The greatest opponent of the church is often the church. The thing that keeps the church from reaching the world is the world inside the church. We might sing songs to God on Sunday mornings but our theme song every other day of the week is often "Me, myself and I." How do we change that? Nehemiah chapter 5 gives us some clues.
Thus far in our study in Nehemiah, the Red Dragon has engineered several different attempts to cause the work on the walls of Jerusalem to stop.
The enemies of God, spellbound by the whispering motivation of the Dragon have come against the children of Israel.
The people of Jerusalem have had to contend with cruel mockery by the enemy. The people have had to push past the halfway point when discouragement set in and nearly brought their work to a halt.
But neither ridicule and discouragement have succeeded in stopping the work on the wall.
Satan’s strategy against the work and the workers of God are primarily three-fold:
First, he will attempt to discourage the believer.
This could come in the form of persecution . . . it could be a thorn in the flesh, some troubling thing like Paul endured as he struggled with “this messenger from Satan to buffet me.”
Second, he will attempt to deceive the believer.
This could come from false teachers. It could also be the deception that causes you to think about your life only; to believe that God’s work doesn’t have a place for your gifts; that you’re not important to the cause of Christ.
If he can’t discourage the believers to get our of the race; if he can’t deceive the believers into believing something that isn’t true and biblical; he will then attempt another strategy.
He will attempt to divide the believers.
Warren Wiersbe, writing on Nehemiah chapter 5 wrote, “When the enemy fails in his attacks from the outside, he then begins to attack from within, and one of his favorite weapons is selfishness.”
He used this in the first family – where one brother killed the other, envious and self centered in his hatred. Satan used it in the very first church where an outcry came from the Grecian believers because their older women weren’t being cared for as the Hebrew widows were. It created an incredible controversy within the flock at Jerusalem that literally led to the redefining of church leadership.
In the Galatian church, Paul had to tell them, “If you bite and devour one another, watch out that you don’t consume each other and have nothing left.”
Is it any wonder then that whenever conflict occurs among believers, the Devil becomes neutral and simply supplies ammunition to both sides.
I believe that often times the worst enemy of the church is the church. The thing that often keeps the church from moving forward is the church. The thing that keeps the church from reaching the world is the world inside the church. The thing that keeps believers from growing in Christ are other believers who haven’t grown up.
And the theme song goes like this, “Me, myself and I!”
Before we see how Nehemiah handled the selfishness of the Israelites, I’d like to define this Dragon’s lure as clearly as possible and ask God as we study this outbreak in Jerusalem to challenge our own lives and hearts wherever necessary.
Selfishness is the attitude that people exist merely to meet my agenda, my wishes and my needs; thus, the value of anything (people, church, God, etc.) is determined only in light of what they do for me. This attitude is revealed not
only in outward behavior but in secret thought and, left unchecked, is ultimately destructive.”
It destroys relationships; it destroys marriages; it destroys ministries, it destroys churches; it destroys mission fields. I received phone calls this past week from missionaries from different parts of the world. Both of these men said that the most discouraging thing they were facing right now on the field was “people problems;” strained relationships between team members.
Listen to the news report I received a few months ago about a church in Kenya.
READ KENYA REPORT
I couldn’t help but remember what the bumper sticker said on the car in front of me a few weeks ago – it was the name of a college and underneath was their motto, is simply read; “Fighting Christians.” Obviously it was not intended to convey the message that this college fought against Christians, but it struck me that it could be interpreted to refer to Christians who are fighting one another . . . fighting Christians should be a paradox of terms.
Yet, from the very first church in Jerusalem, to the church in Corinth and to this church in Cary – our greatest threat may be ourselves.
The Ephesian church struggled with this problem, and so Paul dedicated nearly an entire chapter to them simply getting along and loving one another. He wrote in Ephesians 4:25. (TURN THERE) “Lay aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.
26. Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, (notice verse) 27. And do not give the devil an opportunity.
In other words, the Devil, as it were, is watching - he longs for this kind of selfish activity. To him it is wonderful opportunity. He baits his hook with selfish advice – “Don’t think about others, think only of yourself – your desires – your life – your money – your plans – your career – your retirement. Repeat after me”, he says, “me, myself & I . . . me, myself and I!”
Notice verse 29. Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. (the implication was that the Ephesian believers were involved in bitter disputes and wrath and anger and slander…but instead of acting like that, Paul says, 32. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”
These verses don’t even leave room for secret thoughts of selfishness, much less, outward deeds of selfishness.
Do you know who has a big problem living out these verses? I do. You say, “But Stephen, you’re supposed to be good – we pay you to be good.” So what does that meant, that you’re good for nothing?”
Truth is, I’d rather think about me, myself and I too.
The very first sin in the garden of Eden came on the heels of the Serpent telling Eve, in effect, “Think about yourself, Eve. This is something you want . . . if God really wanted to meet your needs He’d let you have your way?”
Thomas Merton was right when he wrote, “To consider people and events and situations only in the light of their effect upon yourself is to live on the doorstep of hell.”
