“They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck…But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.”
— Nehemiah 9:17
The above sentences were written to describe the Israelite people during Moses’ lifetime, and Nehemiah used these words to remind the Israelite people of his own day about the unfathomable mercy of God. It strikes me that these sentences could just as easily be written about me, today in 2017. It would look like this:
Crystal refused to obey.
For me, this disobedience is usually birthed from fear. I am afraid of how others might judge me, so I fail to do what God has told me to do. I feel scared that what God is asking of me will hurt too much. So, instead, I go my own way. But that assumes that I actually know what God has told me to do. Sometimes, I’m not even listening to his voice or noticing what he is doing in the world around me.
Crystal was not mindful of the wonders you performed around her.
It’s all too easy for me to get distracted by my life. I am busy, it’s true, but there is always time in my day to stop and listen for God’s direction. Innumerable opportunities to become more aware of God’s presence are available to me. I just don’t always take them. It’s like God has created this amazing world, but I’ve lost the childlike wonder to appreciate it. God works absolute miracles, ridiculous miracles that cannot be explained any other way than that he made them happen. But sometimes I’ve grown too dull; I don’t wake up and recognize their significance. I’m not talking about the YouTube miracle videos that get reposted over and over. Those are great, but I’m talking about the way that God heals marriages through forgiveness or helps people overcome addictions, one grueling moment at a time. I’m talking about how God gives people struggling with panic attacks the courage to go out in public. I’m talking about how he gives people suffering from depression the strength to get up out of bed and take a shower. These seem small to us somehow, but they are only by God’s grace. All good in this world is only by his grace. And I so naturally slip into a state of robotic doing, crossing things off a never-ending list. I forget to be mindful of the wonders he performs around me.
Crystal stiffened her neck.
Sorry to say it, but I’ve been here. It’s a terrifying place to be. I have knowingly sinned, having determined beforehand to do so. A stiff neck cannot bow to God in humble reverence. A stiff neck cannot look around at all of the people who might be hurt through my sin. A stiff neck cannot look up to the God of hope. A stiff-necked person can only look straight ahead, deliberately carrying out her own destructive plan. God, please save me from a stiff neck! What holy God could stomach such a repulsive person?
But Crystal has a God who is ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love who, because of Christ Jesus, will never forsake her.
These wonderful qualities of God are clearly not dependent upon my own good behavior. I cannot nullify God’s character through my disobedience, lack of mindfulness or stiff neck. The phrase steadfast love is the Hebrew word hesed. It is used throughout Scripture to describe God’s loyal kindness and his faithful posture of mercy and grace toward his children. It is a word heavy with meaning, because it holds within itself a significant part of the makeup of God. His hesed is not dependent on my ability to keep from sin. His hesed just is. It can be trusted always. I cannot.
Prior to Nehemiah’s day, God’s chosen people had witnessed his miraculous rescue and his forgiving mercy over and over. Still, they stiffened their necks, dulled their awareness and refused to obey. The people who rebuilt the wall under Nehemiah’s direction witnessed God’s miraculous provision and protection. Still, they stiffened their necks, dulled their awareness and refused to follow through on their promises to God. In 2017, I have been blessed through Christ with forgiveness for all my sins. I am surrounded every day with evidence of his miraculous grace and empowering Spirit working in and through his people. Still, I have been guilty of stiffening my neck, dulling my awareness and refusing to obey.
But God is forgiving, gracious, and merciful to me. He is slow to anger toward me, and he abounds with steadfast love toward me. He will not forsake me. Thank you, LORD!