Defeating Discouragement

Nehemiah 4

October 27, 2018 | Brian Bill

Are you familiar with Murphy’s Law?  The original “Murphy” was an engineer who conducted an experiment to test human acceleration tolerances.  Unfortunately for him, he installed 16 motion sensors the wrong way, leading to the now famous quotation, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”  I guess the corollary is also true: “If anything can’t go wrong, it will anyway.”

Here are some other laws blamed on poor Mr. Murphy:

  • Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad to worse.
  • Matter will be damaged in direct proportion to its value.
  • You will never find a lost article until you replace it.
  • Everything goes wrong all at once.
  • If everything seems to be going well, you’ve obviously overlooked something.

As we come to Nehemiah 4, everything seems to be going wrong all at once.  In chapter one we looked at how Nehemiah prayed, in chapter two we saw how God moved him from the prosperity of Persia to the desolation of Jerusalem.  Last week, we were introduced to the wall workers and discovered that in kingdom work, no one can do everything, but everyone can do something.  And, because some worked harder, and Baruch worked with more zeal than anyone else, the construction project was really zipping along.

But when we come to chapter 4, things start to get more complicated for Nehemiah.  Mr. Murphy shows up and reminds Nehemiah that when everything seems to be going well, you’ve obviously overlooked something.  That reminds me of a situation that took place several years ago in Darlington, Maryland.  Edith, a mother of eight, came home one Saturday afternoon from her neighbor’s house, only to discover five of her youngest children huddled together in the living room intensely concentrating on something.  As she slipped in behind them to see what they were doing, she couldn’t believe her eyes.  Smack dab in the middle of her kids were several baby skunks.  She screamed at the top of her voice, “Children, run!”   So each kid grabbed a skunk and ran to their bedroom!

If anything can go wrong, it certainly will!  

Did you know that there is a plague sweeping the country today?  It’s not the Beijing flu, or cancer, or even the common cold.  This outbreak, however, can be just as deadly as the most dreaded disease known to man – it’s called the epidemic of discouragement.  At least three things make it such a potent problem. 

  • It’s universal.  None of us are immune to discouragement.  Everyone you have ever known has been discouraged at one time or another. 
  • It’s recurring.  Being discouraged once does not give you an immunity to the disease.  You can be discouraged over and over again.  In fact, you can even be discouraged by the fact that you are discouraged a lot. 
  • It’s highly contagious.  Discouragement spreads by even casual contact.  People can become disheartened because you are discouraged.  You can be bummed out because other people are discouraged.  

Today we’re going to focus on both the causes and cures for discouragement. Let’s begin by looking at the causes.  

External Causes of Discouragement

There are two main types of discouragement – one set of problems come at us from the outside, the other set attacks us on the inside.  Let’s look first at the external causes.  The wall workers were initially excited.  They began the work with great anticipation and joy.  It says of them in verse 6 that the “people worked with all their heart.”   Things were going well, the people were excited, and the wall was going up.  Then something happened.  

Getting the work started on the wall was a major achievement, but keeping the workers working proved to be a much tougher assignment.  Someone has said that exhilaration is that feeling you get just after a great idea hits you and right before you realize what’s wrong with it.  

Where God is at work, the enemy is also at work.  Rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem was certainly no exception to this.  When people take kingdom priorities seriously, Satan stirs up agitators to block the work of God.   These enemies used two types of external forces.

1. The first one was ridicule. 

We see this in verses 1-2: “When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed.  He ridiculed the Jews…”

This is the third time in the book that we come across Sanballat, who was Nehemiah’s stiffest opposition.  Every time we read about him he is standing against the work of God, rejecting and ridiculing everything that Nehemiah is trying to accomplish.  Someone has said that ridicule is the “language of the devil.”  Those who can stand bravely when shot at will collapse when they are laughed at.  The enemy often insults the servants of God.  Goliath ridiculed David when the shepherd boy met the giant with only a sling in his hand (1 Samuel 17:41-47).  The soldiers mocked Jesus during his trial and the crowd taunted Him while he was hanging on the cross (Luke 22:63-65, 23:35-37).

Sanballat and his cronies had begun to ridicule the workers even before the work started in 2:19: “…they mocked and ridiculed us.”  Here in chapter 4, he is making a speech before the army of Samaria, intensifying the power of ridicule.

Notice that he called the workers “feeble.”  That word means “withered and miserable.”  Next he ridiculed the job they were doing by asking four taunting questions: “Will they restore their wall?”  That must have made the Samaritan army break out into laughter.  How could a remnant of feeble Jews hope to build a wall strong enough to protect the city from a mighty army?  “Will they offer sacrifices?”  Sanballat is saying that it will take more than prayer and worship to rebuild the city.  “Will they finish in a day?” suggests that the workers had no idea how difficult the task was and would soon stop what they were doing.  “Can they bring these stones back to life?”  indicates that their building materials were so old and damaged that they couldn’t possibly be used to make a strong wall.

