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A study of Nehemiah: Men of the Spirit

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Nehemiah 9

Nehemiah gives us an example of a national spiritual movement, one which saved a nation on the brink of collapse. What they did, God is calling us to do.

The most important lesson I have learned in 36 years of Christian faith is that God wants an intimate relationship with me before he wants anything else from me. My first priority is to love him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. Before he wants me to write, or teach, or preach, or do anything else, he wants me to love him. He wants me to seek him passionately and personally.

He wants the same from you. He has led me to tell two stories—our text, alongside my personal spiritual revival. Then we will see if these stories relate to your story today.

Choose to seek God

The story begins with the decision to seek God. “On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads” (v. 1).

The people have completed the Feast of Tabernacles (15th to 22nd day) and the national assembly which followed (23rd day). Now they “gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads.” Fasting was required only on the Day of Atonement, but here they entered into a fast in their desire to know God more intimately. They were “wearing sackcloth,” a dark coarse cloth made from goats’ hair, used for mourning. They had “dust on their heads,” another sign of mourning and grief.

“Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners” (v. 2a). They had intermarried with the people they found in the land, but now they returned to the purity God intended for them. “They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers” (v. 2b). This was public repentance for the national spiritual crisis before them.

“They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God” (v. 3). They stood for three hours, listening to the word of God; then they spent another three hours in confession and worship.

Here’s my story: The Ignatius House is a Jesuit Catholic retreat center on the Chattahoochee River, north of Atlanta. When I was pastor at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta, our ministry staff spent two days there in a “silent retreat.”

We’d taken planning retreats before, but this was our first spiritual trip together, a program for nothing but solitude with God. From Monday noon to Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. we weren’t allowed to speak. I went to see if such a miracle could actually occur, not the least in my own life.

Our retreat director gave us a series of essays to read at various times. I’d like to read to you from the essay which he gave us at the very beginning of the retreat. It’s by Mike Yaconelli, a well-known writer and one of my favorite Christian columnists.

I lost my soul.

I mean, I didn’t know I had one.

What I really mean is, I knew I had one, but I had never come in contact with it.

I came from a tradition where souls were a theological reality, not a faith reality. Souls were for saving, not for communing. Souls were for converting and, once they were converted, they were to be left alone. Souls were too mystical, too subjective, too ambiguous, too risky, too . . . well, you know–New Age-ish.

I came from a wonderful evangelical tradition that has always lifted up the integrity of the Word of God, the significance of the Church, the centrality of salvation. But that same tradition, in the past few years, has seen an epidemic of moral failure. In a tradition that has always placed a high value on morality, moral failure has become a common occurrence. There seems to be an ever-increasing amount of defections from the faith. More and more of my friends are dropping out, giving up, or just placing their faith on the shelf for awhile.

Why?

We have lost touch with our souls. We have been nourishing our minds, our relational skills, our theological knowledge, our psychological well-being, our physiological health . . . but we have abandoned our souls.

Our souls have been lost.

Up until a few months ago, I had no idea I had lost my soul somewhere. In the busyness and clutter of my life, as I traveled all over the world serving God, I thought my soul was just fine, thank you. But my soul wasn’t fine. I spent hours every day doing God’s work, but not one second doing soul work. I was consumed by the external and oblivious to the internal. In the darkness of my soul, I was stumbling around and bumping into the symptoms of my soullessness–I was busy, superficial, friendless, afraid, and cynical—but I didn’t know where all these negative parts of my life were coming from.

What happened to him, happened to me. Has it happened to you?

Enter his presence with praise and thanksgiving

The Bible says that we “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4). How do we step into further intimacy with God? We find help in Nehemiah:

  • Choose to praise God (vs. 4-5).
  • Exalt him for who he is (v. 6) (note that God is the subject of every sentence from verse 6 to 150.
  • Honor him for all he has done for you (vs. 7-15)

At the retreat in Atlanta, I realized that I had lost touch with my soul, like Yaconelli. Let’s look at Nehemiah, then I’d like to tell you how the risen Christ helped me find my soul again. It’s just possible that some of you need to find yours again, too.

Confess your sins with humble honesty

From Nehemiah, we are admonished:

  • Admit your sins against God’s grace (vs. 16-25)
  • Admit your sins against God’s people (vs. 26-28)
  • Admit your sins against God’s word (vs. 29-31)

Yaconelli continues:

For months I’d known something was wrong with me. I was filled with longings I could not identify, yearnings I could not express, and an emptiness that seemed to be expanding. I was desperate even though I could not articulate my desperation.

I decided to spend a week at L’Arche, a community for the mentally and physically challenged in Toronto. I don’t know why, really, I just knew I needed to do something. To be honest, I expected to be inspired by Henri Nouwen and touched by the mentally and physically disabled people who lived there. . . .

