Ever wish you had paid more attention in seminary? Struggling with preparing a sermon? GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins wants to help pastors with useful resources to help them as they serve the Lord.
With more than a quarter century of pastoral leadership, Hawkins makes available some of his most popular sermon outlines for pastors, Sunday school teachers and other Bible study leaders. These free resources can help you as you prepare your sermon or lesson each week.
Most of us had a vacant lot in our childhood that became the gathering place for all the neighborhood kids. We had some great ballgames in the old vacant lot where I grew up. That old sandy lot was like Yankee Stadium in my mind. Recently, I drove through the old neighborhood. The houses and yards that once were so well manicured are now in disrepair and unkempt. Many of the houses on my block are vacant and boarded up, but the old vacant lot is still there. As I parked in front of it, for a few minutes, a thousand memories raced through my mind.
I remember a particular kid on our street that always came to the lot to play ball with us. He usually had his black high top canvas tennis shoes tied only halfway up, and there were always two or three empty eyelets at the tops of his shoes. He was one of the most impatient kids I ever knew. When his shoelaces became knotted, he never took time to sit down and patiently untie them. He just took a pocketknife and cut off the knot; thus his shoes were always only laced halfway.
I thought about him recently as I read and studied Nehemiah chapter five. I came to this conclusion. Rebuilders never cut what they can untie! They work through the knots of interpersonal relationships without cutting them off. They untie them so they can be tied again the next morning. Think about it. Rebuilders never cut what they can untie.
Conflict resolution is a hot topic in the business world and social arena today. It should be. Conflict can tear your team apart, whether you are on the court, in the home, at the office, or in the church. Conflict can do irreparable damage. Wherever you find two or more people, you often find the need for effective conflict resolution. Disagreements are inevitable. Some men and women lose their jobs because they never learn the secrets of conflict resolution. They simply go through life cutting what they could untie. Some churches split because they never understand the secrets of conflict resolution. Some homes break up. Why? Because too many husbands and wives cut what they could untie.
When we come to Nehemiah chapter five, we find him faced with the real possibility that the rebuilding of the walls will not be completed, due to conflict among members of his own team. The manner in which we learn to resolve our conflicts will go a long way in determining the success of our own personal rebuilding projects. We might do everything else right. We might get started right; we might build a team spirit; we might let go without letting up; we might know the importance of overcoming our obstacles. However, if we do not learn the secrets of conflict resolution, we will never see the job of rebuilding completed.
Some people never rebuild relationships, because when conflict comes, they simply cut the knot instead of taking time to untie it. Relationships, like shoelaces, can be retied to the top again if they are not severed. If we have any hope of rebuilding, we must avoid the temptation to simply take out a pocketknife and cut the knot. Rebuilders know the importance of never cutting what they can untie. When tensions build up and relationships become tied in knots, our general tendency is to simply cut the knots off. It takes patience and determination to untie a tense situation. This is exactly what we find Nehemiah doing in chapter five.
Our story unfolds in the early verses of the chapter when the people stop their work and get into conflict with one another regarding their personal dealings. They were rebuilding the wall, and at the same time, creating invisible walls between themselves. Nehemiah was faced with a situation that could easily get out of hand and deter the work of rebuilding the walls. A conflict arose among the Jews that was precipitated by a famine (Neh. 5:3). Men and women had mortgaged their homes to get food. Taxes were choking the life out of them (Neh. 5:4). If that were not bad enough, their own Jewish brothers were ripping them off with outlandish interest rates. The situation was so bleak that some were even selling their children into slavery. Is it any wonder that Nehemiah became “very angry?” (Neh. 5:6). This called for someone skilled in conflict resolution or the ultimate goal of seeing the walls rebuilt would never be accomplished. It was a strategic time in the rebuilding process.
Nehemiah knew that if he was going to get the walls rebuilt he could not cut what he could untie. In the remaining verses of the chapter, we watch this skilled rebuilder begin to untie the knots of conflict and resolve the problems so everyone could go back to work. We ultimately read that “the wall was finished in 52 days” (Neh. 6:15).
Rebuilders never cut what they can untie. While this part of our volume does not report to be an exhaustive treatise on conflict resolution, we learn from Nehemiah some valuable principles that when put into practice can bring about the same results in our own personal experience. Nehemiah is saying to us that in conflict resolution there is a time to back off. There is a time to stand up. There is a time to give in. There is a time to reach out. Rebuilders never cut what they can untie because they know…it’s never too late for a new beginning.
