Dealing With Distractions
October 15, 2000 | Brian Bill
Do you have any unfinished projects lying around collecting dust? It’s so easy to get sidetracked isn’t it? It takes tenacity to finish what we start because there are always so many competing distractions.
One thing that clearly emerges from our study in the Book of Nehemiah is that life is a battle from beginning to end. In Ephesians 6:12 the Apostle Paul warns, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood…but against the powers of this dark world.” We meet these powers of darkness in our text today.
Here in Nehemiah 6, as in many other places in Scripture, we learn that the devil has two main ways of working. The first tactic is fear. Satan is prowling around, as Peter says in 1 Peter 5:8, “like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
But he has another battle plan as well. He not only uses fear, he also utilizes flattery. 2 Corinthians 11:14 reveals that Satan “masquerades as an angel of light.” He comes with enticing promises and flattering words, assuring us that what he proposes will cost us nothing.
Whatever method the evil one employs, whether it be fear or flattery, his aim is to distract and destroy us. We need to be on guard against each of these approaches. That is why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:11 that “We are not unaware of his schemes.” We need to be on guard because Satan is both a lion that devours and a serpent that deceives.
Let me give you a simple outline of chapter 6 that will help us get a better handle on how to deal with distractions:
- The Intrigue (1-4)
- The Innuendo (5-9)
- The Intimidation (10-19)
The Intrigue (1-4)
Since Sanballat and his sinister buddies failed in their attempts to stop the wall builders, they decide now to concentrate their attacks on Nehemiah himself by changing their tactics and resorting to subtle persuasion. We might call this political softball. You will experience this as well when you try to correct some things in your life. Many people today are faltering in their Christian pilgrimage because they listen to the advice and temptations of those closest to them.
Let’s take a look at verses 1-4: “When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it — though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates — Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: ‘Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.’ But they were scheming to harm me; so I sent messengers to them with this reply: ‘I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?’ Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer.”
These enemies suddenly become Nehemiah’s friends and invite him to a conference down on the plain of Ono. The first four verses look like a political concession speech – they want to meet with Nehemiah and cut their losses – or so it seems. Ono is located on the seacoast near the Gaza strip. It was a beautiful resort area. But Nehemiah senses danger: “they were scheming to harm me.” So Nehemiah said, “Oh, no!” to Ono.
Some commentators suggest that they were trying to trick him into leaving Jerusalem, where he had armed support, to come to a conference where they could ambush him. Nehemiah evidently senses this. He firmly declines, saying, “I am carrying on a great project, and I cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?”
That is a great answer even though it sounds rather blunt. But Nehemiah sees through their scheme by refusing their invitation four different times. You, too, may experience continuing pressure to change your mind and go along with something that is wrong. Some of us give in to repeated pressure. We might decline the first invitation but find our defenses weakened as the enticements continue. But Nehemiah persists in his refusal because he knows what his priorities are: “I am doing a great work. I have a great calling. God has committed a tremendous project to me, and if I leave, it will be threatened.”
I like to get up early so that I can read and pray and jump into sermon prep while I’m still fresh. Lately however, when I arrive at the office, I’ve been turning my computer on and checking email before praying and reading. While that’s not really bad, it does serve as a distraction, especially when I take the time to respond to my emails. Unfortunately, when I start my morning this way, I don’t give God His proper place in my schedule – and sometimes neglect meeting with him altogether.
One of the most helpful things that we can do to resist temptation is to remember that God has called each of us to a great task. This is true of every believer in Christ – whether you’re just joining PBC today or you’ve been here for many years. We are called to make a kingdom impact. Our priorities as a church are summed up in the IMPACT acrostic printed on your bulletin – and they are to be personal priorities as well:
- Instruction in God’s Word. We are called to read, study, and apply the Bible. We are to do this on our own and also by listening to the Word as it is preached and by being involved in one of our small groups.
- Mobilized for Ministry. We are to be involved in using our time, talents, and treasures in the work of the ministry.
- Praying with Faith. We are to be engaged in regular and fervent prayer.
- Adoring God in Worship. We are to worship God with reverence and with joy both individually and corporately.
- Caring for others. As we mentioned last week, we must be the church before we can build the church. We must be committed to each other. About 50 women experienced this kind of caring this past Thursday at the “Gathering.”
- Telling Others the Gospel. We are to look for ways to share the gospel message with those around us.
I read years ago of a missionary in China whose abilities were so outstanding that one of the American companies tried to hire him. They offered him an attractive job with a salary to match, but he turned it down. He told them that God had sent him to China as a missionary. He thought that would end the matter, but instead they came back with a better offer and an increase in salary. He turned that down too, but again they came back, doubling the financial package. Finally he said to them, “It’s not your salary that’s too little. It’s the job that’s too small!”
