The Power of Negative Thinking
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The Power of Negative Thinking

Nehemiah 5:14–6:9  (ID: 1725)

Nehemiah’s reverence for God and compassion for His people gave him the ability to reject anything that would hinder his progress. Alistair Begg teaches that Nehemiah’s practice of prayer prevented him from pride, his dependence on God kept him from cluelessness, and his assurance of God’s calling deterred him from distractions. Similarly, we must reject internal or external threats that interfere with God’s work and calling on our lives.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Nehemiah, Volume 1

God’s Work, God’s Way Nehemiah 1:1–7:3 Series ID: 11601

Sermon Transcript: Print

Heavenly Father, our need of you is great. In fact, it’s total. Because it’s total futility for us to think of spending this next period of time simply listening to a man’s voice expounding views and news. So we ask that in and through and beyond that voice, and in and through and beyond the pages of Scripture which we open now, we may hear you speak, and in speaking, we might be given grace to respond in faith and in obedience, to the glory of Jesus. Amen.

We resume our studies this morning where we left off last time—namely, at 5:14. We had been trying to go all the way through chapter 5 and were unsuccessful. And so we need to pick it up at that point.

Having dealt with chapter 5 in its fullness in preparation for last time and then coming back to chapter 6 to start afresh for this time, I really wasn’t sure of how to go at the whole procedure, how possibly to try and tie it all together. And I determined that there was a way to do it which I think is legitimate to the Scriptures, and you can judge for yourselves on that. It certainly gives us some way of tracing a line through this very important section of the book.

And what I want to do this morning is to focus on the importance of the correct usage of one of the most employed words of the English language—a word which tiny children learn to say quickly in defiance and most of us as grown-up children find difficult to say in discipline. And the word is no. No. What we have in these verses before us this morning, as we’re going to see, is a lesson in how and when and why to say no.

When Paul writes to Titus, he reminds Titus that one of the distinguishing marks of having come to faith in Jesus Christ is that the individual will—having encountered God’s grace in all of its fullness, which “has appeared to all men”—they will be taught “to say ‘No.’” They will be taught to live out a “No” statement to certain things. He mentions “ungodliness and worldly passions.”[1]

The Bible also makes it very clear that one of the distinguishing marks in the genuine believer is that they have learned to use the words yes and no properly. They say yes at the right time and mean it. They say no at the right time, and they mean it. They let their “Yes” be “Yes” and their “No” be “No.”[2] So it is very, very important. It may seem almost trivial to think of it in these terms, but I don’t think so.

Witness, for example, when we fail to say no when we should—for example, in the realm of temptation. Or listen to mothers—or fathers, for that matter—exclaiming to their friends as they are out in the store—in the department store, or in the coffee shop, or something—as their children just create absolute mayhem all around them, and you hear the mother saying, “I just can’t say no to my kids.” And when you can’t say no when you should say no, you’re in trouble.

So learning to say no at the right time is very, very important, and no less so in the matter of leadership, as we see concerning Nehemiah here.

If you want a succinct title, I’m going to dig it out of 6:2, and we’ll call it “Saying No to Ono.” “Saying No to Ono.” Because it was this location of Ono which represented the distinct challenge to what Nehemiah was doing, and so he said no to Ono. He said “Oh, no” to Ono, actually. But that’s by the way.

You see, if God’s work is going to be done in God’s way, which is the prevailing emphasis of these studies, then leadership needs to be principled enough to rule out other options—not because the options are always wrong (many times, they’re not) but sometimes just because they are the wrong options. In other words, they’re not best.

And when we look into the life of this fellow Nehemiah, we have a tremendous example of somebody who, having put his hand to the plow, didn’t look back. If you asked him, “What are you doing?” he knew what he was doing. Every day of the week, every hour of the day, he knew what he was on. He knew why he was saying yes. He knew why he was saying no. Terrific illustration of all manner of avenues of life. It is an illustration to a schoolboy or a schoolgirl as they set their course towards a successful completion of their journey. It is a lesson to the businessman, to the salesman. It is a lesson to the mother as she awakes in the morning to the multiple challenges of her task that week; she needs to know what she’s going to say yes to and what she will say no to—to apply it just in a few ways.

