Anna Karenina opens with the famous line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s novel goes on to explore some of those unique unhappinesses in different families, showing how the universal human condition is to struggle with this broken relationship with happiness. We have all at some point suffered some great disappointment. Or we have been devastated by a moral failing or an unexpected death of a loved one or a crisis in our lives. Sometimes it can seem so insurmountable, so completely defeating, that we can’t see the way forward. We feel hopeless and heartbroken. “This life is not long,” Andrew Peterson sings, “but it’s hard.”
This is how Nehemiah feels surveying the piles of burned rubble that once comprised the glorious walls of the city of Jerusalem. They are more than just stones to the people of Israel. They are reminders of the promises God has made to them. They are testaments to the lovingkindness of their covenant God who protects them and fights for them. And now they lie in ruin.
Rebuilding takes courage and action, and Nehemiah is a man of both, so he rallies the people to get to work. What does this look like in our lives? We can call it trauma. We can call it emotional baggage. We can call it heartache or despair or hopelessness. It’s all rubble, and it all needs to be dealt with before we can rebuild. Emotional work is arguably harder than physical work. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could spend a few hours stacking heavy stones to work out our troubles! It sure would be cheaper than therapy! But the point is, if we are going to rebuild our lives and start new, we must clear out the rubble in our lives and get to work. Heart work is hard work.
But as followers of Christ, we are never working alone. Nehemiah chapter 4 details the incredible outcome that results from a tight-knit community of one mind working together. The people rallied and “had a mind to work.” Some labored on the wall while others stood guard for protection from their enemies. In the same way, we are co-laborers with Christ and with each other in the kingdom of God. Sometimes I have work to do, and you have my back; other times you are clearing out rubble while I hold you up. We are all vital to the work. We are all a means of God’s grace to each other.
And most importantly, as Nehemiah tells his people in verse 14, “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome.” God has not left us alone. In fact, he hasn’t left us at all. He came himself into the wreckage of our lives where he does the work of clearing the rubble out of our hearts and he holds us up while he does it. He is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises to his people. 1 Peter 2:5 tells us, “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Jesus is the better Nehemiah because while Nehemiah built a wall of stones, Jesus builds a spiritual house with us as the living stones holding it up. Nehemiah worked for God under the threat of death, while Jesus, who is God, went willingly to his death.
Peter goes on: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (9-10). In Nehemiah chapter 3, Eliashib the high priest was one of the first to get to work on the wall; he set an example for the others to follow. But now, you and I are a royal priesthood chosen by God to receive the great gift of his mercy in order to proclaim his excellencies. It’s up to you and to me: we are the workers, and there is much work to be done.
And for those of us who are still caught up in the rubble? Who are so overwhelmed by the devastation in our lives that we can’t see the way ahead to take even the first step down the path to a new life? What of us? Peter reminds us not to be surprised when we suffer in this world. It is broken, after all. Even the son of God came here to suffer, and when we go through hard stuff we remember that we join him in his sufferings. Trust God, Peter says, your creator, who is good and who cares for you. “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (5:10).
Andrew Peterson’s song Faith to be Strong goes on like this:
Give us faith to be strong
Give us strength to be faithful
This life is not long, but it’s hard
Give us grace to go on
Make us willing and able
Lord, give us faith to be strong
Give us peace when we’re torn
Mend us up when we break
This flesh can be wounded and shaking
When there’s much too much trouble for one heart to take
Give us peace when we’re torn
This is my prayer for you and for me and for all of us. We know we will have troubles in this world. But take heart, friends, because Jesus has overcome the world. He has given us each other and he has given us himself. There’s nothing we can’t do. So let’s remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and let’s get to work.
Written By: Jess Glass