How a Leader Handles Criticism (Nehemiah 4:1-6)

We're going to spend a few minutes tonight looking at how a leader handles criticism. One of the great tests of leadership is always how one responds to critics. If you are going to be a leader, then criticism is part of the job description. You are going to be criticized no matter what you do.

There is no such thing as opportunity without opposition. If you are going to lead - in fact, if you are going to live - you are going to be criticized. Bill Cosby once said, "I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody." The problem with a lot of churches, and a lot of ministries, is that they have been trying to please everyone. There's a very real sense in which you can't serve effectively until you know how to handle criticism.

Some of you are probably a little discouraged right now, because every time you step out and try to do something, you're criticized. Some of you might even have stepped back from active ministry because you're tired of the heat. You never knew what you were signing up for. My goal tonight is to encourage you and to give you some principles that you can use in dealing with criticism. These principles are found in the book of Nehemiah. The first principle is this:

1. EXPECT CRITICISM

Nehemiah 4 says:

Sanballat was very angry when he learned that we were rebuilding the wall. He flew into a rage and mocked the Jews, saying in front of his friends and the Samarian army officers, "What does this bunch of poor, feeble Jews think they are doing? Do they think they can build the wall in a day if they offer enough sacrifices? Look at those charred stones they are pulling out of the rubbish and using again!"

Tobiah the Ammonite, who was standing beside him, remarked, "That stone wall would collapse if even a fox walked along the top of it!" (Nehemiah 4:1-3)

From here we learn the first principle. Never be surprised by criticism. Expect it. You can guarantee that no matter what decision you make, no matter what actions you take, you will be criticized. It's just a fact. There's not a person in the Bible who did anything for God and was not criticized. If Jesus was criticized, you will be criticized too.

Why will you be criticized? John Maxwell, at his first church, attended a congregational meeting as a young pastor. To his alarm, a vote at the meeting passed by only about 90%. Maxwell went home and called his dad, who was also a pastor and said, "Dad, my vote passed by only 90%. What should I do? Resign?" His dad laughed as he responded and said, "I know you, son, and it's the best vote you'll ever get. Stay and see it through." You can always count on at least 10% opposing you no matter what you do.

Why will you be opposed? For one thing, vision is a very easy thing to criticize. Nehemiah had a vision, and visions attract criticism. To make it worse, visions are very difficult to defend against criticism. "The very nature of a vision is that there is far more solid information on the what side of the equation than the how side" (Andy Stanley). A cynic will always be able to poke holes through a vision - even a God-given vision. That's just the nature of what a vision is.

Another reason you'll be criticized is because your decisions and your actions are going to be a threat to someone else. Sanballat and Tobiah had a vested interest. They didn't want the walls of Jerusalem to be rebuilt. Sometimes you're going to step on toes and challenge someone's vested interest. Leadership, by definition, is about change, and change, by definition, is a threat to people. You're going to step on someone's toes every time you lead or serve.

Sometimes we deserve the criticism. Whenever megachurch pastor is questioned about how he reacts when his methods are attacked, he quotes something that his mentor, Gil Bilezikian, told him years ago: "Bill, sometimes your critics are your best critics." Sometimes we deserve the criticism that we receive.

In any case, never be surprised by criticism. Principle number one is this: expect criticism.

Principle two:

2. SOURCE THE CRITICISM

You may or may not be familiar with the names Sanballat and Tobiah. But let me give you two quotes from earlier in the book of Nehemiah that describe who they are:

But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard of my arrival, they were very angry that someone had come who was interested in helping Israel. (Nehemiah 2:10)

But when Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem the Arab heard of our plan, they scoffed contemptuously. "What are you doing, rebelling against the king like this?" they asked. But I replied, "The God of heaven will help us succeed. We his servants will start rebuilding this wall. But you have no stake or claim in Jerusalem." (Nehemiah 2:19-20)

Who were Sanballat and Tobiah? Enemies of Israel, and enemies of God. That's all that Nehemiah needed to know when he faced their criticism. If they opposed God, of course they're going to criticize Nehemiah. The second principle you must follow in handling criticism is to source the criticism. The source will often tell you more than the criticism itself.

Now, sometimes criticism from an offbeat source is valid. Don't just trash criticism because it comes from a disagreeable person. Once in a while, that disagreeable person will be right in what they say. But always consider the source. Learn to recognize that some people are naturally critical. Len Sweet writes:

What is true in nature is true of human nature: 95 percent of the seed you plant is good, 5 percent is bad. You can trust 95 percent of the people; the other 5 percent of the people are crooks, cranks, cheaters, and crackpots. Do you live your life ruled by the 95 percent or the 5 percent? (Soul Salsa p.99)

Some years ago, I heard a speaker say, "Every church is going to lose people. You have no choice about that. But you have another choice: you can choose who you lose. You can choose to lose your winners, or you can choose instead to lose your whiners." He may have been a little bit blunt, but he was right. You are going to be criticized - you can't escape that. But you can choose your critics. You can either choose to accept the cranky 5%, or you can live to try to please them and lose the support of the 95% who are positive. When criticized, always take the second step of sourcing your criticism. The source will often tell you more than the criticism itself.