Within a few days, I became aware that my whole life was consumed with doing rather than being. I knew what it meant to believe in Jesus, I did not know what it meant to be with Jesus. I knew how to talk about Jesus, I did not know how to sit still long enough to let Jesus talk to me. I found it easy to do the work of God, but I had no idea how to let God work in me. I understood soul-saving, but I was clueless about soul-making. I knew how to be busy, but I did not know how to be still. I could talk about God, I just couldn’t listen to God. I felt comfortable with God’s people, but I was uncomfortable alone with God. I was acquainted with the God “out-there,” but I was a complete stranger to the God “in-here.” I could meet God anywhere . . . except in my heart, in my soul, in my being.

I went on our retreat that week despite myself. If there was any way not to go, I would have taken it. An Easter sermon to write, Holy Week to prepare, a book due at the publishers, and I was just gone recently.

So, I brought my laptop and books, and set up shop in my room. I read Mike’s article, then put it aside and spent three hours on the Easter sermon. From the magazine cover, “Does Heaven Exist?” I was going to use the fact of Easter to prove that it does, and that it’s important. I got the first draft done Monday afternoon.

Then I decided to take a break. I walked from the lodge down to the Chattahoochee River, along the nature trail, finally arriving at the waterfall. I sat down on a deck overlooking the waterfall and stream. And in that place of quiet and rest, God spoke to me. God spoke to my soul.

He reminded me of Mike’s story, and showed me that it is mine. He reminded me that my soul is real. As real as these trees, this clear blue sky. I thought about the radio and television waves filling the air, airplanes and satellites high above, and the stars, the moon, even the Hale-Bopp comet, beyond them. Just because I happen not to see them doesn’t make them any less real.

So it is with my soul. It is real, and malnourished. I realized. In all my hustle and hurry for God, I spent far too little time with God. I know him, but I seldom feel him. I talk to him, but I seldom listen to him. I know about him, and somehow I believe that’s enough. But it’s not.

Seek his forgiving grace

More help from Nehemiah:

  • Admit your need of his grace (vs. 32-35).
  • Admit your need of his mercy (vs. 36-37).

Yaconelli continues:

It only took a few hours of silence before I began to hear my soul speaking. It only took being alone for a short period of time for me to discover that I wasn’t alone. God had been trying to shout over the noisiness of my life, and I couldn’t hear Him. But in the stillness and solitude, His whispers shouted from my soul, “Michael, I am here. I have been calling you. I have been loving you, but you haven’t been listening. Can you hear me, Michael? I love you. I have always loved you. And I have been waiting for you to hear Me say that to you. But you have been so busy trying to prove to yourself that you are loved that you have not heard Me.” I heard Him, and my slumbering soul was filled with the joy of the prodigal son. My soul was awakened by a loving Father who had been looking and waiting for me.

Here’s how it happened for me. Sitting by the waterfall, I read Psalm 139:17 in a translation I had never thought about before: “How precious concerning me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.” To think that God’s thoughts about me are more numerous than the grains of sand, and precious. That he loves me that much.

Later, sitting on a deck overlooking the Chattahoochee, I began reading one of Henri Nouwen’s books. I was directed to Mark 1: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place where he prayed.” The result: “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (vs. 35, 38). Jesus found God’s word and will from time alone with him.

And to John 5: “Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does…By myself I can do nothing…for I seek not to please myself, but him who sent me” (vs. 19-20, 30).

I realized that if Jesus can do nothing without his Father, I can do even less. If Jesus needed time alone for his soul, solitude to hear God and follow God, I do even more. It dawned on me as I was sitting on that deck that spirituality is not part of my work, it is my work. Time with God is not a resource for my life, but is my life itself.

Our lives have the same purpose as Jesus’: to know the Father. To be with him. To walk with him. To learn what he is doing, and join him. To find his word and work and will together.

And then everything we do is the expression of our life with God. We still work hard; we’re still busy. The question is not “what” we do, but “why” we do it. I am to do my work with God, not for him. Out of my love for him, and his overwhelming love for me. Together.

I discovered not only that I have a soul—I am a soul.

Conclusion

“In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it” (v. 38).

May I ask you this question: Have you misplaced your soul? Is Jesus just a fact of history for you, or a real living person in your life? How long has it been since he spoke to you in his word, his creation, his church, your heart? Do you have the symptoms of soullessness? Is your life always hurried? Noisy? Frustrated by a lack of purpose? Do you have “calendar fatigue”—whenever you’re in one place, you should be in two others?

How long has it been since you made real time for Jesus in your life? When’s the last time you “got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place” where you prayed? How long since you listened to God? How long since you fed your soul? How long since you realized that you are a soul?

Mike Yaconelli’s article started all this for me. Here’s how it closes:

What does all this mean?

I don’t know . . . and to be quite blunt, that is the wrong question. I only know that at certain times in all our lives, we make an adjustment in the course of our lives. This was one of those times for me. If you were to look at a map of my life, you would not be aware of any noticeable difference other than a very slight change in direction. I can only tell you that it feels very different now. There is an anticipation, an electricity about God’s presence in my life that I have never experienced before. I can only tell you that for the first time in my life I can hear Jesus whisper to me every day, “Michael, I love you. You are beloved.” And for some strange reason, that seems to be enough.

Amen.