Rebuilding Requires Overcoming Internal Conflict
Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together
How does Jesus lead us in overcoming internal conflict? Our passage provides us with three ways: 1. Speak the truth in love. 2. Respond to truth with humility.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Miracle. Miracle recounts the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. The team was made up of amateur players who competed for rival college hockey teams before being selected to play together for the U.S. Olympic Team. The result was that the team was so full of in-fighting and internal conflict that they were absolutely shredded by their international competition during their Olympic preview games. It’s clear that the team’s only hope for external success is to first overcome their internal conflicts and play in unity. And that’s the message of Nehemiah 5. Nehemiah is all about rebuilding together after hardship. Last week we learned that rebuilding requires that we keep rebuilding in the face of external opposition. In Nehemiah 5, the focus shifts from external opposition to internal conflict that threatens the viability of the entire rebuilding project. And that brings us to the big idea of our passage this morning: rebuilding requires overcoming internal conflict.
This coming Memorial Day will mark ten years since Andrea and I moved to Philadelphia with Pete and Jackie Horning to begin the process of planting Citylight Church. We have loved the last ten years! And I can tell you without hesitation that Citylight Church has never experienced a season as ripe for unresolved internal conflict among church members and between members and leaders than the one we are in right now. Perfect! That means we have never experienced a season more pregnant with opportunity to show off Jesus’s power to unite his diverse people in love so that we can rebuild together after hardship in a divided world. How does Jesus lead us in overcoming internal conflict? Our passage provides us with three ways: 1. Speak the truth in love. 2. Respond to truth with humility.
SPEAK THE TRUTH IN LOVE (vv. 1-5)
Nehemiah 5 begins with a significant internal conflict among the people of God. Nehemiah 5:1: Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. In verses 2-5, God’s people who are rebuilding the wall lay out a specific way that their nobles and officials, their wealthy brethren, are seriously sinning against them. During Nehemiah’s time, God’s people survived by farming. However, the men who would normally do the farming were busy obeying Nehemiah’s order to rebuild the wall. The result was that the large farming families didn’t have enough food to survive. What did they do? They began mortgaging their fields, vineyards, and their homes to their wealthy brothers at interest, which was expressly forbidden in Deuteronomy 23:19-20. To make matters worse, these poorer families still had to pay the taxes on their fields to Artaxerxes King of Persia. Since they had no money to pay taxes to Xerxes, these poorer Jews had to borrow money from their wealthy brethren. The only way they could pay their debt to their wealthier Jewish brethren was to sell their kids to them in indentured servitude to work off the debt. As a result of the sin and injustice, the people of God have a serious internal conflict to overcome if they’re going to continue rebuilding after hardship. Two observations on the way that the Jewish people confront their brothers who are creating internal conflict that threatens to halt the rebuilding. First, they speak the truth. What courage it must have taken for them to clearly confront their powerful brethren concerning their sin. Second, they speak the truth in love. For people who have been so mistreated, their words are incredibly measured. They don’t accuse motives or judge hearts, or sin when confronting sin. When we can’t genuinely overlook an offense, we overcome internal conflict by speaking the truth in love.
Question: Who can you speak the truth in love to for the sake of rebuilding together? Who in our church do you sense you have even a low-grade distance from or disunity with that you can help overcome by speaking the truth in love? I realize any time we talk about the Bible’s teaching to speak the truth in love, it may sound like I’m saying to not be angry when you’ve been wronged or abused or experienced oppression or hardship. I’m not. I’m saying that in the face of it all, our response should still reflect the very character of Jesus: full of love and truth. Nehemiah 5:1-5 helps us with the practicalities of speaking the truth in love. Instead of speaking about feeling vaguely hurt, be clear and direct about what actually happened and the ensuing results of the wrong. No vague generalities or beating around the bush (all truth). But resist the temptation to go beyond speaking the truth about what actually happened to embellishing or accusing motives. Speak the truth in love, not in attack, vitriol, or cold detachment. Speak in such a way that makes it both really difficult for the other to misunderstand you and as easy as possible for the other to respond to truth with humility. One of the challenges when it comes to speaking the truth in love is that we often picture truth and love as occupying two opposite seats on a seesaw. We think if one goes up the other inevitably goes down. The Bible conceives of truth and love more like two boats tied to the same doc that rise together as the tide comes in and fall together as the tide goes out. Who can you speak the truth in love to so that we can overcome internal conflicts and rebuild together after hardship? The second way that we overcome internal conflict for the sake of rebuilding together is…
RESPOND TO TRUTH WITH HUMILITY
When Nehemiah hears the truth spoken in love, he’s angry and introspective. Nehemiah 5:6-7: “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. I took counsel with myself…” Then Nehemiah gathers all of God’s people together in one large assembly and charges the nobles and the officials with a lawsuit of sorts. After Nehemiah repeats their sins, he gets to the heart of the matter. Nehemiah 5:9: So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? Let’s see how the nobles, officials, and Nehemiah himself respond. Nehemiah 5:10-12, 13b: Moreover, I [Nehemiah] and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. 11 Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” 12 Then they said, “We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.” And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised…And all the assembly said “Amen” and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.
