One of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They replied, ‘The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed byfire. When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. I said, “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 your servants the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned. We have offended you deeply.”
I have agonized in recent weeks over the dark tragedy and suffering that rocks our world. During this time I have thought frequently of the difference between my “Circle of Influence” and my “Circle of Concern”. I learned of these two circles from Stephen Covey in his book The Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey writes about effective, proactive people focusing their energies on those things they can do something about, or, their “Circle of Influence”. They waste no time or energy on things beyond their control. On the other hand, ineffective reactive people focus their energies on their “Circle of Concern”, those things over which they have no control. Their lives are caught up with “concern” about the Ebola virus, the national debt, terrorists’ plots, Iran getting nuclear weapons, and earthquakes.
Thinking about my own Circles of Influence and Concern made me think of today’s text from Nehemiah 1. It makes me think differently about the troubling news that seems beyond my control or ability to influence.
Today’s text opens as Nehemiah is serving in the one of the many palaces of the Persian King Artaxerxes. Nehemiah’s world is shattered by news from hundreds of miles away beyond his Circle of Influence. He is told that his ancestral city of Jerusalem, and a city he had never seen, is “in great trouble and shame”. Repeated attempts to rebuild the city after its destruction in 586 B. C. have been defeated as “the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates have been destroyed by fire”. Nehemiah, who was born in exile, might have asked what difference he might make beyond his Circle of Concern. He might have wondered how he as a stranger in a strange land, could have any possible influence over geopolitics rocking the world.
But, Nehemiah is one effective and proactive leader! He focuses on his Circle of Influence and that which he can do! So we see Nehemiah weeping and mourning for what is happening! And we see him fasting and praying, confessing his sins, and also the sins of his people. And wondrously, mysteriously, Nehemiah’s praying and confessing pushes the circumference of his Circle of Influence far out into God’s Circle of Control. Nehemiah will see Jerusalem rebuilt with its walls and gates secure!
I read Nehemiah in one hand this past week, and today’s news in the other hand; I was struck by the fact that we are seeing our own nation’s “walls” destroyed, morally, spiritually, and economically. Two days ago our nation’s Secretary of Defense soberly warned that we face something “beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything”.
How are we as followers of Jesus going to respond to what is going on in the world? Will we shrug and say, “There’s nothing we can do!” “It’s bigger than us!” “It’s sad, but it’s beyond our Circle of Influence!” Or, will we get down to doing the work of mourning the evil, fasting, praying, and confessing our sins?
Consider what theologian A. Phillips Brown has to say about Nehemiah’s mourning, fasting, and praying in his treatise, “The Theology of Nehemiah”:
Hand in hand with Nehemiah’s focus on divine sovereignty is the corollary truth in human responsibility [emphasis added]. This is seen primarily in the frequent prayers scattered through the book (1:5-11; 2:4; 4:4, 9; 5:19; 6:9, 14; 9:5-38; 13:14, 22, 31). Some are long (ch. 9); others are short, but they teach a powerful message. God is in charge of the world. He turns the heart of the king whenever He desires; nevertheless, He has ordained prayer as the instrumental means by which many of His purposes will be accomplished in the world [emphasis added]. So it is in response to prayer that the accomplishments of this book are made…Nehemiah begins and ends with prayer…It is noteworthy that every major event in the book is preceded by prayer.
Nehemiah was a layman serving in the sumptuous court of a pagan king. But he allowed his heart to break at the things that broke God’s heart, and he prayed, and confessed his sin and the sins of his people.
That’s a great place for us to begin this week! That’s what we can do, and make a difference! Let’s push our Circle of Influence out into God’s Circle of Control!
Grace and peace,