The Value of Sharing a Personal Story (Nehemiah 2:1-3)

There is value in sharing your personal story of heartache over injustice. It is more moving than sharing the statistics of what is going on. It gives people a face and a name. There is a difference between hearing of the thousands of starving children on another continent and hearing the story of Daniel, a small boy who doesn’t have enough to eat. It’s like this when Nehemiah presents his case before the king; it is much more personal than it is political.  Most likely this king had never before thought about how his actions had affected so many people so far away, but when he saw how it affected Nehemiah, he was moved.

Compassion International does an amazing job of presenting in this way. When you hear of the millions of people around the world living on below $1.50 a day it is a poverty issue, but when you see a picture of an individual child and you read their story, it is a personal issue. You might want to end poverty, but most likely until it becomes personal, you won’t do anything to actually fight it. Personal stories move people to action and here Nehemiah’s personal relationship to what is going on is what gives him credibility before the king.

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In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” (Nehemiah 2:1-3 ESV)

When you stand before a king it is important to have your act together. Nehemiah most certainly did, most of the time. But on this one occasion he let his grief get the best of him and he was sad in the presence of the king. Many modern readers won’t pick up on this, but this was a big deal. The king could have assigned Nehemiah’s sadness to a host of places. He could have accused Nehemiah of not liking his policies, or even worse considered that he was in on a plot to assassinate him. He could have ordered Nehemiah’s execution for nothing more than a frown and a tear.

Nehemiah responds quickly with a salute to the king. He declares, “May the king live forever!” He wants the king to know that he is not burdened politically, but personally. His tears represent a real story of heartache and hardship endured by his people who don’t have a wall to protect them. He doesn’t accuse the king (though the king is ultimately most likely the reason the wall hasn’t been rebuilt). He simply presents his story.

Your heart has most likely been stirred over the past week as you have been encouraged to empathize with the people in your city, school, neighborhood, or workplace. You have been asked to remove distractions and bring your feelings about these people and God’s glory into focus. Take a moment now to go a step further and journal personal stories of individuals you know and how they have affected you.

For me it was a little girl who came to a student lead club and told the leaders that she really wanted to go to church, but her mom wouldn’t take her. Her mom would let her come to the club that met before school though so she heard the gospel from her peers there and had a chance not only to accept Jesus into her life, but connect with a group of believers from several different churches. I am convinced that we were able to empower our students to reach this girl who would have never been reached by our traditional church and youth group methods.

More Than A One Man Plan (Nehemiah 1:11)

O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” Now I was cupbearer to the king. (Nehemiah 1:11 ESV)

When was the last time you prayed for revival? Did you place yourself in the center of the prayer? God use ME, use MY church, use MY denomination. Were you really asking for God to be revered in your town or were you asking for your own prestige? Sometimes our most holy prayers can be covered up in pride. We lasso our prayers short of heaven because we fill them with all sorts of selfish ambition. We are like James and John who approached Jesus and asked if they could be at the left and right hand of Jesus when He came into His kingdom (Mark 10:35-45). We want to be center stage… next to Jesus of course. Leadership isn’t there for the asking in the kingdom of God though; it is bestowed upon those whose chief characteristic is that of a servant.

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Nehemiah asks God not only would He hear his prayer, but the prayers of all those like him. Nehemiah recognizes that he is not alone in this task of prayer and asking God to do something great in Jerusalem again. He is part of a bigger plan. He is out for God’s glory and the restoration of his people, not his own name.

Sometimes we pray for revival and we are lazy. We ask God to move, but we want to sit back and ride the wave of success. We forget that sometimes God calls us to work. I think that is why when Nehemiah uses the term servant it’s important. He presents himself to God to take part, any part in rebuilding the wall. He is there to serve.

Think of it like this. Life is a drama. Everyone is an actor. God is the author and director. Nehemiah submits himself to God’s plan and says; place me where ever you will. Too often we try to tell God (the author and director) how his play should go. We try and take our minor rolls and pitch them to him like we should become the lead. We don’t understand that we have a place and a purpose if we would just listen to Him.

