The Joy of the Lord - The Strength of His Children
The last time I went through a major life crisis I cried out to God; I really needed help. For the next 3 days all I could hear back was one simple phrase:
"The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
It's a simple little phrase that most congregations have heard a thousand times but putting it into practise was difficult. Exhausted and frustrated, I spent lots of time and effort trying to override my feelings every time I hit a low point it was suddenly a lot worse because I wasn't just upset at the circumstances, I felt like God had given me the answer and I was too stupid or weak to unlock it.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” Phil 4:4
“....because you did not serve the Lord you God with joy and abundance of heart therefore you shall serve your enemies.” Deut 28:47
Joy in the Lord is commanded in the Bible and even more than that lack of joy in service of God seems to be punished; How is that fair when emotions are such a strong and uncontrollable force?
The Joy of the Lord will be your Strength
To try to understand this declaration let us have a look at the context. It can be found in Nehemiah 8:10(b). The Israelites had been conquered and taken into captivity. After a time a delegate had retuned and built the Temple but the city was still a mess. Nehemiah led a second wave of volunteers, who returned, to build the walls and gates but their enemies were many and mocking them. It seemed an impossible job.
At the beginning of chapter 8 the people were gathering by the water gate and asked for the law to be read to them. Their law, or Torah, was such an integral and fundamental part of their faith and relationship with God; as it was read they began to weep. It does not say why they cried but I can imagine that in captivity they may well have not kept true to their law; guilt and inadequacy combined with the hugeness of the task before them would surely have been an overwhelming combination. It is not what I would refer to as an example of a joyful circumstance yet that was the answer they received "...The Joy of the Lord will be your strength". How could that have made sense?
What is Joy?
To try and unlock this a little further I think it prudent to take a look at what joy actually is. I always thought it another word for happiness but there is an important difference.
The dictionary definition of Happiness:
“State of well-being. A Pleasurable or satisfying experience.”
The dictionary definition of Joy:
“To feel great delight, to welcome or to be glad.”
Happiness is dependent on external factors whereas joy is an internal reaction to everything around us. I think that this is an important key! Joy does not depend on everything being on the up and I believe that includes our emotions.
C S Spurgeon gave a fantastic sermon on the joy of the Lord during which he states:
“We shall count it to have been a successful morning if the people of God are made to rejoice in the Lord, and especially if those who have been bowed down and burdened in soul shall receive the oil of joy for mourning. It is no mean thing to comfort the Lord's mourners; it is a work specially dear to the Spirit of God, and, therefore, not to be lightly esteemed. Holy sorrow is precious before God, and is no bar to godly joy.” Delivered on Lord's Day Morning, December 31st, 1871, by C. H. SPURGEON, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington
Being joyful does not mean we are immune or ignorant of sorrow or hardship. It is not exclusive; there's not a choice between being joyful or experiencing sorrow but through hard times it becomes a mingling of both and you learn to cling on to joy through the pain.
How can you Experience Joy when you are not Happy?
When Paul wrote 'Rejoice in the Lord' I don't think he was telling them to summon up happy-go-lucky feelings, I think he was talking about something bigger than that.
He writes in numerous other places about choosing which master you will serve and love. Do you live for the world- for the present and temporary things that you see now or for something more – something eternal? It is natural when you are surrounded by people who are so desperate for the more superficial prizes to yearn for the superficial also and that is will be where we look for our joy.
Reading this as a reminder to look to God for our joy and not to the world changes it from mission impossible to a genuinely helpful nudge in the right direction.
Maybe it isn't a quick fix answer- it requires a large scale change of allegiance and a make-over of mind-set but there is so much more hope and security in the joyof the Lord compared to the warped manmade imitation.
The truth is, for every joy that the world has to offer there is an eternal and real alternative on offer: The blessings and promises that God offers are abundant and lasting.
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches, 'To Him who overcomes I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is the Paradise of God.' “ Rev 2:1-7
What could compare to that promise? Full restoration to everything that God intended for us.
When you realise all that God is and all He has for us and begin to put faith in Him then I believe that you begin to realise the joy of the Lord. It puts all of our sorrows and all our struggles into perspective. It does not mean that they disappear or that they no longer hurt but through it all you know whatever the temporary pains you are saved and destined for paradise.
Joy is listed as a fruit of the Spirit and how could it not be? When you are living a life focused on all that God has to offer all the hurt becomes bearable as you press on to a goal worthy of joy.
CS Spurgeon gave a lovely analogy in his sermon: imagine walking down a street and standing in the shade. In the shade it feels like January but when you cross over to the sunny side of the road and stand in the sun it feels like June. The heat of the sun makes a very big difference to your perception and so does the joy of the Lord.
What Strength does Joy Produce?
Strength against temptation: What can anyone offer you that compares to what you already have? When you begin to set your heart on God and not on the world nothing will seem worth the trade in.
Strength against fear: God has a perfect track record of keeping His promises and eternity is a guaranteed thing so there is nothing that can be stolen from you. What is there left to fear?
Strength against giving up: When you are living for something amazing and attainable it’s a lot easier to motivate yourself to keep going. The great thing is that God is gracious and doesn't demand a perfect race so however far you stray it is never too far!
There may be moments when you are tempted to think “If this is all temporary why put so much effort into it? However, if riches and status are unimportant – people are very important. Our two commandments, mandates and purposes for each day are to love God and love others.
"Then he said to them 'Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.'" Neh 8:10
Before we finish let's quickly look at the verse as a whole. Before telling the people to find their strength by fixing their joy in the Lord he also gave them some practical advice for their situation.
“...Eat of the fat, drink of the sweet...” An instruction to go and enjoy the goodness that God has given us.
“...Send portions to Him who has nothing prepared...” Remember to look beyond yourself and your situation and bless other people.
“...for this day is holy to our Lord....” God can see and understand so much more than we ever could. It may not have felt like a holy day, enemies surrounding them, their past mistakes at the front of their minds and an insurmountable task before them but to God is was part of His plan to bring them back and fully restore them.
This is reinforced by Paul when he wrote:
"Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus...” 1 Thes 5:16-18
However bad things get hold onto your joy, give what you can't control to God and appreciate the good that you have been given, even if the only good thing that you have is a promise that the trials are temporary. Living this out will doubtless take daily practise and discipline and as we said before is not a quick fix but the peace and security the joy of the Lord offers is true.
So let us go out in joy!