Dealing with Distractions (Nehemiah 6:1-14)

For the past two months, we've been going through this series on Something Worth Living For. We've been looking at how to discover and live out God's purposes for our lives. No matter who you are, God has put within you a desire to make a difference, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. There's a deep human yearning to make a difference - "...to know that we've done something on this earth; that our life means something. We want to know that there is a purpose to our existence" (James Kouzes and Barry Posner).

The Bible is full of advice on how to live a life of vision. One of the greatest examples of somebody who lived a life of vision was a man who lived about 2500 years ago. His name was Nehemiah. If you've been with us these past few months, you've been on a journey of discovering the different building blocks of living a life of vision. A vision is a God-given picture of what could be and should be. It's a picture of what the future should look like from God's perspective. It's been exciting to watch you begin to wrestle with the issue of vision in your lives, and how you can rise above the daily grind to live a life full of passion and purpose.

If you look at anyone who has been used by God to make a difference in this world, that person has lived a life of purpose. If you see anyone who has built a successful marriage, it's because that couple had a specific vision of what could and should be in that relationship from God's perspective. They knew that it's not enough just to be married. That's not a good enough vision. That couple developed a picture of what they wanted that marriage to look like, how it should feel. We've been in the process of submitting our lives to God and asking him to show us what could and should be in our marriages, in our church, in our relationships, in our finances. We're getting to the end of our journey on how to live a life of vision.

There are two great tragedies when it comes to this subject of vision. The first tragedy is that a lot of people never discover why God made them. A lot of people have as their personal vision statement, "I'd just like to get through another day." They've never asked what God wants their life to look like. They've never prayed that God would give them a burden or a calling, that he would use their lives for a deeper purpose. This is the pinball approach to life. A pinball has no sense of direction. It's simply bounced around by the events and influences around it. There are a lot of people who have never asked God to show them what could be or should be. They live visionless lives. Even worse, some people live their own visions instead of God's visions. I hope that you've begun to see that there's a better way. You can and you should live for a higher purpose. You can live a life of vision.

If you look at anyone in the Bible who was used by God, you see that at some point in their lives God touched them and called them for a specific purpose. It's almost as if we're born with a personality and a set of strengths, and an allotment of time in which we'll live, and God says, "Go to it. Serve your purpose. Make your life count." Somebody's said that life is like a coin. We get to spend it any way we like, but we only get to spend it once. The goal is to get to the end of our lives and be able to say, "God, I served my purpose. I lived out the reason for which you made me. I finished the race. I served your purpose in my generation."

That's the first tragedy - that some people never discover their purpose. But the second tragedy is even more tragic. There are some people who discover and begin to live out their vision, but they never finish that vision. There are some people who discover why God made them. They even wait and pray and plan while God moves the right people and circumstances into place, and while God provides the resources to carry out that vision. Some people are even able to communicate that vision and get other people on board, but there's one problem. They don't follow through on the vision. The reason? They get distracted. The problem is that the daily grind is very hard on vision. Life is so full of distractions that visions are lost among the many lights on the horizon of life. The real tragedy is that people get distracted, and visions are lost, and people end up living for no higher purpose than to get through another day.

Let's do a little quiz here. When I got married, I had a picture of what our relationship could and should be. I could tell you what our relationship should look like and feel like. I didn't just want to get married; I knew that there were a set of qualities that I wanted to see in my marriage - qualities like honesty, kindness, intimacy, and respect. Eleven years into my marriage, how many people think that there have been times that I have lost that vision due to the daily grind of life? Charlene, you can put down your hand. You see, I know what my marriage could be and should be, but life is hard on vision. There are bills and in-laws and work and all sorts of other obligations. And very often visions can die because life is hard on visions.

Seven years ago, a doctor turned to me and placed a little baby in my arms. I had held babies before, but for the first time, I was a parent, and that child was mine. I had a God-given picture of what type of parent I could be and should be. How many people think that seven years into that vision, when the school bell is about to ring, and there's cereal all over the floor, and my daughter can't find her running shoes for the twenty-third time that week, that I am always the type of husband that I could be and I should be? Reality is hard on visions.

My overall life vision is very simple. It's down to just three things. If I do those three things, I know that I will have served my purpose, and I'll have had a life well lived. Every day, it's a struggle to stick to those three things. One of the greatest tragedies is that many of us know what we could be and should be doing from God's perspective, but we're not doing it, because life is getting in the way. We're struggling because there are so many distractions. Life is now. Bills are now. Crises are now. Vision is later. It's easy to begin living moment by moment, and to begin sacrificing what's really important for what's urgent, to begin sacrificing what's best for what's good enough. Distractions can slowly kill a vision.

