Nawho? — Why We Need to Preach From the Most Neglected Book of the Bible

In the entire history of preaching I doubt there is any section of the Bible more neglected than the minor prophets and among the minor prophets none is as ignored as the book of Nahum. Elizabeth Achtemier says of the book, “We often wish Nahum were not in the canon, and the book has been almost totally ignored in the modern church.” (Achtemeir, 5)  If you will take about 15 minute to read the book you will quickly see why.  The message that Nahum delivers is one of judgment and the picture of God given in the book is one of vengeance, wrath and anger.  Consider the second verse of the opening chapter, “The Lord is a jealous, and avenging Go; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps earth for his enemies.” (1:2) This picture of God doesn’t go over too well in the modern church but I would like to suggest that there’s more to Nahum than what we see at first glance.  There are hidden nuggets in this short book that the modern church desperately needs to hear.  Let me just mention a few of the important themes that make Nahum one of the most relevant books for our times.

Nahum Reminds Us that God’s Justice and Loving Kindness Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

Another way of saying is this is that God is sovereign, showing justice and wrath to the doers of evil while at the same time displaying mercy and love to His people.  We’ve already noted that in 1:2 Nahum clearly teaches us that God is jealous and avenges evil but we also need to note that in v.3 he says, “The Lord is slow to anger and great in power…”  Throughout this book, Nahum reminds the people of Judah that while God will judge the city of Nineveh for the atrocities that it had committed He will at the same time show them mercy.  For instance, in 1:15 he writes, “Behold, upon the mountains, the feet of him who brings good news, who published peace! Keep your feasts, O Judah; fulfill your vows, for never again shall the worthless pass through yowl he is utterly cut off.”  In other words, the people of Judah could be confident in worshipping God because He will restore them and will deal with their enemies. 

God’s justice and His lovingkindness are not separate natures but rather, they are attributes that coexist perfectly within His divine character.  In the modern church, we have so overemphasized the grace and mercy of God that we have neglected to teach on His justice and wrath.  But the truth of the matter is that we cannot understand what God is like without coming face to face with both aspects of his character.  These two aspects of God’s character are displayed most vividly through the cross of Jesus Christ.  On the cross Jesus met the righteous demands of God’s justice by bearing the punishment for our sin while at the same time displaying God’s love and grace by becoming the ultimate sacrifice for our sin.

Nahum reminds us that God’s justice provides comfort because He has not forgotten nor does He ignore those who do evil.  People living in Judah may have thought that God had been harsh with them but that He was letting the Assyrians and their capital city of Nineveh off the hook.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Nahum reminds us that God is faithful to His promises

In 1:12-13 Nahum writes, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Though they are at full strength and man, they will be cut down and pass away.  Though I have afflicted you, I will afflict you no more.  And now I will break his yoke from off you and will burst your bonds apart.”  In these verse God reminds Judah that He has not forgotten about them and that He is going to be faithful to all of His promises.  He may have had to temporarily afflict the people but He had not forgotten them.  This is a message that believers in every age need to hear.  Like the ancient residents of Judah, we often find ourselves wondering if God is ever going to intervene to bring about justice.  In those moments, Nahum speaks to us and reminds us that God is faithful to His promises.  He will judge evil and He will restore the righteous.  But there is one final theme in Nahum that modern believers need to hear.

Nahum reminds us that our only security is in God

 The Assyrian Empire was the mightiest military force on the face of the earth in Nahum’s day.  Under the leadership of Tiglath-Pileser the Assyrians dominated the Ancient Near East, including both Israel and Judah, forcing the conquered nations to pay him homage.  The Assyrians were a fierce, militaristic, conquering people who lived by the philosophy that “might makes right.”    They had conquered every major power in their part of the world and must have felt invincible but God says, “Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will make nations look at you nakedness and kingdoms at your shame.” In other words, God is announcing that He was about to humble the greatest, most powerful nation on the earth at that time. In their commentary, Kenneth Barker and Waylon Bailey state that, “Nahum shows that when the military might of a nation becomes its security and its god, then sin has conquered the nation, and it will fall.  Sin is not limited to those with specific instructions from God’s book about it.  Every person knows basic human rights and values.  Any person or nation who refuses to follow these rights and values is condemned as a sinner and faces God’s judgment.” (Nahum, 155)

As a people we need to be reminded that our strength is not in our military might, economic power, or advanced technology.  In the end none of these will stand the test of time.  The only true source of security that we have is in God.  Nations, churches and people who trust in anything other than God will find that their lives are built on sinking sand.  Our security is found in God and God alone!

My prayer is that God will use this brief survey of the themes in Nahum to encourage you to preach through/from this most neglected book of the Bible.  

 

Hope for Pastors Who Are Trapped in Depression

LincolnThis past Sunday I preached a message from the book of Job entitled “The Dark Night of the Soul:  The Problem and the Blessings of Depression.”  In this message, we examined the difficult and often neglected subject of depression in the life of believers.  I showed our congregation that Job shows the classic signs in this book of experiencing anxiety and depression.  In this blog post, I would like to extend that conversation to the problem of depression among Pastors.  Specifically, I would like to offer some hope and help for Pastors who are serving the church but who feel trapped in depression.

