Sword And Trowel: Don’t Let Opposition Stop You

youth building concrete block walls
Wall building on a mission trip to Golden Springs, Jamaica, circa 1990.
(I’m on the lower left, trowel in one hand. No sword that morning.)

Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other. Nehemiah 4:17b

It was incidental and mentioned merely in passing. It wasn’t the point.

But on the heals of that weekend, smarting from that blast from a friend and that hideous snarl from my mouth, the pastor’s almost throwaway line was the point.

When The Enemy’s Up To Something

Because I was thinking of hanging up my work clothes and throwing down the trowel.

Because even though I’d confessed, I felt like a fraud. Like I’d disqualified myself from ministry. Lead that life group in the afternoon? Share my faith with younger believers? Expand God’s kingdom? I wasn’t equal. The Accuser had me right where he wanted me.

Since the Fall, the enemy has tried to bait us with lies and lure us into sin. He does this because we are God’s witnesses to the world. He does this to keep us from carrying out the Great Commission, from making disciples. That’s why he seeks to devour us (1 Pet. 5:8).

Chuck Lawless explains: The enemy wants us to mess up (fall into sin), give up (get discouraged), get puffed up (live in arrogance), split up (divide), or shut up (quit evangelizing).

To mess up, give up, get puffed up, split up, or shut up- that’s what the enemy’s up to.

Stand Tall, In His Strength

But God calls us- which means He also enables us- to stand against the enemy (Eph. 6:111314). Paul is our precedent. He kept on with kingdom work in the face of opposition. Pray that I may proclaim the gospel boldly. That was Paul’s prison request. (Eph. 6:18–20).

“Standing” -sword in one hand, trowel in the other- meant that he would keep preaching if it cost him his life. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18a), Paul wrote. He knew, sorely opposed saints must know, that no one is strong enough-or weak enough- to fall away while God is resolved to hold us.

Lawless explains, We put on the full armor of God not so we can defend ourselves, but so we can…do the work of the Great Commission.

Which brings me right back to that sermon last Sunday.

Don’t Let Opposition Stop You

The sermon was not about Nehemiah and Co. rebuilding the wall. It was about Great Commission at the end of Matthew 28. But when I paged back to Nehemiah 4 and the opposition I faced suddenly paled.

First, the enemy fire:

Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. And he said, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? They won’t finish up in a day. Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”

Then came friendly fire, from fellow Jews:

In Judah it was said, “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.”…At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, “You must return to us.” 

But all that opposition didn’t stop Nehemiah and the Jerusalem wall building crew.

If You’re Doing God’s Work, Never, Never, Never Give Up

The point was: Don’t give up. Don’t throw in the trowel. Opposition is not a license to quit. Nehemiah didn’t.

Continuing in Nehemiah 4,

When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work. From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail…Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other. And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built.

They kept building God’s kingdom in the face of opposition, with trowels and swords. We must do the same when we face opposition.

Including opposition from our flesh that wages war within.

A Violent Streak

Nehemiah’s wall builders carried swords to fight enemies outside the wall, but we do battle with the enemy inside our skin.

Which reminds me of a John Piper quote that comes to mind again and again, when I fail again and again. It reassures me that battling my indwelling sin is par for the course.

It’s the truth that, this side of heaven, struggle is good:

There is a mean, violent streak in the true Christian life! But violence against whom, or what? Not other people. It’s a violence against all the impulses in us that would be violent to other people. It’s a violence against all the impulses in our own selves that would make peace with our own sin and settle in with a peacetime mentality…

If by the Spirit you kill the deeds of your own body, you will live. Christianity is war — on our own sinful impulses.

That’s why I need a sword.

Sword And Trowel

But I also need a trowel. Because building the spiritual kingdom- making disciples- is the Christian’s call.

So it’s no stigma to carry a sword with your trowel. In fact, it’s just hearing Paul’s call to “take heed” (1 Cor. 10:12, 16:13) and Christ’s call to “be on guard” (Mk. 8:15, Luke 12:15). In Nehemiah 4:9, we read that after the enemy showed itself, “We prayed to our God and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night.” And by grace, the work continued.