That's why so many of us end up with marriages that are far from what God's vision is for our marriages. It's why so many of us end up with relationships with our children that are different from what could be and should be. It's why our finances aren't in order. It's not because we don't know what could and should be from God's perspective. We know. We know exactly what God wants in our marriages, our homes, our relationships, our finances, our ministry. The problem is that we get so busy living that what could be is lost in the flurry of what is. And we never end up living lives of vision.

Next week we're going to give you a list of all the building blocks we've covered so far on how to live a life of vision. Here's the seventh building block on how to live a life of vision:

Building Block #7: Don't get distracted

Today I'd like to look at Nehemiah to find out how we can prevent our vision by being killed by distractions. If you are going to live a life of purpose, and get to the end of your life having fulfilled God's vision, you will need to learn how to handle distractions. Distractions are fatal to visions.

In Nehemiah 6, we discover that things had been going very well for Nehemiah. By the way, have you ever noticed how distractions often come when things are going really well? In Nehemiah's case, they were just days away from seeing the vision completed. Nehemiah 6:1 tells us that "I had finished rebuilding the wall and no gaps remained - though we had not yet hung the doors in the gates." Nehemiah was at a very dangerous time. When the novelty of the vision has worn off, and people are tired, and you're alm ost done, it's easy to get distracted. Sure enough, Nehemiah was about to experience three distraction which could have literally killed his vision. Read with me what happened in Nehemiah 6:1-4:

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. But I realized they were plotting to harm me, so I replied by sending this message to them: "I am doing a great work! I cannot stop to come and meet with you." Four times they sent the same message, and each time I gave the same reply.

In Nehemiah 6, we find that Nehemiah faced distractions which could have killed his vision. His vision would have been dead on arrival if he had given in to these distractions. But Nehemiah knew not to be distracted. Nehemiah faced three distractions, and they're the same distractions that can kill the visions that God gives us:

1. OPPORTUNITIES

Now, we read this passage, and it's obvious that Nehemiah's enemies were out to harm him. Sanballat and Geshem knew that if they could lure Nehemiah to the plain of Ono, about twenty miles away from Jerusalem, that they could ambush and kill him on the way. That would be the end of the vision. It's like when you're watching TV and you know who the villains are and how the show is going to end. By their invitation might have seemed like an opportunity at the time. Opportunities can easily distract us from our mission.

Nehemiah had almost completed the project. It had become obvious that the vision was going to be successful, despite the opposition and the criticism. It would have made sense for the neighboring provinces to request a meeting to normalize relations. In fact, it would have been tempting to go to negotiate a proper standing and to gloat a little. It would have been easy to take this opportunity - and it would have been fatal.

Every day we face unimaginable opportunities - more opportunities than have ever been available in the history of humanity. We have more entertainment, travel, business, career, and investment opportunities than in any previous era. But the opportunities can easily become a problem. Opportunities can kill a vision. We can sacrifice God's vision for any number of the opportunities that come our way.

I've found that the most dangerous distractions for me are the good opportunities that pull me away from God's best. There are tons of opportunities that come up that are really good: planning meetings, speaking engagements, board memberships, community functions, conferences. I could be out every night of the week taking advantage of "good" opportunities. I've come to realize that it's possible to be busier than I already am, even doing good things, and still be accomplishing fewer things I know that God really wants me to do. The good can be the enemy of the best.

This is a constant struggle for me. Every week, it's a fight to pull back all of my opportunities and to focus on what's really important. In fact, a few months ago I was wrestling with this very issue when a magazine landed on my desk that said these words:

Take a look at the future. When you write your company's [your family's, your children's] history two years from now, which decisions will have really mattered? What were the key moments that led you to create such a success?

Write them down. Post them on the wall. And work on them!

That's what you should spend your time on. Getting those decisions right is far more important than answering your 103rd email message or hacking that last piece of code.

Situation report: At Reader's Digest in the 1950s, Lila Wallace used to walk from office to office and say, "It's a beautiful day. Turn off the lights and go home." And it was 4 - PM! Maybe if you left the office once a week at 4 PM, the decisions that you would make the next day would be a lot better. Go home. Have dinner with your family. You'll be glad you did.

My recommendation: If your current job environment is one where the only way to avoid getting fired is to work all the time, then hey, get fired. The unemployment rate is still only 4%, and if you're smart enough to be reading this magazine, well, there are plenty of jobs out there that reward you for being smart - not for digging the most coal. (Seth Godin, Fast Company June 2001)

What are the two or three things that are really important to carrying out God's vision for your life - in your marriage, your finances, your ministry? God has called you to do these two or three things. When other opportunities come up, ignore them. Don't allow yourself to get distracted by events, organizations, hobbies, and activities that do nothing to further the vision that God gave you. Don't let your job take you away from that. Don't get distracted by the opportunities. Focus on what matters most.

