It’s just a little over a week until the New Year comes round and of course the buzz of the holidays is all around. I can’t even begin to count the number of ‘What are your holiday plans?’ conversations I’ve had in the last few weeks, or justify the amount of food I’ve eaten at all these holiday parties. And while the excitement of spending time away from work with friends and family and a lot of good food would get anyone excited, I think if I could pick a word to describe what I feel more of than excited at this moment, it would be attentive.
I’m not quite sure when or how it happened, but I had this inclination to lean in a little closer into God as the year rounds out. It’s something I always do of course – try and figure out what the theme of the next year is and what the game plan is – but somehow it’s been less of looking for the big picture this year, and more about listening for the crucial instructions. Last year around this time I remember hearing vividly and sharing with my friends that 2016 would be a trying year. I don’t think I ever bothered to ask how God planned for us to navigate it, and I believe that in some ways, that probably made it more of a difficult year than it actually needed to be. So this year I’ve had my ear to the ground and my pen at the ready, looking less for promises, and more for instructions and, honestly, keeping an eye out for opposition.
So I wasn’t surprised when God led me to the story of Nehemiah.
Great Work, Great Opposition
Nehemiah was an Israelite working as cupbearer to the King of Persia during a time when the city of Judah was in distress. Now, I know ‘cupbearer’ doesn’t SOUND like the most glamorous job, but from stories of cupbearers past (think Joseph’s cellmate), and the means Nehemiah had to take on the task before him, we know that the position was actually one of great influence, and probably one of great wealth. So on hearing just how bad things were in his city, Nehemiah is distraught, and decides to take on the great task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah prays and fasts for favor, then goes to the King and asks permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Of course, the King grants his request, in addition to providing him papers for safe passage through the different provinces, an armed guard, and even access to the resources to do the work.
Nehemiah is a great reference for seeing the ways in which the glory and provision of God can permeate even what might seem the most secular of tasks to us: every day work. But it also has a lot of lessons to be learnt about the tasks of building and rebuilding – something I think we all plan to work towards whenever we enter a new year. I don’t know what it is that you are looking to build or rebuild as 2017 comes around – relationships, health, finances, spiritual life, family, career – but I do believe that with 7 being the number of completion and perfection, whatever you do put your hands to this year has the potential to be completed and perfected.
Thing is, there isn’t a single time in the Bible when a work with great potential didn’t face great opposition.
Nehemiah 4 tells us that when Sanballat and his friends heard of the great work Nehemiah and the people were doing rebuilding the walls, they weren’t so happy:
When Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites heard that the repairs of the walls of Jerusalem were going so well—that the breaks in the wall were being fixed—they were absolutely furious. They put their heads together and decided to fight against Jerusalem and create as much trouble as they could.
Those verses hit me hard. Here were these Israelites, going about the work they had set themselves to, to rebuild their home, knowing that God was for them and would indeed prosper the work of their hands. They had all the permits and necessary paperwork, they had the labor and leadership, the money and materials, and everything was above the table. They were literally minding their own business… and yet someone, somewhere decided they didn’t like the work that was being done and would do anything to thwart it.
I have to say that it threw me for a second – this idea that God was telling me that what we would build and rebuild in 2017 would face opposition. Like the struggle of 2016 wasn’t enough already! But the next words in the scripture gave me a new perspective:
We countered with prayer to our God and set a round-the-clock guard against them.
From the moment Nehemiah heard that the work they were doing would face opposition, he did two things: He watched, and he prayed.
Watch and Pray.
Jesus gave these instructions to his disciples on several occasions, the most notable of which was in the garden of Gethsemane, right before Judas betrayed him (Matthew 26). He went off to pray by himself, asking that his three closest disciples stay up and pray with him, only to come back three times and find them fast asleep each time. Of course, he rebukes their inability to even stay up and pray with him for an hour, saying to them:
“Can’t you stick it out with me a single hour? Stay alert; be in prayer so you don’t wander into temptation without even knowing you’re in danger. There is a part of you that is eager, ready for anything in God. But there’s another part that’s as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire.”
I find that this is an apt description of me more often than not: eager for the things of God, but not too excited about the work that goes into equipping myself for the opposition. I get comfortable in my knowledge of the access and privilege I have as a child of God, and so when the opposition comes, I am quicker to fear, doubt, worry, and throw in the towel. Opposition creeps up on me like a thief in the night and overpowers me, causing me to think I am even unqualified for the work at hand. And it comes in different forms: people, insecurities, failures, depression – sometimes even myself.
But let’s break this idea of watching and praying against opposition down for a second:
The word watch in these passages comes from the greek word gregoreuo, and literally means to be vigilant, as with a nighttime watch. In the daytime it’s easy to see what’s approaching and counter it, but at night, you must use senses other than sight to detect danger, being hyper-aware of your surroundings and bearings. Too often we can get so stuck in the physical and with the day-to-day tasks at hand that we become unaware of the ways in which opposition is creeping up on us.
Nehemiah took to praying against the opposition, yes, but he also set guards to keep watch, stationing some of them along points of vulnerability and structural weakness on the wall. He had every man carry a weapon as well as his tools as he went about his daily work and tasks because he understood that the magnitude of the work God was doing through them would invite great opposition, and it was important that as much as they worked and prayed, they also kept guard against any attacks.
I understand now this inclination I’ve had these past few days to be extra attentive, and I wanted to share it with you. This next year is going to be glorious to say the least, but there will be work that comes along with it, and we must set ourselves to watching and praying as we work. And as much as we watch for ourselves, we must be each others’ keepers as well, helping others guard the places of structural weakness and brokenness in their lives as they work to strengthen them and fill them in.
As the year comes to an end, I am fervently praying for us all, that we neither grow weary nor afraid when we face opposition that is sure to come, but that we keep at it diligently, knowing that the good work He’s spoken to us and deposited in us will be brought to completion.