Wow! They respond to truth with humility! Citylight, the way that we overcome internal conflict is by responding to the truth spoken in love with the humility of what the Bible calls repentance. I’ve repeated the definition of repentance from the Westminster Shorter Catechism to you a hundred times because I like it so much. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of and endeavor after new obedience. One observation that Ray Ortlund Jr. has shown me through his writing: the outcome of repentance is not a restored status quo, getting back to “normal,” getting back to where we were before we sinned, evading the consequences of sin. The outcome of true repentance is new obedience, unprecedented obedience, perhaps unheard-of obedience. Newness of life. That’s what we see in Nehemiah 5. Moved by the fear of God and the urgency of rebuilding together, Nehemiah, the nobles, the officials, and the priests walk in unprecedented new obedience. The result is that everyone unites in uproarious praise to Yahweh. These previously divided people enjoy greater warmth and unity than before the sin that divided them. That’s what happens when we respond to truth with humility and it is way better than getting back to normal! Through humble repentance, our unity and warmth are advanced to new vistas not yet seen and we receive fresh power from God to rebuild together. In the movie Miracle, when rival players from the University of Minnesota and Boston University lay down their hostility toward one another, the result isn’t a mere cease fire. With the animosity dealt with, former enemies actually become best friends, fighting for one another in their pursuit of a common mission. One of the saddest things in the church is when speaking the truth in love is met with a perfunctory apology that leaves the relationship colder than before. When a fellow church member or a sermon or a CG convicts us, let’s respond in humility for the sake of rebuilding together. Let’s look together at what receiving the truth with humility can look like in real life.
After the nobles and officials, motivated by the fear of God, reform the way they treat their poorer brothers, the chapter ends with Nehemiah detailing the way that he responds to the injustice. Nehemiah 5:14-15, 17-18: Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. 15 The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God… 17 Moreover, there were at my table 150 men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. 18 Now what was prepared at my expense for each day was one ox and six choice sheep and birds, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people. Nehemiah overcomes internal conflict and disunity through generosity. As governor, Nehemiah had the freedom and legal right to tax God’s people in order to feed the 150 men who ate at daily at his table. Instead of exercising his rights, Nehemiah walks in generosity. Generosity is the spirit and action of freely and frequently giving to others.
CUT AND REPLACE THIS PARAGRAPH There is something profoundly unifying about generosity. There is a family in my Citygroup that is uniquely devoted to caring for the poor, specifically a materially impoverished family that is not part of Citylight Church. They’ve been caring for the family for years, somewhat alone. But lately, other members of our Citygroup have begun to generously support this family in our group as they provide for some of the needs of this impoverished family. This past week the mom of the family in our group shared just how much the generosity has made her feel unified with the group and not alone in the ministry that the Lord has called her to. That’s the power of generosity to unite God’s people. When we are all freely and frequently giving away our money to the advance of the gospel through our church, it leads us all to have the sense that we are truly rebuilding together after hardship. Jesus himself said that our hearts are where our money is. When we are all generously and sacrificially giving our money to the advance of the gospel in and through the church, then our hearts are united to the church.
Rebuilding requires overcoming internal conflict. Thankfully, unity with one another is not a status we need to earn, it’s a privilege that we get to enjoy. When our own sins cried out for justice and judgment, our God did not prosecute us for our guilt. Rather, he took on flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ. He was tempted in every way that we are yet without sin. And then on the cross he was willingly prosecuted for our sins. He took the just penalty for every sin and act of injustice that we’ve ever committed. He generously gave his body to be broken and his blood to be shed so that all who receive and rest in him will be free from eternal prosecution by grace alone. And through his death and resurrection, the Lord Jesus Christ has broken down the dividing wall that separates us, making us one united people by grace. In Christ, every conflict is overcome. Every wrong has been paid for. And by grace we walk in the privilege of eagerly maintaining the spirit of unity in the bond of peace. Unity is a gift we receive, enjoy, and eagerly maintain by speaking the truth in love, responding to truth with humility, and walking in generosity, all by grace alone.
I suppose you may want to know how Miracle ends. The U.S. Olympic hockey team, made up of amateurs who were previously enemies and rivals, overcame their internal conflict by prizing their mission more than their differences. That mission: defeating the powerhouse Soviet Olympic Hockey Team. And as a united team they did just that. Bleacher Report has called their gold medal the greatest Cinderella Story in sports history. Extraordinary things happen when we overcome internal conflicts. Motivated by the gospel of grace and the fear of the Lord, let’s speak the truth in love, lay down our sins, and lay down our freedoms to overcome every internal conflict and rebuild together.