“How often the discovery of something new in the loveliness of the Lord Jesus has brought with it the discovery of some new corruption in our own hearts. . . . God will never plant the seed of His life upon the soil of a hard, unbroken spirit. He will only plant that seed where the conviction of His Spirit has brought brokenness, where the soil has been watered with the tears of repentance as well as the tears of joy.” (Redpath)
I remember, just after my son Samuel was born, on my knees, weeping, after failing again(!!!). My convictions had been exposed as soft and pliable, all too easily left behind. I was, yet again, not good enough. Not strong enough. A loser. Weak. Pathetic.
And it was here, racked with guilt, in searing heart-pain, overwhelmed by the darkness, that I had An Experience. One of the most profound experiences of my life, where God had broken through that pitch black in the most undeniable of ways.
And that’s really (sadly) the truth, isn’t it? My man Redpath, in the earlier quote, calls it, “some new corruption,’ and ‘brokenness,’ where my tears have drenched the soil and then (often only then) the beautiful flower of God’s grace sprouts, surprising me with persistence and unwillingness to let me sit in the dark alone.
This is the situation in Nehemiah 8. The people hear the Book of the Law, see that they’ve not kept their end of the deal (Now, today, of course, there’s no Law, no deal – only grace and love), and they feel their souls, collectively, crack. Their wailing creating the soundtrack to their lowest moments – like mine did. And, into that pain/that darkness/those tears, Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites (the clergy of the day) wade in with new commands – “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” And “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” And, again, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”
This is the message of the Scriptures. Whoever said it was primarily a book of sin and judgment is not telling you the truth. There is sin, but that’s not all it is, it’s not even the main idea!
Just like me, I am a sinner, but that’s not all I am, not what I am way down in the depths of my being. Down there, I am a child of God.
And when I start to think otherwise, when I’m on my knees starting to believe that I am a loser, pathetic, or not enough (of anything) – then God bursts through, fantastically, with a fresh word, with a message of joy, peace, and love. He picks me up, dusts me off, and tells me the same thing he told a woman in the middle of Jerusalem, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” … And Jesus said, “Neither do I.” Then, He says not to do it again.
And she/(and I)/we are new, the lights have been turned on, and we are set free – with the “joy of the Lord” as our strength – to actually not do that again. So we don’t.
One of my very favorite phrases in the Bible is ‘genealogical record.’ When I am reading and come across a section that begins, ‘Here is the list…’ I am overcome with emotion, just like everyone else, because to read pages and pages of names I can’t pronounce of people I’ve never heard of is sheer joy.
Ok, that’s not true, but I’ve come quite a distance with those passages. I no longer roll my eyes and skip the entire chapter. I’ve made peace with genealogies, and Nehemiah 7:6-73 is a good example as to why.
A bit of history:
In verse 73, (I’m condensing a larger work from Robert Bryce here:) “This register calls the people ‘the people of Israel’ instead of ‘the people of Judah’… God gave Jacob the name Israel when he promised to make Jacob’s descendants God’s special people. Many years later, the nation divided into two parts. The northern part was Israel/the inhabitants Israelites. The Southern part was Judah/the inhabitants Jews. The Assyrians defeated the Israelites took them into exile. The Israelites never returned from their exile. In the end, a small number of their families would return to join the people in Judah… So, at the time of this register, only the people in Judah remained, but they were still God’s special people. And sometimes they called themselves ‘the people of Israel’.”
This slight, seemingly insignificant change was monumental in the heads and hearts of those people, and opens a wide door for us. ‘The people of Israel’ was their way of regaining their identity, of saying ‘we are God’s people!’ That is who ‘we’ are, we are no longer on the outside, no longer exiles, no longer people without a land, without a home, without a name. We are the people of Israel, God’s people.
Now. What do we see when we look in the mirror? When we are asked the incredibly profound question, ‘who are you,’ what is the answer? Is it our family name, a job, a diagnosis, a sentence, an accomplishment, an addiction, a relationship? The question, Who are you, has haunted me for so much of my life. I had no idea, honestly, evidenced by the fact that I was forever trying on different personalities, different masks, depending on the season or the company. Most often, I just felt like if I had a caption to the yearbook picture of my life, it would read “Chad Slabach – Not Enough.”
Not smart enough. Not funny enough. Not kind enough. Not handsome enough. Not awesome enough. Not a good enough husband. Not a good enough daddy. Just Not Good Enough. That is who I have been.
And it informed so many of my decisions, so many of my actions, so much of my behavior. That answer stole so much of my peace, filling me with an unholy mixture of anxiety and rage, at having to pretend so much of the time.
Who was I?
Now, if you would be so gracious as to read John 13:23, 19:26, and 21:7. I’ll wait…
In these verses, we see that someone is referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” What a cool caption to a yearbook picture, right?
I bet that guy, this ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ was pretty special. Just awesome and well respected by everyone. Clearly, John thought he was The Man, to refer to him like that. So, who was he talking about?
