Rebuilding Rhythm for the Spiritual Life

In April, our Church Council completed a year-long, devotional study of the book of Nehemiah. In total, we developed twenty-nine principles for leaders. The book of Nehemiah is typically a go-to book for biblical principles of leadership. While it is a treasure trove for that topic, I think it’s important not to miss the reason that Nehemiah’s leadership is necessary—to rebuild a rhythm for the spiritual lives of the exiles who returned to Jerusalem. Have you ever built a retaining wall? One time at a Christian camp, a team of teenagers and I accepted the challenge to construct a large retaining wall made of railroad ties for a hillside near a basketball court. It was grueling work, bringing out the best and worst in all of us. Quickly, we learned that this project wasn’t merely a physical and mental test, but also a spiritual one. Nehemiah’s wall-building project had a deeper aim than to simply build a wall. He aimed, with God’s help, to restore a regular rhythm in the spiritual lives of people. Here are five key lessons to rebuilding your spiritual rhythm.

Report of Ruin

Read:

Nehemiah 1:1–11

Reflect:

Have you ever received bad news? Such was the news that Nehemiah received, yet behind the gloomy report was the smile of God. This is called providence. One Bible dictionary describes providence this way,

The biblical concept of God’s providence . . . signals a universally confident belief in God’s loving care and protection of the world. It is grounded in the belief in God as Creator, one who continues at all times to preserve and order the world, holding chaos at bay, and leading the world and all human history toward life and full happiness. Sometimes through unpredictable turns . . . God’s providence can be written ‘straight with crooked lines’ . . . God’s provident presence can be manifest in both merciful care and righteous chastisement, but the biblical emphasis surely rests with the affirmation of God’s ultimate care (Freedman, David Noel. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.).

Consider God’s providential provisions surrounding Nehemiah’s news: (1) he happened to have a rare job (1:11) that made him privy to royal reports, (2) a team from Judah, involving someone Nehemiah knew, arrived in Susa with a report of Jerusalem, (3) Nehemiah’s heart was soft enough to repent and to remember God’s promise, and (4) he had an audience with the king to request that something be done.

Resolve:

Get familiar with the background and story of Nehemiah with The Bible Project. Then, write out the current, major circumstances of your life. Can you see God’s providential fingerprints? Humbly ask God to make his providence clearer to you this week. How would your own “Report of Ruin” read?

Revival Reconnaissance

Read:

Nehemiah 2:9–20

Reflect:

After receiving approval from the king and favor from God to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of the city, Nehemiah aimed to revive the people and the work. However, he faced radical rivals — Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. These men opposed Nehemiah throughout the whole story (cf., 4:1, 3, 7; 6:1–2, 5–6, 12, 14, 17, 19; 7:62; 13:4, 7, 28). They tried to destroy his plans through violence from outside the walls and through deception inside the walls. In 2:11–16, Nehemiah took a secret, night-time ride around the entirety of the city wall. Verse 13 says, “. . . and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that were broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire.” The word “inspect” means to test or investigate with a hopeful attitude.

Resolve:

Look at the representation of the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day. Imagine that this represents your life. Inspect the walls of your life. Is your life whole and at peace? Or are there breaches? Gates were the places where important opportunities and decisions happened. Have you had opportunities or decisions that you feel have been “destroyed by fire”? Lastly, who are your enemies? Remember, external enemies utilize violence. Internal enemies utilize deception, lies, and schemes. Personal revival starts with an honest inspection of the conditions of our lives. Notice how the temple, the place of worship, is at the center. Just as the people in Nehemiah’s day couldn’t worship while neglected walls existed, neither can we effectively worship God while we neglect our own lives. After a thorough look at the walls, gates, and enemies of your life, remember that Nehemiah’s inspection was a hopeful one. He didn’t despair. He was real about the lousy conditions, but he was also real about his hope that God could revive the walls against all odds.

Responsive Reading

Read:

Nehemiah 8:1–12

Reflect:

The people showed great resolve to complete the rebuilding of the walls of the city (cf., 4:6–23). Faithful leaders were found and appointed (cf., 7:1–2). Once the work was completed, the people gathered to hear the reading of the word of God in their own city for the first time in generations. The leaders helped the people to clearly understand the word of God. The people became emotional for two reasons: (1) the clear and accurate teaching of God’s word cut into their souls with precision, like a spiritual surgeon, and (2) the atmosphere of standing within the rebuilt walls of their once destroyed city most likely created an overwhelming feeling—mixed with sadness about the past and hope for the future. Following their emotional response to God’s word, the people made decisions to obey God’s word (cf., 8:13–18) and to remember God’s faithfulness to his past promises and present protection (cf., chap. 9).

