Nehemiah 4:8-9: Secularism and Prayer

They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.

Only we would see and in italics, because we’re used to thinking of God’s activity and our activity in opposition. That means if God is working, then we must be passive, sitting around, spectators. On the other hand, if we need one of those things done that God doesn’t really get involved in, like choosing courses for next semester or looking for a place to live, we get to work ourselves. However, Nehemiah–and the whole Bible really–teach us this isn’t the way to view things. “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain” (Psalm 127:1). It’s when we align ourselves with God’s action by us acting that big things can happen. In Nehemiah’s case, saving Jerusalem: both praying to God and posting a guard, without the and. In our own case, maybe it’s praying to God and posting resumes, praying to God and calling your estranged dad, or praying to God and stepping on a plane. Because the space of our competence does not chew up the space of God’s power. This is the false dichotomy of secularism. If we think this way, then God slowly gets edged out the more we can do, and finally disappears altogether. Instead, God gives the success to our actions, sometimes even to a little beleaguered band of returned exiles called Israel. (There are a couple caveats. Like, for one, only God can raise the dead or do other miracles. This is why secular folk must explain away or deny such things. And second, success does not necessarily mean God is behind you. It might just mean God is indulging your pride for a while. For both, read Psalms 120-127.)