I. There is a time to back off
Ironically, Nehemiah began the process of conflict resolution by backing off. Why? One reason. “I became very angry” (Neh. 5:6). We are talking about justified righteous indignation here. Nehemiah was still wise enough to know that in conflict resolution there are times when the best thing we can do is back off and give some “serious thought” to the situation (Neh. 5:7).
Nehemiah’s response to conflict among his friends was “anger.” He admitted it. In fact, he wrote it down in his memoirs for all to read centuries later. He did not try to conceal it. He did not excuse it. He did not minimize it. He did not act as if it were not there. He did not couch it in “legalese” or different types of technicalities. And, he did not try to repress it. He admitted it! He said, “I became very angry” (Neh. 5:6).
What made Nehemiah so angry? He knew his people were doing something in diametric opposition to the plain teaching of scripture. The Jewish Torah taught those people that “if you lend money to my people who are poor you shall not charge him interest” (Lev. 25:35-40). “To your brother you shall not charge interest, that the Lord your God may bless you in all to which you set your hand” (Deut. 23:20). Nehemiah became angry because the people knowingly and blatantly were disobeying God’s clear teaching.
Nehemiah openly and honestly admits his anger. Many conflicts are never resolved because we are busy trying to excuse our anger. Some say, “Well, I’m just redheaded.” Or, “I’m Irish!” Others say, “Well, that’s simply my temperament. My dad was like that and I got it from him.” We have all sorts of convenient little ways to avoid responsibility and project blame for our anger onto parents, friends, and sometimes even to God himself. And we wonder why we live with so much unresolved conflict.
Some conflicts are never resolved because we seek to justify our anger. We are quick to say, “You make me act like that. You know where my hot button is and you push it!” We avoid responsibility by implying it’s someone else’s fault. Some simply repress their anger. Thus, like a cancer it eats away at them. Nehemiah did none of these things. He freely admitted his anger. There was no doubt about it. But he immediately did a wise thing that eventually ended in conflict resolution. He backed off. He gave “serious thought” to the circumstance and situation (Neh. 5:7). Many conflicts today are never resolved because we will not back off. Instead, we barge in with our anger and agitate the situation that much more. In short, we cut what we could untie. Some of us go right from “anger” in Nehemiah 5:6, to the “rebuke” in Nehemiah 5:7, without making a stop at that important phrase in between – “after serious thought.”
In conflict resolution, there is a time to back off. Many conflicts are never resolved because good people have not learned this, and when anger arises they do not realize that it is time to back off.
Note what Nehemiah did. He gave it “serious thought.” This phrase translates two Hebrew words, one meaning “to counsel, or to give advice,” and the other meaning “the inner man.” This word is translated “heart” over 500 times in the Old Testament. Nehemiah was literally saying, “I backed off and listened to my heart. I counseled with myself.” It is a very wise thing to back off and listen to our heart, as Nehemiah was doing when conflicts arose. Instead of speaking first in anger, we would be much better off if we would back off and listen to our own heart for a while.
This is a vital and important step in conflict resolution. We find it throughout the Bible. It is exactly what Habakkuk did in chapter One of the Book that bears his name. He was frustrated and angry with God. In the early verses of chapter two, we find him climbing up in a watchtower to “wait to see what God will say to me.” Habakkuk knew the principle of backing off and listening to his heart in conflict resolution. Have you ever been tempted to write a letter in anger? Don’t do it. Back off and listen to your heart. Wait a couple of days. It will save you a lot of heartache, ill feelings, and difficult knots to untie in relationships along the way. In conflict resolution, there is a time to back off.
Nehemiah was giving himself some time to get things in proper perspective. In the process of backing off, he decided on a course of action so that his people could get back to the ultimate task of rebuilding the walls. Nehemiah never lost sight of his ultimate goal and purpose. Too often in our anger we shoot from the hip, and fail in attempts to resolve conflicts. We fail to realize there is a time to back off.
Rebuilders never cut what they can untie. They realize early on that there is a time to back off and listen to their heart. They do not skip the phrase, “serious thought,” between being angry and rebuking someone else. There is a time to back off. It’s never too late for a new beginning.