I understand this problem because I have struggled with depression throughout my life and have been serving in the ministry for over twenty years.  For most of my ministry I have kept my depression a secret — fearful that it would disqualify me from carrying out the call of God on my life.  But a few years ago, I began a journey that has lead me to understand that although depression presents several unique problems it also presents some unique blessings and opportunities.

First, however, let me share some statistics with you that demonstrate just how big of a problem anxiety and depression are among Pastors.  According to a a study conducted by the Schaeffer Institute among those involved in full-time ministry:

  • 50%  feel unable to meet the demands of the job.
  • 80% feel the ministry has negatively affected their family.
  • 70% report battling depression
  • 70% report that they do not have someone they consider a close friend

Obviously, this is one of the most pressing issues facing the clergy in America today.  When I first read these statistics I was both relieved and surprised.  Relieved because for the first time I realized that I was not alone in my struggle and surprised because I talk to Pastors daily and never realized so many were struggling.

The problems created by depression are rather obvious.  Pastors who battle with depression end up feeling isolated, lonely and discouraged.  Often they end up quitting the ministry or worse yet stay in and grow more and more bitter.  Over the past twenty years, I have met dozens of men who once felt the fire of God burning in their soul to preach the Word but who’ve grown despondent and jaded due to depression.  The problems are obvious to everyone, but what we often fail to comprehend is that depression also offers some unique blessings.  

I first began to think about the unique blessings of depression a couple of years ago when I came across an article in The Atlantic magazine detailing Abraham Lincoln’s  struggle with depression.  In that article, Joshua Wolf Shenk discussed Lincoln’s lifelong and public battle with depression.  As I read the article, I couldn’t help but think about how different things are today than they were in Lincoln’s day.  If Lincoln were running today there would be no way he could get elected as a member of town council let alone as President of the United States.  His battle with “melancholy” was far too public for him to be elected in our present political environment.  But Lincoln, thankfully,  lived in a different era — an era when depression was thought to be closely linked with genius.

As Lincoln grew older, Shenk argues that he moved from fearing his melancholy to engaging with it and to eventually transcending it.  Shenk points out that due to his depression, Lincoln was able to see situations with more clarity than others — an phenomenon that researchers have labeled “depressive reality.   This allowed him to come up with creative solutions to the problems of his day.  In addition to these, however, Lincoln’s depression also produced within a sense of humility and determination.  He was not afraid to fail and, in fact, expected to fail more often than he succeeded.  Harriet Beecher Stowe compared him to a wire cable that sways in a storm but holds fast.

As I was reading Shenk’s article a thought occurred to me.  A light bulb went off in my head and it dawned on me that Lincoln would not have been perhaps the greatest President in the history of our nation if he had not been depressed.  Theologically speaking, God has uniquely prepared this man’s personality and psyche for the time and place in which he lived.  But then something even greater popped into my mind — God has made me just the way I am to serve Him.   For years, I had felt embarrassed, ashamed and guilty because I struggle with depression but what if I had been looking at the issue all wrong?  What if my depression was really a gift from God rather than a curse?

Reading that article radically changed the way I looked at depression.  Suddenly, I stopped thinking of depression only in terms of being a curse and started looking at the potential blessings that it might offer.  Now I know that some of you want me to say something along the line of, “and then I got better and was never depressed again.”  We like fairy tales endings where everyone lived happily ever after.  But that’s not what happened.  Recognizing that depression was a blessing from God didn’t make it go away.  In fact, I’ve come to the realization that I will struggle with depression for the rest of my earthly life.  But that does not mean that there isn’t a silver lining.  What I discovered is that as I became more open and honest about my depression, I started to become more effective in the ministry.  Let give you some of the ways that it has helped:

  • I’ve been able to relate to those in my congregation that are also struggling with depression.
  • I’ve been able to minister to other Pastors who are struggling with the same issue.
  • Knowing and accepting that I struggle with anxiety and depression has helped me to balance my tendency to obsess on the worst possible outcome of any scenario.  This has helped me to embrace the kind of creative thinking Lincoln experienced without focusing too much on the darkest possible outcome.

If you are struggling with depression in the ministry let me offer you a couple of pieces of advice.  First, the sooner you come to grips with it the better.  Second, don’t give up.  If you are hurting so bad that you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or entertaining leaving the ministry please call someone and talk to them.  There is hope.  Third, study the issue of depression and learn as much as you can about it.  The more you understand the unique problems and opportunities it presents the better off you’ll be.  Finally, when the time is right share your struggle with others.  Don’t do this before you are ready and before you are able to help to others but when the time is right don’t hesitate to share your struggle.  WARNING: there will be some in your congregation who will criticize you for being so open but don’t let them discourage you from sharing.  Some in your congregation might think they want Superman for a Pastor but what they really need is YOU.  God has uniquely made you and placed you exactly where He wants you to be.  Your depression is not a surprise to Him.  He wants to use it to make an eternal different in your life and in the lives of the people you serve — so engage it and transcend it through the power of the Gospel.