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." We're going to come back to this phrase in a moment.

Nehemiah faced the distraction of opportunities. There were two other distractions that threatened to pull him off his vision. The second distraction was:

2. CRITICISM

If you've been following the story of Nehemiah up to this point, you know that criticism wasn't a new thing for Nehemiah. But the criticisms Nehemiah were different this time. They were aimed at him.

We've already read the invitation that Sanballat sent four times in a row for Nehemiah to meet him. Read hat happened the fifth time, in Nehemiah 6:5-7:

The fifth time, Sanballat's servant came with an open letter in his hand, and this is what it said: "Geshem tells me that everywhere he goes he hears that you and the Jews are planning to rebel and that is why you are building the wall. According to his reports, you plan to be their king. He also reports that you have appointed prophets to prophesy about you in Jerusalem, saying, 'Look! There is a king in Judah!'"

In those days, letters were written on papyrus or leather. The letter would be rolled, tied with a string, and sealed with clay. But this letter was different. Verse five tells us that Sanballat had purposely neglected to seal it so that everyone who handled it would be able to read its contents. His goal was to spread false rumors about Nehemiah. Nothing could be further than the truth, but it didn't matter. Perception is reality. This had the potential to become a very big distraction.

I don't know how many times I have been criticized. I've been criticized so often that you'd think I'd be an expert on how to handle criticism. But I have to be honest enough to admit that when I'm criticized - especially if I'm unfairly criticized - I get distracted. I want to defend myself. I want to lick my wounds. I want to throw a pity party. I sometimes even want to quit. But Nehemiah didn't allow himself to be distracted by the criticism. Read how Nehemiah responded in Nehemiah 6:8-9:

My reply was, "You know you are lying. There is no truth in any part of your story." They were just trying to intimidate us, imagining that they could break our resolve and stop the work. So I prayed for strength to continue the work.

Instead of chasing rumors, Nehemiah turned his attention to God, and prayed for strength to continue the work. He didn't stop the work. He didn't even slow the work. He kept on going and depended on God to handle the critics. Don't be distracted by criticism.

Nothing attracts critics like vision. If you're passionate about what could and should be, eventually somebody will question your motives or your enthusiasm. Somebody will misunderstand your intent. Don't be distracted by them. Don't let the critics take you away from God's vision. Pour out your heart to your Father, and then get back to work.

In fact, the best way to silence your critics is to see your vision to completion. Nehemiah 6:16 tells us that when the project was finally completed, his enemies lost confidence. There will come a day, when the vision becomes a reality, that even your enemies will have a hard time explaining away what has happened through you. So don't let criticism distract you. Take it to God, and let him partner with you to what could be and should be.

Nehemiah faced a third distraction that could have killed the vision:

3. FEAR

Nehemiah faced one last distraction, and it's one that you are going to face as well if you live a life of vision. Nehemiah 6:10-13 says:

Later I went to visit Shemaiah son of Delaiah and grandson of Mehetabel, who was confined to his home. He said, "Let us meet together inside the Temple of God and bolt the doors shut. Your enemies are coming to kill you tonight."

But I replied, "Should someone in my position run away from danger? Should someone in my position enter the Temple to save his life? No, I won't do it!" I realized that God had not spoken to him, but that he had uttered this prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. They were hoping to intimidate me and make me sin by following his suggestion. Then they would be able to accuse and discredit me.

When Nehemiah's enemies couldn't distract him through opportunities and criticism, they appealed to his fear. To run into the Temple would have not only undermined his authority as a leader, but it would have been in violation of God's Law. But once again, Nehemiah resisted this distraction. Nehemiah flatly refused to be distracted by fear.

Every vision contains an element of fear. It's easy to doubt ourselves, our abilities, our safety, and the risks we are taking. There are often people who will point out the risks we are taking, and why they're not reasonable. But there's a phrase in the Bible that's repeated over and over again to people who lived lives of vision. It goes like this: "Do not be afraid." Joshua 1:9 says, "I command you-be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the LORD your God is with you wherever you go." 2 Timothy 2:7 says, "For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline."

Don't get distracted. Don't let opportunities or criticism or fear derail your pursuit of God's vision. Keep your eyes focused on the finish line.

As we close, I want you to look at the list on the back of your outline. I hope that by now you've discovered what could and should be in the different areas of your life - in your family, in your career, in your finances, in your marriage. I hope that you've been specific in describing that vision, and what it looks like.