There’s a problem in Ephesus. There’s a problem in Galatia. There’s a problem in Jerusalem. There’s a problem in Kenya and there’s a problem in Cary.
No believer is exempt from it – we are all terminally infected with selfishness and it lies at the core of every one of our sinful natures – that’s why it is such a productive and powerful lure of the Red Dragon. He will use it against our God whenever he can. It must be dealt with – it must be battled against or it will destroy us all.
Let’s go find out what happened in Jerusalem when self-centerdness momentarily brought the building project to a standstill.
Nehemiah chapter 5
Nehemiah 5:1 Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. 2. For there were those who said, “We, our sons and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain that we may eat and live.” 3. There were others who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine.” 4. Also there were those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. 5. Now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters are forced into bondage already, and we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others.”
There are three problems represented here in this eruption of controversy.
They are hunger, debt and high taxes. You’d think you were reading a copy of today’s News and Observer.
Four groups of people were involved in the crisis.
First there were the people who were going hungry because they didn’t own any land to farm (v.2)
Second were the people who owned land but had mortgaged their property in order to buy food (v. 3)
The third group were people who owned land but were so financially strapped that they were forced to borrow money in order to pay taxes.
And the fourth group who aren’t mentioned until later, are the wealthy Jewish leaders who loaned their kinsman money to take care of the problem, but for collateral, took their land and their children as slaves. So the Jewish people were having to choose between starvation or the slavery of their children to wealthy Jews.
The leaders and wealthy Jewish people were selfishly exploiting the poorer Jewish people in order to make themselves even richer. It was, as one author commented, an epidemic of selfishness and greed.
Notice verse 6. Then I was very angry when I had heard their outcry and these words. (Now Nehemiah will do three things) First of all in verse 7. I consulted with myself…literally, “I took counsel within my own heart.”
Since the leaders of Israel and the wealthy, powerful citizen were the problem, Nehemiah couldn’t really talk to any of them about this internal conflict. No one carried this burden but Nehemiah.
The second thing he did was confront the selfish citizens of Jerusalem.
By the way, from a human standpoint this was an incredible risk.
At the very time the enemies have surrounded Jerusalem; at the very time all of the workers are armed with swords – building and at the same time prepared for battle – Nehemiah is confronting the very men who could cripple him if they became offended and angry with his confrontation of their sin. If these nobles and wealthy citizens packed their bags and left, the loss of moral would only add to Nehemiah’s problems.
In other words, Nehemiah had every reason to tell the people, “Just go back to work and we’ll figure something out about food!”
Not Nehemiah – he was willing to confront them and, thirdly, challenge their selfishness.
Nehemiah challenges them on several fronts.
First of all, he challenges their selfish disobedience of scripture 7b. and [I] contended with the nobles and the rulers and said to them, “You are exacting usury (interest), each from his brother!” Therefore, I held a
great assembly against them.
The Old Testament made it very clear that Jewish people could loan money and goods to other Jewish people – they just weren’t allowed to charge interest.
In fact, every 50 years, they were all supposed to wipe any and every debt off the books that they had against any other Jew.
It was called the Year of Jubilee and it kept the Jewish people from taking advantage of each other and becoming indebted to each other.
But here these nobles and leading citizens have been charging interest – later on in the passage we’re told that it was 12% a year.
Nehemiah said in verse 7 – ‘You’re breaking the law and you doing it at the expense of your own brethren’. In other words, “You shouldn’t be treating family like this.”
Nehemiah went even further and secondly, challenged their selfish violation of God’s purpose for Israel.
- I said to them, “We according to our ability have
redeemed our Jewish brothers who were sold to the nations; now would you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us?”
In other words, “God redeemed us from slavery as a people and He’s brought us back to Jerusalem. Now, how can you turn upside down God’s redemption and enslave Jewish people again?!
Then they were silent and could not find a word to say.
Good place to stop right? These men know they’ve been greedy and selfish and, in front of the assembly, they are stumped!
Nehemiah isn’t finished however.
He finishes by challenging their selfish failure to represent God before unbelievers. Oh isn’t this the heart of what’s lost by believers who act selfishly and un-lovingly and vindictively toward one another?
Notice verse 9. Again I said, “The thing which you are doing is not good; should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies? 10. And likewise I, my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Please, let us leave off this usury. 11. Please, give back to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive groves and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money and of the grain, the new wine and the oil that you are exacting from them.”
Nehemiah finishes his speech, and probably held his breath. How would they respond? Would their hearts be turned and softened. Would they put their loyalty to one another above the tremendous wealth they were gleaning from their own people?
I mean, it’s one thing to say, “I’m sorry, I won’t be selfish any more. . .” It’s another thing to say, “I’m sorry, I won’t be selfish any more, and here’s the money back that I took from you.”
It’s hard to imagine the kind of character that returns a fortune because it’s the right thing to do.
I read with interest the story of Tim Forneris – the 22 year old computer analyst who works part time as groundskeeper for the St. Louis Cardinals. . .
