Sunday, December 6, 2009

"It's About Following, Not Finding" (Nehemiah and the Will of God)

The following is something a little different from my other blogs. The following is a sermon manuscript on the difficult topic of knowing the will of God, looking at this topic from the life of Nehemiah. The sermon looks at several passages and episodes from Nehemiah's life in attempting to help us better understand how we can know the will of God for our lives.


The question I have probably been asked more than any other as a professor and a pastor is “How can I know God’s will for my life.” I want to suggest that the story of Nehemiah provides some important lessons for us when it comes to knowing God’s will. Why Nehemiah? Number one, there’s no question that Nehemiah had a clear sense of God’s direction for his life—God had called him to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem destroyed in the Babylonian invasion. Number two, Nehemiah is a lot like us in how he came to know God’s will. He didn’t see a burning bush like Moses or a Macedonian man like Paul. He didn’t become a wall builder by seeing a glowing presence over Home Depot or having an ecstatic experience watching Extreme Makeover City Edition. If Nehemiah could know the will of God, then perhaps we can as well.

If you are serious about knowing God’s will, then it’s important to begin with an understanding of how God leads us. We learn from Nehemiah that knowing God’s will is more about following than it is about finding.

How God Leads

Nehemiah teaches us that God leads his people in three specific ways.

God leads us by precept (Neh 1:5-9)

God leads us into His will by the instructions and commands that He communicates in His Word. Nehemiah’s prayer of confession demonstrates that God’s Word was his guidebook for living. Nehemiah is broken because he and his people have not followed the will of God that was clearly revealed in the commands of God. The exile had happened to Israel in the first place because of hundreds of years of not following God’s commandments. God’s word also informed Nehemiah that there was hope for Israel’s restoration and that God would forgive and bless his people if they turned back to him.

During the time that he has been suffering with ALS, Ed Dobson made the decision that he was going to attempt to live a year of his life just like Jesus lived. Doing research for that, he read through the Gospels repeatedly and he has talked about the profound effect that reading God’s Word over and over again has had on his life ( There are no short-cuts in the process—we can’t know the will of God without serious and sustained reflection on the Word of God. In his own life, Nehemiah had reflected so deeply on the Torah that God’s words became his own words when he confessed his sins and prayed for God to bless his people. He didn’t just claim God’s promises; he also submitted to his requirements. He placed his life under the authority of Scripture.

When Nehemiah came back to Jerusalem, he also understood that living by God’s Word was more important than rebuilding a wall. After the wall is rebuilt, there’s a worship service in Nehemiah 8 (Neh 8:2-8) where Ezra reads and explains the law of God for six straight hours. And believe it or not, no one complained about the length of the service or got angry about missing the kickoff. Ezra read the law, explained its meaning, and applied its principles. And it says the people listened attentively as he taught them. You can’t know the will of God treating the Bible like a magic book, getting your verse of the day off of Twitter or letting your Bible fall open and pointing your finger at a passage. It takes serious and sustained reflection, and it’s worth the effort because that’s how we learn to live the kind of life that pleases God in every way.

We also learn from Nehemiah that God leads us by providence (Neh 2:1-6).

Providence means that God directs and controls the circumstances in our lives. Providence is what Romans 8:28 is talking about when it says that “all things work together for those that love God.” The circumstances that come into our lives are not random accidents but instead are part of God’s overarching, individual plan for my life.

We can clearly see God’s providence in leading Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. It was the hand of God that had made Nehemiah the cupbearer to Artaxerxes, the King of Persia. Do you think it was an accident that a God-fearing Jew had the ear of the king? Was it an accident at other times that Joseph was the vizier in Egypt, that Daniel was in the court of Babylon, or that Esther was the Queen of Persia?

Nehemiah has to trust God’s providence when he goes before the king in chapter 2 and asks permission to go to Jerusalem. It wasn’t even kosher to show a sad expression in the king’s presence. So, when the king asks, “What do you want?” Nehemiah breathes up a prayer for help. He prays, and God’s providence takes over. The king not only gave him permission; he gave him the money, materials, and manpower to get the job done. God pulls the strings of the king’s heart and works out His providential plan for Nehemiah’s life.