Now, I want to suggest this morning that there are five areas in which we see Nehemiah saying no. And hopefully, we can learn from them.

Saying No to Undue Privilege

First of all, in verses 14 to the end of the fifth chapter, we see Nehemiah saying no to undue privilege. Saying no to undue privilege. It is clear as you read these verses—and you may read them as I speak, to refresh your memory—that there were obvious advantages to the position in which Nehemiah had been in Susa and now found himself in Jerusalem. The fringe benefits of the job were outstanding. His predecessors, as he tells us here in around verse 15 or so, had established a pattern of taking from the people food and finance to the degree that it had become burdensome to the people.

Now, when you move into a new job, it’s very possible for you just to go with the pattern that has been set by the person who sat in the chair before you. After all, the people have become aware of it, they’ve become used to it, and they may safely assume, “Well, this character will just go along the journey the way the previous chap did.” It’s very, very important, if a man is going to be a man of integrity in that business world, that he assesses to what degree those individuals have done that which was for the well-being of the firm, the company, the employees, or whatever it might be. And if he is a man of principle, then he will be prepared to step back from that which is burdensome and unhelpful. And that’s exactly what we find Nehemiah doing.

Nehemiah’s willingness and ability to say no to what was excess was one of the ways he magnified God and he displayed his reverence for him.

In modern parlance, if we can try and bring it as much into twentieth-century Cleveland as possible, the expense account that Nehemiah had was probably considerably greater than most of the cumulative annual salaries of the people that he was working amongst. So he didn’t even need to touch his principal salary. He could just live off his expense account, and he’d still be way ahead of where the people were that he was encouraging to be involved with him in the work. That, I suggest, in every context, represents a peculiar challenge to the person who finds himself with such a privilege. He was justifiably able to eat at five-star restaurants, to live in the best of hotels, always to travel first-class. The job was absolutely silver-lined. But he said no. He said no.

Now, why did he say no? Well, the answer is very straightforward. He said no because he didn’t want to harm the people. “The demands,” he says in verse 18, “were heavy on [the] people.” We know from the study last time that these folks were going through famine. They were going through deep difficulty. And if in the midst of all of that their sterling leader was actually going to gouge them for more and more stuff, then presumably, it would just push them over the edge. And so he decides to say no to travelling with what is excess baggage. He refuses to allow the craft, the vessel of his life, to be weighted down by what was obviously unnecessary and as he describes it, unhelpful.

He’s moved, according to verse 15, to say no, first of all, by “reverence for God.” He says of these predecessors that they used to place “a heavy burden on the people.” They “took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to [the] food and [the] wine.” And the assistants that they had “also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that.”

You see, here’s the great challenge: You say you know God? “Yes.” You say that you reverence God? “Yes.” Okay, show me. Why would I ever believe that you reverence God? Why would I ever know what the phrase “I reverence God” even means, unless it has feet, unless it has hands?

Now, this is not the only way, but this was a way. And Nehemiah’s willingness and ability to say no to what was excess was one of the ways in which he magnified God and he displayed his reverence for him. He was marked by a genuine, heartfelt, life-impacting concern for God’s glory. And as we’ve alluded to, in verse 18, he was moved to say no not only by reverence for God but also by compassion for people.

Now, this explains, you see, why he had all these people over for dinner in verse 17. This is quite a dining room table, you’ve got to admit: “Furthermore, a hundred and fifty Jews and officials ate at my table.” You say, “There’s no way he got a hundred and fifty people around a table.” Oh yeah! You just need a big enough table.

