THE JOY OF THE LORD

"Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." - Nehemiah 8:10

We used to sing a little song using the Scripture text quoted above. Its chorus went, "The joy of the Lord is my strength…" Some of the verses began with, "If you want joy you must ______ for it" and the words supplied would be "praise", "clap" or "sing". The thought was that joy is something you can obtain by praising God, clapping to the Lord or singing songs that glorify Him. The Scripture text on which this song is based does imply that we have some control over our emotions and that in some sense it is our duty to bring our emotions into line with God's will.

This Scripture text was spoken by Nehemiah on the day when the people of Israel gathered together to hear the Law read by Ezra. As they heard God's law their eyes were opened to see how far short they had fallen from keeping it. This filled them remorse and sadness. They began to weep and mourn but Nehemiah urged them to stop because that would have been inappropriate on the holy day they were celebrating (Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the seventh month). Besides, he reminded them, "the joy of the LORD is your strength." They had need of strengthening because they had been working hard for almost two months, under constant threat of attack from their enemies. Those enemies were still surrounding them and if they heard the Israelites mourning it would give them cause for rejoicing and for claiming that the Israelites were dissatisfied with their work or with the Lord's provision. The time for mourning their sins did come, over three weeks later, after they had celebrated the week-long joyous Feast of Booths. Apparently, they postponed the Day of Atonement, usually held on the tenth day of that month, to the twenty-fourth. They needed to gain strength and that strength would come from the joy of the Lord.

I am convinced that Christians actually suffer from a lack of godly emotions in general. Sadness and sorrow for sin is certainly something greatly lacking among Christians today. Most of our sadness or sorrow comes rather from our dependence on worldly circumstances for happiness. We have developed a keen sense of how people, events and, dare we say, God, have let us down. This depresses, angers, frustrates us no end. Compared to this kind of sadness, sorrow for sin, whether our own sin or for the sins of others, is a positive joy! The Apostle Paul put it this way: "For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death." (2 Corinthians 7:10)

Godly sorrow eventually leads to joy whereas worldly sorrow never ends; it only deepens as the world continues to disappoint us. But godly sorrow was not what I wanted to talk with you about. I want to commend to you the joy of the Lord. Irritability, anger, sadness, as well as solace-seeking in food, shopping, sex, material possessions, positions of power or prestige, mood-altering substances (all "broken cisterns" - Jeremiah 2:12-13), arise from our lack of acquaintance with, and cultivation of, the joy of the Lord. Worldly joys have their place when they are seen for what they are: tiny drops from the great river of God's delight. When we see them as such, they lose their power to over-power us, to drown us. Rather, we are content with the lawful and temperate enjoyment of worldly goods, finding our supreme joy in fellowship with God. Thus, we use the world without abusing it (1 Corinthians 7:31).

The Bible repeatedly and forcefully enjoins us to "rejoice in the Lord" (Psalm 2:11; 32:10-11; 68:3; 70:4; 149:2; Isaiah 61:10; Joel 2:23; Habakkuk 1:15; Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 5:12; 2 Corinthians 13:11; Philippians 3:1), indeed, "always" (Philippians 4:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:16). The plain fact is that fellowship with God is the source of the highest and most enduring form of joy. The Bible invites us: "O taste and see that the LORD is good; how blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him." (Psalm 34:8) But many Christians currently experience very little, if any, of that joy. They may once have begun to taste of it but even the memory of it has faded. Let us ask ourselves if our friends and family (and especially our spouses and children) do not see us as joyful in the Lord but as often sad, worried, exasperated, discontented, angry, bitter, or addicted to worldly pleasures. If this, to any extent, seems to be the case, let us get to the bottom of why it is so. Where have we gone wrong and what can we do about it? One thing we shall undoubtedly find is that we have come to regard God in a way that is entirely unworthy of Him. We must, if our condition is to improve, undergo a revolution in our thinking about God. We must see Him as He truly is and seek Him, therefore, as our supreme good. And we shall find Him, for He has promised: "And you will seek Me and you will find Me when you search for me with all your heart." (Jeremiah 29:13) Then we shall truly experience "the joy of the Lord" as our strength!