Resolve:

Commit to the healing of the walls of your life. To do this, you must faithfully steward the areas of the wall which God has entrusted you to rebuild. You also must have faith in God with those things that are outside of your control. Discuss and measure the impact that the word of God is having in your life. Is it cutting into you (cf., Heb. 4:12)? In what ways precisely? What kind of emotional atmospheres have you experienced with the word of God (e.g., camp, retreat, conference, prayer meeting, small group, recovery)? God providentially uses events like this to stir and awaken our hearts, but what happens after these unique experiences? Do you allow the word of God to cut into your regular rhythm of life? Discuss with a close friend the ways you are or are not creating space for the word of God as a part of your regular rhythm.

Reform Remains

Read:

Nehemiah 13:6–11, 15–21, 23

Reflect:

The book of Nehemiah ends in a strange and deflating way. Nehemiah left Jerusalem and reported back to the king of Persia. While he was gone, the people returned to their old way of life—(1) they flirted with the enemies of God and Jerusalem, (2) they forsook the temple and failed to worship God, (3) they forget to keep the Sabbath day holy, and (4) the men found wives who worshiped false gods, instead of the true God. Nehemiah went on a righteous rampage! The book ends with Nehemiah offering one of his many prayers—the reader can feel how tired he is—“Remember me, O my God, for good” (13:30). So what gives? What happened? Here’s the point. Don’t miss it: All the changes or reforms that we might make in life won’t truly stick unless they land on a new heart. Nehemiah was a great leader and did great work, but even he and all his efforts were not a match for the stone-cold, hardened hearts of the people. The 70 years they had spent in exile didn’t change anything. Consider the words of Jeremiah,

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9),

and Ezekiel,

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh (36:26).

Religious movements, reforms, and retreats may create experiences that cause temporary changes, but if you want permanent, enduring faith and life change, then you need a new heart from God in order to truly take in all of his amazing grace available in Christ.

Resolve:

How’s your heart? Is it stone cold and lifeless, or is new and alive to God? It’s as Ezekiel said—your spiritual nature is stony and must be removed, and God must give you a new spiritual nature. How does God do this? By God’s grace through your faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, your old, calloused heart may die, and a new, soft heart may resurrect within you. The New Testament uses the phrases “new creation” and “new birth” to describe this spiritual phenomenon:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (Jn. 1:12–13).

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3–5).

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

If you recognize your need for a new heart and are willing to put your faith in Jesus Christ alone for the forgiveness of your sins, to receive the Holy Spirit, and to possess the hope of new and eternal life, then pray to God to receive Jesus Christ as the Savior and Lord of your life. Do not remain as those Stephen addressed in Acts 7:51,

You stiff-necked, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.

The Bible also teaches (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:1–3; 2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 5:13) that even believers with new hearts can grieve and quench the Spirit in ways that diminish the power of the new life in Christ. If you’re a believer who has grown lukewarm, lazy, and lousy in the spiritual life, resolve today to repent and recover your faith in Christ.

Regular Rhythm

Read:

Romans 8:18–39; Galatians 5:13–26

Reflect:

Tim Keller once described revival as . . .

. . . the ordinary operations of the Holy Spirit intensified.

Ordinarily, the Holy Spirit (1) convicts of sin (Jn. 16:7–11), (2) converts to faith in Christ (1 Cor. 12:3; Acts 10:44–48), and (3) gives assurance of salvation (Eph. 1:13; 4:30). Have you ever experienced these activities of the Spirit in an unusually intense way? It’s important to realize that these are his regular rhythms too. In the Read portion of this section, we find two more important regular rhythms that the Spirit wants to work into your daily life. The first comes from Romans 8:29. The Holy Spirit aims to use your sufferings, weaknesses, circumstances, and hope to shape you into the image of Jesus Christ. Notice that prayer (v. 26) is an important way for you to participate in his aim for your life. The second comes from Galatians 5:22–23. The fruit of the Spirit’s rhythm in your life looks like these things: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Here, the Spirit’s regular rhythm in your life provides the essential attributes to conform you to the image of Jesus.