Have you ever gone to some of the palaces in Britain or in Europe and seen some of those dining room tables? Unbelievable! You go to Holyrood Palace, at the bottom of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, down from the castle, the Queen’s residence when she’s in Edinburgh, and look at that dining room table. It’s spectacular! You know, it goes forever! And you never need to talk to your brothers or your sisters or anybody for months on end if you just position yourself properly at the table, ’cause it’s huge. I mean, put the king down there and the queen down there, and they need a walkie-talkie system just to say, “Could you pass me the salt, please?” I mean, you could ask for the salt at breakfast on a Tuesday and not get it till dinnertime on a Thursday. That’s how big the table is. It’s immense!

So don’t think for a moment that we’ve got a Nehemiah here who’s living one step above dereliction. Some of us are already beginning to apply it here in terms of the sort of—we’ve got Nehemiah, child of the ’60s, Nehemiah the peasant, Nehemiah living in a cave. “Aha! You see, Nehemiah wasn’t a capitalist. Aha! There you go. Nehemiah was a man of the people.” No! Nehemiah was, by all accounts, stinking rich. You’re going to have to be rich to have a hundred and fifty people for dinner every single day and not take the food given to the governor. See, he had a lot of stuff, but stuff didn’t have him. That’s the challenge. We make the mistake of assuming that if someone has the stuff, they’ve got the problem, when in point of fact, we may not have the stuff, and we may have the problem.

And so he has these big dinner parties. They kill an ox every day, “six choice sheep” every day, poultry every day, “and every ten days an abundant supply of wine of all kinds.” He did this. He told his whoever-it-was that went out for the groceries—they went to the sort of Jerusalem Finast or whatever it was (not to advertise, but…)—he said, “Go down there, get an ox, six choice sheep, poultry, and it’s the day for the wine, and bring it all back.” He obviously had big bucks from his job in Susa, or certainly from his job in Jerusalem. He was living with success. He was living with popularity. He was living with prosperity. I would imagine that’s jolly difficult! Probably a lot harder than most of us believe. “Oh, look at those people. They’ve got so much. They have so much influence, so much opportunity. It must be fine for them.” In fact, the Bible says, “To whom much is given, much will be required.”[3] And Nehemiah displays his integrity by saying no to privilege.

Just because it’s there doesn’t mean we have to use it. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean we have to have it. Just because the previous guy did it doesn’t mean we have to do it too. It’s an immense challenge. And I don’t think it matters how many zeroes we’re talking about. It’s a challenge to us all, all the time. Take the challenge. I certainly must face it.

Saying no, then, to privilege.

Saying No to Pride

Secondly, saying no to pride. Saying no to pride. The completion of the project is described for us here in verse 1 and then in verse 15 of the chapter. Especially in the light of the speed with which this has taken place—we’re told in fifty-two days they had put it all together—there’s enough in this to pump up the average man’s head so large that he’d need a couple of people to walk around with him just to hold his head up because his neck muscles wouldn’t be sufficient for the task. There was enough in this to have massaged the ego of Nehemiah to the point of almost absurdity. But you will notice that he consistently avoided the posture.

People might justifiably have said to him, you know, “Tell me about your wall, Nehemiah.” And he could have waxed eloquent on it all—how he’d been in Susa, and he’d come nine hundred miles. He came singing, “And I could walk nine hundred miles, and I could…” That’s just for anybody under the age of seventeen. And he came from Susa, walking nine hundred miles just to get there, just to be on the wall, just to do the job. And he could have said, “You know, there hadn’t been a person in ninety years who’s able to tackle this project. I’ve been able to put it together. It’s fantastic! We did it in fifty-two days. I’m really very good at this building stuff. I’m a good guy. And yeah, let me take you around my wall.” He doesn’t do any of that.

So we learn from the silences of the Bible as well as from the express statements of the Bible. And what we learn from the silence in Nehemiah here is that here was a man that said no to a fat head. He was a man who said, “No, I will not take the glory to myself. I will not allow anyone to believe that this happened because of Nehemiah. Because I know that it was on account of the hand of God upon my life that made it possible for me to have all of this journey, to have all of these provisions, to make this reconnaissance mission work, and to encourage all these people to go. It was all God.” Nehemiah knew Psalm 138:2: “You have exalted above all things your name and your word.” And he was not about to foul that one up.

