Leading in a Crisis: Before the God of Heaven

By Mark D. Roberts

March 24, 2020

Leading in a Crisis

The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital, 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 by fire.” When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.

Nehemiah 1:1-4 (NRSV)


Yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion added to the series I’m calling Leading in a Crisis: The Difference God Makes. Today we continue on in this series, once again by examining the example of Nehemiah.

As I noted yesterday, Nehemiah was a leader in crisis. A thousand miles away from the Jewish homeland, he learned that the city of Jerusalem was in ruins and the Jews living in the area were “in great trouble and shame” (Nehemiah 1:3). His immediate response was great sadness as he “sat down and wept, and mourned for days” (Nehemiah 1:4). Though an influential, well-connected, and (as we’ll see later) brilliantly strategic leader, Nehemiah was a full human being, a person with a big heart as well as a sharp mind and decisive will. Nehemiah felt things deeply and shared his feelings openly in his account of exercising leadership in a time of crisis.

But he didn’t merely feel and share. Note Nehemiah’s own description of what he did: “When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4). As he felt and expressed his feelings, he focused on God through fasting and communicated with God through praying. He felt, sat, wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed “before the God of heaven.” The Hebrew expression translated here as “before” has embedded within it the Hebrew word for “face.” The picture is of one standing in front of another person—or, in the case of Nehemiah, in front of God.

If the first thing Nehemiah did when learning of the crisis he faced was to feel powerful emotions, the second thing was to turn to God, to acknowledge God’s presence. He shared with God all that he was feeling and thinking. He had been formed by his faith to be a leader who takes the challenges he faced to God, instinctively and quickly.

We see another example of this in the second chapter of Nehemiah. As you may recall, he was the cupbearer to the king of Persia and therefore someone regularly in the king’s presence. When the king noticed Nehemiah’s sadness, he asked, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of heart” (Nehemiah 2:2). Nehemiah admits in his memoir that his first response was to be “very much afraid” (2:2). When he explained to the king the crisis his people were facing, the king asked Nehemiah what he wanted. Before answering this critical question, Nehemiah “prayed to the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 2:4). Then he explained to the king his plan to rebuild Jerusalem. Notice that in a crucial moment, even before speaking, Nehemiah turned to God and prayed silently. Whether weeping from sadness or speaking with a king, Nehemiah lived and led “before the God of heaven.”

Nehemiah’s example invites us to examine our own leadership. Are we, like Nehemiah, inclined to turn to God when we face difficult situations? Is it our instinct to pray in all sorts of contexts and conversations? Do we intentionally live and lead “before the God of heaven”?

Honestly, in some ways I am like Nehemiah. When I receive bad news, my feelings are strong. Sometimes I am sad. More often I feel worry and a compelling urge to act. I’m wired to come up with solutions, to solve problems, to make things better. I am not wired to turn to God in fasting and prayer. I am not wired, like Nehemiah, to do this for many days as I wait on the Lord. I want to press ahead, to be strategic, to get out in front and lead.

So, Nehemiah’s example challenges me to start “before the God of heaven,” to turn to God in prayer, to wait upon God for guidance and wisdom. Sometimes the discipline of being consciously before God deserves many focused days. It’s not something to be rushed. Sometimes, however, we should turn to God for a quick moment, offering up a prayer before answering a tough question or speaking out in a meeting or making an urgent decision.

Today, as you lead, no matter the context, whether in your online staff meeting, virtual classroom, church, family, school board, hospital, or encampment, may you be conscious of leading “before the God of heaven.” Moreover, may you turn to God for help, whether for dedicated lengths of time or for quick moments. In all you do, may you sense God’s presence and guidance.

Something to Think About:

When you face challenging situations in your work life, how regularly do you turn to God? Why do you think you act as you do?

Can you think of a time when, like Nehemiah, you offered a quick, quiet prayer to God in the context of your work? What was the situation?

What might help you to turn to God and speak to God more often as you work?

What might help you to consistently exercise your leadership “before the God of heaven”?

Something to Do:

Do something to remind yourself to pray more often as you are doing your work. You might put a sticky note somewhere or set an alarm in your smartphone. The point is to begin to train yourself to pray throughout the workday, especially as you face difficult questions or situations.


Gracious God, again we thank you for the example of Nehemiah and his leadership. We have so much to learn from him.

In particular, today we thank you for how Nehemiah lived and led “before the God of heaven.” His instinct in a crisis was to turn to you and pour out his heart to you. Help us, we pray, to learn to do the same.

Today, Lord, please nudge me by your Spirit to turn to you. May I be aware of your presence and speak to you as if you were right there with me . . . because, of course, you are. Thank you for your presence in every part of my life. Amen.

Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online
Does Trusting God Mean Turning to Prayer, Taking “Practical” Action, or Both? (Nehemiah 1:11-4:23)


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Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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