Resolve:

1 Thessalonians 5:19 says, “Do not quench the Spirit.” Ephesians 4:30 teaches us not to “grieve the Holy Spirit.” In unique and rare moments, the Holy Spirit has worked in an intensified way in your life, and he aims to provide a regular rhythm that transforms you over time to look more and more like Jesus. As you participate in his regular rhythm, how will you avoid quenching the fire that the Holy Spirit started in your life? How will you avoid grieving him? Start by reading the context of the all the verses mentioned in this section. Get a handle on what God says the Holy Spirit wants to do in your life. You’ll discover things like thankfulness prevents the quenching of the Spirit, and putting off the old life and putting on the new life in specific ways prevents the grieving of the Spirit. Discuss with a believing friend the ways that you’ll participate in the Spirit’s rhythm for your life. Remember, God is providentially at work in your life. Are you up for the adventure?

Advance the Indispensability of Jesus Together

The Surprising Dispensability of the Leader

The 2014 NCAA Football season for the Ohio State Buckeyes had as many twists and turns as your favorite roller coaster ride. On two occasions, injuries threatened to undo their successful run. As a fan of the Buckeyes, I remember watching the quarterback situation unfold, and after each injury thinking—“That guy is indispensable; the season’s over.” Each time, the next guy who stepped in proved me wrong.

In August, starting quarterback, Braxton Miller, was injured and out for the remainder of the season. Second-string quarterback, J. T. Barrett, replaced Miller, and he continued the Buckeyes success on the field. However, in November of that same season, Barrett was injured and would miss the remaining games, including any Bowl games or Championship attempt.

The weight of the season fell upon third-string, red shirt sophomore Cardale Jones. The first start of his college career took place in the Big Ten Championship against the Wisconsin Badgers. Jones led the Buckeyes to a 59–0 blowout victory. Next, he started in the Allstate Sugar Bowl against the number one ranked, the dreaded Alabama Crimson Tide. Jones led the Buckeyes to a Sugar Bowl victory, 42–35. Then, it was onto the National Championship Game against the Oregon Ducks. Jones’ success continued and delivered a 42–20 win against the Ducks and a 2014 National Championship to the Buckeyes.

Over the years, I’ve had similar, personal experiences when I’ve had the privilege to work with young, pastoral interns. I am convinced that most if not all of them will accomplish far more than I ever will for the kingdom if they continue to follow our Lord faithfully. They will soon catch up and surpass me in the things that once made me their superior (i.e., the one leading the internship). Be it education, tech savvy, experience, networking, or ability; I am confident (and hopeful) that they will go far beyond whatever reach I may have in my lifetime for the gospel.

Which means this: I am dispensable.

The Dispensable Steward of the Indispensable Promise

In our study of Genesis, we are finishing up the Abrahamic story. He’s a pivotal figure in the unfolding of the program of God—his calling, his faith, his experience. Yet, he dies. He dies while the promises of God are barely realized. We can’t help but feel that the Patriarch of the patriarchs drew his last breath before his time—even if he was 175 years old.

Concerning Abraham’s death, Allen Ross writes in his commentary on Genesis entitled Creation & Blessing,

The message in this part is straightforward: believers will die, and so they must ensure that the work begun in them by God will continue as God desires. It may be through their children, children in the faith, or by some other means; but no one may personalize the program so that no thought is given to the next generation . . . Even though faithful believers die, the program of God to bless the world continues . . . We’re part of something much bigger than ourselves . . . No one is indispensable in God’s program. Good people die (some when they’re young and some when they’re old), and others take up the task to continue God’s program.

So, the question begs, “If I am dispensable (and I am), then what indispensable thing can I hand off to the next generation?” What thing of lasting, eternal substance and weight can I pass on that will endure — come what may in the world?

Think back to Abraham’s journey of faith. The longer he walked in the light of God’s promise, the more singular and pure his faith and devotion became to that promise. The major turning point happens in chapter 22, when he has to offer up Isaac. The writer of Hebrews gives us divine commentary on the event:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He had received the promises, yet he was ready to offer up his only son. God had told him, “Through Isaac descendants will carry on your name,” and he reasoned that God could even raise him from the dead, and in a sense he received him back from there (11:17–19).

Whether it was his belief that God could raise Isaac from the dead, his actions to secure a burial site at the Cave of Machpelah in Canaan, or his efforts to select Isaac as his sole heir, all these things reveal that Abraham had finally captured what was truly indispensable — it was the promise. He realized that the promise was much bigger than him. Abraham may have been the initial partner in the bilateral agreement; he didn’t view himself as the sole owner and beneficiary of the blessings. The patriarch came to realize his role as the dispensable steward of the indispensable promise.