II. There is a time to stand up
Nehemiah acknowledged that there is a time to back off. He now declares there is also a time to stand up. He boldly confronts those he believed to be in the wrong. “I rebuked the nobles and rulers, and said to them, ‘Each of you is exacting usury from his brother.’ So I called a great assembly against them. Then I said, ‘What you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God, because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies?’” (Neh. 5:7, 9). Nehemiah had the courage to stand up and take the needed action. He “rebuked” the nobles and elders, and brought them face to face with the real issue. The issue was, in their charging interest rates to their own Jewish brothers, they had become a reproach to God in the eyes of those around them (Neh. 5:9).
Conflict resolution does not mean giving in at all costs. It does not mean to simply back off all the time. Nehemiah was a strong leader. He stood up for what was right. He rebuked those who were in the wrong. Conflict resolution is not simply another form of pacifism. Sometimes we have to “make peace.” On a Galilean hillside one day, Jesus pronounced a blessing on the “peacemakers,” not the “peace lovers.” Here we see Nehemiah patiently untying what some would have hastily cut. In resolving conflict, he is showing us that there is a time to back off, but there is also a time to stand up.
After we back off and think through the situation, many of us never resolve conflicts because we lack the courage to confront. We settle down and pacify ourselves with 100 reasons to simply do nothing. How many conflicts are involved with readers of this volume that have never been resolved? Is it because someone simply backed off and left it at that? Conflicts are resolved when we realize there is a time to stand up.
Some never resolve conflicts in the home because they never deal with the real issues. They back off, but they don’t stand up. Therefore, like a boil that continues to fester, the relationship continues to sour. There are others who stand up quite frequently, but do not know the principle of backing off, and thus speak in anger and only complicate the matter. There is definitely a time to stand up, but Nehemiah is showing us it should always follow a time when we back off. Rebuilders never cut what they can untie because they know…it’s never too late for a new beginning.
II. There is a time to give in
Nehemiah reminds us not only is there a time to back off and a time to stand up, but there is also a time to give in. Hear him as he challenges his Jewish brothers. Listen even to the conciliatory tone of his voice. Can you hear it? I think I can. He is saying to them, “Give in.” In his words, “I also, with my brethren and my servants, am lending them money and grain. Please, let us stop this usury! Restore now to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their olive groves, and their houses, also a hundredth of the money and the grain, the new wine and the oil, that you have charged them” (Neh. 5:10-11). This is Nehemiah’s way of reminding his people there is a time to give in. He’s letting them know they will be better off for it. He frequently uses “we” and “us,” and, in so doing, identifies with his people. “Let us stop this usury. Let us restore the vineyards.” There is a time to give in.
Nehemiah is not showing weakness here. He is showing true strength. In fact, it takes more security to give in than it does to stand up. Almost anyone can stand up. But those who resolve conflicts know there is a time to give in. There is a time to allow the other person to save face in the process of conflict resolution. Some of us only want to take in relationships. There are times when giving in on nonessentials is not a dirty word. There are times when it’s better to lose a few little battles so we can still win the big war.
This very principle is what happened in the sixth chapter of the New Testament Book of Acts when the ministry of the deacon was born. If Nehemiah 5 is a wonderfully instructive chapter in the Old Testament on conflict resolution, then Acts 6 is its parallel in the New Testament. In the early church, the Hellenistic Jews (those with Greek backgrounds) felt the apostles, who in their minds were favoring the Hebraic Jews, were slighting them. A conflict arose. Dissension came to the early church. People were about to leave the building for the battle. What did the apostles do to resolve the conflict? They knew there was a time to back off, and thus they did. Then there was a time to stand up and a time to give in. They appointed seven deacons to minister to the early church. Interestingly, when we read their seven names recorded in Acts 6, every one of them had Hellenistic names. What a beautiful example of conflict resolution. They knew the principle of never cutting what they could untie. So, skillfully, and delicately, with great determination, they untied the knot of the problem. The conflict was resolved, and the Word of God spread. Why? Because they were wise enough to know there was a time to give in.
Let’s return to Nehemiah. We find him doing what he has been his whole story. He is leading by example. He never asks his people to do anything he does not do himself. If it is to work diligently upon the wall, he is right there with them. If it is to pray, he is the first one on his knees. If it is to work overtime, he is the last one to leave. He constantly leads by example. Now, he is asking them to do the right thing for those among them who are underprivileged. And once again he leads the way (Neh. 5:10). Being an example ourselves is vitally important in conflict resolution, whether it is in the home, in the office, in the social arena, or wherever.
