I bet this happens in your life because I know it happens in mine. Somewhere in your house—or your workplace, or your car—stuff collects. For me, it’s the garage. Things just seem to collect in my garage. And in my case the “stuff” is usually little slips of paper: receipts, notes, or cards that somehow fall out of the car and onto the floor of the garage. The first couple of times I see these slips of paper lying there, I choose not to do something about it. I’m in a hurry, or I’m cold, or I’m trying to evade the cat, and I think, “Well, I’ll just get that later.” And then later turns into never, and eventually I stop seeing it altogether. I get used to it. The dirt, the paper, or whatever other mess simply becomes part of the garage scenery. I stop noticing what shouldn’t be there, and I come to regard it as part of what should. Eventually, paper and mess covers the floor of the garage, and it’s all but invisible to me.
I know that I’m not the only one who does this. In some ways, it’s human nature. It’s why you have piles of useless stuff in your house, why your workspace is out of alignment, why your car doubles as a closet, and why even the tidiest person alive has a place somewhere in his life that is cluttered, crumbling, messy. It’s not this way because we like the mess. It’s because we have used to it. We have come to accept it.
This happens more than in the garage, or the house, or the car, or the closet. It happens in life. We get used to things that shouldn’t be there. We settle. It’s one of the saddest things for me to observe as pastor, when people get used to having stuff in their selves or their relationships that they should actually never tolerate. But I see it happen far too often, because, as novelist Anthony Abbot says, “life stops hurting so much when you give up dreaming it could be any different.”
I’ve seen it happen with abuse, where people have gotten used to the verbal, psychological, or even physical abuse that happens in their households. Or I’ve seen it happen the other way, where people become accustomed to doling the abuse out. They’ve gotten used to expressing their vitriol much too freely, with no filter between their thoughts and their words. Others have gotten used to addictive behavior in themselves or in their family. Either they’re the ones who indulge in it (“just a little!”) or the ones who enable it. It’s easy to justify the behavior, so it becomes a part of one’s life. Or it’s just easier to co-exist than to deal with it, so all in all one gets used to it. It happens in the professional world as well. Sometimes people who lead at work actually get used to low-performers. They settle into an equilibrium in which it is easier to co-exist and compensate for what should be unacceptable performance. In all these instances, something is out of place. Something is wrong, making a mess, but you get used to it and so it stays. Eventually it just becomes part of the scenery.
In my own world, there was a period of time for which I had settled as a pastor. Until about eight years ago or so, I had settled on a method of sermon design that was simple, but had become stale. It was easy and familiar, and it was all I knew, but it wasn’t as effective as it could have been. I had just gotten used to it.
In the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, the children of Israel had begun to treat their capital city of Jerusalem much like I treat my garage: they’d gotten used to it. Its walls were disintegrating, its security was breached, and its moral was in decline. Into that kind of setting comes Nehemiah, and his first job as a newcomer is to see what long-timers have overlooked.
Nehemiah’s fresh eyes are able to record what the people of the city had become numb to. The Jews living in the midst of their clutter and failure had given up dreaming that life could be any different. They had settled. They had gotten used to their mess, and you never get rid of what you get used to. Whether it’s a garage in Charlotte in 2016 or a wall in Jerusalem in 445 BC, the truth is the same: if you get used to it, you don’t get rid of it. Nehemiah’s reconnaissance was the fresh eyes the people of Jerusalem needed to point out what they should not have tolerated.
After his inspection, Nehemiah tells the leaders of the city his plans: “So I said to them, ‘You see the trouble that we’re in: Jerusalem is in ruins, and its gates are destroyed by fire! Come, let’s rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we won’t continue to be in disgrace’” (Nehemiah 2:17). The best word in Nehemiah’s speech is “we’re.” As in, “we are.” Nehemiah doesn’t use the word “I,” but “we.” He is one of them, one of the people of Jerusalem. Even though he’s only been in that place for about five days after growing up hundreds of miles away, Nehemiah regards himself as one of them. Because of ancestry, because of history, and because of his connection to God, it only takes him five days to become a Jerusalemite. This means that his inspection of the city was not for his benefit only, but for the benefit of all the citizens. His inspection opened not only his eyes but theirs as well, enabling them to see the damage they’d gotten used to.
The people’s enthusiastic response to Nehemiah’s plan shows that he truly has opened their eyes: “Let’s start rebuilding!” (Nehemiah 2:18). They’re on board! They suddenly see the evidence of Jerusalem’s disgrace and decide to stop tolerating it. They begin the work “eagerly” (verse 18), committing themselves to get rid of the disgrace that they had gotten used to. And the rest of Nehemiah’s memoir is exactly that story, how Nehemiah mobilizes the people for ministry and productivity. If we are to pursue God’s solutions in a world of problems the way that Nehemiah did, here is what we can learn from his example: You only get rid of what you refuse to get used to.
What in your life have you gotten used to that you now know it’s time to get rid of?
The above is an excerpt from Chapter Two of Solve, recently released by Abingdon Press and well-reviewed on Amazon. You can order your own copy of Solve here.