READ BASEBALL STORY
What will the nobles do here? Then they said, “We will give it back and will require nothing from them; we will do exactly as you say.” (And they called for smelling salts upon observing that Nehemiah had fainted dead away – that’s in between the Hebrew lines!) So I called the priests and took an oath from them that they would do
according to this promise.
-They made a promise to Nehemiah.
-They made a vow before the priests.
-But there was also submission to God’s authority
Nehemiah still wasn’t quite finished. Verse 13. I also shook out the front of my garment and said, “Thus may God shake out every man from his house and from his possessions who does not fulfill this promise; even thus may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said, “Amen!” (Which basically means, so be it!) And they praised the Lord. Then the people did according to this promise.
Unselfishness prompted a celebration. They had a party right then and there. It usually works the same way even today – just not in such obvious ways. People who live unselfish lives encourage those around them to praise the Lord. Those are the kind of people who tend to leave a trail of confetti behind them. Their generosity produces gratitude toward God.
Nehemiah lived like that. In fact, the rest of the chapter gives us his own personal example before the people of unselfish service.
- Moreover, from the day that I was appointed to be
their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, for twelve years, neither I nor my kinsmen have eaten the governor’s food allowance. 15. But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on the people and took from them bread and wine besides forty shekels of silver; even their servants domineered the people. But I did not do so because of the fear of God. 16. I also applied myself to the work on this wall; we did not buy
any land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work.
Do you get the picture here? Nehemiah was no ordinary ruler who lived off the labor of his subjects, who took advantage of his position. He had every right to kick back in some ivory palace. That’s the way our culture is.
Success is revealed by how many people serve you. So take advantage of the perks, if you have ‘em coming. Remember, life revolves around the theme, “Me, myself and I”
If you noticed, verse 16 makes it clear that Nehemiah’s mixing mortar and hauling rock, right along with the rest of them. That would be as rare back in these days as it would be for a young man in our days to give a million dollar baseball to the man who put it over the fence.
Before the people, Nehemiah unselfishly served.
Unselfish people are like lighthouses – they don’t blow any horns . . . they just shine.
What’s even more important was this; before the Lord, Nehemiah was unwavering in his worship.
19. Remember me, O my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.
Worship seeks the pleasure of God over all else. Selfish people want to noticed by people. Nehemiah wanted to noticed only by God.
And did you notice Nehemiah did not say, “Oh God, make those people around me appreciate my work.” “Lord, make my family respect my decision to live for you.” “God, make my friends and co-workers admire the decision I’ve made to walk a holy life for your glory.”
No . . . but, “Oh my God, if you remember what I’m doing in obedience to You, that’s enough for me.
Dr. Campbell, former president of Dallas Seminary, told the story of a young man who once studied violin under a world renowned master. Eventually, the time came for his debut. The concert hall was filled with expectant observers and the media. The performing arts center was packed. Following each selection, despite the cheers of the crowd, the young man seemed dissatisfied. Even after the last number, when the shouts of bravo were loudest of all, the talented violinist stood looking toward the balcony. Finally, the elderly one smiled and nodded in approval. Immediately, the young man relaxed and beamed with happiness. The applause of the crowd had meant nothing to him compared to the approval of his master teacher.
Oh, if we would learn to live like Nehemiah – to yearn for His approval above anything else, the selfish desires of earth would fade and lose their appeal.
And the Red Dragon would be defeated once again.
“Scores of worshippers were hurt in a brawl during Sunday worship at a Kenyan church, local newspapers reported. The church had become divided into rival congregations by a dispute over its management decisions after church elders dismissed some church leaders on charges of financial irregularity. The Kenya Times said it took the intervention of police to stop part of the congregation from strangling a pastoral staff member appointed to take charge of running the church located in the capital city of Nairobi. The People newspaper said members of the congregation turned their backs on the pulp when the pastor attempted to lead in worship. For over four hours, many in the congregation booed, insulted and heckled the pastor, the newspaper said. Scores of faithful were left seriously injured when a free-for-all fist fight erupted.”
He was the one who retrieved Mark McGwire’s 62nd home-run ball and then, to the shock of American culture, gave Mark McGwire the ball, instead of selling it to one collector who had offered 1 million dollars for the record setting home run baseball. It was mind boggling that someone would do that instead of cashing in on his good fortune. In fact, one well known columnist called him honorable but rather foolish. Time Magazine ran Tim’s response which shed light on his perspective:
“According to the columnist, my first sin was the impulse decision to give the ball back to Mr. McGwire immediately. But my decision was by no means made on an impulse. I had thought over what I would do if I got the home run ball, and discussed it with my family and friends. What influenced my actions was my family and my background. I have always been taught to respect others and their accomplishments. In my opinion, Mr. McGwire deserved not only the home-run record for his work but also the ball. Life is about more than just money. It is about family and friends. I believe some possessions are priceless. To put an economic value on Mr. McGwire’s hard work and dedication is absurd. And being able to return it to Mr. McGwire was an honor. I would not have traded that experience for one million dollars.”
Wow! What a rare unselfish act.