Good morning! We're looking at how to live a life of vision. Thousands of years ago, God took an obscure man by the name of Nehemiah and began to use him to rebuild the walls of his city, the city of Jerusalem. For the past month or so we've been looking at lessons from the Nehemiah. How can we align ourselves with God's purposes with our life? How is it possible for you and I to live lives of vision - living out what could and should be from God's perspective?
If you've been with us so far, I hope that you've begun to discover God's vision for your life. You only have three choices in your life - to leave things they way they are (the status quo), to live your way, or to live God's way. God has given some of you a vision the big picture. It will take your entire life to see it happen. For others, the vision may seem smaller. But I hope you've taken the opportunity these past few weeks to ask God to show you what could and should be in every area of your life - your finances, your marriage, your family, your work. God has a unique calling for each of our lives. He's created you for a purpose, and there's nothing more exciting than discovering and living out God's purpose in our lives.
Last week we saw Nehemiah go public with the vision. When Nehemiah shared the vision, he did so in a compelling way, and God prepared the people to respond. Nehemiah 2:18 says, "They replied at once, 'Good! Let's rebuild the wall!' So they began the good work." After months of preparation, things were finally starting to happen. The vision was about to become reality.
Today we're going to look at one of the major obstacles to living a life of vision. If you don't already know this about vision, you'll soon discover an important truth about vision: visions attract criticism.
In fact, read with me the first sentence of Nehemiah 4:1: "Sanballat was very angry when he learned that we were rebuilding the wall." God-sized visions attract criticism. You can write that down. There has never been a God-given vision that has not been criticized. You have to expect to be criticized. Today we're going to look at how to handle criticism. It's important that we do this, because visions often die at the hands of critics. It would be tragic for you to discover God's purpose and vision in some area of your life, and for you to lose that vision because somebody criticizes you. How can you live out God's vision, even when you're criticized?
This is one of the biggest things I wrestled with before I became a pastor. I knew that living out God's vision for my life would lead to criticism. The same applies to you. You may be criticized by any number of people - your family, your colleagues, your friends. You will be criticized.
We've been looking at the building blocks or lessons that Nehemiah teaches us: vision begins as a concern; vision takes time to grow; what God originates, God orchestrates; and share your vision with the appropriate people at the appropriate time. Today's building block goes like this:
BUILDING BLOCK #5: Anticipate and prepare for criticism.
In other words, don't be surprised by criticism. You're going to be criticized if you begin to live out God's vision. Anticipate and prepare for it.
I don't mean to suggest that all criticism is wrong. But I am suggesting that you will have to learn how to handle criticism if you're going to life a life of vision. Anybody that is trying to do something for God will face opposition. You can bank on it. Somebody's said, "To escape criticism - do nothing, say nothing, be nothing." I disagree. Even then you're going to be criticized. No matter what you, you're going to be criticized. The criticism will intensify the more that you live out God's vision for your life. The good news is that you can win over this criticism. You can live out God's vision even when other people oppose it. You can live a life of vision even if you're sensitive to the opinions of other people.
What vision has God given you? Stephanie wants to marry a Christian who will help provide spiritual direction in her home, so she passes up opportunities to date non-Christian guys. She sees what should be and could be in her marriage, and believes that spiritual compatibility is a big part of that. But her friends are doubtful. "There aren't any guys out there like that. You're wasting your time." So Stephanie begins to believe that her friends are probably right, and she gives up on her vision.
Jim and Linda are under a pile of debt because of some bad decisions that they made early in their marriage. They begin to sense what could be and should be in their finances - they catch a vision for debt-free living. But they make the mistake of sharing the vision with Linda's parents. "That's unrealistic," they say. "Everybody has debts. By the time you get out of debt, you'll be too old to enjoy your money anyway." So Jim and Linda abandon the vision, and resign themselves to living their entire lives under a mountain of debt.
