February 4, 2024 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Nehemiah 1:1-4 (NRSV)
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.
The book of Nehemiah portrays its central figure, Nehemiah, as a person who gets the job done. We might even say that he demonstrates a bias for action. But it’s essential to note that Nehemiah doesn’t act apart from doing the inner work of leadership. In fact, it would be accurate to say that his activity and success as a leader are founded on his intentional inner work. Moreover, as Nehemiah’s example reminds us, we often do this by setting aside time for an extended conversation with God in which we pour out our hearts and hopes without holding back. In Scripture, prayer is a crucial feature of deep inner work that leads to effective leadership.
Today’s devotion is part of the series: A Biblical Guide to Inner Work.
Discussions of leadership in the Bible often and rightly focus on the case of Nehemiah, whose exemplary leadership is chronicled in the Old Testament book that bears his name. Nehemiah, though a Jewish man, was the cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes, in the fifth century B.C. He lived in Susa, a city where the Persian kings spent the winter (modern-day Shush, near the Iran/Iraq border, about 1,000 miles from Jerusalem). Nehemiah was one of many Jews who had been scattered throughout the Ancient Near East as a result of Babylon’s conquering of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.
The book of Nehemiah begins with its protagonist receiving a report from some visitors from Judah about the dire situation of Jerusalem and the people who were still living in that region. They were suffering “great trouble and shame” because “the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire” (Nehemiah 1:3). For Nehemiah, as well as for Jews throughout the Ancient Near East, this was a major crisis. It meant that the ancestral home of the Jewish people was on the verge of extinction, with no hope of restoration. The fact that Nehemiah felt this to be a crisis is obvious from his strong emotional and behavioral response to this alarming news.
If you look ahead in the book named after Nehemiah, you’ll see that he exercised extraordinary leadership during this crisis, with extraordinary results. But what I’d like to focus on today and in several future devotions is how Nehemiah’s leadership was shaped by the inner work he did.
We see the beginning of this inner work in verse 4 of Nehemiah 1: “When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” What a striking verse! Here is the cupbearer to the king, a person of prominence and influence, whose heart is moved by the desperate situation of the people and places he loves. He not only feels deeply but also shares this in his account he writes for others. Nehemiah is a man with a big heart, a person with strong feelings, and a leader who is not afraid both to feel and to share his feelings with others.
Once again, we see that inner work in Scripture isn’t a solitary activity. We don’t know if Nehemiah did any of his inner work in conversation with trusted colleagues or friends. But we do know that he did it in conversation with God. For days he “wept” and “mourned” over the sorry state of Jerusalem, sharing his sadness with “the God of heaven” through “fasting and praying” (1:4). During this time of soulful prayer, Nehemiah reflected upon the character of God (1:5) and the sins of the Israelites (1:6-7). But he wasn’t focusing only on sin in general or the sins of the whole nation. Rather, he confessed, “Both I and my family have sinned” (1:6). Clearly, he had taken time to consider his own failures and those of his family. Nehemiah’s inner work was deeply personal and vulnerable.
In popular discussions of leadership, leaders are often portrayed as people who have a “bias for action.” They don’t just sit around and think. Nor do they wait to move forward until they have every last bit of relevant information. Leaders take risks to get things moving, including themselves.
The book of Nehemiah portrays its central figure as a person who gets the job done. We might even say that he demonstrates a bias for action. But it’s essential to note that Nehemiah doesn’t act apart from doing the inner work of leadership. In fact, it would be accurate to say that his activity and success as a leader are founded on his intentional inner work. Nehemiah exemplifies what Michaela O’Donnell observes in her article, “How to Be a Better Boss”: “So, if we want to become better leaders, the kind who project light (Matt 5:14, NRSV) and whom people both want to work with and benefit from, we will need to tune into and deal with what’s happening inside.” And, as Nehemiah’s example reminds us, we often do this by setting aside time for an extended conversation with God in which we pour out our hearts and hopes without holding back. In Scripture, prayer is a crucial feature of deep inner work that leads to effective leadership. Yes, a bias for action can be good, but even more important is a bias for prayer.
In tomorrow’s devotion, I’ll continue to examine how Nehemiah’s inner work undergirds and shapes his leadership. For now, you may wish to consider the following questions.
Why do you think Nehemiah devoted so much time to the inner work of prayer before he acted to remedy the dire situation in Jerusalem?
Can you think of a time in your life when, facing an imposing leadership challenge, you set aside ample time for reflection, soul-searching, and prayer?
What role does inner work play in your functioning as a leader? How, when, and why do you do your inner work?
Set aside time to talk with God about a leadership challenge you face. Don’t pray only about what needs to be done, however. Talk with God about how you’re doing in the face of this challenge. What might God want to teach you?
Gracious God, thank you for the example of Nehemiah. We can learn so much about godly, effective leadership from him.
Today I thank you for Nehemiah’s example of a bias for prayer. Yes, he did deep inner work, but not by himself. He did it in conversation with you.
Thank you also for Nehemiah’s willingness to confess, not only the sins of the nation, but also his own sins and those of his family.
Help me, Lord, to do the inner work that will help me to be a better leader. And help me to do this with you, listening to what you have to say to me through Scripture and the Spirit. May I openly share my thoughts, feelings, and hopes with you as I come to know myself more truly. Amen.
Banner image by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Rebuilding the Wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:1-7:73).
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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, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.