In her book, “A Practical Guide to Prayer,” Dorothy Haskins tells about a noted concert violinist who was asked the secret of her mastery of the instrument. This is what she said, “There are many things that used to demand my time. When I went to my room after breakfast, I made my bed, straightened the room, dusted, and did whatever seemed necessary. When I finished my work, I turned to my violin practice. That system prevented me from accomplishing what I should on the violin. So I reversed things. I deliberately planned to neglect everything else until my practice period was complete. And that program of planned neglect is the secret to my success.”
If we don’t practice some “planned neglect” of other things, even good things, we’ll be distracted from God’s best
Friends, in a similar way, we’ve been called to a great task – one that we have to prioritize or we’ll be distracted from it. If we don’t practice some “planned neglect” of other things, even good things, we’ll be distracted from God’s best. That’s what Nehemiah does. He’s involved in a great work, and he’s not going to forsake it for anything less.
The Innuendo (5-9)
When the enemy cannot accomplish his purpose by offering peace, he switches back to his original scheme of sinister threats. He moves from political softball to political hardball. Take a look at verses 5-7: “Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter in which was written: “It is reported among the nations — and Geshem says it is true — that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us confer together.”
This arm-twisting tactic is designed to pressure Nehemiah to yield to their request, and thus fall into their trap. But he resists because he sees it for what it really is, an enticement based upon lies. Note that it was an “unsealed letter.” In other words, it was designed for everyone to read, so that the lie would be spread around that Nehemiah was trying to make himself king.
Have you ever noticed that rumors regularly cite people of distinction as sources? That’s what happened here – “and Geshem says its true.” Someone has said that gossip is news you have to hurry to tell somebody else before you find out isn’t true!
Nehemiah responded three different ways – he denied the rumor, he prayed to God for strength, and he went back to work. Look at verse 8: “I sent him this reply: ‘Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.’” That’s the best way to respond to a charge like this — just a flat denial. He doesn’t try to disprove the accusation but merely states, “That is a lie. There is no truth in it.”
And then, invariably, as was his practice, he responds with another “popcorn prayer” in verse 9: “They are all trying to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.’ But I prayed, ‘Now strengthen my hands.’”
Their tactics were to get the people to think that Nehemiah had some hidden motive — his own glory — for rebuilding the wall, hoping that the workers would thus become discouraged and quit. Nehemiah simply prays, “Lord, do not let that happen. Strengthen me to work all the harder.” They were on the last lap of the race and the finish line was in sight. He took care of his character and trusted God to take care of his reputation.
The Intimidation (10-19)
Once again the enemy switches his gameplan in verse 10: “One day I went to the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah, the son of Mehetabel, who was shut in at his home. He said, ‘Let us meet in the house of God, inside the temple, and let us close the temple doors, because men are coming to kill you — by night they are coming to kill you.’”
This false prophet claims to have hidden knowledge. That is suggested by the phrase, “he was shut in” at his home. He was secluding himself for some religious reason. This is frequently the case with those who claim to be psychics who are in touch with the invisible world. They sit behind curtains in semi-darkness, trying to create a sense of mystery, as though they know more about inscrutable things than others.
What he says sounds logical: “Some people are out to get you. They are going to kill you.” Nehemiah certainly believes that! The man suggests, “Come on up here and we will go into the temple and shut the doors. They will not dare attack you there.” That sounds good, but immediately Nehemiah detects that something is wrong. He knows that he is not permitted to go into the temple, for only priests could enter the holy place.
So he answers in verse 11: “But I said, ‘should a man like me run away? Or should one like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go!’” He realizes that a prophet who was really from the Lord would say nothing contrary to God’s commands. In verse 3 he said, “I cannot come down.” Now he says, “I will not go in.”
Courage isn’t the absence of fear but instead it’s the tenacity to do what is right no matter how much we’re afraid
Having right priorities gave Nehemiah the courage to do what was right. Courage isn’t the absence of fear but instead it’s the tenacity to do what is right no matter how much we’re afraid. You see, it’s not just a matter of saying ‘no’ to distractions. We have to first say ‘yes’ to the right things, so that our priorities match up with God’s priorities. As we keep the main thing the main thing, we’ll be able to deal with distractions the way Nehemiah did.
God gives Nehemiah some insight in verses 12-13: “I realized that God had not sent him, but that he had prophesied against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. He had been hired to intimidate me so that I would commit a sin by doing this, and then they would give me a bad name to discredit me.” It was all part of a plan to discourage and distract the people from following Nehemiah’s lead. Fueled by jealousy and ambition, these enemies slandered him and tried to trick him into yielding to their demands.