In verse 3, it was Tobiah’s turn to ridicule the workers when he tried out a joke on them, “What they are building – if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!”  Archeological excavations on these walls revealed that they were nine foot thick – they would need more than a small fox to knock them down.  The workers became the punch line of every joke, and everyone got a laugh at their expense.  Tobiah hoped that his sarcasm would make the builders cast an apprehensive glance at their hard work and activate within them an avalanche of discouragement.

Friends, whenever you attempt to get involved in the work of God, you will always face ridicule.  Expect it and don’t stop working.

2. The second cause of their external discouragement was repression in verses 7-8

The enemies have moved from being bothered by the Jews to being very angry.  They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.  Warren Wiersbe writes, “God’s people sometimes have difficulty working together, but the people of the world have no problem uniting in opposition to the work of the Lord.”  

The references in verse 7 are to the four points of the compass. Sanballat and the Samaritans on the north, Ashdod on the west, Tobiah and the Ammonites on the east, and Geshem and the Arabs to the south.  The workers were surrounded and lived in constant fear of being ambushed

Internal Causes of Discouragement

Pressures from without often create problems within.  Opposition outside the ranks can lead to animosity on the inside.  It wasn’t the voice of the enemy that was the most pervasive; it was the voice of God’s own people.  And, just like today, it’s so easy to internalize the words of the enemy and feel like giving up.

Notice the first part of verse 10: “Meanwhile the people in Judah said…” Discouragement started first within the royal tribe of Judah.  They had David’s blood in their veins and you would think they would have had more faith and courage than the rest of the people.  They were looked upon as leaders and pacesetters.  If the tribe of Judah was bummed out, then the other tribes would be more inclined to give up the project as well.  

1. The first cause of internal discouragement was fatigue. 

Verse 10 reads, “Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, ‘The strength of the laborers is giving out…”  Simply put, the workers were tired.  They were hitting it hard and needed some rest.  The phrase “giving out” carries with it the idea of “staggering, tottering, and stumbling.”  

When you are physically drained, it is very easy to become discouraged at the slightest problem.  It’s also interesting to notice when the workers became fatigued and discouraged.  Verse 6 says that the wall was built to half its height.  Many times when we start a new project the first half goes quickly because we’re excited about accomplishing the goal.  

But, when the newness wears off and the work becomes routine and boring, then it’s easy to become fatigued.  And when you’re tired it’s easy to become discouraged and to begin to think that you will never finish the job.  Verse 10 says: “…we cannot rebuild the wall.”  They were ready to throw in the towel.  These are the same people who were described in verse 6 as those who worked with all their heart.

Tiredness can lead to discouragement

If you’re feeling fatigued today, watch out.  Tiredness can lead to discouragement.  Remember what God did when Elijah was tired – he sent an angel to give him some bread and something to drink and then told him to go back to sleep.  You cannot burn the candle at both ends on a long-term basis.  Sometimes the most spiritual thing to do is to go to bed.

2. The second thing that can happen is that you can get frustrated

Verse 10 continues by saying that there is “so much rubble” that they cannot rebuild the wall.  They became discouraged because they were so aggravated with the situation.  I’m sure they were encountering old broken rocks, dirt and dried-out mortar, and other debris that was underfoot.  This junk was everywhere.  And it was frustrating.

Just as they lost sight of their goal, so too we can lose sight of our goal when we have too much garbage in our lives.   Hebrews 12:1 challenges us to get rid of anything that causes us to be frustrated in our pursuit of godliness: “…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race marked out for us.”

I don’t know what the rubble is in your life but it may be television, it might be a possession you’re holding on to, or even an unhealthy relationship.  Is there a sin you’ve been playing around with too long?  Do you have a drinking problem, or are you involved in some other kind of entanglement that is tripping you up?  Something you’ve been doing in secret that you think no one else knows about?   As the writer to Hebrews says, “Throw it off so you don’t get tripped up.

3. Another cause of discouragement is fear. 

The enemies of the Lord’s work had struck fear in the hearts of God’s people and they felt like giving up.  Remember what they said in verse 10: “We cannot rebuild the wall.”

Did you notice in verse 12 who gets afraid the quickest?  “Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over ‘Wherever you turn, they will attack us.’” Those most affected by fear are those who lived near pessimistic people.  If you want to limit the depressing thoughts that bring fear into your life, then it’s best to not hang around with negative people.  It’s like the old saying, “If you’re going to soar with the eagles, you can’t run around with turkeys.”

Fear puts us in a frame of mind where we cannot only become discouraged, we can also be deceived.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but since most of you have already completed your assignment to read the book of Nehemiah, I’m going to give it away – the enemies never do attack Jerusalem!  In the book, Scared to Life, Douglas Rumford cites a study that shows why we shouldn’t let fear rule our lives (Marriage Partnership, Vol. 12, no. 2):

  • 60% of our fears are totally unfounded
  • 20% are already behind us
  • 10% are so petty they don’t make any difference
  • 5% are real, but we can’t do anything about them
  • 5% are real, and we can do something about them

The Cures for Discouragement

Now we know some of the causes of discouragement – ridicule and repression can lead to fatigue, frustration, and fear.   Let me tell you definitively that discouragement is a curable disease.  This is good news – you don’t have to live with a chronic condition anymore!  Let’s look briefly at three cures for discouragement.