Jill has a six-figure income at a blue-chip company. She's on the track to promotion, but she has a vision to give up her career and go to India as a missionary, at least for a few years. She's ready to go, but her friends aren't so sure. "People would kill for a job like yours," they say. "You'd be a fool to give it up." So Jill begins to doubt the vision. She goes against her own best judgment and chooses job security over the God-given vision.
Anybody that is trying to live out vision will face opposition. The sad reality is that most of us are unprepared for the opposition we get. It's almost like we expect all thumbs-up when we announce the vision. We're surprised when people begin to express doubts, even to align our motives. But vision always brings criticism. The more God-sized the vision, the bigger the criticism.
If there was anybody that shouldn't have received criticism, it was Nehemiah. After all, God had commissioned him. He was rebuilding a wall that would make Jerusalem a safe place for its inhabitants. The project would help to recapture some of the city's lost glory. Rebuilding the wall would allow people to worship in the Temple once again without having to fear their enemies. You'd think that everybody in Jerusalem would be happy about Nehemiah's vision, but you'd also be wrong. Vision and criticism always go together.
In fact, Nehemiah encountered three types of criticism. The first type of criticism he received is the most subtle. In fact, it's what you would call unspoken criticism. The first type of criticism that Nehemiah received was APATHY. Nehemiah 3:5 says, "Next were the people from Tekoa, though their leaders refused to help." The people had started to rebuild the wall. Everybody pitched in, with one exception. There was a small town, about 5 miles away from Bethlehem. The leaders of that town refused to work. When you begin to share your vision, you will find that some people will respond with apathy. They'll think that they're too good to join the vision. Expect some people to be apathetic toward the vision. Don't expect everyone to be as excited as you are.
The second type of opposition that Nehemiah received was ANGER. Nehemiah 4:1 says, "Sanballat was very angry when he learned that we were rebuilding the wall. He flew into a rage and mocked the Jews." Has anybody here ever been the brunt of somebody's angry attack? It's very likely that if you begin to live a life of vision, somebody will get angry with you. They'll give you a piece of their mind that they really couldn't afford to lose. I've sat in meetings and been amazed at the anger that can be unleashed by somebody who doesn't buy into the vision. Some people are going to get very angry. Expect it. Don't be surprised when people get angry.
The third type of criticism that Nehemiah received was RIDICULE. Nehemiah 4:1-3 says:
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 po or, 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!"
These two pulled every stop. They questioned the character of the builders; they questioned their ability; they questioned their commitment. On top of all that, they questioned the feasibility of the project in the first place. They called the entire workforce incompetent. If critics feel it will help, they will question your character. They will call you names. They will call you nuts. Don't be surprised if you're ridiculed when you begin to pursue a God-given vision.
These three tactics - apathy, anger, and ridicule - didn't work. Nehemiah 4:6 says, "At last the wall was completed to half its original height around the entire city, for the people had worked very hard." The people worked with all their hearts despite the criticism. But the critics weren't done. When they saw they couldn't defeat the vision with their words, they resorted to force. Nehemiah 4:8-11 says, "They all made plans to come and fight against Jerusalem and to bring about confusion there... our enemies were saying, 'Before they know what's happening, we will swoop down on them and kill them and end their work.'"
You will find that some people will stop at nothing to defeat the vision. Their threats may be just what it takes to defeat your vision. I'm amazed at the lengths people will go to shut down what God what God has called somebody will do. Their attacks can threaten the vision - even a God-given vision.
Do you see what Nehemiah was up against? He was under threat by rulers from the east (the Ammonites), the west (the Ashodites), and the south (the Arabs). He was under attack from all sides. Jerusalem would never stand a chance against their combined armies. There would be no wall.
To make it worse, the people started to express some doubt. Nehemiah 4:12 says, "The Jews who lived near the enemy came and told us again and again, 'They will come from all directions and attack us!' The people said, "They're coming at us from all sides!" There was opposition. Rebuilding the wall was also looking harder than they thought. There was more rubbish than they had planned for. They were tired. The thrill of the project had worn off. The people were ready to walk off the job. What do you do when your vision is under attack from all sides?
