Nehemiah, Sanballat, Opposition, And Christmas

In the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, the title character has a dreaded and persistent opponent named Sanballat.

And . . . we all have Sanballats in our lives.  Athletically, professionally, spiritually, and personally.  So how to deal with them?  Here are some thoughts from my book Solve:

First: Don’t defend yourself. Many, many Sanballats operate by distraction. Their goal is to distract you from what you need to be doing. They seek to control a situation by asking questions that don’t need to be answered. That’s worth repeating: Some people seek to control a situation by asking questions that don’t need to be answered. That’s what Sanballat and Tobiah did. They asked Nehemiah and the builders, “What are you doing?…Are you rebelling against the king?” (Nehemiah 2:19). They even turned this question into a formal accusation with which they threaten Nehemiah (see Nehemiah 6:6-7). All of this amounted to a distraction that didn’t deserve a reply. Nehemiah had official royal backing from the beginning of his journey; he didn’t need to bother answering their question or their accusation. Nehemiah wisely recognized their question for what it was: a distraction. And he didn’t let it side-track him.

You can waste all kinds of time and all kinds of energy trying to answer what can’t be, and shouldn’t be, answered at all. I remember back at Christmas in 2010, when Good Shepherd Church did the sermon series called What Child Is This? The congregation gave $207,000 to fight sex trafficking in India. It was incredible, and there girls walking free today because of the good work we did that Christmas. A short time therafter, someone asked the question: “Where was the star?” We hadn’t gone all-out on Christmas stage décor that year because we had a higher calling to free girls being raped for profit. But…where was the star? I have to tell you, if your take-away from a Christmas Eve about freedom for sex slaves was that your decorated Bethlehem star got taken away…who has time to address that? I didn’t. Don’t defend yourself. Depend on God.

Second: Keep at it. I said earlier that Sanballats love to turn your attention and your energy away from the important work you are called to do. If they can’t stop the work, they will try to slow it down. Sanballat and the others tried to lure Nehemiah into an ambush, sending messengers five different times to call him to a meeting (Nehemiah 6:1-7). His response each time is simple: “I’m doing important work so I can’t come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it to come down to you?” I love that! Nothing fancy, just “I’m busy!” And so are you. After you thank God for that oppositionist reminder to lean on God more, put your head down and get back to work. Nehemiah’s relentless focus on the work of the wall—which was really God’s work—allowed him to push through despite the heavy opposition that he faced. That kind of focus is a good example for us to follow. In 2011, almost everything about Good Shepherd Church place changed. Why? Because, as I mentioned in Chapter Two, we refocused ourselves singularly around our mission of inviting all people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ. That power and focus of that mission puts the words of Nehemiah 6:3 in all our mouths: I’m doing important work, so I can’t come down.” I get up every day wondering, “What massively small step can this church take today to invite all people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ?”

We can learn a lot from Nehemiah’s response to his enemies. But the most important insight is this: Opposition isn’t the enemy. Self-reliance is. It’s about God, not us. And Nehemiah’s enemies were a gift precisely because they moved him recognize that crucial fact. Every time the encountered their hostility, he turned to God. Look again at the irony of Nehemiah 6:16: “All of the nations around us were afraid and their confidence was greatly shaken. They knew that this work was completed with the help of our God.” Nehemiah was not afraid of his oppositionists; they were afraid of his God. When we are weak, then we are strong. God gives opposition to grow desperation.


If you found this helpful, you may want to pick up a copy of Solve for you or someone you love at Christmas.  You can do so here.