• Introduction
  • Facing Opposition
  • Highlighting Weakness
  • Questioning Motives
  • Ridiculing Goals
  • Focussing On Impossibilities
  • Deriding Achievements
  • Getting On With The Work
  • Chained Lions
  • Coward And Heroes
  • Don't Panic
  • Under Authority
  • The Demands Of Discipleship
  • Destructive Self-Interest
  • No Room For Selfishness
  • Devaluing The Body
  • Selfless Leadership
  • Selfless Love
  • About The Author
Opposition and Selfishness
Building With God

Opposition and Selfishness

  • Introduction
  • Facing Opposition
  • Highlighting Weakness
  • Questioning Motives
  • Ridiculing Goals
  • Focussing On Impossibilities
  • Deriding Achievements
  • Getting On With The Work
  • Chained Lions
  • Coward And Heroes
  • Don't Panic
  • Under Authority
  • The Demands Of Discipleship
  • Destructive Self-Interest
  • No Room For Selfishness
  • Devaluing The Body
  • Selfless Leadership
  • Selfless Love
  • About The Author


Opposition is inevitable. Selfishness is inexcusable.

Whenever God’s people set out to do His will they will be faced with opposition from without. That can be daunting enough. When, however, that opposition is joined by selfishness from within, a new and sinister dimension is added.

Both opposition and selfishness must be seen for what they are and both must be appropriately handled – for both have the potential to prevent God’s work from being done.

In Book 2, Doing God’s Work, we saw the way in which a body of people is brought together and a work begun. We also saw the beginning of opposition to that work. Now, as we come to chapters four and five of Nehemiah’s narrative, there are new developments. With their building work under way, Nehemiah and his people soon find that their enemies have far from given up in their determination to stop the restoration of Jerusalem.

But that’s not all. We will also see how, against the backdrop of that intensified opposition, those dedicated people foolishly play into their enemies’ hands – by selfishly creating divisions among themselves.

Facing Opposition

Facing Opposition

‘Be self-controlled and alert,’ the apostle Peter once wrote. ‘Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour’. A concise, graphic and – above all – accurate picture, if ever there was one. Our enemy is every bit as vicious and deadly as that – as anyone who sets out to please and obey God soon discovers. Satan’s opposition is very real. It is intense and uncompromising. Yet, though he undoubtedly possesses both the means and the will to hinder us, his success depends entirely on our cooperation. None of us need ever fall prey to him.

But beware and be aware of this: it is very dangerous to place yourself in the position of having responded to God’s call on the one hand, while selfishly indulging and pleasing yourself on the other. Such are the people the devil loves to feed on.

In contrast, those who are true to their calling and who heed Peter’s exhortation to be self-controlled and alert, need never fear defeat – no matter how tough the opposition. And for Nehemiah it certainly was getting tougher:

When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, ‘What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble – burned as they are?’ Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, ‘What they are building if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!’

Hear us O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.

So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.

Nehemiah obviously felt keenly the strength and thrust of his enemies’ opposition. Perhaps, at a time like that, he was tempted to escape into nostalgic longing for what he had left behind. After all, slavery or not, his job at the palace did have its attractions – especially when viewed from his present position! With it had come food, shelter and a simple, straightforward and secure life. In comparison, he now found himself exposed, vulnerable and in very real danger – living a precarious existence, surrounded by his enemies in the midst of a ruined, defenceless city. Not only that, but he carried on his shoulders the enormous responsibility of both rebuilding that city and governing it. There must have been times when he felt like succumbing to feelings of weakness and inadequacy.

Highlighting Weakness

Sanballat, for his part, obviously relished his apparent advantage. His sneers of contempt were laced with venom. It’s hardly surprising that Nehemiah was wounded by them. How would you feel if your sincere, wholehearted efforts to obey God were dismissed as feeble? Even coming from an enemy that sort of thing is hard to take.

We are all potentially vulnerable to such attacks. Sometimes they come from others, sometimes from within ourselves. But, whenever they come, beware for at times like that you can easily be tripped up by two of your own finest attributes: honesty and self-awareness.

This cunning form of attack succeeds so well and so often because it holds up the ‘weakness mirror’, confronting you with graphic evidence of your failings and inabilities. Unless you are alert to this tactic and exercise appropriate self-control (remember Peter’s ‘be alert’ exhortation?) you will find your honesty and self-awareness quickly rising to take the bait. They (your honesty and self-awareness) will tell you that you are merely facing facts. The truth is, you are being manipulated. The ‘evidence’ presented to you will always be slanted in such a way as to avoid giving you any glimpse of anything in yourself which is strong, positive or encouraging. Such a demonstration is often more than enough to cause any sincere, honest Christian to stop in his tracks! After all, facts are facts… or are they?

Presenting some of the facts in isolation is not the same as presenting all of the facts in context. Nevertheless, because none but a blind egoist can be impervious to the living reality of personal weakness, the ‘weakness mirror’ ploy so often works. Once you take to heart that overwhelming, biased reflection of your weaknesses and inadequacies it is all too easy to begin the slippery slide into the mire of discouragement and demoralisation. Which is exactly where the whole exercise is intended to land you.