When God calls us to a task we are seldom ever alone in that task. We always have the Holy Spirit present but often He is working in the lives of other believers as well to bring about something great. Start looking around for others in your neighborhood, school, or workplace that God might also be calling to the same mission he is calling you too.

For me I began to seek to gather with our local student pastors for a time of fellowship and prayer. Overtime real friendships evolved and I saw relationships strengthened as we were all working for a common purpose on different fronts in our city.

He Knew God’s Will Because He Knew God’s Word (Nehemiah 1:8-10)

Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. (Nehemiah 1:8-10 ESV)

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Ever struggle with understanding God’s will for your life? Sometimes the prayers pour out quick when we are asking God for help in the midst of our troubles, but when we turn the corner and begin seeking his will we can run into another problem and that is trying to figure out what God’s will is. How many times have we prayed and said something like, “If it be according to your will?” We are uncertain and so we throw a disclaimer in there to be safe.

But Nehemiah didn’t pray like that. He prayed a deeply emotional but focused prayer and he didn’t have to throw any disclaimers because he knew the will of God. He knew the will of God because he knew his bible. In his request he quotes two passages of scripture that are actually promises of God (Deuteronomy 30:1-5 & Exodus 34:6-7).

I think this lays down an important principle for us. We should know God’s word well enough to ask him for his will. The closer you read the bible with a heart to understand God, the more you will understand God and the more you will want to pray and ask God to do what he has already promised to do. Nehemiah has simply turned God’s promises into petitions (Petitions are when you ask for something). This is how we should pray. We should take the promises of God and turn them back to God in prayer.

Picture it like this. I’ve got two children and I promise them a trip to their favorite coffee shop if they read me a book. Both read me a book and so both begin asking, “When can we go to the coffee shop?” As their father I am delighted to take them to the coffee shop, it is something I have already promised. I am not annoyed that they have asked and they are asking with a lot of brashness and boldness because they know it was already promised to them. [1]

When it comes to our community what are some of the promises from scripture that you might pray?

One of my favorite scripture passages to pray over the churches in my city is John 13:34-35. This is a commandment that Jesus gave his disciples. I pray especially over my church but also over churches in town that we would love each other as Christ loved us and that Christians in our city would be known for Christ-like love to the Glory of God.

[1] It is important to note here that all promises in scripture are not to all believers. For example many of God’s promises in the Old Testament are to national Israel. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is often misapplied to America when it was actually promised to Israel. Those are God’s words given to King Solomon in a dream they are meant for the Jewish People (who bear his name) about their land (Israel), there is no promise there for America. At best we could ask God to act in a similar way for us, but we cannot claim that promise. Americans cannot claim the promises that Nehemiah makes either for those are for national Israel. But God does make many promises to his people that are beyond the scope of national Israel (for example Romans 8:1-2, 1 Corinthians 10:13, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 5:16, etc. etc.)

Confession of Sin (Nehemiah 1:6-7)

let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. (Nehemiah 1:6-7 ESV)

We often want to see God move, but seldom ever are we willing to address the offenses that have caused our situation to begin with. We don’t mind confessing the sins of others to God. It is rare to see someone own their sin and even rarer for them to own the sin of someone else.

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Here in his prayer Nehemiah not only addresses the reason for Jerusalem’s wall-less situation (Israel’s sin). He confesses that it is his sin too. He wasn’t alive when all of this took place so he actually owns the sin of his ancestors. They are most likely dead and gone so he brings a petition before God confessing their sin and his sin. The wall is in ruins because that was a prophesied outcome for a nation who rejected their God by rejecting His commands.

This is where revival begins! When religious people care more about the character and nature of God than they do about what others think. They confess their sins and they confess the sins of their ancestors.[1] The illusion of control is totally removed from Nehemiah’s hands. He confesses that he is not in a position to make bargains with God, manipulate God or even compel God to act. He throws himself on a part of God’s character he knows to be true from the scriptures (as we will find out). He throws himself on mercy. It is only by God’s mercy that these sins would be forgiven and the wall restored.

