This week our Focused Living Bible study launched a new study: Nehemiah: A Heart That Can Break. In the opening video author Kelly Minter explains that Nehemiah was a Jewish exile living in Persia. He was a descendant of the Jews who had originally been carried off to Babylon when Nebuchadnezzer conquered Jerusalem in 587 B.C. By 539 B.C. Cyrus, King of Persia had conquered King Nebuchadnezzer and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. Over the years some returned to Jerusalem, while others remained living in Babylon, the only home they’d ever known.
Nehemiah was one of the Jews who stayed in Babylon. As the story opens, about 140 years have passed since the Jews were first carried off from Jerusalem. We learn in Nehehmiah chapter 1 that our main character was cupbearer to King Ataxerxes. Minter explains that a cupbearer would have been like a butler. My mind immediately pictured the character “Carson” on the popular show Downton Abby. The time periods and cultures are wildly different, but I imagine some things about the job would be consistent in any era. A butler would be responsible for running an esteemed household with proper etiquette and decorum. Although he would not be wealthy personally, he would be at ease living and working among people of great stature. He would be accustomed to fine things and grand surroundings.
In Nehemiah 1:2-4, our hero heard news about Jerusalem while he was serving King Ataxerxes at his winter resort in Susa:
“Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, ‘Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.’ When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.”
From his location of opulence Nehemiah wept for his fellow Jews living in disgrace. Minter points out “though the suffering of the Jews would have naturally been of some concern to him, technically this was not his problem. He didn’t live there.” (p.13) Nevertheless, Nehemiah’s heart broke when he learned the news. His first reaction was to seek God in prayer:
“Then I said: ‘Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you.’” (Nehemiah 1:5-6)
Nehemiah ended his prayer asking God to give him success and to grant him favor in the presence of the king. Then, he waited for an opportune time. Several months passed before his chance to ask King Ataxerxes for assistance finally arrived. When it did, Nehemiah entreated him boldly, knowing that God had gone before him to prepare the way:
“The king said to me, ‘What is it you want?’ Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, ‘If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.’” (Nehemiah 2:4-5)
Nehemiah’s heart broke for his people and he asked to leave his place of comfort so he could help them. Minter explains Nehemiah had “a God-inspired heart that couldn’t bear the thought of letting his fellow Jews suffer—a heart that had no choice but to do something.” (p.14) Spurred on not by obligation, but by a desire to obey God and love others, Nehemiah set out on a monumental quest to rebuild the broken walls of Jerusalem.
Minter uses Nehemiah’s example to challenge us saying “You may not be in a position to leave your job like Nehemiah, but surely there is someone whose well-being you can seek and promote…When embraced by God’s grace, the called to serve is no longer a guilt-trip but the gospel.” (p.27)
Maybe her words confirm what you’ve already sensed God doing in your life or maybe they are convicting you a bit. Perhaps God is nudging you to alleviate the suffering of others in some way. Personally, I spent far too many years feeling unsure about what “doing something” should look like in my life. I vacillated between feeling guilty that I wasn’t serving the needy and rationalizing all of the reasons why it wasn’t feasible for me. Then, in 2011, I was asked to write a blog for a secular website about Rich Stearns’ book The Hole in Our Gospel. Reading the book and writing my thoughts about it changed me. I started praying God would show me where and how He wanted to use me. I didn’t move to Africa or start a Missions organization in the inner city, but God did break my heart and has prompted me to serve the needy in a variety of ways since then.
One small example of this happened a few weeks ago. My twelve-year old son’s youth group was planning a fun day in San Francisco. I was excited to go, but something inside of me cringed as I thought of the many homeless people we would encounter. It felt wrong to expose the kids to people with such profound need without preparing them to show God’s love and compassion. After praying about it and talking with the Middle School Director from church, we made a plan to have the day be a combination of sight seeing and serving the needy. All of the kids were invited to bring bags filled with supplies such as toothbrushes, wipes, chapstick, granola bars, and socks. Each bag also included a pamphlet with the Gospel clearly and simply explained.
When we got off the BART train at Powell Street we walked the kids through a nearby neighborhood where our church has been partnering with a ministry called City Impact. We knew we’d encounter needy people on the streets, but also wanted the kids to see the location of the ministry since they’d participated in donating items to help it in the past.
Most of us were tentative and uncomfortable as we walked through the neighborhood at first. The kids were looking to the adults for reassurance and we silently prayed for the Spirit to give us courage and confidence to lead them well. One man standing in a doorway stepped out and questioned me with a concerned tone: “Do you folks mean to be here? Union Square is in the other direction.” Clearly, we did not look like we belonged there. However, as he soon as he saw us pulling bags out and offering them to people, he smiled and nodded. A few blocks later, we encountered him again, this time he’d rounded up a few friends: “Do you all still have some of those bags left? These guys could use them.” As the kids handed out the supplies the men smiled, thanked us and said “God bless you.”
Further down the block we came to a long line of people waiting for a free lunch from a well-known church. As we walked up the sidewalk offering bags, some recipients were bold enough to ask for specific items: “Do you have deodorant? How about a razor and shaving cream?” I answered honestly: “Sorry, no, this is all we have.” Not everyone was polite and a few even inspected the bags to choose which ones had items they wanted more. We encountered unsavory sights and smells. We felt awkward at moments and anxious at others, but we stayed and gave out all the supplies we had. Some of the students even gave snacks they’d brought for themselves.
Within thirty minutes, we’d given away all the bags and headed to Union Square for lunch. A few of the kids were surprised at how quickly we ran out. Some felt badly that we didn’t have more to give. There were eighteen people in our group and we probably handed out at least thirty bags. We barely made a dent in giving them to everyone who needed or wanted them.
Thinking about it in retrospect, I realized that “doing something” doesn’t mean we are going to save the world single handedly. We’ll never be able to feed every hungry person. However, any time we act to alleviate the suffering of others our efforts make a difference. All the people who received bags that day knew for a moment that they mattered– someone saw their need and sought to meet it.
Serving others can be messy, time consuming and inconvenient. Sometimes it’s complicated and uncomfortable. Often it means stepping out of our comfort zones and being stretched in new ways. However, when we pray first and let God guide and equip us, we have nothing to fear. He will lead us to the specific things He wants us to do and will use us to bless others and glorify Himself. Demonstrating this kind of obedience is one of the most profound ways to show our love for Him.
Matthew West’s new song “Do Something” sounds like it was written specifically for the Nehemiah study. Click on the link below to hear it and be inspired to pray about what “doing something” might look like in your life.