Our enemy’s highlighting of weakness, though, does not stop at the purely personal. As part of his tactic he also casts aspersions on the rest of God’s people – the Body you belong to. As with Nehemiah, Satan loves to ridicule our God-given goals. He glories in proclaiming that we who follow Jesus are doomed to be nothing more than a tiny, ineffectual minority. He makes sure his implication is clear: it just isn’t worth pouring your time, energy and resources into something that is obviously a lost cause. Like the wartime broadcasters Lord Haw-Haw and Tokyo Rose he distorts the truth into a lie, aimed at convincing you and the rest of God’s people that the smartest and most honest thing to do is give up.

When Sanballat derided Nehemiah and his people he took care to be just as factual as was necessary to play on their insecurities. He made sure his words had the ring of truth about them. Who among Nehemiah’s people could deny that they were indeed little more than a ragged band of amateur wallbuilders? How clever of Sanballat to use the highlighting of weakness as his first tactic of attack.

Questioning Motives

‘Will they offer sacrifices!’ came Sanballat’s next barb. But why attack them over their plans to sacrifice? What did that have to do with opposing their wallbuilding?

Sanballat and his cohorts were the enemies not only of God’s people but also of God Himself, and God’s enemies hate it when His people sacrifice. By its very nature, sacrifice is costly. Whenever we sacrifice we demonstrate God’s value by the price we pay. That, in turn, raises the ire of His enemies, who are totally opposed to anyone valuing God.

When Mary poured the very expensive ointment over the feet of Jesus, who opposed her? None but the self-seeker Judas. His desire for self-gain had aligned him with the devil and he couldn’t stand to see someone lavishing extravagant love on Jesus. His reaction to Mary revealed the depth of his opposition to Jesus – despite his attempt to make it sound as if his motive was noble.

From Mary’s viewpoint, no price was too high to pay as an expression of her love for Jesus. There was nothing in it for her, she only cared about Him. Jesus was the centre of her world. Though her sacrifice was very costly, she felt no loss as she gladly poured the ointment over her Beloved’s feet.

Not so for Judas, who was the centre of his own world. Though he was one of the disciples, his motives were entirely selfish. The only value he could place on Jesus was in relation to what Jesus could do for him. Self-sacrifice was not in his vocabulary. So threatened was he by Mary’s lavish act of love that he deliberately distorted her pure motives to make her appear indulgent and uncaring, while setting himself up as a champion of the poor. Some champion! He was far too taken up with himself to care about the poor, or Jesus, or anybody else.

So far as the Church goes, Mary’s kind of love is supposed to be the norm. We are all called to love Jesus lavishly and extravagantly. Our love for Him must be sacrificial. But is that what we find? Does the Church of Jesus Christ consist of Marys – or Judases? Is the prevailing motivation self-sacrifice or self- interest? Are God’s people caught up with giving – or are they, rather, preoccupied with getting? Tragically, Judases abound. Like their infamous predecessor, they make use of Jesus for their own gain. Greedily they grasp at every gift and blessing He has to offer, giving nothing – or, at least, as little as possible – in return. Far from being attracted by any opportunity to sacrifice, they are threatened by it. Though they claim to value Jesus, these present-day Judases value only themselves.

Value is not measured by words but by sacrifice.

Ridiculing Goals

‘Will they finish in a day?’ sneered Sanballat, heaping scorn on their plans and ridiculing their goals. Do they seriously think they will ever get that wall built? is what he was saying. How foolish and naive! Anyone can see they haven’t got what it takes. They may talk about achieving great things for God, but in the end it will all amount to nothing – then we’ll have the last laugh!
Even when we have got under way with God’s work, our doubts and misgivings can be aroused by this sort of attack. Soon we can find ourselves in the position of seriously doubting whether or not we can successfully complete what we have begun.

Many struggle with the fear of failure which, like all fear, is destructive and debilitating. It feeds on doubt and latches onto every individual failure along the way as justification for its existence. At the same time it refuses to be dispelled by any evidence of success, on the basis that winning the occasional battle along the way is no guarantee that you will win the war. Succumb to the fear of failure and it will dog you all your life. It will prevent you from believing God’s words of promise and encouragement and it will cause you to dishonour Him by your unbelief. In defence, you may protest that you are not being faithless – just realistic. But to disbelieve God is not realism, it is faithlessness and foolishness!

Focussing On Impossibilities

Sanballat had yet one more aspersion to cast: ‘Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble – burned as they are?’ he mocked, focussing with relish on the apparent impossibility of the whole project.

This common line of attack, which builds on the fear of failure, calls into question the very credibility of God’s calling on our lives. As with the temptation to ‘be realistic’ it has a certain appeal. Most of us are, after all, only too painfully aware of our own weaknesses and inadequacies (remember the ‘weakness mirror?’). So conscious are we of our own human frailty that the thought of actually being one of God’s special people can easily seem unreal. It’s tempting to wonder whether you are, after all, just kidding yourself about having been chosen by God. It’s also dangerous. Dwell on it and you will grow increasingly receptive to the devil’s scornful deceit. He is very skillful at encouraging and feeding self-doubt and he eagerly exploits every feeling of weakness or inadequacy.

In Book 2, Doing God’s Work, I referred to the passage in Isaiah 61 where the prophet speaks of ‘the ruined cities that have been devastated for many generations’. These present a picture of the current state of so much that was built up by God’s people in times past. Once-glorious works have fallen into ruin as a result of abuse and neglect. In the face of such stark evidence how can we have any confidence that anything we set out to do will endure?