We are good at pointing to the poorer communities and slums or those riddled with crime saying, “They need revival!” It is easy to look off and say, “They need revival!” Nehemiah didn’t do that here. He offers his prayer from perhaps the nicest section of Susa, a city with walls. Before revival would come and a wall would be rebuilt in Jerusalem, revival had to come in Nehemiah’s heart in Susa. Perhaps our desire to see others repent and turn to God is often a deflection from the issues that need to be addressed in our heart rather than a reflection of our heart. We should be primarily concerned that God should be honored and obeyed in our house! When real revival comes to our house, perhaps it will also come to the city.

Take a moment to confess your sins and the sins of the people around you. Be specific, don’t hold back or be general. What is it that is happening in our city right now that you know displeases God?

As I have studied more modern movements of Revival there seems to be a reoccurring theme of genuine repentance and confession of sin. I confess that too often pride has held me back from following the Spirit’s guidance in confessing my sin before God and others. Too often I have cared too much about what other people would think of me. But if we would really see God move, we must acknowledge and address the issues that are in the way, including our pride. We must own our part and perhaps even the sins of those before us in order to see real restoration and revival.

[1] I think at this point that it is fair to note that confessing the sins of your ancestors is necessary before holy God. Even if you are not guilty of such sins, you have an opportunity to distance yourself from sinful behavior and acknowledge before God that though you come from such stock, you desire something greater for you and your generation.

Know Who You Are Talking Too (Nehemiah 1:5)

And I said, “O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, (Nehemiah 1:5 ESV)

There once was a young boy at the Louvre Museum in Paris who came up to the world famous painting, the Mona Lisa. He started to comment to no one in particular and then to a crowd as people began to gather around him. He said things like, “look it’s got lots of tiny cracks in it. The artist obviously wasn’t very good.” And “look at that smile, have you ever seen such a hideous half-way smile in your life?” The boy thought he was doing good as he continued to make his comments about the painting, but then the curator to the museum showed up. He gracefully said, “I’d like to correct some of your misconceptions about the painting. It is THE most famous painting in the world. It was painted by the master Leonardo da Vinci. There is much mystery surrounding this painting but one thing we know for sure… It is a master piece.

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oo often when we pray we talk to God like we have a full grasp of the situation, like what we see is all there is to the world! We pretend to educate God rather than being educated by him about the world he created! Instead of coming to him and asking, “God what is your plan,” we come to him with a plan in mind. Our list of petitions (requests) come off more as like a wish list at best or demands at worst. We totally forget who God is.

Biblical prayer starts with a recognition of who God is. It’s hard to petition God with my petty list of wants and desires after I have recognized who he is. My prayer turns from “me” focused to “God” focused. That’s how Nehemiah prays here and it is how Jesus teaches us to pray in the model prayer (Matthew 6:9). Beginning with reverence and honor for God helps us remember who we are talking to and the nature of prayer.

Too often the first word in prayer is “I,” “I need this” or “I want you to…” We are reflecting on the wrong person in prayer when we do that. We don’t have the power to accomplish anything otherwise we wouldn’t be praying. We are going to God to see how he will act and move in this situation. We are asking him to do what only He can do.

Take time today to reflect on who God is and ask Him for His will to be done in your life. Use the model prayer (Matthew 6:9-11) and pray it in your own words as you wait on Him to reveal His will for your life.

The Model prayer was a game changer in my personal prayer life. I used to come to God with a wish list of things I wanted Him to accomplish. I had prayer all wrong. When I started coming to him and asking Him to do his will in my life and submitting my life to Him I began to see God work in ways I never thought possible. There is a huge difference between asking God to do what you want and asking God to do what He wants in your life.

Fasting Brings Feelings into Focus (Nehemiah 1:4)

As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. (Nehemiah 1:4 ESV)

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What do you do when you have deep feelings about injustice in the world? How do you move? What is the next step? Is it just emotion or can that emotion be channeled into something productive? Take a look at Nehemiah. We are only four verses into this book and already we see his strength of character to ask the question about how others were doing, to hear and respond with weeping, but then he does…MORE.

