seeking God’s heart for his people, of crying out day and night for God to work and move in mighty and miraculous ways. It is in those moments that God moves in the most mysterious ways, using people that no one else would use and opening doors where no doors previously stood. But it is for His own purposes, not ours, that He works and moves in mighty ways. It is for His own glory, not ours, that He chooses whom He will choose and when.
The king saw the burden that Nehemiah carried and asked what it was that weighed him down. Though Nehemiah may have been fearful to tell the king of his burden, for it may have displeased him, he poured his heart out about his people and their devastation. Upon hearing the emotional cry of his servant, the king honored Nehemiah by sending him to Jerusalem accompanied with written documentation, officers from the his army, and enough money from the treasury to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
While Nehemiah may not have had all of the skill needed to rebuild the wall all by himself, he had assessed the situation by night and then began to tell the people about the work that needed to be done by day. Despite the opposition of a few people, the others began to rebuild the wall. It wasn’t just one group of people with certain skills; it was a diverse group with a wide-array of skills who began to rebuild the wall and return to a position of honor before God. The crumbled walls were restored. The broken and devastated gates were replaced. God’s people joined together as one, singing and praising the One who hears His people and their cries and who answers in His own way and in His own time.
This book is a result of my burden for the Church, what the Church has become, and what it will soon come to be. Let us rebuild our broken walls. Let us come together as one to do the work that needs to be done. Let us sing together the praises of the One who hears the cry of his Church and delivers her.
As I stand before each of you who read these words, I wonder what Nehemiah felt like when he finally stood before the people and began to address them. If he felt like I feel now, then he felt nervous, overwhelmed, and a little bit fearful. How will the people receive these words? Will they laugh and ignore the message? Will they ignore the messenger? Will people dismiss me because I am not a scholar or a pastor? Will they think that I am a smug or arrogant for saying these words? Will religious people fight for specific doctrines and positions while standing against the united Body of Christ? Will churches hold on to and cling to their consumer-driven approach rather embrace the sacrificial life of the Suffering Servant? The questions just do not end.
The truth is that I don’t know much. I feel too tiny and insignificant to be used. I am well aware of my misgivings. I was even fearful of writing my Nehemiah story because I was afraid that you would think I am completely crazy (and maybe you do). But here is the thing…I don’t have all the answers. I won’t pretend to have everything figured out. There are people who are smarter than me. There are people who are better writers than me. And there are people who are even nicer than me. But all I have ever wanted was to be used by God, to help any way I can to rebuild the Church that is in disarray, and for God to receive the glory, the honor, and the praise for bringing these dead bones to life, breathing a fresh breath of the Spirit upon us, and giving us a new heart for embodying and extending His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
And it is to that end I press on.
To read additional chapters:
In celebrating 5 years since writing my first book, I will be posting a new chapter each week from Unearthed: How Discovering the Kingdom of God Will Transform the Church and Change the World. You can still get the book for free on iTunes here or you can buy it on Amazon here.