Nehemiah is the master at conflict resolution. We get a glimpse of how he gives in (Neh. 5:14-19). He knew that nothing was more important than completing the rebuilding of the walls and hanging the gates of Jerusalem. Therefore, he was wise enough to know there was not only a time to back off, and a time to stand up, but also a time to give in.
What is more important in parenting, Dad? To see that the wall is completed and that boy or girl matures with values, and convictions, and commitments? Or is it more important to be able to say that you won every argument, and kept them under your thumb? You must know when to stand up, but also know when to give in. Learn when to lose a few little battles on nonessentials so that you can win the ultimate war. What is more important to you as a wife? Seeing the wall completed, or being able to say, “I told you so.” There is a time to give in. And the time to give in is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. Some of us never resolve conflicts because we never give in. We are always insisting on winning every argument. We always want to have our own way.
Rebuilders never cut what they can untie. They know there is a time to back off, a time to stand up, but also a time to give in. They also know…it’s never too late for a new beginning.
III. There is a time to reach out
Once again, as we come to Nehemiah 5:10-13, we find him using personal pronouns such as “we,” “us,” etc. Hear him as he pleads, “Please, let us stop this usury!” (Neh. 5:10). He is reaching out to them. He is building bridges to walk across in order to resolve conflicts and relationships. Here is a vital principle in conflict resolution. Nehemiah is building consensus.
There is a sense of urgency as he reaches out. He says, “Restore now…even this day” (Neh. 5:11). He didn’t tell them to go home and think about it. No. This was a time to reach out. Do it now. It’s the right thing to do! Yes, Nehemiah was conciliatory. He backed off, stood up, and gave in, and now he is reaching out. He is conciliatory without compromising his position. He was a man whose character and integrity was beyond question. He did not lower his own standards to resolve conflict. He reached out to those nobles and elders to join him in doing what was right. Nehemiah was following what would be Christ’s own formula for conflict resolution. It is found in Matthew 18:15-16. First, Nehemiah confronts his offenders in private. He says, “I told them” (Neh. 5:7). When the response was not positive, he moved to a more public confrontation in Nehemiah 5:12.
What was the result of Nehemiah’s backing off, standing up, giving in, and reaching out? Nehemiah 5:13 records, “And all the assembly said, ‘Amen!’ and praised the Lord! Then the people did according to this promise.” Let the amen sound from his people again! Shalom returned. Now, that is what we call conflict resolution.
Do you need a good biblical illustration of this in the New Testament? Turn to the little Book of Philemon, tucked away near the end of your New Testament. Paul wrote the book on conflict resolution in his letter to Philemon. The whole story is of a conflict between Philemon and a man by the name of Onesimus. In his letter to Philemon, Paul says in essence that there is a time to back off. He reminds Philemon that he “makes mention of him often in his prayers” (Phil. 4). Then Paul reveals that there is a time to stand up. He confronts Philemon by saying, “If you count me as a partner, receive Onesimus back as you would me” (Phil. 17). Next, Paul says there is a time to give in. He continues, “If he has wronged you, or owes you anything, put it on my account. I will repay it” (Phil. 18). And then he reaches out to his friend Philemon. He says, “Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (Phil. 21). These principles work. They worked in the Bible and they work today. They work in the home. They work in the office. They work in the social arena. They work anywhere conflict arises.
Rebuilders never cut what they can untie. Do you need an Old Testament illustration? You need look no further than the initial book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, and the story of Joseph. Talk about someone in need of conflict resolution with his own family. Jealousy, lying, and conflict ripped his family apart and separated them for many years. We recall that Joseph was eventually sold into slavery in
Egypt. Through a miraculous set of events, in his young adulthood he ultimately became the Prime Minister of Egypt. A famine came to Israel. His brothers, who had betrayed him, came to Egypt unknowing of Joseph’s circumstances. They came to Egypt to try to find food. One of the most moving scenes in the entire Bible is when the conflict is resolved between Joseph and his brothers. What did Joseph do? First, he backed off. Before he met them, he got alone and wept. Then he stood up. He came to them, confronted them, and exclaimed, “I am your brother!” Next, he gave in. Finally he reached out. He came to them, and they fell into each other’s arms and kissed. Joseph was one of the first to know that rebuilders never cut what they can untie.