History is not on our side and the devil is always close at hand to dampen our ardour. He needs only to remind us of the many sincere, godly people whose once-proud achievements are now in ruins. Even if we protest that we, at any rate, intend to build something lasting, our enemy will be quick to cynically declare: ‘That’s what they all said. I’ve heard it all before!’ Even if we loudly proclaim our love for Jesus and our trust in Him, Satan will hasten to remind us that our predecessors made similar claims. They did, and in many cases those claims were justified.

Despite the way in which the devil may present them, we have good cause to be thankful for the achievements of a host of God’s devoted people who have gone before us. Many of them were clearly used by Him in their day to build strongly and effectively. There were flaws, certainly, and God has never been one to glamorise either his servants or their achievements. The success of His kingdom does not depend on the elimination of human frailty. Instead it depends on people of flesh and blood giving themselves completely to Him and making it their goal and purpose to please Him above all else.

We can learn from the past failures of others and we can draw inspiration from their successes, but our responsibility relates to the present. It is not even success or failure that is the point-but pleasing God. If we make it our business to invest our lives in whatever He calls us into, the outcome is irrelevant. Pleasing God is not only a sufficient end in itself, it is the greatest fulfilment there is.

Satan may well highlight the impossibility of the calling God has given us. But as for us, our path is clear: taking hold of the immense God-given privilege which is ours, we are to give ourselves to God and literally give it all we’ve got!

Deriding Achievements

No sooner had Sanballat finished his tirade of mockery and abuse than his comrade in arms, Tobiah, joined in with a few words of his own: ‘What they are building – if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!’

Though far from true, Tobiah’s ridicule consisted of more than mere blatant lies. It contained a strong element of self- deceit. He really did believe that the wall was badly built – or at least that’s what he wanted to believe. Nehemiah’s enemies needed to convince themselves, and each other, that the builders were incompetent.

Despite his undoubted cleverness, cunning and power, the devil feeds on deceit, not truth. He has a desperate need to sustain himself with his own lies so as to keep going in his futile quest. And futile it is, because he cannot win. Yet, refusing to believe in the inevitability of his own defeat, Satan’s self-deceit leads him inexorably towards self-destruction as he foolishly believes his own lies. He is the father of the lie, and deceit is as much his natural environment as truth is God’s. In his mad frenzy to oppose everything that glorifies God he desperately pumps out lie after lie with the kind of destructive compulsion typical of the self-deceived. And therein lies his undoing, for he entangles himself in his own web of deception.

Getting On With The Work

When Tobiah’s words reached Nehemiah, how did he react? Did he embark on a campaign of self-justification? Did he climb up onto the wall, jump up and down on it to demonstrate how well built it was, and shout: ‘It’s not true! It’s not true!’? Of course not. He knew better than that. He reached out to God:

Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.

Instead of indulging in refutation and self-justification, Nehemiah simply let God loose on his enemies! He knew God was with His people so he freely enlisted His support in the face of the intensified opposition. Then, without further ado, he got on with building the wall:

So we built the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.

There’s a lesson for all of us. Put the situation in God’s hands then get on with the work! Don’t make the mistake of getting caught up in answering every criticism, refuting every accusation and justifying every action. If you are working for God it is He, not you, who is under threat – and threats don’t bother Him at all!

Once you have entered into a life of involvement with God you can leave it to Him to take care of any opposition you may encounter – leaving you free to get on with doing His will. You must never leave off doing God’s work to grapple with those who oppose it. The battle is the Lord’s. There is no surer way of playing into Satan’s hands than to shift your focus off God and onto him.

So, unhindered by the scorn and ridicule of their enemies, the builders went on working – much to the chagrin of Sanballat and his cohorts, who now decided on stronger action.

Chained Lions

But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.

This next development was far more menacing, for it threatened direct and violent action. It posed a frightening prospect for Nehemiah and his builders in comparison to the insults and derision of the past. It’s one thing to take refuge in the fact that words can never hurt you, but what about the sticks and stones that break your bones? Because Our instinct Of self- preservation is strong, this kind of threat often succeeds where verbal harassment has failed.

In his classic allegory ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, John Bunyan vividly presents us with a similar situation. At one point in his story we find the hero, ‘Christian’, progressing steadily along the road to his God-given destination when he comes across two men – aptly named Timorous and Mistrust. Though previously travelling ahead of him and in the same direction, he now finds them fleeing back along the way they came. Fearfully they warn him not to go any further as there are lions ahead, blocking a narrow passage which is the only way through.

Despite their urgent warning Christian keeps going, determined to press on. Soon, however, he sees two lions standing menacingly, one on each side of the narrow passage ahead. To all appearances there is no safe way through and to proceed would be sure suicide. Perhaps he should have listened to Timorous and Mistrust! But there’s still time to retreat. The voice of reason and the instinct of self-preservation both cry out that the odds are just too great. Common sense dictates a retreat. Yet our hero – and hero he is – keeps going.

With violent death staring him in the face Christian goes forward. Step by step he draws steadily closer to the lions and the fearsome prospect of a grisly end. Soon he passes the point of no return. The lions are so close that there is no escape. Then, just as he reaches the passage and is about to confront the lions, he hesitates. Determined though he is, he needs encouragement – and he gets it. By the passage stands a man, the porter. Seeing Christian’s hesitation he calls to him: ‘Is thy strength so small? Fear not the lions, for they are chained: and are placed there for trial of faith where it is; and for discovery of those that have none’.