Principle three:

3. PRAY ABOUT THE CRITICISM

Nehemiah 4:4-5 reads:

Then I prayed, "Hear us, O our God, for we are being mocked. May their scoffing fall back on their own heads, and may they themselves become captives in a foreign land! Do not ignore their guilt. Do not blot out their sins, for they have provoked you to anger here in the presence of the builders."

Twice in this episode, Nehemiah prays. Nehemiah, frankly, was ticked off. When he prayed, he didn't hold back how he really felt. He was very open with God. Notice that there was no transition between the criticism and the prayer. The first thing that Nehemiah did after he was criticized was that he prayed. Prayer was his initial response to being criticized.

Why is it so important to pray when you're criticized? Well, for one thing, you're usually better off telling God how you really feel than telling your critic. God can handle a lot more of your frustrations, your hurts, your wounds, than others can. You don't need to unload and dump on others. It's better to let God have your load.

Proverbs 26:4 says, "When arguing with fools, don't answer their foolish arguments, or you will become as foolish as they are." What's the alternative? When you're ridiculed don't take it out on people, talk it out with God.

Another reason to pray is to ask God, "God, is there any validity in this criticism?" I find that it's only in prayer that my own sense of pride comes down. Ask God for his verdict. Allow God to make you sensitive to the truth that may be in the criticism, and able to ignore the rest.

L.L. Bean uses this formula: there are 25 complaints for every one that you hear. That's why it's important not to dismiss criticism before you've prayed about it. Multiply every criticism you hear by about 25. That's reality. Ask God in prayer, "What can I learn from this criticism?"

The third reason you want to pray about it is so that you're clear about your audience. Most of us want to be people pleasers. I know that I do. We all love to be crowd pleasers. Nehemiah wasn't serving for the applause of people. He was serving for the applause of God, and God alone. Your real goal in life and in ministry isn't to please other people. Your goal is to play to an audience of one. Your goal is to please God.

"Who do you want to please the most? If it's God, then you can survive whatever is thrown at you. If it's people, then you can count on betrayal, loneliness, mistrust, and failure. Wait for applause, and you'll wait forever. Wait for consensus, and you'll wait forever. Wait for people's approval, and you'll wait forever." (Leonard Sweet, Soul Salsa, p.101)

Aim to please God and God alone.

How should we respond to criticism? Expect it. Source it. Pray about it. There's one more principle on how to handle criticism. Principle number 4 on how to handle criticism:

4. CONTINUE YOUR WORK

Nehemiah had three alternatives. When every body started opposing him with rumors, resistance and ridicule he could

a) Give up

b) Leave the wall and go fight - do a preemptive strike

c) Build the wall and arm himself defensively

What did Nehemiah choose? Nehemiah 4:6 - the very verse after his prayer - says, "At last the wall was completed to half its original height around the entire city, for the people had worked very hard." By responding this way, Nehemiah avoided a common mistake associated with criticism. He didn't allow his enemies to become the focus of the attention. He defended himself, yes, but he remained vision-centered in spite of the criticism his team received.

When criticized, how do we normally respond? We are usually tempted to begin a dialogue with our critics, or even those who are simply parroting their criticism. We waste time and energy and thought trying to answer questions for people who really aren't interested in answers. Without realizing it, we shift our attention away from being vision-centered. We allow ourselves to become critic-centered.

You never leave the wall to fight the enemy. You could spend all your time putting out fires and never get your job done. You could spend all your time greasing the squeaking wheel (the critic, the complainer, the kook) and never get your dream or whatever God's called you to do, done. You've got to learn to serve and battle at the same time.

Don't let criticism distract you. Learn to expect it. Learn to source it, to pray about it, to learn from it, and most of all to work through it. Persistence is the ultimate test of leadership. This is the acid test. How do you handle it when the going gets tough? The secret of success is you simply outlast your critics. How do you get to be an oak tree? An oak tree is just a little nut that refused to give his ground. It doesn't take a lot of intelligence but if you just hang on you'll outlast the critics. There is nothing the devil would rather do than stall us and stop us and move us into neutral so resist discouragement and keep on.

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, we know that you've said in your word we should not be ignorant of Satan's schemes. We should realize that behind the opposition, the source of it is that old serpent, the devil. We know that he will use ridicule. He will use organized resistance. He will use rumors and many other things to discourage us. Lord, help us to recognize when we are discouraged the cause, whether it is fatigue, frustration, failure, or fear. Help us to take the antidote to those and then rely on you. Help us to not underestimate the opposition we receive for being Christians, for being leaders. Help us reinforce our weak areas by the power of your Holy Spirit. Help us to renew the people around us and encourage them. Most of all, help us to refuse to quit. Because we're doing this for Jesus' sake. We pray it in His name. Amen.

Building a Life of Purpose (Nehemiah 1:1-10; 6:1-3)

We're in a series called "Building for Life," and today we're going to talk how to build a life of purpose. I'd like you to travel with me back to 1940. The place is London, England. The man we're going to look at is Winston Churchill - a man who lived with purpose.

In 1940, the world was in crisis. Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany was overrunning Holland and France. The German advance appeared to be unstoppable. On May 9, 1940, the Prime Minister of England, Neville Chamberlain, resigned in disgrace. He had been duped by Hitler and discredited. When he resigned, it was if he threw up his hands and said, "Let's see if anyone else can handle this mess." It's safe to say that the outcome of the war and the future of Europe would rest on the leadership of the new Prime Minister.