If we wait till we’re perfect to build walls in God’s kingdom, we’ll never lay the second course.

Battle sin, build God’s kingdom. Sword in one hand, trowel in the other. That’s how we build God’s kingdom. We can’t let opposition stop us.

Not from enemies, not from friends, and definitely not from indwelling sin.

Battle your sin and build God’s kingdom.

Both. At the same time.

We cannot use the excuse that we haven’t arrived to disengage from the work. My ugly outburst discouraged me. But, thanks to Pastor Matthew’s mid-message nod to Nehemiah, it did not disqualify me from serving.

It did not keep me from teaching truth on Sunday or listening to a hurting friend on Monday or taking Sunday school girls out for smoothies on Tuesday.

It could have, but God spoke straight to my discouraged heart in that quick mention of “trowel in one hand, sword in the other,” Sunday morning.

And by grace, the work continued.

Jerusalem city wall


Does It Count?

The real test of the saint is…doing the things that do not count in the actual estimate of men but count everything in the estimate of God. 

-Oswald Chambers

Mom, do these [dishes] count for my work today?

Does this [Monopoly money] count for my math? 

Does this [vacuuming] count for exercise? 

Does this [Fruit Loops box] count for my reading?

No kidding. Our eight-year old asked me each of those in a single day last week. Because at our house summers off aren’t entirely.

We still do work in the summer. We learn to do dishes and sweep floors and fold laundry. We do math and reading, and play piano and exercise. And Gabe, God bless him, doesn’t want to waste his efforts. He wants to be sure reading the cereal box at breakfast and scrubbing dinner dishes and counting play money are entered on his ledger.

He wants it all to count.

In Vain?

We all want to know that our work counts. We crave assurance that our labors are not in vain, that our love is not wasted. We long to know that somehow, in some way our efforts will be rewarded. We wonder:

Lord, do these [dishes] count for my work today?

Does this [meal for a new mom] count for love?

Does this [hard forgiveness] count for faith?

Does this [check to our church] count for some reward?

The worst moments in our lives are those that scream: Wasted! All in vain. They etch themselves deep, these moments. My husband was into balsa-wood building back in the day. Hours, a day and maybe a night was how long a diligent twelve-year-old labored over one little model home.

Finally, exultant, he set the delicate little dwelling on his bed. Dan came in, then, and they bantered as brothers can and Jim flopped joyful back on the bed. And the balsa-wood house was smashed in a second into smithereens. And Jim cried.

Waste feels awful. When hours of dinner prep are lost in a smoky oven and days of writing are lost in a hard drive crash. When weeks of study are lost-one click shy of submitted-and the test is outside its window. When months nursing peach trees are lost to a summer storm, tiny fruits hard on the ground. No counts hurt.

These crushing flash points hit us hard; when work seems irretrievably, irrevocably lost and love looks irretrievably, irrevocably wasted. As if labor was in vain, and love wasted. Lost.

But are they?

Not In Vain

Paul was like us. He wanted to be sure his own work, his ministry, wasn’t in vain. He wanted his work to count.

Fourteen years after Damascus Road, Paul went up to Jerusalem. Why? To make sure [he] was not running in vain (Galatians 2:2). He wanted to be sure he was doing his work right, proclaiming the gospel truly. He told the Philippian church, Hold fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain (Phil. 2:16).

You’ve probably heard it said, You must preach to yourself. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, an English pastor last century, may have coined the adage. The futility of wasted, no-counts are preempted by preaching to ourselves.

We must constantly be reminding ourselves that we are always in the presence of God, that He sees and knows everything and we can never escape his sight. Where can I go to flee from your presence? 

