“When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?” Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!” Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders” (Neh. 4:1-5).
When we read this narrative, most of us cannot relate to the violent persecution Nehemiah and the workers endure. As a church planter, I face many challenges and plenty of opposition to our vision, but at least I don’t have “the army of Samaria” breathing down my back.
But what is worse? Facing an angry mob you can see with their clubs and spears, or having your character assassinated, enduring the onslaught of unseen enemies spreading lies behind your back, accusing you of evil motives, deriding your ambition and mocking your hard work? As for me, somedays I’d almost rather face with the blatant attack of a physical enemy head on, than go to bed battling the voice inside my head — doubting, accusing, questioning. We all know that the biggest lie we’ve ever been told is that “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Words can paralyze the strongest of people.
Nehemiah is a strong leader, and he knows he is doing the Lord’s work. But it isn’t too long into the rebuilding that he gets an ear full of heart-piercing slander and derision. Here’s how Raymond Brown summarizes the verbal assault in the passage above:
The scorn continued as the enemy belittled their qualities (feeble Jews), derided their ambitions (Will they restore their wall?), mocked their optimism (Will they offer sacrifice? i.e. of thanksgiving and dedication when the wall is rebuilt), lampooned their enthusiasm (Will they finish in a day?), undermined their confidence (Can they bring the stones back to life?) and magnified their problems (those heaps of rubble — burned as they are).
(R. Brown, The Message of Nehemiah, 72-73)
Ouch. Now this I can relate to better. As Keri and I set out sharing our call and vision to plant a new church in Mound almost 20 months ago, we immediately began to face different reactions to our exciting project. Now, we live in the midwest, and deal with a little phenomenon known as “Minnesota Nice.” That means that people don’t really tell you what they think to your face. In fact, if someone heard about the vision of MainStreet and thought we were out of our minds in attempting such a task, they would probably say to us, “This is so exciting. Good luck. We’ll keep you in prayer.” Probable translation: “We’re not remotely interested in helping you start a church. Can we end our conversation now please?”
Again, nobody has outspokenly shared anything negative to us. But I can relate to Nehemiah in that some people have not taken us seriously because they question my qualities and experience as a pastor. Others have questioned our ambitions for even trying to start a new church, thinking there are already enough churches in this town. I daily face an assault on our optimism and faith that God will bring this vision to fruition. My coach reminds me that “Failure is not an option if God is in this”, and yet many around us (often on our own team) constantly give in to the paralyzing fear of failure. “Can they bring stones back to life?” Yes, that’s what it feels like most days on the front lines of God’s mission at MainStreet in Mound. Can we revive a spiritually sick community, and breathe new life into a community that is spiritually alive as a piece of granite?
All too many of us (myself included) tend to magnify the problems before us, dwell on what’s still left to do, complain about what we don’t yet have, and forget to take a step back and see the progress we’ve already made.
The biggest challenge in planting a church is that we’re inviting people to imagine what could someday be, something still unseen. And most people will only jump behind something they can see, touch and experience. Most people have a “If you build it, we will come” mentality. People are want to see the product before they give time or money toward it. We are all doubting Thomases by nature, insisting on tangible proof. But we serve a God who calls us to a life of faith which the Bible defines as having “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1).
So, about 15 months ago we put the following phrase on our new website, before we had anybody on board with MainStreet:
“This God-sized Vision will require supernatural power and provision. We are choosing to walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7) and trust in the God who calls things into being that do not yet exist (Rom 4:17).”
So, by God’s grace we keep following in the footsteps of our ancient forebears in the faith, like Nehemiah, and keep putting stone upon stone trusting that God will come through for us. We try our best to “take up the shield of faith, with we we can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph. 6:16), and try not to let the silent scoffing of nice Minnesotans get us down.
Finally, Nehemiah and his team demonstrate how to respond appropriately to those who dare mock or interfere with God’s work. They don’t seek revenge. They don’t slander the other side publicly. They avoid sending impassioned emails back and forth, bashing their opponents’ character on their Facebook wall, and so on. They go to God in prayer, and ask Him to deal with the enemy as He sees fit. They follow Paul’s admonition in Romans 12: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.”
May we do likewise. Let’s keep building!