First he does more feeling. He adds fasting to the mix. He wants his body to ache because his heart aches. This is a long forgotten discipline in our culture. Fasting is the intentional with drawl from food so you can focus on what you feel. In your body it serves as a detox or a cleanse, kind of like a reboot for your digestive system.  Spiritually speaking it does something similar.  In Nehemiah’s time a fast would mean taking time away from meal preparation which included everything from the purchase at the market to the actual cooking of the meal. This was a big time saver, but more than that it was a way not to focus on the day to day things that can consume our thinking and allow a pure focus on what God might have for Nehemiah. Too often we drown out God’s voice because of all the other voices we fill our lives with. In a modern context fasting might also include setting aside entertainment, social media, and other voices that have a way of consuming out thoughts so that we might be able to hear clearly from God. Fasting brings feelings into focus.

Our feelings alone can lack focus. We have a crush on a person who just looks cute, but when we get to know them we find out they are a jerk… but until your feelings are brought into focus by reality you move and act as if they are a perfect person. Feelings are a helpful response to where we are and how things have been, but they are unreliable guides to our future. This is why we should never just act on our feelings alone.  Just ask anyone who has said or done something stupid in a moment of anger.

Nehemiah feels a deep sadness for his countrymen and especially for Jerusalem being a city without walls, instead of jumping into action though he brings his feelings into focus by fasting and he brings his thoughts to God in prayer.

Now lots of folks think that prayer is where we move God to action, but they have it backwards. We don’t pray to tell God what he should do; we pray to ask God what we should do. The point of prayer isn’t to conform God’s will to ours, but to conform our will to God’s (Matthew 6:9-10).  Nehemiah goes to God to get God’s perspective, as we will see in the coming days and weeks, God sees the need clearer than Nehemiah ever could.

You may be at a crossroads in your life where you feel like God is calling you to do something but you are unclear about what he wants you to do. Fasting may be a very helpful option to bring things into focus. Consider setting aside some of the distractions in your life so that you can hear his voice more clearly. It is wise to get clarity on what God is doing before you act.

Feeling Bad News (Nehemiah 1:3-4)

And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. (Nehemiah 1:3-4 ESV)

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We live in a society where people flee from pain and discomfort. Sometimes we would rather not hear news at all than to hear bad news. We burry our head in the latest video game, music album or endless search for funny memes and videos rather than face the reality of the situation in front of us. It would have been easy for Nehemiah to dismiss the discomfort of his countrymen as their problem. After all, he lived in a city with walls.

Something you should understand about city walls. They were like locks on our doors today. They served to keep people inside safe and people with bad intentions out. Imagine moving to a new neighborhood only to find out that the new place you are living in doesn’t have locks. What’s worse is that it doesn’t have doors and there is no police force to call when someone breaks in. That was the situation the people in Nehemiah’s home town were experiencing.

Nehemiah allowed himself to feel a deep empathy for his fellow countrymen who lived in a city that had no protection from its enemies. As we will find out in the rest of this book, he’s not a weak man, but here he sobs like a child. He isn’t running from the issue, he is feeling the full force of it.

Sometimes we can become desensitized to the humanity of people who are suffering. Maybe we’ve seen the images of one too many starving children on the TV screen to care anymore. We have grown callous. In our hearts we think, “That’s somebody else’s problem” or “I can’t do anything about that,” and we move on to the next Pokémon to capture or meme to post. (Not that these things are bad in and of themselves, but when we use them as diversions from what God is pressing on our hearts).

I think that feelings are important. We will learn later that they aren’t a good guide, but that they can be a good indicator of where we are. How do you feel about the current state of your school, neighborhood, or workplace? Take time to journal your thoughts today.

For me it was frustration. I saw a huge need, but didn’t know how to address it. Obviously the things we were doing in student ministry were working with churched kids but we were struggling to reach people who hadn’t been to church (which as it turns out was most of the public school population). I also felt sadness, like we were losing a generation. I wondered about what could be done to reach students who had never heard the gospel.