The Cupbearer's Courage
It's funny how fear can feel like doing something, how constant worry can seem like progress.
In reality, I become a hamster on a hamster wheel, expending so much energy that I think I’m going somewhere. The grace in having an ulcer is that now I can immediately recognize when I am on the hamster wheel of anxiety, when fear is overtaking my heart. That burning pain in the pit of my stomach has become a very familiar feeling. It is like a double red warning flag hung at the beach, and I know, if I continue into the deep water of my fears, I will be pulled under by a riptide. I will find myself being drowned by the cares and burdens of this life. But I do not have to continue in that fateful direction. I have been given an out if only I will take it.
I had not expected to be confronted with a tangible witness against my fear when I started reading Nehemiah. That is one of the great delights of opening God’s word. You are reading along, a story so ancient you’re not sure you can relate, and then, suddenly, you are confronted with a truth that you are living every day.
The reality of the ancient script has invaded your present reality, and you find yourself reading a story that is so much like your story, you wonder if it was written for you.
That was my Nehemiah morning. Right there, in the middle of chapter 6, I found the cupbearer dealing with the same thing I deal with- fear. Nehemiah was called to what seemed like an impossible task- rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. The wall and its gates were in ruins. During Israel’s captivity it lay abandoned, a city decimated by war and left to rot. Not only did Nehemiah have the task of overseeing a daunting construction project, he also had to defend the city against its enemies while doing it. When I traveled to Israel, the tour guide told us the fields leading up to Jerusalem were full of more war artifacts than any other place on earth, as army after army marched to that holy city and made war against it. Why? Because the enemy does not want God honored. He does not want the house of God filled with praise or His people living in obedience. So he attempts to put fear in our hearts so we will stop obeying and sin against the Lord.
And just like the fields surrounding Jerusalem, my heart is surrounded by remnants of a constant battle as the enemy attempts to keep me from doing what I am called to do.
Nehemiah’s enemies couldn’t harm him physically, though they tried many times, so they decided to put fear into his heart instead. “It is reported among the nations…that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall. And…you wish to become their king…” (Neh.6:5-7). Nehemiah was being accused of treason, and all he had to do was “meet” with these guys (vs. 2) and it would supposedly all go away. And that’s all the enemy asks me to do when I am presented with a fearful situation…just roll it over and over in my mind and figure out a solution, with the enemy whispering in my ear, of course. It seems like such an innocent thing, trying to come up with a solution to a problem. Why not, right? If I throw enough resources at this thing, I can fix it. Yeah, I’ve been there. I know exactly how tempting this can be. The hamster wheel is calling…but Nehemiah doesn’t fall for it. Instead of caving to fear and anxiety and giving the enemy an audience and falling into sin, Nehemiah does the exact opposite. He sees what is really going on, “For they all wanted to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hands will drop from the work, and it will not be done,’“ and he turns to God and prays: “But now, O God, strengthen my hands” (vs. 9). Always, Satan is trying to make us weak and afraid, to stop the work God has called us to do. Always, our sinful tendency compels us to lean on ourselves instead of the Lord. I love how Nehemiah knows exactly what is going on, and I love how he confronts it by taking it to God in prayer.
And as Nehemiah continues in obedience, Satan continues in his unrelenting attack, just as he does with us today.
This time someone who seemingly could be trusted attempts to draw Nehemiah into sin by telling him to enter the Holy Place of the temple, a place he was not permitted to go. “Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple. Let us close the doors of the temple, for…They are coming to kill you by night” (vs. 10). Nehemiah could have reasoned that surely God wanted to save his life and that this person had his best interest at heart and was sent to save him. But once again, Nehemiah is faithful to his calling and refuses to fall into fear, saying, “I will not go in… I understood and saw that God had not sent him…he was hired, that I should be afraid and act in this way and sin, and so they could give me a bad name in order to taunt me” (vs. 11-13).
Nehemiah knew his life was in danger, but rather than scrambling to save himself, falling into sin in the process, he reacts with courage and seeks to honor his God.
But wait a minute. Nehemiah did have his workers armed in case there was an attack. He didn’t just pray for the best and then do nothing. So how are we to distinguish when we’ve fallen into sin by doing instead of trusting? When does thoughtful concern become sinful anxiety? Greg Gifford wrote a helpful article on this for the Biblical Counseling Coalition and says, “Perhaps the easiest way to describe the difference between concerns and anxieties is: Concerns are a thoroughfare, and anxieties are a cul-de-sac.” In other words, anxieties are dead ends that begin and end with self. Self-preservation kicks in, and we give little or no thought to God. Concerns, on the other hand, are thoroughfares because, “We take them to the God who knows, who cares, who feeds, who controls, and who is good.” Nehemiah recognized this, and instead of relying on self, he turned to God in faith, relying on the omniscient One for the courage to continue in obedience. Then, he took up arms and prepared for battle.
I am surrounded by grave concerns. Even now, there is a storm on the horizon of my life, its menacing clouds threatening to push me back onto the hamster wheel of anxiety. But today, I am choosing to give these fears to God, as Nehemiah did. And as I pondered Nehemiah’s strength and great faith, I turned back and read the first few chapters again. And there, in chapter 4, I realized how the cupbearer stayed obedient to his calling.
“Do not be afraid…Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome…” (vs. 14) Nehemiah knew who God was, and he acted on that knowledge.
In the end, fear is just me not remembering or believing who God is. Anxiety is the outworking of a heart that is absent of faith, a heart that believes I’m the only one who can make things right. But Nehemiah reminds me that when fears assail me, I have a choice to make: give in to them and fail to do the work I’ve been called to, or acknowledge them, remember the God I serve, pray for strength, and obediently continue in the task at hand. Not only did Nehemiah finish what he was called to do, but God got the glory and his enemies were disheartened (vs. 15-16). Jerusalem became a beacon to the nations once more as the law of God was read and the people were reminded,
“Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). And joy in the Lord is something that is worth mulling over.