On so May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill was summoned to Buckingham Palace to see King George VI. The King stared at Churchill quizzically for some moments and then said, "I want to ask you to form a Government." Churchill agreed to do so. How would you feel if you were Winston Churchill?

Following his appointment, Churchill met with political and military leaders and advisors, and they put together a coalition government. If I were Churchill, I no doubt would have felt the terrible pressure of leadership at that moment. But Churchill wrote:

As I went to bed at about 3 A.M., I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial...My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.

What caused Churchill to possess such confidence? He was taking over an unprepared country against the greatest military machine that had ever been created up until that point in history. What caused Churchill to experience relief? I would say that Churchill had built a life of purpose. Churchill hadn't lived an easy life or even a successful life. But Churchill knew his purpose. And through the efforts of one person, strategically placed and courageously living out his purpose, the spirit of Britain turned from despair to hope. And gradually the war was won, not only saving Britain from defeat, but some would claim, in retrospect, saving democracy as a form of government in the world.

This morning I'd like to talk about living a life of purpose. Everybody ends up somewhere in life. Some end up there on purpose. Like Churchill, you have a destiny to fulfill. I know that right now many of you are saying, "I'm no Churchill." You're right. But you're you. And God has placed you here for a purpose. You were put on this earth with gifts, talents, and relationships that are waiting to be exploited to fulfill God's purpose for you. But the sad reality is, most people do not live a life of purpose.

A man started a hobby of writing to famous philosophers and scientists and authors and asking them, "What is the purpose of life?" The responses he got back were depressing at best. Isaac Asimov wrote back, "As far as I can see there is no purpose to life." Karl Jung, the Austrian psychiatrist, wrote, "I don't know what the meaning or the purpose of life is but it looks like as if there were something meant by it." Arthur Clark, who wrote 2001, wrote, "I'm afraid I have no concrete ideas of the purpose of life." Albert Ellis, the psychiatrist who invented RET therapy said, "As far as I can tell, life has no special or intrinsic meaning or purpose." Thomas Nagle, "I'm afraid the meaning of life still eludes me." With a sense of resignation, author Joseph Heller wrote, "I have no answers to the meaning of life and I no longer want to search for any." Most people do not live a life of purpose.

Welch poet David Whyte wrote: "I don't want to have written on my tombstone, when finally people struggle through the weeds, pull back the moss, and read the inscription there: ‘He made his car payments.'" You were designed for more than that. God has a purpose for your life. And until you discover his purpose - and follow through - there will hole in your soul.

There's one individual in Scripture who illustrates this better than anyone else. His name was Nehemiah. In 587 B.C., the Babylonians invaded and destroyed the city of Jerusalem. The temple was destroyed. Some eighty years later, the Jews had returned to Jerusalem, but things did not look good. The temple was not being maintained. Sacrifices had ceased. The Jews had adopted the lifestyle and culture of the surrounding nations. The spiritual and social conditions in Jerusalem were deplorable.

But one man, back in Persia, was about to be used by God. His name was Nehemiah. Nehemiah was about to discover and live out God's purposes for his life. How can I develop a life of purpose? Nehemiah teaches us three actions that we must take:

1. CULTIVATE A CONCERN

A life of purpose always begins with a concern that God has given you. Purposeful people cultivate that concern. Churchill spent six years learning and preparing and strategizing. Why? Because God had given him a concern years before. Purpose always begins with a God-given concern.

Read with me Nehemiah 1:1-4:

In late autumn of the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes' reign, I was at the fortress of Susa. Hanani, one of my brothers, came to visit me with some other men who had just arrived from Judah. I asked them about the Jews who had survived the captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem. They said to me, "Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been burned." When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven.

Nehemiah's concern over Jerusalem consumed him. He couldn't get it out of his mind. For days, he mourned and fasted and prayed. It changed the way he looked. Later on, we find out that the king noticed that he was feeling down. This was bad news because the king had the power to kill you if he didn't like the way he looked. Something was bothering Nehemiah and others, frankly, couldn't care less. And it's from here that we learn the first action about living a life of concern: cultivate a concern.

God's purpose for you will always begin as a God-given concern. I'm not talking about a passing concern. I'm talking about something that sticks with you. Andy Stanley writes:

You will hear or see something that gets your attention. A thought related to the future will generate an emotion. Something will bother you about the way things are or the way things are headed. Unlike many passing concerns, these will stick with you. You will find yourself thinking about them in your free time. You may lose sleep over them. You won't be able to let them go because they won't let you go. (Visioneering)

I believe that God is in the process of birthing and maturing that concern in many of your hearts right now.

A few observations about concerns or burdens: NOT EVERYONE WILL SHARE YOUR CONCERN. Did you notice that nobody else seemed to be concerned about the wall? For years, the walls of Jerusalem had been broken down. But as I read Nehemiah, I get the impression that no one else was crying about the broken-down walls. Nehemiah's concern was Nehemiah's alone.

It's possible that God has given you a concern, but you haven't cultivated it because nobody else seems to share that concern. Stop waiting for other people! God h as given you that concern for a reason. It's up to you to begin to cultivate and to pray about that concern.

