On October 10th, Russia fired over 80 missiles into cities all across Ukraine, with the express goal of targeting civilians and infrastructure. This was followed by another barrage on the 11th, and on many of the days following. Power and water outages have occurred all across the country. Dozens of lives have been lost. Of course this is only a small sample of the crisis Ukraine has faced the last many months.
The truth is that I don’t really know what it is to endure a crisis of this nature – having my native land invaded by war. But over the past few weeks I have been studying the life of a person who did experience great hardship, who knew what it was to have enemies. If you’re looking for courage in a crisis, this person had it. He also experienced fear – he was only human – but he pressed on even when he was scared. Though he lived thousands of years ago, his life is still an inspiration to me and to countless others.
His name was Nehemiah.
See, Nehemiah knew what crisis was. In fact, some of the things he went through remind me of what’s happening in Ukraine.
- He lived and worked under a dictator-monarch. (Ukrainians are being attacked by one.)
- His native city was burned and broken down.
- He traveled to Jerusalem to oversee a work that would invite certain peril.
- Multiple people actively tried to make Nehemiah afraid – afraid enough to quit.
- His enemies conspired for his life over and over.
- He and the people lived under constant threat of attack. They worked with their swords by their sides and slept in their clothes. (This sort of reminds me of sirens and air alerts. Totally necessary but very inconvenient to progress.)
Yes, Nehemiah understood what peril was. So what was his response? As I read about him, I noticed three things that Nehemiah did when he was confronted with difficulty.
1. He Prayed Continually
Don’t let me lose you right there with this “well, duh” statement. Prayer seems like an overly-obvious thing to do in a crisis, right? However, prayer is all throughout the book of Nehemiah; you can’t miss this important theme. Furthermore, praying constantly about all kinds of things, which is what Nehemiah did, is not a habit that is formed overnight. It’s obvious that he had been cultivating this practice – it was a part of who he was – before there was ever a crisis situation.
The book of Nehemiah opens with terrible news: the city of his fathers is in ruins and the walls broken down. Nehemiah goes to God with fasting and prayer.
When he’s terrified to speak to his employer, the king of Persia, about his mission to rebuild the wall, he prays for favor.
When Sanballat and Tobiah, with others, conspire to fight against Jerusalem, Nehemiah’s response is poignant: “Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God.”
Two things stood out to me about the way Nehemiah prayed. First, he used the taunts of his enemies as an opportunity to pray against the very evils they speak of.
For they all made us afraid, saying, Their hands shall be weakened from the work, that it be not done. Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands. (6:9)
Second, he asks God to take into account the actions of his enemies. Here are a few of Nehemiah’s choice requests:
- “turn their reproach upon their own head”
- “give them for a prey in the land of captivity”
- “cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee
- “My God, think thou upon Tobiah and Sanballat according to these their works…”
Unable to do much to counter-attack, Nehemiah prays that God will reward these unjust oppressors according to their works. He leaves vengeance in God’s hands, but he does ask for it.
The entire story began with prayer in chapter one, and then it closes with a simple prayer in the very last verse:
“Remember me, O my God, for good.” (13:31)
When you find yourself facing trouble, start praying and don’t stop. Better yet, cultivate a habit of continual conversation with God throughout your life, as Nehemiah did.
2. He Spoke Words of Courage
I think Nehemiah gave the best definition of courage I have encountered. It’s in a statement he issues to his enemies when they questioned his right to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. “What is this thing that ye do? Will ye rebel against the king?”
Instead of saying, as he might have done, “Don’t you know it was the king who gave us the right to be here?”, Nehemiah said this:
The God of heaven, he will prosper us, therefore we his servants will arise and build; but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem. (2:20)
If you take this verse apart, you have important components of courage:
- what God will do (he will prosper us)
- what we do (we his servants will arise and ___.)
- parameters for what should or shouldn’t be done in the name of courage (“we his servants.” We’ve no right to claim God’s support for something that’s not in his service, for example.)
- the basis for expecting a successful outcome (we have a “right, portion, and memorial”. Something has been promised to us or given to us that we are laying proper claim to.)
Nehemiah would need this kind of courage, because many voices of defeat also chimed in to his narrative. (I paraphrase all of these.)
- Judah said: “The strength of the workers is failing. There is too much rubble to build.” (4:10)
- Adversaries said: “We’ll attack so stealthily they won’t know it’s coming until they’re dead and the work is ceased.” (4:11)
- Jews living near the adversaries said ten times: “They’ve set up ambush against you in all these places.” (4:12)
Now look at Nehemiah’s response, which can only be called courageous: (4:14)
And I looked, and rose up, and said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses. (4:14)
Nehemiah’s perception of God was two-fold, and that perception undergirded his courageous leadership. He spoke of God as “the great and terrible” God. God is powerful beyond comprehension and Nehemiah kept this firmly in mind. But along with that, he knew God was good. Throughout the book he attributes goodness to God at least half a dozen times.
Nehemiah took his understanding of God a step further by declaring it out loud:
- “Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me…”
- “The God of heaven, he will prosper us…”
- “Remember the Lord, which is great and terrible”
If you find yourself in a crisis, speak God’s truth in your heart. Remember His great power and goodness and then declare it to yourself and others.
3. He moved forward.
After I had read about Nehemiah for a couple of weeks, I wrote this summary of him in my journal: “Nehemiah: the man who prayed and then moved forward.”
Nehemiah kept going in spite of distractions, difficulties, and threats. He kept the work of the wall moving and he would not quit or leave it until it was done. He recognized his presence was essential to the work’s success.
I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you? (6:3)
He was interrupted by threats. He returned to the wall.
He was interrupted by danger. He made preparations for defense and returned to building.
He was interrupted by injustice. He dealt with the offenders and returned to building.
And as a result of perseverance, Nehemiah finished. He oversaw the rebuilding of the wall –a monumental task– in only 52 days.
If you find yourself in trouble, sorrow, or crisis, keep going forward. Do what’s right. Take action steps. Be present in whatever work God’s given you to do.
And don’t give up.
I’ll close my narrative like Nehemiah did his: “Remember [Ukraine], O my God, for good.”