Now, if we doubted this at all, you only need to look at verse 9 there: “They were … trying to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.’” Then you’ve got a little phrase: “But I prayed.” “But I prayed.” There’s nothing reveals our hearts more than our prayer life, or the absence of it.

You see, if we think that we’re really good at talking, we’ll never pray for God to bless the ministry of his Word. We’ll just rely on our ability to talk. If we think we’re very good at music, we’ll never get down on our knees and sacrifice our lives to God afresh and say, “Make my life, my hands, my music, an offering to you.” We’ll just get on our feet and let everybody know how wonderful we are as musicians. If we think that we have all the requisite abilities in this church, there’s no reason to have a prayer meeting. All we’ll do is just mobilize people according to principle, we’ll use the management strategies of the world, we’ll employ the latest marketing techniques of the day, and we’ll go out, and we’ll reach the world. But if we know that we can’t do that, then we’ll pray. And Nehemiah’s prayers are the key to the absence of his pride, and the absence of his pride is on the basis of the presence of his prayers. We’ll say more about this tonight.

Turn for a moment to 1 Peter chapter 5, if you would. First Peter chapter 5. Peter’s wrapping it up, this letter that he’s written to all these scattered believers. And he says, “You know, if you’re going to live together in harmony with one another, one of the very important elements is going to be an absence of pride.”[4] And so in verse 5 he says, “All of you, [wear] humility toward[s] one another.” “Don’t be going around bristling with pride and preening your feathers and acting smart. Don’t do that!” “Because,” he says, quoting the Old Testament, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” And on the basis of that, he then applies it: he says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”[5] It means learning to keep silent when I want to speak and tell everybody what a good job I did. It means being prepared to be silent when I want to speak and justify my position for everybody. It means being prepared to be silent and allow the work which God has chosen to do in you and through you speak for itself.

You see, Nehemiah lived in the awareness that God was sovereignly involved in his life. He was providentially dealing with him. And for all of his initiative, he doesn’t display the kind of unhealthy self-assertiveness which so often marks those who are successful. There was none, if you like, of the spirit of the Olympics ’94 in Nehemiah’s response.

Nehemiah’s prayers are the key to the absence of his pride.

“Well, what do you mean by that?” says somebody. Well, I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’ve picked something up this time around that I don’t remember quite before. Nowhere did it come across more forcefully than the other evening, while the whole world watched the figure skating. And when the focus of all of America’s affections and hopes and dreams finally took her place in front of the camera and was asked, “How do you feel?” do you remember her response? “I am very proud of myself.” Excuse me? Wasn’t there something supposed to be about “I am greatly humbled by the immense privilege entrusted to me to represent the United States of America in this arena”? Again: “What do you think about this?” “I am very pleased with what I have been able to achieve.” And all the little girls of America, down there in that place at Shaker Heights where I have to go with my girls, are watching this. They’re watching this, and they’re saying, “And that’s just what I want to be.”

“Nehemiah, we just wanted to have a moment with you to interview you about your wall. How do you feel about your wall?” “I am very proud of myself and what I have been able to achieve.” It’s the spirit of the age. It all spills over from silly psychology, manifest in the realm of sports. I would want to say, in defense of the individual to whom I’m alluding, that she is speaking out sound bites pumped to her by sports psychologists who’ve told her, “You’ve got to believe in yourself. You’ve got to think of yourself. You’ve got to think of the next thing. You’ve got to believe.” And all of that’s true, but all of that is not the essence of it. All of that is a means to an end, and all of that obscures the overarching purpose. We are breeding a generation of brats in a society that has exalted narcissism to the throne.