A second observation: NOT EVERYONE WHO HAS A CONCERN WILL DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT. Question for you: do you think that anyone else had tried to rebuild the walls? Yes! Some had even tried, but had given up. But I imagine that many had the concern and had done nothing about it. Talking and doing are two different things. Even if others are concerned, they don't always act.

Third observation: GOD OFTEN GIVES A CONCERN BEFORE HE GIVES A SOLUTION. A lot of you have God-given concerns, but you haven't done anything about it. Why not? Because you can't see yourself as the solution to the problem. Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the king. He was responsible for ensuring the safety of the king's food and drink. Nehemiah wasn't really in a position to do anything about the broken-down wall. He didn't have the authority to go and rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. Many times God will give you a concern, and it won't be immediately obvious that you can do anything about it.

I do know one thing: God has given a concern to every single person here. It may be something that you have ignored. The concern he has given you might be completely unique. There may be nobody else who shares the same passion as you do, at least to the same extent. God may have given you a passion for recent immigrants or for young adults or single parents or for business executives. But I guarantee that God has given you a concern. Your job is to cultivate that concern. Pray about it. Fast over it. Bring it before God.

Somebody has said, "There are many things in life that will catch your eye, but only a few will catch your heart. Pursue them." The first action that you need to take to build a life of purpose is to cultivate a concern.

The second action is this:

2. CENTER ON THE ETERNAL

God-given concerns all have one characteristic in common: they focus on the eternal. God-given concerns are never really about you. There is always a correlation between what God wants to do in the individual and what God is up to in the world. God-given concerns always center, in some way, on the eternal. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, "He has planted eternity in the human heart." You were made to last for eternity. A life of purpose always centers on making an eternal contribution.

There's a big difference between good ideas and God ideas. God ideas always center on the eternal. What made Nehemiah's concern a God idea? Nehemiah 1:8-10 tells us. Keep in mind that we're overhearing Nehemiah's prayer to God. Nehemiah said:

"Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you sin, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you return to me and obey my commands, even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.'

"We are your servants, the people you rescued by your great power and might. O LORD, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success now as I go to ask the king for a great favor. Put it into his heart to be kind to me."

Why was Nehemiah concerned about the broken-down walls? God had made a promise to his people. God said that if his people returned to him, then he would restore their fortunes. He would bring them back from exile and make them even more prosperous than their ancestors. Nehemiah's concern wasn't really about a wall. His concern was about God's people taking their rightful place in God's plan.

There's only one thing that will last into eternity. Your career won't. Your reputation won't. Your bank account won't. Only one thing will last into eternity: people. Our job is to use our money, time, and abilities to influence people eternally. Nothing else matters.

The Bible teaches that everything that we have is a trust from God. A trustee owns nothing, but they are legally accountable for everything. A trustee doesn't ask, "What percentage should I give away?" A trustee is responsible to use all that they have to grow the resources to do the most good. You are not an owner of your time, your money, or your abilities. You prove that the moment that you die. The reason God has given you your time, your money, and your abilities is so you could make an eternal difference.

How does this work? 1 Timothy 6:18 says, "Use your money to do good...always being ready to share whatever God has given you. By doing this you will be storing up real treasure for yourselves in heaven - it is the only safe investment for eternity! AND you will live a fruitful Christian life down here as well" (RLB). When we use our time, money, and abilities for eternity, we not only make the only safe investment, we also gain the benefit of living a fruitful life here as well.

What are some of the ways that you can center your purpose on the eternal? Ask yourself these questions:

WHAT PEOPLE CAN I INFLUENCE? Take a look at the people around you - your family, your neighbors, your co-workers. The reason why God has put these people into your life is so you could influence them. You're not living where you are because of some co-incidence. What people has God brought into your life?

By the way, you don't even need to influence them alone. You don't have to take the entire responsibility. We as a church want to partner with you in that effort. The main thing we want you to do is to build relationships with them, and then to invite them to an event here geared just for them. This Christmas Eve, we're planning two identical services. Our theme is "The Day God Got Personally Involved." The whole goal of that day is to partner with you in influencing people for eternity.

A second question you can ask is:

WHAT MONEY CAN I INVEST? Industrialist Andrew Carnegie said, "The man who dies...rich, dies disgraced." His goal was to leave nothing behind. You and I have incredible opportunities to invest our money for eternity. If we're to live a life of purpose, it will completely change the way we look at money. A lot of us think, "If I give God 10%, then everything is fine." We give God a little and keep the rest to ourselves. But when I go to a restaurant and receive good service, I wouldn't think of just leaving a 10% tip. Smart people invest all of their money for eternity.

Leonard Sweet tells the story of Fran and Chuck, a couple in their eighties, who decided that they were at a time of life that they could live on a reverse tithe. They lived off of no more than 10% of their income, and gave the rest away. Their goal was to spend as little as possible on themselves and to give away as much as possible on causes they believed in. They followed the advice that John Wesley gave years ago:

Gain all you can, without hurting either yourself or your neighbor...with unintermitted diligence, and with all the understanding which God has given you. Save all you can, by cutting off every expense which serves only to indulge foolish desire...And then, Give all you can, or in other words, give all you have to God.

Jesus said, "I tell you, use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. In this way, your generosity stores up a reward for you in heaven" (Luke 16:9).

