Men of the Spirit
A Study of Nehemiah
Dr. Jim Denison
Nehemiah gives us an example of a national spiritual movement, one which saved a nation on the brink of collapse. What they did, God is calling us to do.
The most important lesson I have learned in 36 years of Christian faith is that God wants an intimate relationship with me before he wants anything else from me. My first priority is to love him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. Before he wants me to write, or teach, or preach, or do anything else, he wants me to love him. He wants me to seek him passionately and personally.
He wants the same from you. He has led me to tell two stories—our text, alongside my personal spiritual revival. Then we will see if these stories relate to your story today.
Choose to seek God
The story begins with the decision to seek God. “On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads” (v. 1).
The people have completed the Feast of Tabernacles (15th to 22nd day) and the national assembly which followed (23rd day). Now they “gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads.” Fasting was required only on the Day of Atonement, but here they entered into a fast in their desire to know God more intimately. They were “wearing sackcloth,” a dark coarse cloth made from goats’ hair, used for mourning. They had “dust on their heads,” another sign of mourning and grief.
“Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners” (v. 2a). They had intermarried with the people they found in the land, but now they returned to the purity God intended for them. “They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers” (v. 2b). This was public repentance for the national spiritual crisis before them.
“They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God” (v. 3). They stood for three hours, listening to the word of God; then they spent another three hours in confession and worship.
Here’s my story: The Ignatius House is a Jesuit Catholic retreat center on the Chattahoochee River, north of Atlanta. When I was pastor at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta, our ministry staff spent two days there in a “silent retreat.”
We’d taken planning retreats before, but this was our first spiritual trip together, a program for nothing but solitude with God. From Monday noon to Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. we weren’t allowed to speak. I went to see if such a miracle could actually occur, not the least in my own life.
Our retreat director gave us a series of essays to read at various times. I’d like to read to you from the essay which he gave us at the very beginning of the retreat. It’s by Mike Yaconelli, a well-known writer and one of my favorite Christian columnists.
I lost my soul.
I mean, I didn’t know I had one.
What I really mean is, I knew I had one, but I had never come in contact with it.
I came from a tradition where souls were a theological reality, not a faith reality. Souls were for saving, not for communing. Souls were for converting and, once they were converted, they were to be left alone. Souls were too mystical, too subjective, too ambiguous, too risky, too . . . well, you know–New Age-ish.
I came from a wonderful evangelical tradition that has always lifted up the integrity of the Word of God, the significance of the Church, the centrality of salvation. But that same tradition, in the past few years, has seen an epidemic of moral failure. In a tradition that has always placed a high value on morality, moral failure has become a common occurrence. There seems to be an ever-increasing amount of defections from the faith. More and more of my friends are dropping out, giving up, or just placing their faith on the shelf for awhile.
We have lost touch with our souls. We have been nourishing our minds, our relational skills, our theological knowledge, our psychological well-being, our physiological health . . . but we have abandoned our souls.
Our souls have been lost.
Up until a few months ago, I had no idea I had lost my soul somewhere. In the busyness and clutter of my life, as I traveled all over the world serving God, I thought my soul was just fine, thank you. But my soul wasn’t fine. I spent hours every day doing God’s work, but not one second doing soul work. I was consumed by the external and oblivious to the internal. In the darkness of my soul, I was stumbling around and bumping into the symptoms of my soullessness–I was busy, superficial, friendless, afraid, and cynical—but I didn’t know where all these negative parts of my life were coming from.
What happened to him, happened to me. Has it happened to you?
Enter his presence with praise and thanksgiving
The Bible says that we “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4). How do we step into further intimacy with God? We find help in Nehemiah:
Choose to praise God (vs. 4-5).
Exalt him for who he is (v. 6) (note that God is the subject of every sentence from verse 6 to 150.
Honor him for all he has done for you (vs. 7-15)
At the retreat in Atlanta, I realized that I had lost touch with my soul, like Yaconelli. Let’s look at Nehemiah, then I’d like to tell you how the risen Christ helped me find my soul again. It’s just possible that some of you need to find yours again, too.