But not Nehemiah. No! He said no to undue privilege. That’s a hard one. He said no to rising pride. That’s just as hard.

Saying No to Mindlessness

Thirdly, he said no to mindlessness. He said no to mindlessness. You say, “Well, what is this all about?” Well, let me try and explain. It may not be immediately apparent.

In order for God’s people to be effective, there needs to be leadership that isn’t mindless; it’s alert. If you’re still got your finger in 1 Peter 5, you will notice that once Peter has said, “Humble yoursel[f]” and “Cast … your anxiety,” his very next phrase is “Be self-controlled and alert.”[6] This is something that he keeps saying. In 1:13 he says, “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled.” In 4:7, he says the same thing: “[Therefore] the end of all things is near. … Be clear minded and self-controlled.”

Why would Peter have so much to say about this? Because this was where Peter fouled it up!

Jesus says to him, “Peter, watch and pray.”[7] That’s not too difficult, right? “You got two things to do, Peter: watch and pray.”

“Got it.”

“Okay. Now, I’m going to come back in a bit. I’m going to ask you, ‘Were you watching? Were you praying?’” He comes back, and there’s Peter: [imitates snoring]. (That’s part of the sermon for tonight as well, but we’ll leave it there.)

So Peter says, “Jesus said, ‘Watch and pray.’ I didn’t watch, and I didn’t pray, and I fouled up. So I want to tell you so you won’t do what I did: don’t be mindless. Don’t think that because I put verse 7 before verse 8”—namely, “Cast all your anxiety [upon the Lord],” or, in Nehemiah’s case, “Lord, strengthen my hands,”—“that all you have to do is say, ‘Lord, strengthen my hands,’ and then you’ll take anything that comes your way, and you don’t really need to adjudicate on it or think it through.” No! That would be silliness.

In Nehemiah’s case, his saying no to mindlessness reveals itself in the fact that he didn’t take everything at face value. He had a measure of skepticism about him. Now, if you’ve determined that skepticism and Christianity do not comingle, I suggest you read your Bible again. We’re not talking about unhealthy cynicism. We’re talking about healthy skepticism—a skepticism which is based upon what we know about humanity and what we know about our Bible and what the Bible says about ourselves. We’re naturally skeptical about ourselves, if we’re honest, because we’re skeptical that our immediate reaction to things is not necessarily the purest and the best. If we don’t have that healthy sense of skepticism, then we probably fall foul of the point we’ve just dealt with in relationship to pride.

So, for example, here he gets this letter. The messengers come and say, “You know, we would like to have a meeting with you.” Oh, this is a change! These people have been sending all these horrible threats, and now they want a meeting? I keep picturing him talking to his wife, which says more about the way I respond to things than it does about him, because he was probably a eunuch and didn’t have a wife. So x that out of your mind, okay? But when he spoke to his wife, he would have said to her, “You know, I got a nice letter from these people. They want me to go to a conference. Isn’t that nice?” He didn’t say that. He said to himself, “You dirty rats.” No, he didn’t. I made that up! But I mean, he said to himself—he said, “This is not straight up.” Mindlessness would have said, “Hey, we’re off to a conference.” He said no to mindlessness, because, he says in verse 2, the end of verse 2, “they were scheming to harm me.” In verse 9 he says, “They were … trying to frighten us.” In verse 13 he says, “He had been hired to intimidate me.”

In other words, Nehemiah did not allow his unwavering dependence upon the hand of God to lull him into a sense of dreamy cluelessness. Trusting in God does not absolve us from the duty of personal vigilance. Right? Trusting in God does not remove us from the realm of vigilance.

So you’ve got teenage kids, and your son or your daughter phones up at eleven thirty some evening and tells you that they’re at the Dairy Mart in who knows where, and you just put the phone down and say, “Well, I’m trusting Jesus.” I’m not! At least not alone. I’m in my car, man! I’m looking for every Dairy Mart within a hundred square miles of the place.