One more question: WHAT CHARACTER CAN I DEVELOP? The best way that I know how to build a life of purpose is to build my character. The more I'm like Jesus, the more God can use me. Jesus said in John 15:4, "You cannot be fruitful apart from me." You've got to establish a relationship with Christ, and build his character into your life.

How do you build a life of purpose? Three actions. Cultivate a concern. Center on the eternal. There's one more action you will need to take:

3. CONCENTRATE YOUR ENERGY

I'm going to fast-forward a little in Nehemiah's story. Nehemiah overcame years of lethargy and opposition, and when we pick up the story in Nehemiah 6, the wall was almost complete. Nehemiah was only days away from completing the project. But Nehemiah's enemies were stirring up trouble. Listen to Nehemiah 6:1-2:

When Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies found out that I had finished rebuilding the wall and that no gaps remained—though we had not yet hung the doors in the gates—Sanballat and Geshem sent me a message asking me to meet them at one of the villages in the plain of Ono.

Sanballat and company invited Nehemiah to a meeting. Their plan was to get him off the project, away from all his supporters, and kill him. I don't think Nehemiah knew the full extent of their plan. But listen to Nehemiah's response in Nehemiah 6:3. It's a verse that every person here should underline, highlight, and circle, and then underline again in their Bible. It says: "I am doing a great work and I cannot come down" (NASB). This is a verse that all of us need to keep in front of us: "I am doing a great work and I cannot come down." Nehemiah knew that if he was going to live a life of purpose, he would have to deal with the greatest enemy of purpose. He would have to deal with distractions.

Every day of our lives, opportunities have a way of coming up that have the potential to distract us from the main things that God has called us to do. Many of these distractions aren't even bad things. But we can be out six nights a week taking advantage of good opportunities. At the same time, we could be making less and less progress toward the purpose God has four our lives. To build a life of purpose, we have to learn how to say no to some good things. When you begin to live a life of purpose, you need to live with this verse etched on your mind: "I am doing a great work and I cannot come down."

I wrestle with this as much as anyone. When I was five or six years old, I clearly felt God calling me to be what I do today. I have the joy of living out my purpose. I could tell you my mission, my values, my roles. And yet I'm amazed by how easy it is to get pulled off purpose every single day. I could be out seven nights a week. I have more opportunities than I know what to do with. All of them are good. And yet I have to constantly remind myself, "I am doing a great work and I cannot come down." The good is the enemy of the best.

One man wrote, "Keep in mind that you are always saying ‘no' to something. If it isn't to the apparent, urgent things in your life, it is probably to the more fundamental, highly important things. Even if the urgent is good, the good can keep you from your best, keep you from your unique contribution, if you let it" (Stephen Covey).

You were put on this earth for a purpose. Truly great people live out their God-given purpose. Which would you like as your epitaph? "He made his car payments"? Or would you like the epitaph that was given to David in Acts 13:36: "David had served God's purpose in his own generation" (NIV).

Let's pray.

You were designed to live a life of purpose. God has given us all a unique contribution to make. He's given you a burden, a concern, a passion. And he's calling you to invest your life for eternity, and to concentrate all your energies on that task.

The most important step that you can take is to give your life for eternity. If you've never given your life to Jesus Christ, would you pray this prayer in your heart:

"Jesus Christ, I want to get to know you. And I want you to come into my life and I want to follow your plan and purpose for my life for the rest of my life. I turn away from my sins and follow you, and ask you to take charge of my life, beginning today."

If you've already done that, what's your next step? What are you going to do to grow? How are you going to center your time, your money, your abilities, your relationships on eternity? Have you been baptized? Have you taken Class 101? How are you going to concentrate your energies for eternity?

Pray this with me, "Lord, help me to live for eternity. Don't let me waste my life on temporal things. I want to make the rest of my life count for eternity. I give you my time, my money, my abilities again. Use them and use me as a good trustee. Make my life a life of purpose, I pray, in Jesus' name. Amen."

Building a Life of Faith (Hebrews 11:8-18)

We're in week three of a series on built for life - on how to build a great life. All of us want to build great lives, and the Bible tells us how we can do that. Today we're going to talk about building a life of faith.

How do you get God's approval? By being religious and going to church? No. By keeping the Ten Commandments? No. By being more good than bad? No. By promising to be perfect? No. The Bible says that there is only one way to get God's approval. There's only one way to get God's smile on your life. In the book of Hebrews, chapter 11, it says, "It is impossible to please God without faith" (Hebrews 11:6).

The only way you can get God's approval is through faith. You may be a great person, but without faith, it's impossible to please God. You may do all sorts of great things in your life, but without faith it's impossible to please God. God isn't interested in rules and rituals. He's only interested in one thing: that you develop a relationship of faith with him. If you want to build a great life, it's essential that you know how to build a life of faith. Somebody has called faith the greatest power in the world.

What is faith? A lot of people have the wrong idea about what faith is. I've heard people say that faith is an irrational commitment to beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. I've heard others say that faith is like a blind leap into darkness. That's not faith; that's stupidity. Faith is actually the opposite. You could describe faith as a leap out of darkness back into the light. Faith is not irrational. It's based upon coherent and consistent reasoning. Faith isn't simplistic, but it is simple. Faith provides future hope for your soul.