God leads us by personal desires (Neh 2:11-12)

When Nehemiah hears of the broken-down condition of Jerusalem more than 140 years after the exile, he has a desire to do something for the city that God had chosen as his dwelling place. When Nehemiah is responsive to God’s leading, he receives further directions. As a politician, Nehemiah did something very surprising when he got to Jerusalem--he didn’t call a press conference or take a video crew to tape his fact-finding mission. He went out alone in the middle of the night to inspect the walls. One reason for this secret inspection was that he wanted to map out a strategy before he announced his mission. But Nehemiah also went out in the middle of the night to listen to God and to confirm that God was the one leading him to rebuild the walls.

There’s a phrase that jumps out at me in verse 12. Nehemiah says, “I told no one what God had put in my heart.” When God leads by personal direction, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we hear voices or see visions, but it does mean that God has the power to prompt our hearts.

In The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren tells the story of how God led him to plant Saddleback Community Church. After doing extensive research with census data and praying over a map, Warren became convinced that God was leading him to plant a church in Orange County, California. Following God’s leading, he wrote a letter to the Southern Baptist Director of Missions expressing his interest in planting a church. At the same time he was writing his letter, the mission’s director was writing a letter to Warren asking him to consider Orange County.

It won’t happen with every decision that you make, but there will be times when God will communicate just as personally to your own heart. The work of the Holy Spirit is in part to prompt us in personal ways when we read the Bible. When Dietrich Bonheoffer was lecturing in America in 1939, he read Paul’s words to Timothy, “Do you best to come to me before winter” (2 Tim 4:21) and became convinced that God was leading him to go back to Germany and take a stand against the Nazis. The Spirit and the Word work together because the Bible is a living book.

It appears that there are two extremes when it comes to the question of personal guidance. One extreme denies it. There are examples of God personally leading and directing people throughout the Bible, so I find it difficult to believe that God lost his voice in the first-century or that he has stopped leading us in personal ways simply because the canon of Scripture is closed and complete. In Acts 13, God directed the leaders of the church at Antioch to send out missionaries after they had prayed and fasted. Does God respond to our prayers and our earnest seeking of him in lesser ways?

The other extreme is people who believe that God is like a third-base coach who gives signs and confirmations for every important decision we have to make. God may or may not give you a confirmation, and he will ask you at times to act in faith even when the details are sketchy and unclear. Reading signs from God often becomes a way of just confirming what I wanted to do in the first place. “I’m going to give up because I’m discouraged and it looks like God is closing the door.” Maybe what God wants is for you to be faithful in a difficult place or situation. What if Nehemiah had decided that God was “closing the doors” when the enemies of Judah opposed him and tried to use military force to stop the rebuilding of the walls. What if he had said, “This is hard—I feel God leading me to go back to the palace?” It’s amazing how often Christians are led by God to take the job or ministry that involves making more money. Is that an “open door” from God or is it just what looks good to me?

Several years ago, there was a TV show called Early Edition, where a regular guy named Gary Hobson mysteriously received the Chicago Sun Times newspaper the day before it was published. He knew what was going to happen every day the day before it happened, and then tried to live accordingly. There are Christians who seem to think that God has promised to deliver that kind of newspaper to their front door. God’s leading becomes a form of insider trading—“God, I’ll follow you if you give me advance information on how all of this is going to work out.” God promises to lead us through life, but he has never promised to give us a pre-flight itinerary. Faith means that you may have to act without God mapping out every detail of your future. God promises to give us wisdom if we ask for it (James 1:5), but he has never promised to act as your divine Garmin and to give you a directional indicator every time you come to a fork in the road of life.

God prompts our hearts and leads us in personal ways, but God’s leading is never an excuse for acting irresponsibly. Some people believe that “God told me to do this” means that I have a blank check to do whatever I want. Even when God prompted his heart, Nehemiah had to pray, to petition the king, to plan, to raise the money, and to take his fact-finding ride in the middle of the night. When we are making life-changing decisions, we have to invest the same kind of thought and prayer. We may have to seek the wise counsel of ten different people and persistently pray for God to give us his wisdom. “God told me to do it” is only the beginning of the process; it’s never the end.

