Leaders pray through disappointment

I am interested in leadership. In fact, my interest in the subject has drawn me to two books by B.H. Carroll’s President Dr. Gene Wilkes—Jesus on Leadership and Paul on Leadership. Because of these books, I keep an eye open for leadership principles and lessons in the Bible. 

The Book of Nehemiah is full of examples of the skillful art of biblical leadership. The characteristic that stands out to me most is how this leader turned to prayer in times of crisis. 

The account of Nehemiah opens with disappointing news. He was living in Susa, serving in the court of King Artaxerxes, when Hanani brought a distressing report. Even after two waves of exiles had returned to Jerusalem, the walls were still broken down and the burned out gates were still unrepaired. While several theories guess at why the repairs had not been completed, Jerusalem was still in ruins, without protection, and unable to provide a suitable place to live prosperous lives. 

Nehemiah was utterly broken by the news. It knocked him off his feet and drove him to mourning. But while he could not control the past, he could control his response. He began to mourn, fast, and pray on behalf of this beloved city of his ancestry. We can read Nehemiah’s first prayer in Nehemiah 1:4-11. Notice the elements of the prayer:

  1. Nehemiah praised God for His steadfast love (v. 5). God’s enduring faithfulness was the only reason Nehemiah could pray at all. God’s love should likewise be the basis for our prayers.
  2. Nehemiah confessed sin (v. 6-7). He acknowledged the sin-damaged relationship that he, his family, and his people had had with God. Confession of sin should always come prior to petition and intercession. 
  3. Nehemiah remembered God’s promises (v.8-10). Nehemiah was living in the fulfillment of God’s promise to remove the Jews from their land if they did not keep the covenant. But he was also living in the longing for another fulfillment, that of God returning the nation to Judah when it had repented so it could fulfill its responsibilities in covenant with God. What promise are you longing for God to fulfill?
  4. Nehemiah made his petition (v. 11). He requested that God hear his prayer and help him with “this man.” This man, we discover in the next verse was Artaxerxes, and Nehemiah was his trusted cupbearer. Notice that the comment made (for us) at the close of his prayer cues us in that Nehemiah had already initiated a plan to aid his people. Winning the king’s permission was the next step. 

Nehemiah provides a strong example of leadership focused on kingdom work. Though he was distressed by the state of Jerusalem’s disrepair, he was never in despair. He did what we sometimes fail to do. He turned to God first, instead of turning to his own efforts to sort out his problem. 

Nehemiah knew immediately that the problem in Jerusalem was related to God’s promises—promises that could only be fulfilled by Him. He decided to live in anticipation of God’s fulfillment instead of despair over what appeared to be a hopeless situation. Because he desired God’s fulfillment, he turned to God, the author of the promises in the first place.

Knowing God and His steadfast love, Nehemiah prayed for God to act. He prayed for the big picture (to rebuild the walls and gates) and he prayed for the smallest of details (to help with “this man”). Likewise, Christian leadership will rise or fall on the leader’s dependence on God keeping His promises.  

Nehemiah was an excellent administrator with wonderful leadership skills, but prayer was the best tool in his toolbox. He was a man of prayer. His words give us a glimpse into the heart of a God-honoring and God-serving leader. 

Of course, prayer is never about formula. There is no exact prescription for prayer, but we can learn much from this praying leader. Our prayers should involve a deep longing in our souls to honor God and see Him fulfill His plans. How can Nehemiah’s prayer guide you when you face distress, discouragement, and daunting challenges?

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