I have been leading our church through a study of Ezra and Nehemiah on Wednesdays recently. We have discussed much about the rebuilding of the Temple and walls of Jerusalem. We looked at the significance of rebuilding these structures and of the gates of the city as well.
As you who have studied these books know, there are a few characters who show up early in the book of Nehemiah that seek to discredit Nehemiah's leadership and put a stop to the work being done in the city. These men are Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem.
The main protagonists are Sanballat and Tobiah. At first, they start hurling insults at Nehemiah and the people. Then, the threats lead to potential physical attacks. They are opposed to the work of God and are doing their best to stop it.
Nehemiah is seeking to lead God's people well and honor God through the work. The enemies seek to place themselves first, not God nor his people. This is clear in the writings.
Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem were men of influence. They had authority in the community due to their roles as governors and leaders of their regions. They represented people groups that were originally expelled from the Promised Land of God's people centuries prior.
While it's not necessarily a good thing to ask "Where am I in this story?" when it comes to biblical narratives, primarily because that seems to place self at the center of God's stories. In this case, there are some things that are not only clear historically, but applicable for churches and Christian leaders today.
There are always Sanballats and Tobiahs
Most pastors I know have experienced this reality. When a pastor or Christian leader seeks to do great, impossible, God-sized things for the glory of God, there is always opposition. In other words, there's always a "Sanballat" and "Tobiah" in the midst. These may be community members or neighbors. Sometimes, they are actually members of the church.
Over time they become easily recognizable. Here are some things that occur within the church that reveal a Sanballat and Tobiah may be in the room:
- A sense of "me first" or "our group first" rises to the surface when community engagement and mission expansion are presented.
- A pervasive negativity fills the room and is stoked by the Sanballats and Tobiahs. Negativity is like a cancer and can turn a joyous gathering of Christians into a complain-fest that sees nothing positive happening.
- Vision dissipates.
- A desire to go back rather than forward is often expressed.
- An "us versus them" mentality is expressed, either overtly or covertly. The confusion may come in identifying the "us" and the "them."
- New ideas (or even old ones cemented in biblical truth) are opposed.
- A number of pastors have heard the "We were here before you came here. We'll be here after you're gone." expression regularly.
- A continued reminder of how big a failure you are as a pastor or leader (i.e. "You didn't visit enough," "Your sermons are negative diatribes," "You love 'them' more than 'us,'" "You're changing things and we don't like it," "Your family is rude/mean/loud/unruly/undisciplined/etc."
Here's the good news - your Sanballats and Tobiahs are just members of a long-lasting club. It's a club no one should want to be a member, yet continues to grow in number, it seems.
Pastor, be encouraged. There's no pastor who has not faced this. You are called to shepherd and serve. You are not perfect. You will make mistakes. Believe me, people will let you know when you make mistakes. Just remember that God called and equipped a king's cupbearer for an impossible task of rebuilding a stone wall with large wooden gates around a city. This task he (Nehemiah) was given was impossible. Then, while continually facing opposition, even from those who were working with him, he was opposed by Sanballat and Tobiah. Yet, he finished the task. The city was restored. God's good hand (Neh 2) was upon him. It is on you as well. Stay focused on the task, grounded in the gospel and respond to the negative attackers as Nehemiah did...
And I sent messengers to them, saying, “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?” Nehemiah 6:3 (ESV)
I love that! When Sanballat and Tobiah were working once more to distract and stop the work Nehemiah was called to do, he responds with "Can't talk now. The work of God I am doing now is too important."
Take heart. You're not the first to face opposition. You' won't be the last. Don't waste time talking about it to those who are direly opposed to God and his work (regardless their position or title) and press on. Yes, this is easier said than done, but then most vital things are.
One other warning: Be careful not to become a Sanballat or Tobiah. It's really easy to slide into that mode, even justifying one's own sin while doing so.