What is faith? Probably the best definition of faith is found in Hebrews 11. It's a book of the Bible that contains a list of people in the Bible who lived lives of faith. You could call it God's Hall of Faith. And Hebrews 11:1 gives us a definition of faith that I want to use today. Hebrews 11:1 says, "What is faith? It is the confident assurance that what we hope for is going to happen. It is the evidence of things we cannot yet see." Here's a definition of faith. Faith is the confident assurance that God is in control of the future and that he will keep his promises to me because he has a purpose for me. Faith is building your life on the fact that God is in control, and that God will fulfill his promises even when you don't see those promises materializing.

Faith isn't making a good guess based on the best human estimate of what will happen. Faith isn't taking a leap of faith. Faith is believing the promises of God, even when there is nothing to show for it. We're going to look today at how we can develop lives of faith.

There is one man in the Bible who stands out as a paragon of faith. His name is Abraham. Now, the great thing about Abraham is that he has been viewed throughout the centuries as a model of faith - not just by Christians but by two other religions. Muslims, Jews, and Christians all look to Abraham as a model of faith. In fact, Genesis 15:6 tells us, "And Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD declared him righteous because of his faith." Now, I like to look at Abraham's life because Abraham was as human as you and I are. Under pressure he told lies. Twice he gave away his wife to save his own life. But James 2:23 tells us that Abraham was called a friend of God. Despite all of his failures and all of his faults, Abraham was called a friend of God. Why? Because of his faith. You don't have to be perfect to build a great life. But you do have to build a life of faith.

In Hebrews 11, no one person gets more attention than Abraham. In fact, Hebrews 11 mentions three episodes in Abraham's life that point to him as a man of faith. I want to look at these three episodes in Abraham's life and draw out three secrets on building a life of faith. And here's the first secret right here:

1. FAITH IS OBEYING EVEN WHEN I DON'T UNDERSTAND IT

That's the first secret of developing a life of faith. You've got to obey even before you understand it. Now, there are two types of people in this room. The first type is the spontaneous type. It never occurs to you to plan for the future, because the future isn't here yet. You're not worried about five minutes from now because you're simply in the moment. What I'm going to say really doesn't apply to you.

But there's another group of people here who like to have a little bit of security. That's me. I kind of like to know what I've got planned for the next week. I like to know that when I leave this place I've got a place to go home. Most of us, even if we're spontaneous, want to have a basic outline of the information involved before we make a big decision. We need to know how it's going to affect our lives.

I want you to meet Abraham. Let's read Hebrews 11:8-10 together:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

When we encounter Abraham in Hebrews 11:8, he's living in the area we would call Iraq today. He's 75 years old, and he's just getting ready for his old age pension. And then God comes along and tells him to move. God told him in Genesis 12:1, "Leave your country, your relatives, and your father's house, and go to the land that I will show you." Abraham says, "God, where am I going?" God says, "You've never heard of this place." Abraham says, "How long will it take to get there?" God says, "Don't worry about that." Abraham says, "How will I know when I'm there?" God says, "I'll tell you." God was asking Abraham to make a major move with very little information to go on.

Would you do it? But because Abraham obeyed when he didn't understand it, he became the father of a nation called Israel. Many people were blessed because he obeyed even when it didn't make sense.

The problem with us isn't that we don't know what God's will is for us. The problem for us is that we lack the courage to go. We want all the information first. The first time God split a sea for his people, he caused the Red Sea to split before the people entered it. The second time that God split water for his people, he told them to enter the river and then he would split it. Sometimes God asks us to make the move before we have all the information.

Even when Abraham reached the land God promised him, he wasn't home free. Acts 7:5 tells us that when Abraham got to the land, "God gave him no inheritance here, not even one square foot of land." Abraham had to wait. Not only did he have to wait, but his children and grandchildren had to wait. Abraham risked all that he had for a promise. He risked all that he had and left it for the unknown, even though he didn't understand. Why? Because he had the confident assurance that God is in control of the future and that he will keep his promises to me because he has a purpose for me.

Faith always involves risking. Some people want a guarantee of success before they obey God. They read something in the Bible and God tells them to do something and they say, "OK, God, once you guarantee it's going to work, then I'll do it." God says, "That doesn't require any faith. I want you to believe when you don't see it and I want you to obey when you don't understand it."

The New Testament contains 1,050 commands for us to obey. That's a lot of commands! I need to be really honest and tell you that sometimes I don't like all those commands. Do you? Some of them seem unreasonable. Some of them seem unusual. Some of them are just plain inconvenient. It's tempting to not obey because I don't understand what's in it for me, or how God is going to provide if I keep that command.

Do you remembe r when your parents would ask you to do something that made no sense to you as a kid? You would say, "What do my parents know!" You thought that they were old fogies who didn't have a clue about life. Looking back, you can see the wisdom in what they told you. You were called to obey your parents even when you didn't understand. Now, as you look back, you can understand that your parents had a purpose in their requests. They did it out of love and concern for you.

God is far wiser and far more concerned about you than your parents. When you ignore what he says for you to do, you're a fool. It's foolish. He is the creator. The Bible is the owner's manual for life. If I ignore it, who am I going to hurt? Not God. I'm just going to hurt me.

Here's the point: If you learn to do whatever God tells you to do even when it seems absurd, then God can bless your life. You're going to build a life of faith and that's the foundation of building a great life.