Nehemiah took three steps that we can take when our vision is criticized. These are steps that you can and should take when your God-given vision comes under attack:
Read with me Nehemiah 4:4-5:
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."
My tendency would be to take the critics on. I'd fight first and pray later. But that's not what Nehemiah did. Nehemiah's first response to opposition was prayer. When the critics take you on, take the critics to God. Make prayer your first defense.
We've already seen how crucial prayer is to the entire vision process. Prayer fuels the vision and ignites the vision. It also preserves the vision when the vision is under attack. Criticism will drive you somewhere. It may drive you to despair. It may drive you to frustration. But you will benefit if you let criticism drive you to prayer.
Read Nehemiah's prayer again. "May their scoffing fall back on their own heads...may they themselves become captives...Do not ignore their guilt...Do not blot out their sins." Nehemiah was hot here. He was letting off steam. This prayer is so strong, so mean, that some people have struggled with this prayer. What's the lesson that we can learn? When you're criticized, be honest with God when you pray. You'd be amazed by some of the honest prayers in the Bible. Don't dress up your feelings. Admit that you're tired. Admit that you're frustrated. Tell God exactly how you feel.
It's almost like you can say, "Criticize me all you want. Talk to me any way that you please. But just wait to see how I talk to God about you!" You can be honest with God. You can pray that God would do justice against those who criticize you. You can pray that God would change your heart toward those who are getting you down.
It's important to remember that when your vision is on the verge of being snuffed out by the criticism of others, your heavenly Father is interested. It concerns him. Your Father is more than willing to become involved in the conflict. You can tell him all about it. You can be honest with him about how you're feeling.
Talking to God is often a better approach than talking to the critics. Proverbs 26:4 says, "When arguing with fools, don't answer their foolish arguments, or you will become as foolish as they are." There are times that arguing with your critics is the worst thing that you could do. When you're criticized, don't take it out on other people. Talk it out with God.
Prayer puts criticism in its proper perspective. Prayer enables you to evaluate the criticism from God's perspective. When you pray, you begin to recapture the perspective of Paul's words in Galatians 1:10: "Obviously, I'm not trying to be a people pleaser! No, I am trying to please God. If I were still trying to please people, I would not be Christ's servant." You've can't be a people-pleaser if you want to please God. You've got to make your choice.
Three truths you need to remember:
YOU CANNOT PLEASE EVERYONE. Don't even try. No matter what you do, you'll never please everyone. It's impossible.
YOU CANNOT PLEASE ANYONE ALL THE TIME. Even if you please someone most of the time, you will not please that person all of the time. Don't live for someone's approval - even if that person approves of you most of the time.
YOU CAN PLEASE GOD. God is much easier to please than people. Choose your audience. Remember who your final and most important audience is going to be. Play to an audience of one.
1 Corinthians 4:3-4 says, "It matters very little what you or anyone else thinks. I don't even trust my own judgment on this point. My conscience is clear, but that isn't what matters. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide." Let prayer clarify your vision. Tell God how you feel. Submit your vision to God once again. Ask him to take action. Pray.
The second step that Nehemiah took:
2. KEEP WORKING
Right after Nehemiah's prayer, we read, "At last the wall was completed to half its original height around the entire city, for the people had worked very hard" (Nehemiah 4:6). One of the dangers of criticism is that it can immobilize you. When you get down, you tend to slow down. That's just human nature. When we're criticized, and we begin to get down, it's easy to slide into despair and to give up on the vision. What's the alternative? Keep working. Once you've prayed, get on with the work, despite the criticism. Don't let criticism stop you.
