Rewind: By 444 B.C. the city of Jerusalem had been in ruins for about one hundred years, serving as a constant reminder of the injustice done to the Israelites at the hands of the Babylonians. King Artaxerxes of Persia, the son of Esther’s husband King Xerses, was ruler over the Israelites. A Jewish man named Nehemiah held the dangerous yet honorable position of being royal cupbearer. Although his job was to put his own life in danger on a daily basis for the sake of the king, by testing his wine for poison, it’s fair to assume that a servant as trusted as Nehemiah would have led a pretty comfortable life. But, as is so common in the lives of believers, God soon placed a call on Nehemiah’s heart that demanded both attention and action.
Now, the Jews had been back home in Jerusalem for almost one hundred years, but the city was far from being rebuilt. In fact, aside from the restoration of the Temple in 516 B.C., few other construction projects had been completed, due in large part to the frequent raids on Jerusalem by neighboring war lords. The city was in dire need of protection, but the once strong walls, meant to keep out invaders, still lay scattered in heaps of rubble on the outskirts of town. When Nehemiah’s brother, Hanani, came for a visit and relayed this sad news, Nehemiah’s heart broke, and his soul became restless. He wept, fasted, and prayed for his fellow Jews. Soon enough, however, he came to recognize the longing in his heart for what it really was: a call to action from the Lord.
Traditionally, royal cupbearers (and most other royal servants) were expected to maintain a happy disposition in the presence of the king, so, when Nehemiah, visibly wracked with anxiety, presented Arataxerses with his daily wine, the king expressed his concern, or, at the very least, his curiosity. Nervously, Nehemiah explained the situation in Jerusalem, and, at the king’s prompting, asked for a leave of absence, during which he would go to Jerusalem and lend a hand in rebuilding the city. To Nehemiah’s great surprise and pleasure, the king granted his request.
Once he arrived in Jerusalem, Nehemiah met with other Jews, and quickly decided that the one thing he most needed to do was to rebuild the city walls. Thus, he assembled a large, talented, and very motivated team of men, and they started building, one brick at a time. The process was long, it was difficult, and it certainly stirred up a lot of discontent. In particular, the worst of all the war lords, Sanballot, made numerous attempts to prevent Nehemiah from completing his task.
Sanballot invited Nehemiah to dinner, threatened to kill him, and started very dangerous rumors concerning his loyalty to king Arataxerses. But, no matter the request or the complaint, Nehemiah’s answer was always the same, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (Ne. 6:3).
In the face of grave danger, Nehemiah maintained his composure, continued his work, and never once faltered in his reverence for the Lord. Even when the only safe place for him to hide was behind the closed doors of the Temple, a place laymen like himself were forbidden from going according to Jewish law, Nehemiah remained faithful. He remained on the wall. He understood that his great work was actually God’s great work, and refused to let anything deter him. He knew that building that wall was the one thing he absolutely had to do: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.”
So, what about you? What is the one thing that you just have to do this year? Maybe it’s a habit you need to make, or maybe it’s one you need to break. It could be a relationship you know you have to end, or it could be one you know you should start. Maybe it’s something as intangible as having the joy of the Lord in your heart each and every day. Maybe it’s finally turning away from the sin that has haunted you for all this time…
Whatever it is, your one thing won’t require extensive discernment. It won’t allude your attempts at identification, and it won’t hide in the shadows of your busy mind. Your one thing is something you feel deep in your bones. It might even be something you’ve felt deep in your bones for quite some time now. All you have to do is engage with that one thing long enough for it to convict you; just long enough for you to see that God’s DNA is all over it, and all over you.
Forming or breaking a habit, starting or ending a relationship, moderating or eliminating a negative tendency, seeking God’s face in a new way or running from temptation with more vigor than ever before…
This is your semester. This is your year. Don’t waste it only worrying about all of the earthly things you should be doing. Do what it is that you know you absolutely have to do. Recognize your one thing for what it truly is: a call God has placed on your heart to do a truly great work. So, get on your wall and stay there; don’t let anyone or anything bring you down.
— January 19, 2012, Aaron Bird
Pause: The story of Nehemiah summariazed above is taken from Nehemiah chapters 1-6, and it’s definitely a good place to start when meditating on your one thing… Here are a few other passages you may find helpful; in all things, seek to place the Lord first.
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 1 Cor. 10:13
Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. James 2:15-18
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. Colossians 2:6-8
Push Play: Nehemiah’s call was strong, steady, and undeniable. Even under threat of death, he stood firm. As terrifying as building that wall must have been for him at points, especially when Sanballot was threatening to kill him, it also must have been such a source of comfort for Nehemiah. He was so certain of his task, so convicted by the Lord’s prompting to return to Jerusalem and rebuild that wall, that he put everything else on hold, and boldly proclaimed that he was “doing a great work.” The man certainly was not lacking in confidence.
Oh, how I envy that certainty of purpose from time to time. Forming an honest answer to the question What is one great thing that you want to do? is overwhelming. It’s a question weighted down by implications, expectations, and the promise of time consuming deliberations. For most of us, a question like that can be temporarily paralyzing, because the future, in all of its immeasurable vastness, is where people and ideas get lost. For some, the intangible entity that is ‘the future’ has too much uncertainty to wade through comfortably, while for other sit serves as a safe space in which to deposit all of the desires they’re just too busy to attend to at the moment; either way, thinking about or planning for the future tends to trip people up.
But I think one of the key aspects of Nehemiah’s story, and one of the reasons why it is extremely relevant to our lives here in the 21st century, is that his conviction was for the present, not for the future. He wasn’t caught up in the planning; he was swept away by the doing. He wasn’t deceived into waiting for the perfect moment; he was inspired to act here and now. We could learn a lot from a guy like Nehemiah.
It’s time to stop being intimidated. It’s time to stop putting off the things you know you shouldn’t. It’s time to stop being distracted or discouraged by other commitments and obligations, because when they stand in the way of God’s call, those otherwise healthy commitments become idols, and that gets very dangerous very fast. It’s time to do what you have to do; what your soul longs to do; what you’re being called to do. Find your one thing, and then, brick by brick, step by step, victory by small victory, start building your wall.