On the other hand, if you ignore what God says to do - if you say, "I don't believe that stuff. I'm going to do what I think is best. I'm my own god," then you will miss out on all the great things and blessings that God has planned for your life and put you on this earth to enjoy. You'll miss them all.

In 1988, I was getting ready to go to seminary. About a month before I was about to ship off, I had a little crisis. I looked at the seminary fees. Then I looked at my bank account. Then I looked at the seminary fees again. There was no way that I was going to be able to make it.

So I did what any smart person would do: I told my friends that I wasn't going to go to seminary. Was the issue that I didn't know God's will for my life? Absolutely not! I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was calling me into ministry. Did I doubt that God could provide? No! I knew enough about the Bible to know that God never calls us to do anything without also providing the resources. So what was the problem? The problem was that this time it was me. I was sticking my neck out. The question wasn't whether or not God provides for his people. The question was whether or not God would provide for me. I had a friend that pulled me aside and said, "If God has called you to go, God will provide a way. He's calling you to obey even when you don't understand it." I went, and God provided.

I'm so glad now that I obeyed God at that point. If I had turned by back on what I knew God would have wanted me to do, I would have missed out on so many blessings. I wouldn't have met my wife. I wouldn't have my children. I wouldn't have the joy of being your pastor. But it was simply an act of obedience. When you obey, even when you don't understand, God always honors that obedience.

What has God called you to do that you don't understand, but you're not doing it yet? Maybe you need to go home today and say, "God, I'm through with waiting. Faith always involves risk. Today, I'm finally taking that step of obeying you even though I don't understand. Today I'm going to follow Abraham and make a move of obedience even when I don't understand." If you take this step, you won't miss all the blessings that God has planned for your life.

There's a second secret that we need to understand if we're going to build a life of faith:

2. FAITH IS BELIEVING EVEN WHEN I CAN'T SEE IT

I want you to turn to your neighbor and tell them one thing that you think it's impossible for you to do. It could be anything - running a marathon or becoming a CEO or flying like a bird, but tell your neighbor one thing that you really believe that it's impossible for you to do.

If you had stopped Abraham and Sarah thousands of years ago and asked them that question, you would have received one answer. They would have told you that it was impossible for them to have children. Now, it wasn't for lack of trying. They had tried and tried to have kids, and in fact they had given up so much hope that Sarah, Abraham's wife, gave him her servant to bear him a child when he was 86 years old. I think that Abraham and Sarah would have said, "There is no way on earth that we are ever going to have a child!"

The main problem with not having a son is that God had made a special promise - a covenant - with Abraham that involved Abraham having a son. This is a serious promise that assured that Abraham would become the father of many nations. His descendents would be countless and His descendents would have a Promised Land. He was given all these wonderful incredible promises and this honor and blessing would come through his son. This is interesting because Abraham did not have a son. There's a time in the Bible when Abraham does one of these time-outs: "God, I appreciate all this but I don't have a son!" Abraham couldn't see a way that this could ever come true.

We need to realize that Abraham and Sarah both struggled with this dilemma. Do you ever feel that God has put your life on hold? That's how Abraham and Sarah felt. In fact, it got to the point where they didn't think that God had them on hold. They thought that God had hung up. It got to the point that when God told them they would have a child, Sarah laughed. I would have too. They were at the age to be buying Depends, not Pampers. It was ludicrous to think that Abraham and Sarah would have a baby. But faith is believing even when I can't see it.

Abraham and Sarah weren't perfect in this struggle, but at age 100 Abraham have birth to a son that God had promised him many years before. In spite of everyone's laughter, God's promise was born. Isaac was the dream child.

Read Hebrews 11:11-12 with me:

It was by faith that Sarah together with Abraham was able to have a child, even though they were too old and Sarah was barren. Abraham believed that God would keep his promise. And so a whole nation came from this one man, Abraham, who was too old to have any children—a nation with so many people that, like the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore, there is no way to count them.

The key words in these verses are, "Abraham believed that God would keep his promise." Once again, faith is the confident assurance that God is in control of the future and that he will keep his promises to me because he has a purpose for me. God has a purpose for your life. God is absolutely committed to keeping his promises to you, even when you can't see it. You may be in a rush, but God isn't.

There are two principles that you need to understand to help you believe when it seems like God has put you on permanent hold. The first principle is this: WAITING TIME IS NEVER WASTED TIME. When God tells me what he wants to do, I can't wait to do it. But God is seldom in a rush. Abraham had to wait until he was 100 years old. You may be waiting for God to do something. You may have given up. But God hasn't given up. God will keep his promises to you. Your waiting time is never wasted time.

What is God doing while we wait? A lot of things. God is maturing us in preparation for receiving the promise. God is testing us so that we can see how committed we are to him. God is working behind the scenes preparing the way. God is using circumstances to position and prepare you to accomplish his vision for your life. You may have to wait, but God's timing always has a purpose. God will fulfill his promises to you.

The other principle you need to understand, that will help you believe when you can't see God's promises being fulfilled, is this: GOD IS NOT JUST THE GOD OF THE WHAT. GOD IS THE GOD OF THE HOW. What do I mean by that? God specializes in the impossible. Somebody has said, "What God originates, he orchestrates." I've found in my life that God always gives the what before he gives the how. He says, "Abraham, you're going to have a baby." Abraham's question was, "How?" God says, "Don't worry about the how, Abraham. I'll take care of the how. All you have to do is believe."