Think what would have happened if Nehemiah would have quit the work until everybody was on board. The work would never have been completed. If you wait until everybody agrees with the vision that God has given, the vision will never take place. Don't get me wrong. We're only wise when we listen to the advice of others. Proverbs 15:22 says, "Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many counselors bring success." As part of the vision process, it's only smart to go to others that we consider wise to get their feedback. We had better listen to those who are wise and godly. But that's different from waiting for everyone to appreciate what we're doing. Keep working on the vision, even when others don't understand.
Nehemiah didn't stop working. In fact, Nehemiah's team worked even harder after they were criticized. It was normal to work until sunset, but Nehemiah 4:21 tells us that they worked until the stars came out. The people not only worked harder, but they formulated a defensive strategy while they carried on the work:
So I placed armed guards behind the lowest parts of the wall in the exposed areas. I stationed the people to stand guard by families, armed with swords, spears, and bows. (Nehemiah 4:13)
But from then on, only half my men worked while the other half stood guard with spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. The officers stationed themselves behind the people of Judah who were building the wall. The common laborers carried on their work with one hand supporting their load and one hand holding a weapon. All the builders had a sword belted to their side. The trumpeter stayed with me to sound the alarm. (Nehemiah 4:16-18)
When you're criticized, you may have to revise your plan. The opposition may even slow down your plan. The timing may change, but the vision will remain the same. Don't let criticism immobilize you. Keep on working.
Can you imagine how Noah must have felt when he was working on the ark? It had never rained up to that point. Noah was building this big boat in the middle of dry land. Do you think Noah ever felt like giving up? God asked Isaiah to walk through the streets naked for three years. Do you think that Isaiah was criticized? I sure hope that your vision is different than that. I don't think God is calling anyone here to do that. But the point is the same. When God gives you a vision, not everyone will agree. Keep on working even when you're criticized.
Many of you have just completed Personal Refocusing. It's been exciting watching you discover a personal calling statement. Some of you have found it a little bit scary. You may be afraid of others criticizing you, saying, "Who do you think you are?" Don't let the criticism paralyze you. Keep working. Work towards the vision that God has given you.
It may be in your marriage, or your finances, or your job. God may be calling you to make some radical changes. Your vision may cause people to misunderstand your intentions. Share the vision as well as you can, but don't stop when people criticize you. Pray, and then keep working.
One last step that Nehemiah took when criticized:
Not only did Nehemiah keep praying and working, but he remembered. He remembered who it was that brought him to Jerusalem in the first place. He remembered God's intervention with King Artaxerxes. He remembered what could and should be in Jerusalem. Those memories gave him the courage to continue despite the threats and the opposition.
This idea of remembering is funny for us. This is foreign to our culture. But one of the keys to maintaining momentum in our vision is to remember - to remember how God has acted in the past; to remember his faithfulness; to remember all that God has done to get us to this point.
There are times that we'll get so discouraged, the only thing that will keep us going is to remember that it's a God thing. Nehemiah could have remembered a lot of things. He could have remembered when Israel was exiled to Babylon. He could have remembered when the walls were torn down in the first place. He could have remembered all the problems and obstacles that stood in the way of the walls being rebuilt for over a century. But Nehemiah chose to remember something different. Read Nehemiah 4:14 with me: "Then as I looked over the situation, I called together the leaders and the people and said to them, 'Don't be afraid of the enemy! Remember the LORD, who is great and glorious, and fight for your friends, your families, and your homes!'" Nehemiah said, "Remember the LORD."
There are going to be times that you're tempted to dwell on your past failures. There are going to be times that you're tempted to focus on your financial statement, the obstacles, your jitters, your fears. It's easy to slip into focusing on the opposition and the critics. But it's much better to do what Nehemiah did. Focus on the LORD.
If God wants you to do or be something, be assured of one thing: God has the power to make it happen. If it's a God thing, then focus on God. When the critics start, start remembering what God has called you to do. Remember his faithfulness to us.