Imagine Christian’s joy as, believing the porter, he moves forward with strengthened faith to find that, sure enough, there is a way through. That which seemed impossible was possible all along! The lions, though fierce and ravenous, are tethered by chains which hold them back just enough to allow Christian to pass unharmed between them! The way through was there all the time, just waiting for someone obedient and trusting enough to take it. Timorous and Mistrust could have done it, but they didn’t. By their fear and faithlessness they forfeited their God- given calling. Their urge to save their own skins was greater than their faith and trust in God, and without faith and trust the way through could not be seen. It was only visible to those who got so close to the lions as to render escape impossible. Remember God’s words: ‘My righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him

How easy it is to be turned back by the things which threaten us! Like the lions in the story, the forces arrayed against us are no mere ‘paper tigers’. On the face of it, their menace is real. Viewed from a safe distance their ability to overwhelm us is indisputable. Confronted with such a sure fate, the appeal to our instinct of self-preservation is strong. Like Timorous and Mistrust we can place our own welfare before obedience to God and, rather than trust Him, we can turn tail and run. Believe me, doing that is far more tragic than being eaten by lions!

Looking back over twenty-five years on the Christian road, I can recall many with whom I once walked. We were ‘comrades in arms’ – for a time at least. But some of them no longer walk that road. At one point or another they turned back, threatened by what lay ahead. A few were honest enough to admit they were turning their backs on their God-given calling; others sought to justify themselves, even to the extent of blaming God; many simply denied they were backing off at all. For all of them, though, the result has been the same – today they no longer walk with God. Their goals, whether ‘Christian’ or otherwise, are no longer God-given.

Whatever the reason, turning back can never be justified. God takes no pleasure in those who shrink back. Even if the lions are not chained, it is better to die in the will of God than to live out of it.

In Christian’s case, the situation was set up by God so as to appear dangerous. As the porter said, it was deliberately calculated both to test those who had faith and to identify those who had none. Only those with genuine faith would have been prepared to risk it.

It was the same when God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. What a thing to ask of a man! Yet Abraham did not hesitate to obey God implicitly. He could have turned back at any point along the way, right up to when he bound Isaac and placed him on the altar. Had he relented, would anyone have blamed him? Many would have argued that God was simply asking too much. But Abraham was determined to obey. Refusing to turn back, he kept right on without faltering. He didn’t know that ‘the lions were chained’. Not until he was about to plunge the sacrificial knife into his only son did God intervene. Only then did Abraham discover that God had set it all up just to test his faith to the limit. Had he not gone all the way he would not have passed the test.

Which brings us back to Nehemiah facing the threat of imminent enemy attack. He was determined to keep on building the wall, yet he also knew something had to be done, so he did what he could to protect his people:

. . . we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat. Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, ‘The strength of the labourers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.’

Morale was sinking. Nehemiah had found it necessary to mount a twenty-four hour guard. Then people began to say that those working on the wall were becoming weak and overtired and, with so much still to be done, they faced a depressing and potentially disastrous situation. Could they possibly maintain their heavy workload and guard against imminent attack at the same time? Things looked bleak, and their enemies – seeing their tactics beginning to work – were relishing the situation:

. . . our enemies said, ‘Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.’

Coward And Heroes

It was then that some of Nehemiah’s fellow-Jews added fuel to the fire:

Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, ‘Wherever you turn, they will attack us.’ Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows.

The responsibility to handle the crisis with poise and balance sat fairly and squarely on Nehemiah’s shoulders. On the one hand it was up to him to see that proper precautions were taken against enemy attack, on the other he had to resist the temptation to be driven by panic and fear – whether his own or that of his fellows. Some of them were so terrified they had come to him ten times to goad him into action!

How hard it must have been for Nehemiah to control his own fears while at the same time warding off those of his people. After all he was not fearless. He simply did what he knew to be right in spite of his own feelings. In this he exhibited something we have already seen in the story of Christian and the lions – the essential difference between a coward and a hero: a coward is afraid and runs; a hero is also afraid but he does what he knows to be right in spite of his fears. Our hero Nehemiah was afraid, yet he did not permit his fears to control him. Even as he took further precautions against attack he continued in his belief that God was in charge and would support his faithful people.

Don't Panic

To panic in a situation like that helps nobody but the enemy. In fact there is no place whatsoever for panic among God’s people, under any circumstances. Panic is uncontrolled fear taking control. It is the urge to do something – anything – rather than exercise faith and trust in God, and it is contagious. Those who are afflicted by it become very adept at spreading it around.

Often, when engaged in pastoral work, I have had to contend with people seeking to infect me with their panic over some situation or other. Having identified what they believe to be a crisis, they insist that something be done about it, now. Some matters are genuinely urgent and require immediate action, it’s true, but genuine crises are comparatively rare. Even when they do occur, panic is a denial of God. Nothing, but nothing ever catches God by surprise. He has already provided and prepared for every situation and He expects us to believe that. He always ensures that, in every circumstance, there is a way through for those who put their trust in Him.

That’s what Jesus believed. He refused to be panicked into action, even when an angry crowd descended upon Him, aiming to throw Him over a cliff. Calmly he walked (he didn’t even run!) right through the middle of that howling mob and out the other side.

Similarly Nehemiah, being neither gripped nor controlled by fear, was in a position to give the right kind of lead to his people:

. . . I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, ‘Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.’