Now, don’t misunderstand. By saying that Abraham was dispensable, I’m not implying that he didn’t have worth as a person or that he wasn’t important to God — obviously he was and is. However, as the biblical story demonstrates, even he was replaceable. His own life and position was not superior to the program of God. Think of the links in a chain. Every link is important, and every link has to steward the weight that bears upon it for the whole chain to complete its purpose and job. Yet, we also recognize that a link in a chain can be replaced by the one who created it and gave it purpose.

Stewarding the Indispensable

As Abraham’s faith matured, he understood his stewardship better and his actions aligned accordingly. Here are three ways his mature faith strengthened his stewardship of the promise:

  1. He sacrificially stewarded the promise. His faith in the promise of God led him to believe in the power of God to raise the dead.
  2. He securely stewarded the promise. His faith in the promise of God caused him to make decisions that aligned with the details of God’s promise, regarding its location in Canaan.
  3. He selectively stewarded the promise. His faith in the promise of God brought a singular focus on God’s selection of Isaac.

Today, we are charged with being the dispensable stewards of the indispensable promise of God in Jesus Christ. In what way has the story of Abraham challenged you to mature in your faith and stewardship of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

The power of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ—I believe—provides us with incredible room and liberty to steward the gospel sacrificially. Having demonstrated that he can raise the dead, what sacrifice is there that should cause us hesitation or doubt? At the end of Paul’s famous chapter on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, he writes, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” The reality of the resurrection frees us to sacrificially steward the gospel for the next generation. Here’s the list of sacrifices mentioned in the New Testament, enabled by the power of the resurrection:

  • The Sacrifice of Our Bodily Activities for the Benefit of Others and the Glory of God (Rom. 12:1).
  • The Sacrifice of Selfless Love (Eph. 5:2).
  • The Sacrifice of Pouring Out Your Life for the Community (Phil. 2:17).
  • The Sacrifice of Generosity with Money (Phil. 4:18).
  • The Sacrifice of Praise, Good Deeds, and Sharing/Fellowship (Heb. 13:15–16).
  • The Sacrifice of a Spiritual Life (1 Pet. 2:5 and following).

When Abraham purchased the field and burial plot in Machpelah, he sent a clear message—“I believe the promise, and I’m not turning back.” What decisions do you need to make in order to prepare and position the next generation to receive and pass on the gospel?

I think one of the most important ways we can securely steward the gospel to the next generation is by making clear decisions that allow young people to see the unique value and power of the gospel in our lives. When they look at your bank statement, do they see a clear commitment to the gospel? Do they see the clear priority of the gospel in your family calendar? When they watch your marriage, do they see mom and dad clearly yielding to the Spirit in their dying to sin and raising to a new and better way? Do they see grandma and grandpa’s clear decision not to ever retire from ministry and service, even though they’ve retired from their vocations?

In Abraham’s day, Isaac was God’s clear choice. He was selective—he did not choose Ishmael or the sons of Keturah. The program of blessing selectively continued through Isaac. Today, God’s selection to continue his program of blessing is Jesus Christ, his beloved Son. Therefore, I believe that we selectively steward the gospel by making Christ visible to a watching world. “Throw some paint on the Invisible Man”; through our words and deeds, let’s give shape to Jesus and the announcement of his good news. Convict the world of sin; convince them of God’s love; and call them to the truth.

We learn from the apostles’ example in the book of Acts that the best way to help people “see Jesus” is to get out where they are with our works and message. While this may imply “leaving the building” so to speak, it may also mean employing the building and its programs or ministries to meet people where they are in life. So, if you believe that God has selected to continue his program of blessing through Jesus Christ alone, what are you doing to help paint this picture for people? How are you stewarding God’s selection of Jesus?

Blessing Beyond Our Lifetime

If we steward the gospel of Jesus sacrificially, securely, and selectively, then we will pass on that which is indispensable to the next generation. We’ll build momentum that will last beyond our lifetime. We will effectively be the dispensable stewards of the indispensable promise. 

In the epic story of The Lord of the Rings there is only one truth, one promise that was indispensable — the ring of power had to be destroyed in the fire of Mount Doom. Before they destroyed the ring, everyone believed the fulfillment of the promise depended upon someone bearing the ring to the fire. After the fulfillment, everyone believed it to be the key event that ushered in an era of blessing.

Along the journey the team members who joined the fellowship to destroy the ring proved dispensable stewards of the indispensable promise. They sacrificed for it, secured it, and devoted to this promise with a singular aim. They advanced the cause together and experienced the blessings of the finished work together. By mature faith in the promise, they passed on blessing that would last far beyond their lifetime. Before us today is the opportunity to advance the indispensability of Jesus together. I pray that we’ll steward it well.