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


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