“Well, my wife stays a long time at the office—a lot longer than usual. I don’t understand that. I don’t understand why her boss has suddenly got such an interest in the overtime. But I’m trusting Jesus!” Not if you’re sensible you’re not! You’re going to meet her at five o’clock every afternoon when the office bell rings and it’s time for out of there, and you’re going to tell her boss to go take a running jump, ’cause she’s your wife first before ever she went working in there. Not unless you’re stupid. Not unless you’re clueless.

Do you know how much Christian cluelessness there is? How many silly things go on under the disguise of trust? You see, Nehemiah’s conviction that God’s hand would secure the eventuality did not prevent him from diligence and skepticism in this regard in relationship to what people were saying to him.

Was it Chamberlain, in the Second World War, who met with Hitler? Chamberlain? Before the War, before it broke, right? So he goes, and he meets with Chamberlain. I wasn’t there, but some of you were. You remember this. And I’ve seen the newsreel photographs of him coming back at the airport, somewhere in the South of England, waving the sheet of paper and pronouncing to the House of Commons, “Peace in our time.” What happened in that little encounter was that Mr. Chamberlain embraced mindlessness. He refused to say no to cluelessness. His doctrine of man was off because he was a universalist and Unitarian, and he believed that man was getting better and better all the time, and therefore, this funny little man with a mustache, because he would be getting better and better all of the time, presumably had fallen asleep, woken up, was feeling much better, much more disposed to the rest of Europe, and was happy to say and sign to peace in our time. And while he was signing to peace in our time, the armies of Germany and the mobilization of all of that stuff was being garnered for this immense and dreadful onslaught. Ten million soldiers lost their lives on French soil alone in the First World War. And Chamberlain, embracing mindlessness, opened the door to it all over again.

Trusting in God does not absolve us from the duty of personal vigilance.

Well, apply that as you might. Parents, beware of mindlessness. Why do I say it to parents? ’Cause I write it in my own notes to myself. And when I become a grandfather, I’ll be saying, “Grandfathers, beware of mindlessness,” whatever it is. ’Cause if you don’t preach the sermon first to yourself, why would anybody ever listen to the sermon you’re trying to preach to them? I’m not telling you on Sundays things out of the richness of my experience that I know all about, that I’ve mastered, that this. The day that I give that impression, I should just go down through this jolly trapdoor here with this pulpit. When I talk about saying no to privilege, it’s a challenge to me. When I talk about saying no to pride, it’s a challenge to me. When I talk about saying no to mindlessness, it’s a challenge to me.

Saying No to Distractions

And fourthly, when I talk about saying no to distractions—saying no to distractions—it’s a challenge to me. Verse 3 is the key to this: “I sent messengers to them with this reply, ‘I[’m] carrying on a great project and [I can’t] go down.’” Or, as the New English Bible translates it, “I have important work on my hands at the moment; [and] I cannot come down.”

Nehemiah related everything to his primary calling. The question that he poses in verse 3 is honest and it’s vital. Here’s the question: “Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” That’s the question that a mother asks about forty times a day. She’s just got her hands into something, and someone says, “Could you please take me to the such and such?” She says, “I am doing a great work, and I cannot come just now.” And then you get up the top of the ladders: “Could you…” You understand.

Now, what’s the story here? Nehemiah understands that his primary focus is clear. Let me do this, and we’re done. ’Cause we’re going to finish with a wonderful anthem this morning. We’re looking forward to it.

Now, listen. Think about every life you’ve ever known that’s made a mark—whether in history, in family, in friendship, or in business—and you’re thinking about a life that is absolutely focused. You’re talking about… You have got in your mind right now somebody who knew what they were doing, why they were doing it, when they were doing it, and they were so consumed with doing it that they weren’t going to do anything else, and they weren’t going to let anybody else divert them from that task. Okay?