That's why part of Refocusing looks at the past. You can't move ahead without looking to the past. In less than two weeks, when we go through Summit One of Church Refocusing, we're going to spend some time looking at our church's past. We're going to acknowledge how God has been at work. We're going to celebrate what God has done. We're going to remember the goodness of God in our own church's history.
Anyone who wants to live a life of vision needs to remember. When the critics get you down, start remembering how God has worked in your past. Focus on what only he can do.
There are some people here who are scared to death of stepping out and living a life of vision because of what other people will think. Some of you have tried, but you've been beaten down. It doesn't take long for the criticism of others to deflate us - to completely knock the stuffing out of us. Some of you are thinking of quitting. Some of you already have.
I want to make this very practical. Some of you are already being criticized. If you're not, you need to plan ahead for the time that you will be criticized. It's a lot easier to handle criticism when you're prepared.
How are you going to handle criticism? What is your personal action plan for handling the criticism that will come your way? Are you going to follow Nehemiah's example? Are you going to express your feelings to God, to refuse to give up on the vision - to keep working, and to remember God's faithfulness to you in the past?
If your vision is a God thing, you dare not quit. Sure, it may seem impossible. God-sized visions often are. Your vision may not even make sense from a human perspective. Don't worry about it. Somebody has written, "When God gives you a vision or points you in a direction, the issue is not your ability or the feasibility of the project. The issue is will you follow through with what you know to do? Will you do what you can do and trust God to do what only he can do?" (Andy Stanley).
One pastor has a card on his desk with these words: "Lord, you got me into this; I'm trusting you to see me through." Whenever you run into the inevitable criticism that comes with a God-given vision, take time to remember the Lord who is great and glorious. Focus on him. Remember the time that he first birthed this vision in your heart. Reflect on the ways that he's led you and provided for you. Reflect on the promises of Scripture. Remember the Lord who is great and glorious.
Calvin Coolidge once said, "Press on. Nothing can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a promise. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are the overwhelming power."
Proverbs 29:25 says, "Fearing people is a dangerous trap, but to trust the LORD means safety." There may be somebody here who know what could and should be. But you've let the opinions and attitudes and criticisms of others slow you down. You've let the vision die - in your family, in your finances, in your ministry. You've let others set the pace for your life rather than God.
If that's you, you've been sent here today so that you could hear these words: Don't quit. If God has birthed the vision in your heart, don't let a little opposition stop you. Don't settle for pleasing mortals when you could please God instead. Romans 8:31 says, "If God is for us, who can ever be against us?"
I'd like to close today by praying for you. Some of you have been stung by criticism. You may be on the verge o f quitting on the vision. You may have already quit. You may be afraid to take the next step because you're afraid of how others may criticize you. You don't want to make yourself a target.
There is nothing the devil would rather do than to stall you and stop you. But that doesn't have to happen.
There's nothing more tragic than a God-given vision that's died at the hands of critics. Refuse to quit. Live up to the purpose that God has put in your heart.
Father, some of us have been deeply hurt by the criticism of others. Perhaps we've never told you. We didn't know that we were allowed. Today we want to be honest with you about how it feels. We want to express our pain and disappointment to you.
Father, we will never give up on what could and should be from your perspective in our life. Whatever the vision that you've given, if it's for your glory, we will refuse to stop working, no matter what the critics say. Whether it's our marriage, our finances, our ministry, a really big change you're calling us to make, we will pursue that vision even when others don't understand.
Father, thank you for your faithfulness. Thank you that you never let us down. Thank you that you loved us so much that you gave your Son for us. If you gave your Son for us, we know that you, who gave us Christ, will also give us everything else - all that we need.
Thank you that anyone can receive this new life in Jesus Christ, not because of what they have done - but because of your love and mercy. All they have to do is say, "Lord, I need that forgiveness. Thank you that Jesus died for me. Today I make him CEO of my life. I want to live for you. In Jesus' name, Amen."