  1. The first cure is to request God’s help.  In the jungles of Africa, a man was being pursued by a roaring, hungry lion.  Feeling the beast’s hot breath on his neck, and knowing his time was short, he broke out into prayer as he ran like crazy, “O, Lord, please make this lion a Christian.  Please make him a Christian!”  Within seconds, the frightened man noticed that the lion had stopped chasing him.  When he looked behind him, he found the lion kneeling and moving his lips in obvious prayer.  Greatly relieved at this turn of events, he got close enough to the lion to hear him pray, “And bless, Oh Lord, this food which I am about to receive.”

Nehemiah requested God’s help in chapter one for Jerusalem.  In chapter two, he prayed a “popcorn prayer” while he was in the presence of the king.  Now, in chapter four, he prays two different times.  He looked up before launching out, he prayed before proceeding. Take a look at his first prayer in verses 4-5: “Hear us, O 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.”  This was quite a prayer – he wasn’t praying for his enemies to become believers but instead for God to judge them.  This prayer was not nice, but it was understandable and honest.   He knew that the enemies were really fighting against God and so he asks God to deal with them.

He didn’t give lectures to the workers, organize raiding parties against the enemies, or create propaganda campaigns to put a different spin on things.  Here’s the principle we can learn from Nehemiah: When people talk against you, don’t talk back – talk to God.  Verse 9 tells us that they prayed to God and posted a guard.  When their enemies started talking, Nehemiah continued to pray, and the people continued to work.

  1. The second cure is to reorganize your priorities.   In verse 13 Nehemiah said, “Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest point of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows.”

Nehemiah had already organized the people in chapter 3 and they had finished half of their task.  Now, however, a new situation had come about that required a change in organization.  If the enemies were going to attack they would most likely do so at the weakest places.  So Nehemiah put guards at all the vulnerable spots. This served two purposes – it discouraged the enemy and it encouraged the people because it dealt with their fear.

When we’re discouraged, one of the things we can do is to reorganize our priorities.  You can look at your life.  You can adopt a change in approach instead of becoming so discouraged that you quit.  Do you have a problem in your marriage?  If so, don’t bail on your spouse!  Change your approach.  Adopt a new attitude.  Get some help.  Do you have a problem in your job?  Don’t give up!  Change your priorities.  Do you have a problem in your walk with God?  Don’t stop following Jesus!  Reorganize your schedule so you can meet with Him on a regular basis.  Plug into a small group.  Don’t be overcome by discouragement.  Do something about it!

In verse 16 the workers reorganized again by dividing responsibilities – half worked and the other half kept watch.  Those who worked used one hand for pushing the wheelbarrow, and with the other hand, they carried a weapon.  And, they worked together as a team. 

  1. If you want to defeat discouragement, the third thing you can do is to remember who God is.  After looking everything over and sensing the discouragement within his team, Nehemiah rallied his troops in verse 14: “…Don’t be afraid of them.  Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome…”  Nehemiah knew, even in the face of opposition, that the success of the wall was wholly dependent upon God who inspired its beginning.  Verse 10 was true – the people could not rebuild the wall on their own.  They needed to remember God and what He had promised.

I don’t know about you, but it’s easy for me to forget God when things are tough.  I need to be reminded that He is always there for me.  How do you remember the Lord?  By remembering that He will always be there for you.  We’re to remember that He is great and awesome.  God is more than able to deal with your discouragement.

So, when you’re down, turn your attention from your discouragement to the One who is able to do something about it.  God has been faithful to you in the past.  He is faithful to you today.  And He has promised to be faithful to you in the future.  Remember the Lord.  Remember His promises.  Remember His goodness.  Remember His power.  Our God is great and awesome!  Remember Him

The people complained about all the rubble in verse 10.  Question.  Wasn’t the rubble there in the beginning?  Of course it was.  The difference was that when they started the project they were focused on God and His character.  Now, they had become rubble-gazers.  Friend, if you focus on all the junk in your life, and in the lives of others, you will become discouraged.  Let’s determine to be God-gazers instead of rubble-gazers, OK?

Our Security Net

At the time it was completed in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world.  During the first phase of the project 23 men fell to their deaths in the icy water.  Murphy’s laws were in evidence!  Things were going from bad to worse because there were very few safety devices.  And so, when it was halfway completed, they decided to take another look and make some changes.  

Do you know what they did?  They reorganized and built the largest net ever made, and attached it under the area where the men were working.  Was it worth the cost and the time it took to do this?  Ask the ten men who fell into it without being injured!  Not only did it save those ten lives, I’m told that the work was completed in three-fourths the time because the workers no longer lived in fear of falling.

Friends, God’s great net of security spans this globe.  No matter where we live.  No matter what we’ve done.   No matter how discouraged we’ve been.  He’s stretched out His everlasting arms beneath us.  As a result, we can live and work freely and without fear, knowing that we are protected, safe and secure.   Discouragement can be defeated as we request His help, reorganize our priorities, and remember who He is.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?