Seeing their fear and their need of positive encouragement, he reminded them of the greatness of their God, exhorting them to fight in the light of that reality rather than out of fear and desperation.

Under Authority

At one time a Roman centurion came to ask Jesus for help. ‘My servant lies at home paralysed and in terrible suffering,’ he said. ‘I will go and heal him,’ offered Jesus. But the centurion replied, ‘Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.’ At that Jesus was very impressed: ‘I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith!’ he exclaimed.

What was it about the centurion’s response that made such an impression on Jesus? It was his amazing, simple, straightforward appreciation in the way in which faith, obedience and authority all work together. Though he was no more than a heathen in the eyes of the Jews, his perception and faith put them all to shame. As a centurion in the Roman army he had just a hundred men under his command, yet he knew that behind him stood all the might of the Roman Empire. Thus he understood very well the principle of having authority as a result of being under authority. He also knew that, in the context of such an authority structure, the key to success is not who you are, but who you are under. He recognised that Jesus, like him, was a man under authority – only Jesus’ authority wasn’t Rome, it was God. It stood to reason, then, that all of God’s power was backing Jesus. After all, if just one officer under the authority of an earthly empire had immense power and resources at his disposal, how much more would that apply to a man under God’s authority?

While the theologians pondered about Jesus and the religious leaders felt threatened by Him, a ‘heathen’ Roman – a member of the hated army of occupation – understood who He was and, in beautiful simplicity, believed.

In the same way Nehemiah, solidly under God’s authority, was able to point his threatened people to God. He knew God was backing him, and encouraged his people to believe it too. Thanks to his sound leadership, the people knew where their confidence lay. They were kept aware of the greatness and reality of their God by the words and example of their leader.

Even as he exhorted his people to trust in God, Nehemiah saw to it that they all played their part in setting up the best defences possible.

The Demands Of Discipleship

When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his own work. From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armour. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. But the man who sounded the trumpet stayed with me. Then I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, ‘The work is extensive and spread out, and we are widely separated from each other along the wall. Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!’ So we continued the work with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out. At that time I also said to the people, ‘Have every man and his helper stay inside Jerusalem at night, so that they can serve us as guards by night and workmen by day.’ Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water.

Here, graphically described, we see the extent of Nehemiah’s determination to keep on with the project at all costs. Despite the threat of enemy attack, he and his people did not down tools in favour of a defence effort. To have done so would have been to play right into the hands of their enemies. At the same time it was their responsibility to do everything in their power to defend themselves. This left them with one simple alternative: to keep up the pace of the work and be ready to fight. Which in turn meant harder work, more discomfort and greater inconvenience.

Each of those carrying building materials was required to do so with one hand so as to keep the other at the ready on his sword. Then, after a hard day of one-handed labour, he was expected to take his turn on guard duty. Inconvenient? Of course. Almost unbearably tiring? No doubt. Why do it then? Because they were committed to the task. They knew they were engaged in God’s work, under His authority. If that meant blood, sweat and tears, then so be it.

To be God’s people, living in obedience to Him, means nothing less than paying whatever price is necessary to keep on obeying Him.

For those of us who live in comfortable, convenience-laden societies, such an approach does not come easily. We are far too accustomed to living soft, undemanding lives full of creature comforts. The prevailing philosophy around us is that everything should be as painless as possible. We are shielded from so many of life’s unpleasant experiences. Children, coddled by their parents, grow up with the expectation that there will always be someone nearby to shield them from anything threatening or hurtful. Appropriate as that might be for infants, there’s no avoiding the fact that life’s just not like that.

Those who have grown up expecting to be coddled and sheltered find the demands of discipleship difficult to relate to. The moment any of their leaders begin to make demands on them they start to feel unloved and victimised! In their eyes, love does not make demands – it shields, protects, coddles and indulges. Nothing could be further from the truth.

True love should and does make demands. If being one of God’s people is worth anything, it is worth everything.

Had any of Nehemiah’s people held the soft, indulgent view of love they may well have wondered whether God (or Nehemiah, for that matter) loved them. Demand was piled on demand. Just having to live in the ruined city was inconvenience enough. Having to shoulder the immense task of rebuilding its walls was more than enough. But to then have the pressure increased to an almost unbearable degree by a violent, malicious enemy. . . wasn’t that just too much?

When Nehemiah issued his orders to those stretched and burdened people his words may have sounded to some like those of an uncaring sadist:

Work all day with one hand! Stand on guard duty at night! When you do get a chance to sleep it must be with your clothes on, in case of enemy attack! Those who live outside Jerusalem must not visit their homes!

How insensitive, inconsiderate and demanding! Surely a God of love would never inflict that sort of thing on His people! If any of Nehemiah’s men were at all like some of today’s so-called disciples I can imagine their complaints and protestations:

This can’t be God’s will (it hurts)! The devil’s the problem – let’s rebuke him and ‘plead the blood’ (anything to make life easier)! It’s Nehemiah ‘s fault. He’s got it all wrong (blaming your leader is safer than blaming God)!

Such people hold the view that being in God’s will is synonymous with everything falling into place. To them, demands and difficulties can never be Heaven-sent. They see the devil not as ‘a mad dog on God’s leash’ (as I once heard him aptly described), but as a mad dog completely out of control. Such a view badly misrepresents God and His care for His people. Paul put it succinctly: ‘In all things God works for the good of those who love Him’.

