Tragedy is nothing new for God’s people. Many Bible events display both the darkness of this world and the goodness of God as he brings hope and healing in tragic circumstances.

Nehemiah’s response to hardship was both passionate and effective. As we observe the ways he dealt with national tragedy and personal pain, we can learn and grow in our own response to difficult times.

This month, the United States remembers the events of September 11, 2001. Caught unawares and feeling as though we had not picked a fight, we lost thousands of civilians’ lives in one day due to attacks from distant enemies. This day now defines our recent history, and 9/11 is taught in schools as a turning point in the “War on Terror,” much as December 7, 1941 (the attacks on Pearl Harbor) is taught as a turning point in World War II.

While many Americans still smart with pain when we think of 9/11 (we can remember exactly where we stood and what we were doing and the first thoughts that crossed our minds), others around the world are facing their own national tragedies. Natural disasters that have claimed thousands of lives in a day, attacks on mosques and churches, thousands of refugees with no country to receive them, and even government-ordered genocide.

Sometimes the tragedies that hit us the hardest are not those that make news around the world. They might be a local suicide, an unexpected illness, or even a slower loss like a factory closing, leaving many without work.

Our world is battered by darkness, and one wonders what can be done to bring light and hope.

Nehemiah’s response to tragedy

One day in the Persian Empire, a palace servant awaited news from his homeland’s capital. His brother had gone for a visit to see how things were coming along, and the news was not good. “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 1:3).

Nehemiah took this really hard. He wept, mourned, and fasted for days (1:4). The significance of Jerusalem being under trouble and shame, exposed to ridicule and attack from outsiders was too much for him to take in stride.

On one hand, this may seem like a bit of an overreaction. The state of things was nothing new: 130 years prior, Jerusalem had been sacked, burned, and the inhabitants exiled to a foreign land. About 50 years after these events, efforts were initiated to rebuild the city, starting with the temple. Another 90 years had gone by when Nehemiah found out that the walls of Jerusalem were still in shambles.

On the other hand, Nehemiah’s response rings true to human experience. When an ethnic group is treated in a destructive and traumatic way, the memories and pain of these events become part of the national emotional DNA. They do not go away, and they are not easily healed. The saying goes, “time heals all wounds,” but time is not the ultimate healer. The God of heaven is that healer, and sometimes he works dramatically and powerfully to bring restoration, not only to a physical wall but also to a national identity.

Therefore, we find Nehemiah face down, weeping without restraint, calling out to his God to bring change to this unacceptable situation. In Nehemiah’s first recorded prayer, he praised God, reminded him of his covenant, confessed his and his people’s sin, and prayed for favor with the leadership (it’s a long prayer.) Notice what is not here: railing against those who destroyed Jerusalem, complaining about those who have dropped the ball on rebuilding the city, or justifying anyone’s actions. His crying out to God was humble and honest.

Nor did he glance in the direction of Jerusalem, shake his head, and move on with his life. Though many must have known of the state of the city, this tragic status hit Nehemiah in a special way. What would have happened if this busy, high-level servant had said, “What a shame that no one is taking care of God’s city. It is unjust that our people have endured such violence and ridicule. If only I wasn’t in such a critical position in this foreign land, I would do something about it”?

Nehemiah demonstrated healthy mourning

In 21st century America, we have no context for deep mourning. Funerals last an afternoon, good companies might give three days off for bereavement, and we think strength and maturity look like moving on as quickly as possible.

While Nehemiah’s fasting, mourning, and weeping were initiated by emotion, it is reasonable to guess that they were sustained by discipline and choice. He didn’t cover his pain with busy-ness. He didn’t distract himself with entertainment. He didn’t even soothe himself with food. He let himself feel the pain of the tragedy in the context of God’s truth and compassion.

Sometimes we’re afraid that pain will destroy us. But pain is designed to bring change. Physical pain motivates us to care for our bodies. Emotional pain can help us care for our relationships or our inward needs. National pain can help us rebuild with unity and fervor. Perhaps Nehemiah’s willingness to “do something,” in spite of the many obstacles, was born out of the time he spent mourning.

A plan for healing action

After the days of grieving were through, though he went back to work, he continued to fast and pray. Because his pain had been soaked in the presence of God, it had birthed in him a plan. Because he had a plan, when the king asked him what he was so sad about, he knew exactly what to say. Maybe he was like those of us who rehearse certain conversations in our heads over and over before they happen!

The favor of God on Nehemiah was evident from the time he opened his mouth in the king’s throne room. He received top notch supplies and protection and was granted significant time off work. The pain that drove him to mourn also drove him to act.

Nehemiah celebrated those who helped rather than tearing down those who hurt

Design credit: Bethany Pyle

Nehemiah memorialized the labor of individuals by listing who did what to rebuild the wall (Chapter 3). By celebrating the good work people are doing to rebuild, our focus is shifted from tragedy to hope.

For example, on 9/11, the first responders who endangered themselves (many losing their lives) demonstrated a selflessness and bravery that we as a country want to honor. Celebrating the lives of these men and women is far more productive than fostering hatred for the men who hijacked the planes that day. The story becomes less about destruction and pain; instead we can see the saving, healing, and rebuilding that is also prevalent.

Of course, there is work to be done to protect ourselves from future attacks. Nehemiah caught wind of some enemies plotting to invade the city when the workers weren’t paying attention (Chapter 4). So they paused their work briefly and stood on guard till the immediate danger had passed. Then they resumed their worked with weapons in hand. One would think this would really have slowed them down, but perhaps the threat of enemy attack spurred them on to complete the protective wall.

Again we notice what Nehemiah is not doing. His comments about the threat from the enemy are not charged with descriptions of the vileness of these people. He doesn’t pump up the people with bitterness against them. He states things simply and practically, like, “Let every man and his servant pass the night within Jerusalem, that they may be a guard for us by night and may labor by day” (4:22). In other words, “we’re all going to be doing double duty for a while.” And Nehemiah did not exempt himself (4:23).

Whether it’s the rhetoric of our leaders or the everyday conversations we find ourselves in, we will do more good by shifting our focus away from berating those who have hurt us. Stirring up hatred and fear serves to drain hope and energy for moving forward. Instead, while we have our protective measures wisely in place, we can keep our conversation and our emotional energy focused on rebuilding.

Rebuilding Jerusalem led to rebuilding Israel’s spiritual identity

In spite of all the opposition they faced, and the limited numbers of people they had helping, Nehemiah was able to lead the Israelites in rebuilding the wall in only 52 days. The thing had been broken down for 140 years. Clearly time was not going to heal that city. Healing came for the Israelites when they took courageous action, improved their city, and worked in unity.

After the wall was finished, Nehemiah called on the religious leaders to read aloud the Law for all the people assembled. They had a great feast as they renewed their commitment to God (8:1-12). Their national identity was beginning to take shape again: they were especially called out by God to honor him in their ways and bless the nations around them.

When we are faced with tragedy and pain, we can respond in like manner. It’s true that we can’t take drastic measures like Nehemiah did in response to every bad thing that happens. And not everyone needs to be a Nehemiah. Some people just need to be the ones with the hammer and nails. But here are some principles we can take with us from Nehemiah to find healing as we respond to tragedy:

  • Give yourself time and space to mourn deeply
  • Soak your pain with prayers to God for help and healing
  • Expect that God will sometimes open the door for action
  • Keep your focus on celebrating the good that people are doing rather than the evilness of our enemies
  • Pray for rebuilding to lead to healing in our relationship with God

Photo credit: Unsplash/Aaron Lee