Criticism and opposition are to Kingdom work what death and taxes are to life: a certainty. If you’re producing fruit for God’s kingdom, you can be sure that the enemy will not be happy, and he will use others to attack you. These attacks can be a destabilizing force, throwing off your focus and keeping you from being as fruitful as you wish to be. This is especially the case when you do not anticipate it and prepare for it. Thankfully, scripture gives us some great examples to learn from, and for this particular challenge, Nehemiah is among the best.
Nehemiah was the cupbearer of King Artaxerxes of the Persian Empire, some 80-plus years after King Cyrus had allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem. While they had been allowed to return and rebuild the temple, the rest of Jerusalem still lay in ruins. Distraught by this, Nehemiah casts a vision to rebuild the city, beginning with the rebuilding of the city’s walls. King Artaxerxes permitted Nehemiah to pursue this vision, but not everyone was happy about it, specifically two men by the names of Sanballat and Tobiah. They did not want anyone to “seek the welfare of the people of Israel.” (Neh. 2:10) In order to undermine Nehemiah’s plans, they criticize and oppose him at every turn. But this does not hold Nehemiah back – in the end, with the help of many hard workers and God’s hand of blessing, Nehemiah is able to realize his vision of rebuilding the wall in only 52 days!
When we cast a vision of service to God – a service which blesses his Kingdom and glorifies his name – we can be certain we will face criticism and opposition as well. Looking at the story of Nehemiah, we can learn how such critics work and, most importantly, how we should respond.
3 Steps Of Opposition
The first step in opposing Kingdom work is to attack with fear. In Nehemiah 2:19, when Sanballat and Tobiah and an Arab named Geshem hear about the work Nehemiah is about to do, their immediate response is to criticize and oppose it using fear: “Are you rebelling against the king?” Rebellion against the king was not a small thing. In fact, Jerusalem had been destroyed precisely because it had rebelled in the past. Nehemiah and the workers know this, so having the accusation of rebellion attached to their work could easily make them afraid. This is often the first step of the critic. If they can get you to be afraid, they don’t have to do anything themselves. They don’t even have to make everyone afraid, just enough people to stop the work. The fear isn’t always associated with violence as it is here in Nehemiah. It may show up as the fear of failure. It may show up as a slippery slope argument: “if you do X, then Y is definitely just around the corner!” Critics often use fear because they have fear in their own hearts. It’s all they know. Stopping others with the same fear validates their own experience.
The second step in opposing Kingdom work is to attack with insults. In Nehemiah 4:1-3, after the work is well underway and it is clear success is at hand, Sanballat and Tobiah start lobbing insults at the workers. They use low blows: “do they actually think they can make something of stones from a rubbish heap – and charred ones at that?” and attack the quality of the work, “that stone wall would collapse if even a fox walked along the top of it!” (NLT) When critics see that fear hasn’t worked, their next step will often be these kinds of insults. They will insult you personally, and they will insult the work you are doing. Some critics don’t mean it personally – in some cases, having never experienced vision or having never seen it succeed, they just can’t believe the work can actually be done. But many critics do mean it personally, and they mean it to demoralize you. Again, they don’t have to demoralize everyone, just enough to stop the work. If they can make you or those helping you feel unqualified or unable, they can prevent the work from being finished.
The third step in opposing Kingdom work is simply to attack. In Nehemiah 4:7-8, we see Sanballat and Tobiah prepare to attack the workers directly. Later in Neh. 6:1-9, now desperate to stop the work, they try a last-ditch effort to conspire against Nehemiah. When critics see that their less direct attempts have failed, some will be brazen enough to plot against you personally. They will whisper and gossip and manipulate others to attack your work. Proverbs 16:28 tells us, “A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends.” When critics get desperate, they will be willing to spread all kinds of strife and division, even to their own detriment. As long as they stop you, they’re willing to go down with the ship.
Of course, not every critic will use every step, and they may approach them in a different order. Some will start with attacks, while others may begin with insults. But you can be sure that, if you are doing work for God’s kingdom, you will encounter at least one of these steps at some point. But this leads us to the obvious question: how should we respond? How did Nehemiah respond? We’ll get to that in the next post.