There is unrest on every corner. Sometimes it seems the world is crumbling. Other times our pain and troubles are closer to home, and our lives overwhelm us with grief and sorrow. If that were not enough, our sin could leave us feeling distant from God, guilty and alone. Maybe you feel like giving up and giving in to the desperate situation.
As Christians, however, we are admonished to count trials as pure joy (James 1:2), but how can joy come from pain and turmoil, sin and guilt? Joy feels counterintuitive amid pain and suffering.
The people of Israel, I imagine, struggled with a similar question. With so many difficulties, how could they know joy?
God chose the Israelites to be His own out of all the people on earth, but often they turned away, bringing painful consequences and trials. Because of their rebellion, God allowed defeat by their enemies. As a result of their disobedience, they were dragged off to slavery more than once and made to wander the desert for four decades. Sin and rebellion resulted in trials and many difficult days. But God never deserted them. He never gave up on His people. Once the people recognized their sin and returned to God, He was faithful to forgive and restore their relationship with Him.
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What Does 'The Joy of Our Lord Is Our Strength' Mean?
After one such time of captivity, in Nehemiah 8, the Israelites once again find themselves safely within the walls of Jerusalem. The people faced many obstacles along the way. But through the sovereignty of God and the leadership of Nehemiah, the temple, the city walls, and the gates were mended.
At the end of their hard work, the people assembled to observe the holy day of Atonement, the most sacred celebration on the Jewish calendar. Ezra and the Levites read to the people from the Book of the Law and helped them understand its meaning. Once they understood the words, the people realized the truth. They had sinned against the One True God, the God who chose them and rescued them from slavery. In their grief and regret, their only response was weeping and mourning.
Our sin brings the same reality. We sin against a holy God and deserve death. How do we respond?
We might weep like the people of Israel. They had rebelled against God and knew they deserved His wrath. But instead of mourning, Nehemiah encouraged the people to stop crying and not to mourn. “Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’” (Nehemiah 8:9)
Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites admonished the people of Israel to stop crying. Although their sins were many, weeping was not the answer.
Instead, Nehemiah told the people to celebrate. “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord.” (Nehemiah 8:10)
Rather than weep and mourn, rejoice, Nehemiah said. How could they rejoice instead of grieving their actions? What was Nehemiah suggesting? He adds, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)
What does “the joy of the Lord is our strength” mean? What is joy, and how do you know you have it? How does joy give us strength? First, you and I need to understand what joy is.
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How to Discover 'the Joy of the Lord Is Our Strength'
Joy is not an emotion or a feeling. Joy is not the opposite of sad, and it is not the same as being happy. Happy—and sad—are emotions that are tied to our circumstances. These two are emotions resulting from what is happening in our lives. We feel happy because of great fortune and sad when our situation is not ideal. These emotions, like so many others, are fleeting and temporary. Here today, gone tomorrow. Joy is different.
In her book, Joykeeper: 6 Truths That Change Everything You Thought You knew about Joy, writer Suzanne Eller describes joy as “a knowing.” In other words, joy is not a response to situations outside of ourselves; it is a choice you and I make despite our circumstances.
Joy is possible when we trust who we belong to and understand what He has done. Joy is a choice you and I make over letting our circumstances dictate a response. You and I can “know” joy when our circumstances are less than ideal because we believe that God is present and in control.
God made us to feel happy and sad, and a host of other emotions, but not be ruled by them. As God’s children, we regret and mourn our sin against our Heavenly Father, but He does not desire for us to be ruled by tears and weeping. Instead, celebrate.
Joy Is Found in the Word of God
If joy arises from “knowing,” how do you and I know the truth that brings joy? The people of Israel became distraught, weeping and mourning because they learned the truth about their sin. “For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.” They understood the truth of their sin through the Word of God, and their hearts were broken. We also learn the truth through the Word of God.
No one escapes sin. Romans 3:23 reminds us, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” God’s Word is designed to reveal our sin. “Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins” (Galatians 3:19a NLT). Once we are aware of our sin, we can only weep and mourn as the Israelites did. Galatians 3:19 also reminds us that along with receiving the Word of God, we received a promise, and that promise is Jesus Christ.
As Nehemiah reminds us, we don’t have to continue weeping and mourning because we know the truth that our sins are forgiven through Jesus. He is the reason for our joy. “And all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).
You and I can know joy because we trust in the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ. Well-known Bible commentator Warren W. Wiersbe writes, “The sinner has no need for rejoicing and the forgiven child of God has no reason for mourning.” Our joy comes from knowing we are forgiven.
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Joy Grows Strength
The next step to defining “the joy of the Lord is our strength” is understanding how joy strengthens us. Jesus promised we would have trouble in this world. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). We will not escape pain and loss. We will face trials and tribulations. 2 Timothy 3:12 warns us even to expect persecution, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
But Jesus does not leave us alone in the middle of trials and tribulation. He does not abandon us to our weeping and mourning and the consequences of our sin. John 16:33 goes on to say, “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” In other words, Jesus is saying be strong and rejoice because He has defeated the death that comes from sin. Through faith in Jesus, we have eternal life. And because of that you and I can choose joy and have the strength to endure whatever the world brings.
Jesus is the joy that gives us strength.
As God’s children, you and I will experience trials, pain, perhaps even persecution. Our suffering will last for a time and cause us to weep and mourn like the Israelites. But because we are also His chosen people, instead of mourning, we can celebrate. We know the joy of God’s faithful love and the promise of His forgiveness. You and I can endure and persevere because the joy that is Jesus gives us strength.
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Originally published Friday, 07 May 2021.