Leadership: More About Availability than Ability
Church historians consider Nehemiah among the greatest leaders in the Bible. What is the pedigree for a man with such a reputation? What was the background of one who could rebuild a city in 52 days? Nehemiah was a nobody before he was somebody. Look at how he was introduced in Nehemiah 1:1: "The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah."
His description tells us nothing special about him except that it distinguishes him from the other Nehemiahs of the Bible. Later, Nehemiah's title changes. He becomes "Nehemiah the governor, son of Hacaliah" (Nehemiah 10:1). But make no mistake about it, when God called him, he was simply Hacaliah's son Nehemiah. He was just another Jewish boy born during the period known as the exile, a time when the Israelites were deported initially to Babylon after centuries of sin.
There was no foreshadowing of future success as with other Old Testament heroes of the faith. No dreams like Joseph. No burning bush like Moses. No promises like Abraham. No anointing of future greatness like David. No elevation to royalty like Esther. No recruiting to the king's service like Daniel. Nehemiah was radically ordinary.
Nehemiah also lacked a supernatural mandate like we see in the New Testament. There was no angelic visit like Mary's or Damascus Road experience like Paul's. There were no mission-giving dreams like those Peter experienced. In many ways, Nehemiah was very much like you and me. He wrestled on a daily basis with what it meant to live out the call God had on his life. He worked through his call with fervent prayer and with risky faith just like you and I do. This gives me great hope, because if God can work through Nehemiah, then I know He can work through me as well.
Without exception in Scripture, you discover the hard, unvarnished truth about people. For example, David was a man of great courage and passion. He was also a man of great lust and anger. Samson knew what it felt like to have the strength of the Lord flowing through his body; he also knew what it was like to put his trust in the wrong people and how damaging pride can be. Moses was an incredible leader who knew unmatched intimacy with God; he was also presumptuous and hot-tempered. Peter had enough faith to walk on water but too little to confess Christ before a single child. It's as if God is determined to point out that these "heroes" are just like us. They had their flaws because in the end, they were just regular people who put themselves in positions to be used by God. Their availability was more important than their ability, and the same is true for us.
When he began writing his memoirs, Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the king of Persia. Being a cupbearer, or butler, for the king was a high-ranking office in the royal courts. It was Nehemiah's duty to serve wine and to ensure the king wasn't poisoned. When necessary, he would ensure the king's safety by drinking some of his wine before serving it. He was willing to lay his life down for the king, and that relationship put Nehemiah in a position God intended to use.
If you desire to be used greatly by God, do what Nehemiah did. Be faithful where God has put you and trust Him with the rest. Don't try to cheat, swindle, or steal your way to the top. God won't honor that. Instead, make it your number one goal to be available to God. Then look to see how and when God wants to use you. Don't miss this: You must be usable to be used by God. This is a strategy Nehemiah evidenced throughout his memoirs — we see acknowledgment of God's guidance (2:8,18); concern for divine blessing (5:19; 6:14; 13:14,22,29,31); and frequent prayers (1:5-11; 2:4; 4:4-5:9; 6:9).2
When I think of what God looks for in a leader, I think Nehemiah epitomizes what Jesus says in Luke 16:10-12. I love the way The Message puts it:
If you're honest in small things, you'll be honest in big things; If you're a crook in small things, you'll be a crook in big things. If you're not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?
The bottom line from this passage, and exhibited in Nehemiah's life, is that God honors faithfulness. He honors us with more responsibility and influence when we honor Him with the smallest pieces of our lives.
Nehemiah was set apart from the crowd by both his character and work ethic. Nehemiah would never have had the opportunity to rise from insignificance to a cupbearer of the king had he been a lazy, good-for-nothing person. To get this job, he had to be just the opposite. The faithfulness he demonstrated as a cupbearer would become the hallmark quality of each of his future leadership positions. His ability to remain faithful even in the face of difficulties and opposition ensured that he remained usable by God.