Right!!! He was talking about himself!!! He was ‘the disciple Jesus loved!!!!’ This became his identity, this was who he was, way down, in the deepest parts of his soul. He was the disciple who the Savior of the World loved, that’s just who he was. Imagine the peace in the mirror, to be loved so well, so thoroughly, by God that being loved by Him was the most important part of you.
Not your title, your haircut, not that thing you did 3 years ago that you can’t escape.
You are loved. That’s who you are.
Not your bad habits. Not your jeans. Not your street address. Not even your family.
You are loved.
Now what? Now what nothing, that was John, he was loved by Jesus, what does that have to do with me, with you, with any of us?
What does that have to do with us? Well, I could show you verse after verse, all day, that will show you, without a doubt, that we, that each of us, are the ‘disciple Jesus loves.’
Here’s just one: Romans 8:38-39 “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I still might not be handsome enough (whatever that means), smart enough (whatever that means), or anything. But I am a new thing. I am loved, because I am ‘the disciple Jesus loves,’ and that is enough.
Also see the previous post Bananarama!!!, which is a companion piece to this message. Enjoy and have a wonderful week!
I’m sure the first time I heard about rumors, it was from legendary pop band Bananarama – I’m sure because if there’s anything I know, it’s ‘80’s music. It’s really amazing, my depth of knowledge, and I’m not positive how I feel about that. Anyway, rumors. Sadly, it wasn’t the last experience I had with rumors (or Bananarama, for that matter, Cruel Summer being a high point of The Karate Kid and my life). It’s the currency of our time (any time, probably, if I were to be honest) – the spread of information, accurate or not.
Nehemiah faced this very same thing. In Neh. 6:5-8, his nemesis, Sanballat, sent a letter full of lies (“There is no truth in any part of your story”), and left the letter unsealed, so that anyone and everyone could see the allegations. How many times have we been in the middle of this mess of ‘he said, she said,’ and ‘well, I heard…?’ Once, my mom (no, not my mom!!!) approached me with uncomfortable questions about rumors she had heard. No one is immune from the marketplace of (mis)information. It’s often hurtful and always about power and insecurity.
Even in spiritual circles, it only changes the words. Here is this juicy bit of gossip, shaded with a pseudo-caring, “so we can pray for them.” No one is immune.
David Guzik writes, “Many people live paralyzed by the fear of what others are saying about them, or what they might say about them.”
Benjamin Franklin’s proverbs says, “Since I cannot govern my own tongue, tho’ within my own teeth, how can I hope to govern the tongues of others?”
So, what do we do, faced with these fears?
If we can’t do anything about it, it’s probably wise to let it go, right? But, that’s easier said than done, and people that tell you to are monsters (even if they might be right).
I’m not telling you to let it go, I’m not a monster.
Nehemiah didn’t really let it go, he took it to His God and asked Him to even the score, to exact a level of holy justice (v. 14). Gasp!
I used to think that those who followed Jesus were milquetoast carpets. (My son, Samuel, coined the term. He didn’t remember ‘doormat,’ so he said ‘carpet,’ “because people walk all over them.” And that was perfect.) In my head, they just walked around, smiling, whispering, and trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings. Like pretending Stepford girls and boys. Or circles (no edges). They were that way in my head because that was what I saw, in real life.
The problem was, No one in the bible was like Christians I knew. Nehemiah’s response was completely consistent with the others in the Scriptures.
Psalm 139:19, immediately following the beautiful ‘wonderfully made/You knew me before I was born’ section, David moves into “O God, if only you would destroy the wicked!’ Many, many more of the Psalms share similar sentiments.
36:26 “May those who rejoice at my troubles be humiliated and disgraced.”
55:15 “Let death seize my enemies by surprise.”
And try 109:6-15 and 137:8-9 for just 2 more.
Now, I’m obviously not advocating we ask God to “trample our enemies (Ps 60),” or “strike my enemies on the jaw (Ps 3).”
What I am advocating is an honest relationship with God. If there is one transparent, open love, let it be here. There can be no acting, no hypocrisy, no image-making, no faking, no pretending. In this relationship, we are free to be every bit of who we are, even the super-ugly parts.
Of course, in this relationship, we will change. The end game is that we “love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44).”
But, only if it’s real – not just words we speak aloud in front of others.
We bring all of who we are, like Nehemiah, to the feet of Our God, even if it’s to ask Him to wear them out, and then we are free to move on.
Nehemiah was free to get back to work, building that wall in Jerusalem. We are free to get back to our lives, singing and dancing and scrapbooking and playing guitar and whatever it is that we do, unencumbered with the weight of their expectations, their judgment, their unsealed letters.
[There is a possibility that this sounds like a contradiction of the Nehemiah 5 addendum last week. That doesn’t make either of them less true – see Proverbs 26:4 and 5. We’ll talk about that another day…]