I want to ask you a question. What is keeping you from living that life of vision? What opportunities? What criticisms? What fears are keeping you from seeing God's vision come true in your life?

If you're somebody who has all kinds of opportunities that keep you from seeing God's vision come true in your life, then you need to take some specific steps. Maybe you need to go home one night and go into your kids' bedroom when they're asleep. Maybe you need to grasp their tiny little hands, and silently pray, "Father, I am doing a great work and I cannot come down."

Perhaps you need to tape a sign in your locker or on your desk or somewhere where you work with the words, "I am doing a great work and I cannot come down." And when it's time to go home and you still have more work to do, maybe you need to look at that sign and remember the vision that God gave you when you said "I do," or when you held that baby in your arms for the first time, or when you received a calling to do something for him that went far beyond your job, and maybe you need to reach for your keys and head for the car, and say, "I am doing a great work and I cannot come down."

The next time you're criticized, and you're fed up and ready to quit, what if instead you realized that success will silence your critics, and instead of quitting on the job you prayed to God for strength and asked him for more resolve?

What if next time your fearful of your abilities, of your safety, of how everything is going to work out - what if next time you were filled with doubts, you realized that the significance of your calling rules out any option of retreat?

Don't be distracted. Don't let your vision of what could be and should be get killed by the daily grind.

A pastor preached a sermon on this passage. After he was done, he received an email from one of his leaders. Her name is Vicky, and she is an extraordinary actress. For the time being, though, she's decided to put her career ambitions on hold in order to be a stay-at-home mother. Her husband, Paul, is a freelance sportscaster and television personality. I want to read you her email.

She wrote:

I wanted to let you know what happened a few days after your encouraging sermon. I had read an audition with Paul over the phone, as he sometimes does on a voice-over audition. After the audition he said, "They will probably cast you. You are really good at this."

A week later, I happened to return a call to this same agent on Paul's behalf, and the lady I talked to commented on how great she thought my reading was. Her coworker had remarked that she didn't realize that Paul's wife did voice-over work, and she said if I ever wanted to do any work to call her...

How flattering for this housewife who never ventures beyond the Christian elementary school where I substitute for little pay and work other hours as a volunteer with the kids I love. I know the difference in earnings only too well...

I thanked her, and said maybe when Lindsay was older, but that right now I couldn't consider it. There was no struggle to say this. I hung up the phone, smiled, and said aloud, "I am doing a great work, and I cannot come down."

Thanks for encouraging the ladies who might have really struggled to say this. It's what I hope a lot of mothers will realize, and your sermon was encouraging to all of us. As a follow-up, when I told Lindsay about this, she squeezed my hand for a long time. She knows that we give up things so I can be a stay-at-home mom.

But the best part came on Mother's Day. I always insist that she make, rather than buy, a card for me because she makes these incredible cards. This one was no exception. On the front cover was a sketch of two hands reaching toward each other. The words written across the sketch were, "I am doing a great work..." The back cover was similar, but in this sketch the hands were touching, and the words said, "...and I cannot come down."

This was all the confirmation I will ever need. Thanks. (quoted by Andy Stanley in Visioneering)< /p>

Now, the point of the story is not that moms should not work outside the home. The point is this: as you think about what your future should look like from God's perspective - your family, your relationships, your career, your ministry - the options become fewer and the choices get easier. And when you find distractions pulling you away, you will have the joy of saying, "Good idea, great opportunity, but I am doing a great work and I cannot come down."

Three applications. Would you be willing to at least begin praying that God would give you his vision in key areas of your life? Then, second, would you be willing to write that vision down on paper? Just a simple sentence or two, explaining what should take place in your family, your spiritual life, your finances? Just a sentence or two. Then, would you just begin acting accordingly - that anything that moves you closer is a yes, and that everything that moves you away or sideways, then it's a no? Would you sign up to experience the thrill of living a life of vision.

Let's pray.

Father, forgive us for getting distracted so often. Father, I'm preaching this, and you know how often I get distracted. I get pulled away by opportunities, by criticism, even by fear. Help me to stay on target and on vision.

I pray that each of us would learn and apply the phrase, "I am doing a great work and I cannot come down." Help us to see your vision for the various areas of our lives, and to be so committed to living them out that we would do whatever it takes to keep that vision from being killed by opportunities, by fear, by criticism, and by the daily grind.

Father, we know that the starting point of personal vision is that each of us would have a relationship with your son Jesus Christ. So right here, right now, I pray that somebody would pray, "Father, I want to join the adventure of serving and following you. I want to do a great work with my life. Today I accept the invitation of Jesus Christ to have my sins forgiven. Make me a new creature, and help me to never be shaken. Help me to follow you all of my days. In Jesus' name, Amen."