Jerusalem’s builders were under great pressure. They suffered many inconveniences. They faced fearful dangers. But all those experiences took place, not in the course of a shaky and uncertain venture, but along the road which led to certain and inevitable success.

God’s goals are never attained by those who back off when the going gets tough. His work must go on ‘in season and out of season’, and without the criteria of comfort and convenience. It is enough for us to know that we have the immense privilege of being chosen to glorify Him. Whenever the going is easy we should be thankful, but we must never back off when it gets tough.

Destructive Self-Interest

External threats are one thing, but when a threatened people sacrifice their much-needed unity on the altar of personal self-interest, a new and sinister dimension is added to the dangers they already face. That, sadly, is the kind of situation we find as we come now to the fifth chapter of the book of Nehemiah.

Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers. Some were saying, ‘We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.’ Others were saying, ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.’ Still others were saying, ‘We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen and though our sons are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.’

What a tragic state of affairs! A people who had stood united were now divided. They had already been through so much together and, until now, nothing had been able to shake their unity. Their desire to work together as a united, dedicated people had transcended all the opposition, all the hardship and all the difficulties. Yet, with so much to their credit, we now find them unashamedly quarrelling among themselves.

Essentially, their divisions had one common denominator: preoccupation with personal need. For some, the crisis centred on getting enough food. With only limited supplies of grain available, each was insisting on his needs being met. They, in turn, were upstaged by others who protested that their need was so great they were compelled to mortgage their homes, just to buy enough grain to survive. Not to be outdone, there were others who had a still greater tale of woe: unable to pay their taxes, they had been driven to the point of not only borrowing but – far worse – selling their sons and daughters into slavery!

None of these complaints were without foundation. Far from it. On the face of it, those concerned were more than justified in bemoaning their desperate plight. They were not making mountains out of molehills. The mountains were real. Nevertheless they were at fault, and for this reason: each was focussing on his own need without proper regard for the needs of others.

To look to your own affairs and interests is not wrong in itself. It is sensible and responsible. But when some in the church make a point of looking after ‘number one’ at the expense of others, division comes to the body.

Paul spelt it out in clear terms: ‘If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like- minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.’

Relationships always suffer when individuals among God’s people begin to focus exclusively on their own problems and difficulties. No matter how difficult your situation, you are still responsible to remain involved in the lives of others, being aware of their needs and seeking ways to help.

Consider Jesus as he hung on the cross, suffering intense agony as he died a long, lingering death. Who could have blamed Him had He been completely caught up in His own awful situation? Yet we find no words of self-pity or complaint passing His lips. Instead we see Him making arrangements for His mother’s welfare; then we hear Him pray, not for His friends (He had already prayed much for them) but for His enemies – specifically for those who crucified Him. That’s selflessness!

Unfortunately, selflessness was in rather short supply among Nehemiah’s people. Even worse than the self-pity of those who were suffering was the uncaring greed of those who took advantage of them. These better-off ones were quick to see an opportunity to profit, so instead of selflessly helping their less-fortunate fellows they preyed on them – extending mortgages, lending money at a price, and buying their sons and daughters as slaves. In short they jumped at the chance to gain by exploiting the needs of others.

One of the apostle Paul’s classic illustrations of the Church is the one in which he likens it to the human body. ‘God has combined the members of the body,’ he wrote, ‘and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.

As with the human body, God has arranged His Body – the Church – in such a way that the members need one another. Like it or not, and regardless of the extent to which any of us are gifted or advantaged, we each have areas of lack and need which can only be met by others. That’s the way God intended it to be. We are neither to glory in our strong points nor be obsessed with our needs. While appreciating and valuing our own strengths and advantages we should also thank God for the lacks which cause us to be dependent on others. Our pluses provide us with the means to make up others’ minuses – and vice-versa. In God’s scheme of things we fit together like the parts of a body and, like those bodily parts, none of us can be complete without the others.

When God gathers a number of people and forms them into a body, He expects them to live together in unity. As Paul instructed, we are responsible to exercise ‘equal concern for each other’. Though many in this world speak of equality among men, it can never be achieved unless we understand the essence of true equality, which is equality of care. And that kind of equality is only possible among God’s people.

God’s view of equality is clearly portrayed in the makeup of the human body, where the principles of mutual care and complementary belonging make for true unity. In that context there can be no place for selfishness. Its very existence would be destructive, as is evident whenever it rears its ugly head in the form of cancer. The spread of this killer disease takes place within the body when some cells become ‘lawless’. Forsaking their proper role – in which they exist solely for the good of the whole body – they embark on an orgy of selfish growth and multiplication, the results of which are only too well known. So often those lawless cells succeed in suicidally destroying the very body to which they belong, and on which their own existence depends.

For a cancer-afflicted body to survive, the lawlessness must be eradicated. In precisely the same way, no body of God’s people can fulfil its destiny so long as the cancer of selfishness is tolerated within it. Selfishness within the church poses a far greater threat than anything outside it.

That certainly was Nehemiah’s view.

No Room For Selfishness

When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, ‘You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!’ So I called together a large meeting to deal with them and said: ‘As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!’ They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say. So I continued, ‘What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let the exacting of usury stop! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves, and houses, and also the usury you are charging them – the hundredth part of the money, grain, new wine and oil.’ ‘We will give it back,’ they said. ‘And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.

Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, ‘In this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied!’ At this the whole assembly said, ‘Amen,’ and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.

Selfishness always results in relationship problems such as conflict and contention. Whenever you become obsessed with having your own needs met you are hindered from genuine involvement in other people’s lives. Hence it was necessary for Nehemiah to move in strongly and deal with the situation.

It is interesting to note that the ‘usurous’ interest he so roundly condemned amounted to a mere one percent! Compare that, if you will, with what passes for acceptable interest these days. So far as Nehemiah was concerned, though,~ even one percent was wrong in principle, because it meant that one of God’s people was profitting out of meeting the need of another.

Whenever we either lend or give to one another, it should always be without any profit motive whatsoever. It is our privilege to extend help. If we look for something in return we despise the privilege and cross the line between selflessness and selfishness.

Moving quickly, Nehemiah called together the guilty parties, held an assembly against them and shamed them into changing their ways. Not only did they promise to stop taking advantage of their fellows, they also pledged to give back all their ill-gotten gains.

Devaluing The Body

The first century church at Corinth was so plagued by selfishness that the apostle Paul found it necessary to strongly reprimand them – especially with regard to their behaviour in church meetings. Their gatherings were so marked by selfishness and indulgence that Paul judged them to be doing more harm than good. ‘I hear,’ he wrote, ‘that when you come together as a church there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it’. Knowing the immature Corinthians only too well, he was compelled to take seriously the alarming reports he had been hearing about their rampant selfishness. Their meetings had degenerated into ugly demonstrations of strife and self- indulgence, in which the members vied, competed and took advantage of one another.

Of all their selfish public behaviour, the most repugnant occurred when they gathered to eat and drink the Lord’s Supper. Paul summed it up like this: ‘When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk.’ Nice church.

Among the early Christians the Lord’s Supper was not the ceremonial token meal it has since become: it was far more like the real thing. The people partook together in what was intended to be a feast of love and commitment, in obedience to Jesus and in commemoration of the last supper He shared with His disciples. As in that last supper, the bread and wine would be laid out so that all could eat and drink. Intended as a time of giving and sharing, the Corinthians distorted it instead into an orgy of gluttony and drunkenness, inciting Paul to write: ‘Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not! For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.’

In their selfishness the Corinthians sinned against Jesus by despising and devaluing the whole purpose of His death, which was to gather a loving, united people for God. Like Esau – the son of Isaac who sold his precious birthright just to gratify his own immediate desires – these people were jeopardising all that God had given them, and all for the sake of personal greed and indulgence.

In rebuking them about their abuse of the Lord’s Supper, Paul sharply warned the Corinthians about God’s judgement on their self-indulgence: ‘A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.’ And sleep here means death.

Paul’s point is potent. By devaluing the body into which God had placed them, the Corinthians had brought His judgement upon themselves – in the form of sickness and even death. There, in crystal-clear terms, we can see the extent of God’s hatred of selfishness among His people.

As a Christian you cannot seek your own personal gratification without violating the terms of your calling. The Body of Christ must be as selfless as its Head. We are each called to discipleship – to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus.

The much-vaunted concept of the Body of Christ as ‘The Church Universal’ – the worldwide entity to which all of God’s people belong – is essentially accurate. Yet true self-giving cannot be practiced on a worldwide, impersonal scale. That can only take place within the Church Local – that defined grouping of people to which each of us is called. Only in such a setting are we able to learn and practice selfless giving.

This is not optional, it is imperative. Hence Paul’s great concern for the Corinthians.

Having warned them of God’s judgement, he went on to say: ‘But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgement.’ Neither God nor any church leader should need to play ‘policeman’ in the church. Once God’s requirements are made known, it is incumbent upon each and every member to apply himself to them. If you accept the responsibility to watch and regulate your own attitudes and conduct it will never become necessary for you to suffer judgement as a wrongdoer. If, though, you foolishly shirk your responsibility, making it necessary for you to feel God’s chastening judgement, you still have cause to be thankful. ‘When we are judged by the Lord,’ wrote Paul, ‘we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.’

The application of godly discipline is a demonstration of the loving fatherhood of God. Like a good parent He cares too much merely to allow us to continue on our own wilful way. Better to be chastened now than to share the judgement of the godless later.

Having driven his point home to the Corinthians, Paul concluded with a clear, practical command: ‘So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other.’

Stop and think of others, is what he was saying. Attend to their needs before looking after yourself Don’t just plunge in to gratify your own desires. Anticipate others’ needs instead of being obsessed with your own. It is our privilege – and our calling – to lay down our lives for others. ‘Self first, last and always’ might be an acceptable motto for some, but it has absolutely no place in the church under any circumstances.

Selfless Leadership

In stark contrast to the selfishness of his people, Nehemiah demonstrated a marked lack of desire for self-gain. Just look at the way he approached his position of authority:

. . . from the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, until his thirty-second year – twelve years – neither I nor my brothers ate the food allotted to the governor.

Though he was indeed the governor of Jerusalem, appointed by the king himself, he chose not to avail himself of some of the ‘perks’ of the job. He was certainly entitled to them. Instead he went the extra mile, so as to identify with his people in their plight. Quite a contrast to the governors who preceded him:

But the earlier governors – those preceding me – placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall. All my men were assembled there for the work; we did not acquire any land.