The problem with Abraham is that he couldn't see how it would take place, so he began working on hi s own plans just to help God out. I think Abraham figured, "God has given me the what. Now it's up to me to figure out how to do it." Every time Abraham took on the how part of the job, Abraham messed up. There's a reason: when God gives the what, he always gives the how. God specializes in doing the possible. He wants to do something in your life that can only be explained by divine intervention.

God has a purpose in every experience that you've ever had. You may feel that right now, your life is on hold. You may be waiting for God to fulfill a promise that he gave you many years ago. You may be tempted not to believe, because you're tired of waiting. You need to know that God is in control of the future and that he will keep his promises to me because he has a purpose for me. God has a purpose in your waiting. He will take care of how it's going to happen - you don't have to. All you're called to do is to believe, even when you can't see it.

What is faith? It's obeying when I don't understand it. It's believing when I don't see it. There's one more secret to developing a life of faith:

3. FAITH IS GIVING EVEN WHEN I CAN'T AFFORD IT

Giving and faith go together. And giving doesn't just involve money - it involves everything. Faith is all about giving God whatever we value most - whatever we possess and don't want to give up. Faith is about giving God our most valued possession - whether that's your money, your family, your reputation, or whatever. And the irony is that it's never really ours until we've given it to God.

One of the secrets of building a life of faith is found in Hebrews 11:17-20:

It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God's promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, though God had promised him, "Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted." Abraham assumed that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead.

You may remember this story from when you were a child. This is probably one of the most confusing and troubling passages in the entire Bible. It doesn't make much sense until you begin to understand that God wasn't interested in a human sacrifice. God was interested in Abraham's heart. God gave Abraham this as a test. God wanted to test what was in Abraham's heart. He wanted to see if Abraham was willing to give when he couldn't afford to give. God was asking Abraham for the one thing that he couldn't afford to give, and Abraham had the faith to give it.

God isn't a mean or capricious God. God never asks us to sacrifice something for him for no reason. But I will tell you this: if you want to build a life of faith, at some point you and God will do business on this issue of sacrifice. God isn't interested in being second in your life. He's only interested in first, and he won't settle for anything less. And God is asking some of you to sacrifice this morning. The only question is, how are you going to respond?

Some of us say, "God, you provide, and then I'll sacrifice." That would be like Abraham saying that he would give up his son only when he knew he wouldn't have to. But that's not faith. But that's not faith. It's like, "God, you bring in this big windfall and when it arrives then I'll give some of it back to you." God says that may be gratitude but that certainly isn't faith.

Others of us say, "God, only take what's not important to me." But that's not faith either. I see this with my kids all the time. They have no problem sacrificing the things they didn't want in the first place. We say to God all the time, "God, take this and that. But leave my career alone. Don't ask me to sacrifice my money. Don't ask me to give up what matters most to me." And God says in return, "You don't understand. I'm not interested in those things. What I'm really interested in is your heart. And until you give me what matters most - whatever that is - you'll never really be sure that you've given me all."

The ironic part is that when we give God what matters most, God gives it right back. And when he doesn't give it back, it's only so that he can give us something much better. The minute Abraham gave Isaac to God, God said, "I didn't want him in the first place. You can have him back." Jesus said in Matthew 16:25, "If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for me, you will find true life."

Corrie Ten Boom once commented that she learned to hold everything loosely in her hand, because she knew she would grasp them tightly and the Lord would have to pry her fingers away, and it would hurt. When we live with open hands, God doesn't have to pry our grip. God wants us to hold everything - whatever matters most - loosely, and to be prepared to give him the very thing we think we can't afford to sacrifice. Why? Because faith is the confident assurance that God is in control of the future and that he will keep his promises to me because he has a purpose for me

If you're afraid to trust God with your possessions, your dreams, or a person, then you need to pay attention to Abraham's example. Because Abraham was willing to give up everything for God, he received back far more than he could have imagined. You will never give up anything for God that God will not repay many times over. Jesus once said to his disciples:

I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return, a hundred times over...And in the world to come they will have eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)

Do you want to live a life of faith? Then you need to begin living today with the confident assurance that God is in control of the future and that he will keep his promises to us because he has a purpose for you. And that's going to involve obeying him when you don't understand it, believing when you can't see it, and giving when you can't afford it. And it all begins today.

Somebody once said, "He is no fool who gives what he can not keep in order to gain what he cannot lose." What is it that God is calling you to sacrifice for him? What step of faith - of obedience - is he asking you to take today?

Prayer:

Would you pray this prayer as we close? "Dear God, help me to be like Abraham and obey you even when I don't understand it. Help me to believe when I can't see it - when I think it's impossible and hopeless. Help me to give when I can't afford it. Teach me to trust in you."

If you've never invited Christ in your life, you can take that step today. Pray these words in your heart: "Dear God, help me to trust you. Today I want to give up what matters most - I want to give up my soul to you. Today I turn away from my sins, and ask for the forgiveness that Jesus Christ provided for me. I want to get to know you. And I want you to become the manager of my life and teach me how to live by faith in you. In Jesus' name I pray. Amen."