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5 steps to overcoming apathy: Lessons from Nehemiah

Unsplash/Keenan Constance
Unsplash/Keenan Constance

A professor once asked his philosophy class, “Which do you think is a bigger problem in America right now: ignorance or apathy?” A student replied, “I don't know, and I don’t care.”

While that is a humorous anecdote, it sums up what is going on in our nation and world today. As Albert Einstein said, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on evil and do nothing.”

If you read through the Old and New Testaments, you’ll see that apathy among God's people was often a problem, as it is for many of us. We need, on a daily basis, to deal with our tendency toward apathy.

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But how do we do that? Let’s look at the life of Nehemiah and learn the five steps we should take to overcome apathy.

Gather the facts

Nehemiah, a Jew, was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia, which is modern-day Iran. A cupbearer to a Persian king was the most trusted official in the kingdom. Nehemiah had to be conversant in political matters and affairs of state. He was the one who tasted the wine and then gave it to the king to make sure it wasn’t poisoned — which meant his life was on the line every day.

Nehemiah was in Persia because the Babylonian Empire took over Jerusalem and held the Jews captive for 70 years. After the fall of the Babylonian Empire, the Medo-Persian Empire assumed control over everything and everyone — including the Jewish people. Nehemiah had never been to his ancestral homeland, but he knew that Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians in B.C. 586 and that 50,000 Jews had returned to rebuild the city.

One day, he heard reports about what was going on in his homeland. And what he heard was not good.

As Nehemiah recounted:

“Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the 20th year, as I was in Susa the citadel, that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, ‘The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire’” (Nehemiah 1:1-3[MB1] ).

The first step to overcome apathy is to find out the facts. Some people won’t ask questions because they don’t want to know the answer; if they get the questions they have answered, then they might feel a sense of obligation.

Although Nehemiah didn’t grow up in Jerusalem, he was grieved when he heard about its ruinous state. And he decided to do something about the situation, even though he was over a thousand miles away.

We must gather the facts and then seek God’s wisdom as to how to respond — which is what Nehemiah did next.

Let the facts stir you

When Nehemiah reflected on the destruction of his homeland, he wept. He wrote, “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of Heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4).

It would’ve been easy for Nehemiah to hear about a city he had never visited and say, “Oh, well, that’s sad” and go on with his life. But he allowed the tragedy of the situation to break his heart.

Nehemiah heard of the problem and wanted something done about it because Jerusalem wasn’t just any city. It was God’s city, the covenant city. And he knew that a city with broken down walls and burned gates is vulnerable.

Our nation and our world are full of needs, and our reactions to those needs tell us a lot about who we are. Unless we see the problem and are affected by the problem, we’re not going to fix the problem. We should weep for the brokenness around us and in our own hearts.

What makes you cry? What injustice causes you to feel strong emotion? I am convinced that God wants to break our hearts with the things that break His. We need to let the facts stir us.

And then, like Nehemiah, we need to let that information be our motivation.

Turn your passion into prayer

Nehemiah turned his passion for Jerusalem and his people into prayer. In Nehemiah 1:5-10, he prayed:

“​​O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments,let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.

Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples, but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of Heaven, from there I will gather them and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand” (Nehemiah 1:5-10).

Nehemiah began this prayer by recognizing who God is. He then confessed his own sin and the sin of his people. He saw himself as part of the problem so that he might become part of the solution. He reminded God of the covenant he had made with Israel and concluded with a request for success and mercy.

When we pray with perspective, reminding God of his promises and confessing our sin, we receive clarity, giving God space to work in our hearts, minds and souls.

Of course, God has the right to answer prayer any way he wants. But as Nehemiah’s prayer demonstrates, God is attentive to prayer. And in the end, Nehemiah’s prayer gave him clarity.

Once you know something and then you feel something, then you need to talk to somebody about that something — God, first. That’s what Nehemiah did.

And after praying, it was time to act.

Do something

Nehemiah told King Artaxerxes what was troubling him and asked for leave to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city. When the king granted his request, Nehemiah, emboldened, asked for official papers and supplies for the task, which the king also granted (see Nehemiah 2:1-8).

Do you notice the flow so far in the story? First, Nehemiah sat down and wept. Then, he knelt down and prayed. Now, he stands up to work. He’s making himself available to fix the problem.

Through his action, Nehemiah was transformed from cupbearer to contractor. This meant leaving his secure position in the Persian Empire.

Nehemiah made himself available to meet the needs before him, and so should we.

God is always looking for willing volunteers. The Bible says, “For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him” (2 Chronicles 16:9a).

So many Christians live their whole lives without ever saying, “God, what do you want me to do?” I assure you, the most fulfilling life you can ever live is to go on an adventure with God, where you look around at the needs, you’re moved by what you see, you pray about what you see and then you take a step with God.

But we can’t do this alone, as Nehemiah showed us.

Enlist the help of others

Nehemiah received funding from the government, supplies, documentation and military support. And when he arrived in Jerusalem, he asked his fellow Jews to help him. By the time we get to chapter 3 of Nehemiah, we see 38 individuals named as Nehemiah’s helpers. Over 40 different groups with different occupations got together and rebuilt the city in cooperation with one another.

Collaboration is the final step in overcoming apathy.

This is why Christian fellowship is so important. Isolation fuels apathy. We need collaboration with others, the help of others, because when we’re alone, we’re alone with our thoughts. Our thoughts, which aren’t always wholesome, healthy and biblical, need to be counteracted with truth, not just from a pulpit or from a computer screen, but from Christian brothers and sisters. We need encouragement. We need each other.

So today, let’s renew our commitment to overcoming apathy. Let’s repent of allowing life to get the better of us, causing us to slip and slide away from that position of abiding in Christ. Let’s pray that God will show us what steps to take as we learn about needs around us.

And then let’s be engaged in and for his kingdom, so that our work upon this earth might be for his glory.

Skip Heitzig is the senior pastor of Calvary Church in New Mexico and is the author of numerous books and publications. His radio and television broadcast, Connect with Skip Heitzig, is available throughout the United States and around the world.

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