Written By Ruth Lawrence, UK
You might have encountered them on the streets. The lonely, the homeless, and the addicted. They started off just like the rest of us, but somewhere along the line, one wrong choice after another led them on a downward spiral. Now, they think it’s too late for them to try and amend their ways—God wouldn’t possibly want anything to do with them anyway.
Or perhaps you have a friend or have heard of someone struggling to take care of her baby on her own after a series of bad choices. Life is hard and lonely for her. Even if God exists, He wouldn’t know or care about her predicament, she tells you.
All around us, there are plenty of such people. In fact, some of my neighbours have the exact mind-set like those homeless guys on the streets. I find it sad that they’ve allowed their past choices to trap them into living such defeated lives—because it doesn’t need to be this way.
That’s what I’ve learned from my recent study on Nehemiah 9. At this point, the people of Israel are making their way back to Israel, after spending 70 years in exile in the land of Babylon. Nehemiah has been rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem amid some fierce opposition. Now all those who have returned are gathered together and they have a decision to make: Would they follow God?
The answer is a resounding yes—they want to follow God. Nehemiah 9 therefore is their prayer of repentance. It’s a long prayer and it covers all that God did for them as a nation and all their mistakes. Just like the people we see around us, the Israelites made some very poor choices. They rejected God and did what they wanted, even when they had just witnessed God doing amazing things for them—like rescuing them from slavery.
They must have been filled with regret and shame as they recounted their past mistakes. But what struck me about their prayer was not so much the extent of their sinfulness, but how God responded to them each time they failed. Interspersed through Nehemiah 9 are beautiful phrases like these:
“But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them,” (Neh 9:17)
“Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness.” (Neh 9:19)
“But when they were oppressed they cried out to you. From heaven you heard them, and in your great compassion you gave them deliverers, who rescued them from the hand of their enemies.” (Neh 9:27)
“And when they cried out to you again, you heard from heaven, and in your compassion you delivered them time after time.” (Neh 9:28)
“But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.” (Neh 9:31)
And that made me think, wow! What an amazing God we have, who has compassion and still loves us even when we do our own thing and ignore Him. In my own life, I too have failed God’s instructions like the Israelites. And one of the things that gets to me the most is when I choose not to tell someone about Jesus, because I’m afraid how that person might react.
In the UK, people often don’t know or don’t speak to their neighbours. In my street, we might say hello to each other as we leave our houses at the same time, but our conversations never go further than the weather. So even though I can see that my neighbours need Jesus, I say nothing more than “hello” when I see them, because I’m afraid that they will think that I am crazy.
When I think of all the opportunities that I’ve missed this way, I’m left feeling horrendously guilty. I know I’ve been ignoring what God has instructed to me to do: to tell people about Jesus. And I can’t help but think that He must be really mad at me.
So to read these verses is a huge relief. It feels like someone has lifted a heavy weight off my shoulders. And that is what God promises if we take time to pray, confess and ask for His forgiveness; He will free us from guilt and cleanse us from our sins. Sure, I still need to be responsible to tell people about Jesus, but I can do that because I want to obey God and not because of my guilt conscience.
So here’s the thing. Maybe you’ve made some bad choices. You’re hanging out with the wrong crowd or you’ve gone too far in a romantic relationship and you know that your actions haven’t honoured God. Or maybe the choices you are making leave you feeling hollow and guilty. If you’ve messed up and feel like there is no way God could forgive you, then have a look at what God says in His Word. Look at who God is and what He has done for you on the cross.
Come back to the God who is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” He won’t turn you away. Let’s not be trapped in our past choices.