If we were to practice this it would be revolutionary. I am quite certain a revival would start at once. Think of all the pretense and sham, and all that is unworthy in us. If only we realized that God is looking at all, and is aware of it all, and is recording it all. (D.M. Lloyd-Jones, The Sermon on the Mount, V. II, p. 17)

So don’t phone it in because you don’t see a reward. That’s what faith must be. It’s precisely the work no one sees, the hours that no one notices and love that’s not returned that God will reward. It’s just then-when love or labor seem in vain- that God tells us, It counts.

That’s one reason, I think, that the great day of the Lord will be so great. We’ll know that our work of faith counted. That the efforts pleased our Master. Isaiah foretold this day, when They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat…They shall not labor in vain (Isaiah 65:22).

What About Rewards?

The whole issue of rewards troubles people. But reward is central to Christian belief. Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:60). So we make it our goal to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one should receive what is due for what he has done in the body (2 Cor. 5:9-10)

Each believer will receive his own reward according to his own labor (1 Cor. 3:8) and, Whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord (Eph. 6:8). In one span of eighteen verses, Christ spoke four times of reward. He spoke-not to put such talk of reward to rest-but to assure us that it is perfectly good and right to seek it.

Provided, of course, that the reward is rightly sought from the righteous Judge.

The key thing is to remember that rewards come once. If you seek yours from man, you won’t get it from God. So, don’t let your left hand know about the check your right hand wrote.

But, it doesn’t follow that we should be unconcerned with reward. Only be mindful that God keeps accounts. He sees what you do in secret, and one day out in the open will be gathered all the nations. And the King will say, “Come you blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom…For I was hungry and you gave me food, a stranger and you welcomed me.” 

How To Make It Count

1. Beware

If you seek your reward from men you may very well get it, but that is all you will get. You’ve cashed your check. Think, every time you wonder If this counts, of our guiding truth about reward:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 6:1). 

Lloyd-Jones prods us again. Work through your religious life, think of all the good you have done in the past, in the light of that pronouncement. How much remains to come to you from God? It is a terrifying thought.

In an age when it’s so easy to showcase our righteous acts, and reap rewards the instant we post them, it is a terrifying thought. We’d best beware.

2. Let Him Keep Accounts

Leave the book-keeping to Him and his grace. Let Him keep the accounts…There is no need to waste time keeping accounts, He is keeping them. And what wonderful accounts they are. May I say it with reverence, there is nothing I know if that is so romantic as God’s methods of accountancy …The whole world is turned upside down by grace” -D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones*  

Do you live for God’s glory? Do your work and play, your Facebook posts and text threads make God look great? Praise Him if they do, but don’t keep track. Seek the Kingdom first. Quit asking if it counts. Like my NYC sister-in-law says, Forget about it. 

3. Keep Doing Good

To those who by patience in well doing seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life (Romans 2:7). And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:4, 6,18). 
So keep right on rocking those babes in the nursery and writing checks to your church and doing dishes after hosting group. Love and labor for God count. He sees and knows what’s done for his sake.

So don’t grow weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (Galatians 6:9).

4. Keep On Trusting

The Hebrew Christians were like Gabe. They wanted their work to count. And since whatever was written for them is for our benefit, too, we have hope. For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints (Hebrews 6:10).

In a sermon on that text, John Piper reiterates this great truth:

The great battle of the Christian life is not to produce merit so that the justice of God will repay with salvation. The great battle of Christian life is to keep trusting God patiently until he freely gives the final inheritance.  

Do you trust Him? That he saw how patiently you listened, how silently you cleaned her kids’ mess? That these checks year after year will bring reward one day? That He saw the smile forced for the man who slandered my man? Can I trust this hard forgiveness He’s helping me do counts for something?

*     *     *     *     *

Yes, Gabe. Your work counts. Scrubbing dishes and counting Monopoly money counts. It all adds up to something good. By God’s accounting, and by his grace, it makes the man.

Yes, Christian, it does. It all counts for something. In God’s economy no labor or love for his name’s sake is ever wasted. He will reward the righteous acts you do for Him. They matter.

In fact, nothing on earth matters more.

The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. 
Galatians 5:6

*Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure, p. 131