How about Jesus? You go and read it for yourself in Mark’s Gospel. Mark chapter 1, he does the healings. He does the healings; he goes to pray. He’s out praying by himself, the disciples come and find him, and they say, “Hey, the whole place is looking for you!”[8] Now, there’s an exclamation mark in the English translation, which isn’t there in the Greek, but it catches the sense of it. The disciples are pumped, you see, because they’re Jesus’ guys. They’re with Jesus. They’re the Jesus people, and his thing is taking off. He’s got a ministry that’s going gangbusters. He did a few healings, and the whole place is going crazy. They’re up in the middle of the night, looking for Jesus. They’re all over the place, looking for Jesus.

And so they come and find him, say, “Everyone’s looking for you, Jesus!” And you’ll find in Mark 1:38, Jesus says, “Let us go somewhere else.”

“What? Jesus, I don’t think you understand what we just said to you. We’re telling you that your healing thing, it’s big! I mean, there’s going to be tapes, books, videos, TV!”

“I heard exactly what you’re saying. Let’s go somewhere else.” Explanation: “[that] I [may] preach there also. That is why I[’ve] come.” See, he knew what his wall was, and he wasn’t coming off it.

Paul, 1 Corinthians 9: “I am prepared,” he says, “to reach out to all manner of people in all manner of ways in order that by all means possible I might win some.”[9] Paul to Timothy as a young man, he says, “I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be [diligent] in season and out of season. … Keep your head …, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”[10] “Timothy, don’t come off your wall.”

And if I may just apply this in a different way for a moment, I want to say to those of you this morning… Let me speak to mums for a moment. And there you are in the high calling of motherhood, whatever stage it is—whether it is the nappy stage or the teenage stage or multiple stages. And every so often on a Tuesday, at about eleven thirty in the morning, as you look around on all of this and you think about what you’re doing and why you exist and where you’re going, there come all kinds of invitations to get off your wall. I want to tell you: don’t get off your wall. You’re at the very apex of opportunity. Your children will arise and call you blessed.[11] Just stay on the wall.

Some of you are thinking about running away and leaving your job and moving because the circumstances aren’t just the way you wanted it, and if this happened, and that happened, and the next thing happened… Listen, it all falls apart in the next place as well. Geography is irrelevant, ultimately. Stay on the wall. Keep your focus. Say no to distractions.

Learning to say no is not always saying no to evil. Iit is saying no to the inferior for the sake of the best.

And the final point—and my time is gone—is that Nehemiah knew how to say no to fear and to intimidation. You see, the whole point was that from outside and inside, they were all trying to give him a real working over. But he knew it. He said, “They’re just trying to frighten us.” And the real test of his leadership is the real test of all leadership, and that is, it is the ultimate test of human opinion. Would Nehemiah be brought down by their accusation? Would he be seduced by their adulation? ’Cause that’s true always in leadership.

The nineteenth-century hymn writer puts it like this:

Some will hate thee, some will love thee,
Some will flatter, some will slight;
Cease from man, and look above thee:
Trust in God and do the right.[12]

When I was a wee boy at school in Scotland, we had this chorus that went, “Learn to say no, learn to say no, to everything evil wherever you go.” And then it went on from there. What I’m suggesting this morning out of this study is simply that learning to say no is not always saying no to evil; it is saying no to the inferior for the sake of the best. So let us be about the business of mending fences and building walls.


[1] Titus 2:11–12 (NIV 1984).

[2] See Matthew 5:37.

[3][3] Luke 12:48 (paraphrased).

[4] 1 Peter 5:5–6 (paraphrased).

[5] 1 Peter 5:5–6 (NIV 1984).

[6] 1 Peter 5:8 (NIV 1984).

[7] Matthew 26:41; Mark 14:38 (paraphrased).

[8] Mark 1:37 (paraphrased).

[9] 1 Corinthians 9:22 (paraphrased).

[10] 2 Timothy 4:1–2, 5 (NIV 1984).

[11] See Proverbs 31:28.

[12] Norman MacLeod, “Courage, Brother, Do Not Stumble” (1857).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.