We must be aware of this kind of attack in our lives as well. Don’t take someone’s advice or do what a friend asks you to do just because they seem like a nice person. Don’t let anyone or anything distract you from God’s priorities. The best response to such an approach is what Nehemiah uses here — a deep sense of his true identity as a believer. “Should a man like me run and hide and try to save his life by wrong approaches and unlawful practices?” He falls back upon his clear understanding of who he is and what his priorities are. He is a believer in the Living God and as such need not resort to trickery to save his life.
Nehemiah meets this attack of the enemy by going to prayer once again in verse 14:
“Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, because of what they have done; remember also that prophetess Noadiah, and the rest of the prophets who have been trying to intimidate me.”
This brings us to the end of this first phase of Nehemiah’s work in verses 15-16: “So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. When all our enemies heard about this and all the surrounding nations saw it, our enemies lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.” Even their enemies had to admit that God was at work! This entire project was finished in just 52 days!
What a beautiful picture of the power of Christian witness in a community! Even their foes must agree that God is at work among them. But the enemies are still not through. In these closing verses we see how they continue their tactics of opposing and distracting: “Also, in those days the nobles of Judah were sending many letters to Tobiah, and replies from Tobiah kept coming to them. For many in Judah were under oath to him, since he was son-in-law to Shecaniah son of Arah, and his son Jehohanan had married the daughter of Meshullam son of Berekiah.” (17-18)
That is simply saying that Tobiah had intermarried with the Israelites. Taking advantage of that relationship, he was seeking to undermine Nehemiah’s influence by nothing more than mere gossip. As Nehemiah says in verse 19: “Moreover, they kept reporting to me his good deeds and then telling him what I said. And Tobiah sent letters to intimidate me.”
Brothers and sisters, here’s one of the overriding truths from this book: the devil never quits. He is never going to give up while we are still alive. God has wonderful blessings and much encouragement and joy for us along the way, but we must never cease battling against the world, the flesh and the devil until we get to heaven. The enemy of God will never quit. If he cannot distract you with fear and flattery, he will use gossip and false accusations.
As we close this morning, let’s ask God to apply this passage to our lives. I see at least two action steps
1.Practice saying, “yes” to God’s priorities.
The best way to not be distracted is by being attracted to those things that are on the heart of God. Once we’re aware of what those are, and are attracted to them, we need to commit ourselves to a life of full devotion and complete commitment.
I heard a story about a Native American who left the reservation to join his cousin who lived in the city. One day, as they were walking down a busy street, the Native American said, “I hear a cricket.” His city cousin was amazed because all he could hear was the traffic. After a short search, the man reached down and picked up the cricket. When he stood up, he pulled some change out of his pocket and dropped it on the sidewalk. The noise was no louder than the cricket’s, but immediately several pedestrians stopped and turned toward the sound. The man then turned to his cousin and said, “See, people hear what’s important to them.”
What are you hearing today? What is it that’s important to you? Are you locked into God’s kingdom purposes or are you focused on a bunch of other things?
2. Practice saying, “no” to the devil’s distractions.
I don’t know what distractions you’re faced with but it might be television. I read this week that the average American spends three hours and 46 minutes watching TV every day. That equals 52 days of nonstop TV watching per year. By the age of 65, the average American will have spent nearly nine years glued to the tube.
Let’s take some time right now and ask the Holy Spirit to help you identify those things that are distracting you from God’s priorities. Is it a friend? An activity? Your money? Your possessions? Your thought life? Your career? When the Spirit makes it clear, decide how you can begin to say “no” to those things that are derailing you from what’s most important. Maybe you can practice saying, “no” like Nehemiah did – “I will not come down” and “I will not go in.”
Someone sent me this fictional report of a worldwide convention that Satan and his demons participated in. In the devil’s opening address to his followers, he said, “We can’t keep Christians from going to church but we can steal their time. Let’s keep them busy in the non-essentials of life and invent innumerable schemes to occupy their minds…keep them busy, busy, busy! And when they meet for spiritual fellowship, involve them in gossip and small talk so that they leave with troubled consciences and unsettled emotions. Let’s crowd their lives with so many good things that they have no time to seek the best things.”
Friends, the enemy will act to distract you. But while he blasts away, God is building His kingdom. Satan is subtle but God is sufficient. Remember, when God’s priorities become our priorities, God’s kingdom work will advance. When the wall was completed, verse 16 says, “…All the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.” May that be said of us!