Clearing Up the Confusion

When you understand how God leads, it helps to clear the fog that surrounds the mystery of God’s will. Some of the strangest notions that Christians have are related to this idea of finding and knowing God’s will. When I was in college, one of the guys in our dorm approached a girl and said that God had told him they were supposed to get married. She was wise enough to say that she would get back to him when God told her the same thing. Some have an idea about God’s will that goes something like this. I hear a missionary from China speak at church and have the fleeting thought that God is calling me to be a missionary. I try to forget about it, but on the way home, my wife suggests that we go out for the lunch, and out of the blue she says, “Let’s get Chinese.” I turn on the TV when I get home and there’s a documentary on the Discovery Channel about the Great Wall of China. I get a birthday present from my kids later in the week and on the bottom it says, “Made in China.” All of a sudden, I’m starting to think that God really is calling me to China. But, if God’s will is central to our lives, does the Lord really want us to find His will by searching for hidden clues like we’re out on a scavenger hunt?

Understanding how God leads shows us that God’s will is something that I follow, not something that I need to find. Bruce Waltke (Finding God’s Will: A Pagan Notion?) even suggests that the whole notion of “finding God’s will” is more pagan than biblical. The pagans read everything from the stars to sheep livers trying to discover the will of their gods. Instead of calling us to find God’s will, Scripture commands us to follow God’s will—His revealed moral will. Ephesians 5:18 tells us that it is God’s will for us to be filled with the Spirit and to live our lives under his influence and control. 1 Thessalonians 4:3 says that God’s will is for us to avoid sexual immorality and to live a pure life. That issue is a simple act of obedience that is more important to God than what you do for a living. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 informs us that living in God’s will involves being prayerful, joyful, and thankful in all circumstances. We worry about whether God wants us to sell our house and move to Texas; God’s concern is whether we’re thankful and content where we are. God tells us his will; it isn’t something that we have to find through some mysterious process.

Understanding how God leads shows us that God’s will is something that frees us, not something that confines us. Some Christians talk about finding the “perfect will of God for their lives,” and they imagine something like a dot in the center of a circle (for a critique of this view, see Garry Friesen’s Decision Making and the Will of God). The perfect will of God means living in the right city, in the right house, doing the one job, and going to the one church that God has picked out for me. The problem is in knowing how to get all of those things right. It becomes paralyzing to think that I might make one bad decision and ruin the “perfect” will of God for my life.

The Bible teaches that God has a plan for our lives and “works all things for good.” But, that plan is God’s job, not mine. The will of God as it concerns me is to obey his precepts, trust his providence, and respond to His personal direction. Instead of being a dot in the circle, God’s will is more like a box. The Bible gives us clear direction about what’s right for us and what’s wrong for us—what’s inside the box and what’s outside the box. God has painted the out-of-bounds lines very clearly. When we are living inside the boundaries, then God gives us the freedom to prayerfully choose between equally viable options when it comes to education, vocation, and other aspects of our personal lives.

The Choice to Follow

For Nehemiah, the important thing about God’s will wasn’t whether he was a cupbearer or a wallbuilder. For us, the real issue is not if you’re married or single, or if you’re a missionary in China or a truck driver in Virginia. The important question is whether you have committed to follow God, His Word, and His plan for your life. When you make that choice, all the other choices fall into place. Even when my choices aren’t perfect, God honors the choices that I prayerfully make. Augustine said that we can “love God and do as we please.” The psalmist says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” The great thing about ministry is that there isn’t one formulaic way that you have to serve God. You take small steps of obedience; you get involved in people’s lives, and you have to hold on because God begins to lead you in ways that you could never have imagined. Can you imagine what it was like for Nehemiah to have this dream of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and then to see that dream come to life in 52 days?

How great would it be for God to do the same thing in your life and to make those impossible-seeming desires of the heart become a reality? The question then becomes how far are you willing to follow? The desires of your heart will never happen by accident. Nehemiah would have never seen the desires of his heart if he would have just maintained the status quo and stayed in his comfortable position in the palace. When Nehemiah came to Jerusalem, the enemies of Judah did everything they could to stop Nehemiah from rebuilding the walls. Even more than Nehemiah, Jesus was fully committed to doing the will of the Father and it led him to the cross to die for our sins. The desires of your heart will never become a reality unless you’re willing to follow all the way.

God wants us to learn that living in his will is the right place to be and the right way to live. It all begins with a choice to follow.

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