The entire Bible is a textbook on conflict resolution. Our Lord Jesus, Himself, had to deal with conflict on most every page of the Gospels. In the Book of Mark alone, we find others in conflict with Him on 26 different occasions. There was conflict in Nazareth. There was conflict with His friends. There was conflict with His family. There was conflict with the Pharisees. There was conflict with the disciples. There was conflict with Judas. There was conflict with Simon Peter. The Bible is the most relevant book to be found anywhere, if we would just read it and put it into practice at the point of our need.
Now, how are you going to resolve conflict in your home? Some stand up before they back off. Thus, they speak in anger and drive a wedge deeper into the broken relationship. Others give in before they stand up. Thus, they lose their authority in the home. How many parents find themselves at this particular place in conflict with their own children? That is, they give in time and time again without ever standing up to them. There is a proper pattern at work here. There is a time to back off. Then a time to stand up. Then a time to give in.
Finally, there is a time to reach out. This is a time for all of us who are interested in conflict resolution to reach out to one another. We can begin by following the biblical pattern, and stop cutting what we could be untying.
Some of us attempt to deal with conflict by employing only the first step. We simply back off, and that is it. We never stand up. We never give in. We never reach out. When we play the conflict resolution game like that, we play what some call “lose-lose” in relationships. Had Nehemiah only backed off, he would have lost, and all the Jews would have lost at the same time, because the walls would never have been completed.
Others attempt to play the conflict resolution game by employing only the second step. That is, all they do is stand up. When you play this, you play what some call “win-lose” in relationships. This is a dead-end street. Some only have relationships if they win every single argument. Had Nehemiah played this way, the walls would never have been completed.
There are still others who play the conflict resolution game with only the third step. They never stand up. They never back off. They simply give in time and time again, playing what is called “lose-win” in the relationship. Thus, they receive no respect from others, and think they can only have a relationship as long as they always let the other person win. Had Nehemiah played this way, the walls would never have been completed. There is a time for backing off, but there is also a time for standing up, giving in, and reaching out. When we put them all into practice in the proper pattern, we learn, like Nehemiah, to resolve conflicts, and end up in a “win-win” relationship. Rebuilders never cut what they can untie. Like Nehemiah, they keep their focus on the rebuilt wall.
Think about our Lord Jesus Christ. You were in conflict with Him in His purpose and plan for your life. The Bible reminds us that all of us have gone our own way and done our own thing. So what did He do to resolve conflict? He put all four of these principles into play. He backed off. Can you see Him in Gethsemane’s garden in “serious thought and prayer?” He backed off and took counsel with His heart. “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Yes, He too knew there was a time to back off.
Next, our Lord knew there was a time to stand up. Can you see Him before Caiaphas, before Herod, before Pontius Pilate, before all of His accusers? When asked, “Are You then the Son of God?” He simply replied, “You rightly say that I am.” (Luke 22:70). He stood up.
Then, He gave in. He had a goal in mind to build the wall of a broken relationship with you. Thus, He not only backed off and stood up, He gave in. No one dragged Him to Calvary. No one pushed Him up the Via Dolorosa. He willingly laid down His life like a lamb to the slaughter. He gave in.
And, finally He reached out. Do you see Him on the cross? His arms are outstretched, reaching out to you. He died your death so you could live His life. He took your sin so you could take His righteousness. He reached out on the cross to resolve conflict with you and me.
Talk about conflict resolution; the Lord Jesus is the epitome of it. In fact, He wrote the book on it. He calls upon us to be reconciled to God.
You and I do not have to go through life like that kid on my block that played with us on the old vacant lot. You don’t have to wear your shoes only laced up halfway because you have continually cut the knots of interpersonal relationships. When you cut your shoelaces, it simply means you cannot tie them to the top again. Rebuilders, like Nehemiah, never cut what they can untie. They know…it’s never too late for a new beginning!
- Rebuilding: Rebuilders finish strong - Part 6
- Rebuilding: Rebuilders never cut what they can untie - Part 5
- Rebuilding: Rebuilders understand "YAC" is what really matters - Part 4
- Rebuilding: Rebuilders let go without letting up - Part 3
- Rebuilding: Rebuilders build a team spirit - Part 2
- Rebuilding: Rebuilders get started right - Part 1