Nehemiah was a genuinely unselfish leader. He neither dominated his people nor deprived them for his own benefit. Instead, he concentrated on leading by his own example, labouring at the wall alongside everyone else. And his unselfishness also showed in other ways:

. . . a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table, as well as those who came to us from the surrounding nations. Each day one ox, six choice sheep and some poultry were prepared for me, and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds. In spite of all this, I never demanded the food allotted to the governor, because the demands were heavy on these people. Remember me with favour, O my God, for all I have done for these people.

Not wanting to add to his people’s burdens, Nehemiah decided against taking the food and wine allowance to which he, as governor, was entitled. This put him in the position of living by faith, for he had to trust that somehow God would make a way for all his household needs to be met. On the other hand, his decision presented the people with a new opportunity. Previously they had to provide for their governor. Now they could choose to. Though everybody was free to contribute towards meeting Nehemiah’s needs, nobody was compelled to.

It’s quite possible that some looked upon Nehemiah’s decision with relief because it let them off the hook, releasing them from what was, to them, a burdensome obligation. But, for those who saw it as an opportunity to practice the kind of giving God loves, it offered something too good to miss – the blessing of giving.

Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:6&7)

Nehemiah’s housekeeping costs were great, yet – thanks to his faith and God’s provision through cheerful givers – he and the many who ate at his table were provided for in abundance.

Selfless leadership is rare – even among Christians. Rather more common is the kind which is motivated by selfish ambition, and which we so often see displayed in the world around us. Common it may be, but selfish ambition is a powerful and dangerous force for evil – and it has absolutely no place in the church – as Jesus Himself had to point out to His disciples.

One day James and John came to him with a request: ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ Any approach like that is likely to arouse suspicion and Jesus was suitably cautious. ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he parried. Not quite the response they’d hoped for, but they leapt in anyway: ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory!’ How’s that for naked ambition? Working on the ‘first in, best-dressed’ principle, James and John had obviously decided to book the two best seats in the Kingdom before any of the others laid claim to them.

Jesus was unimpressed – and more than a little annoyed. ‘You don’t know what you are asking!’ he exclaimed. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?’ Unaware of what he was driving at, they emphatically replied: ‘We can!’ Realising that they had missed His point, Jesus spelt it out: ‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’ What a blow to their ambitions! Here they were, making their bid for future fame and glory only to discover that Jesus was not even in a position to grant their request. Worse still, the one promise He did make them they could well have done without. They had asked for a share in His glory – not His sufferings!

Having overheard the conversation, the other ten disciples were angry, but their indignation could hardly qualify as righteous. They were upset for no better reason than that James and John had got in first. By then it was obvious to Jesus that more than two of His disciples had an ambition problem. They all needed to understand something about God’s view of leadership and authority. So He explained it to them: ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Unlike this world, where those who have power usually abuse it, the leaders among God’s people are supposed to demonstrate their fitness to lead by their willingness to serve.

Most people who seek positions of authority do so not because they want to give, but because they want to get. Hence the well-known and oft-quoted saying: All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But must it be so? Surely God Himself is living proof of the fact that power and corruption do not have to go hand in hand. There is no power greater than His, yet He has never been corrupted by it. More to the point, we can be like that too. In fact, it is imperative that we are, because it is our destiny to share His power.

Those who lead God’s people are obliged to do so by His standards, and not by the standards of this self-seeking world, where people in leadership often abuse their positions so as to gain leeway for personal indulgence. So far as God is concerned the greater the authority vested in a man, the less room there is for him to please himself. The path of leadership is one which grows steadily narrower.

Jesus said of Himself: ‘. . . the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’. Like Nehemiah before Him, Jesus’ whole life was governed by just two desires: to glorify God, and to give all for the welfare of God’s people.

It’s one thing to be called into a position of leadership, but it’s quite another to be a godly leader. Any man who seeks and uses leadership of any kind for self-gain is not worthy of it. In fact anyone who is at all ambitious for leadership or authority in the church is open to question. Such positions are all too easily abused and misused to be entrusted to people with doubtful motives.

Selfless Love

There is no room for selfishness of any kind among God’s people, for we are called to live not for ourselves but for one another. God has created the Local Church and called each one of us to be members in it. There, in that communal setting, we are expected to live together in selfless love.

Like Nehemiah’s wall, God’s kingdom cannot be built where selfishness reigns. And it will only reign whenever and wherever we tolerate it.

In conclusion, I would like to repeat the opening statement of my introduction: Opposition is inevitable. Selfishness is inexcusable. Whatever the opposition you face, you need never be daunted nor defeated by it. Wherever you come across selfishness – especially within yourself – deal with it strongly and intolerantly. That way you will find that neither opposition nor selfishness will be able to prevent you from building with God.

But of course there’s more yet for God’s builders to learn and experience, as you will find when you go to Book 4, Keeping God’s Priorities.

About The Author

Tony Kostas was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1941, where at the age of seventeen, he committed his life to Jesus at a Billy Graham Crusade. In 1967 he founded the Melbourne Outreach Crusade, a non-denominational evangelistic outreach. This later grew into Outreach International, which is now a worldwide body of believers, who share a God-given calling and are committed to live in love with Him and with one another.

Tony’s life is a true expression of all that God has revealed to him throughout the years, in its purity and focus on loving God. His passion is for God to have the desire of His hears: a people who truly represent Him because they are His and His alone.