Thursday, December 18, 2014

Joy and Strength

The joy of the Lord is not just a fireworks display
I have on occasion been accused of pessimism. Unreasonably, I assure you.

But when, for example, I see a room full of grade school kids shouting out “The joy of the Lord is my strength,” at the prompting of a smiling Sunday School superintendent, unlike the cheery folk who enthuse over the fact that their children are (albeit unintentionally) memorizing scripture that will someday be of use to them, my first and far-too-natural instinct is to wonder if they have any idea what they’re singing and how many of them mean it.

The second and even less upbeat thing that often crosses my mind is to wonder how many of them really know the Lord, and how badly those who don’t (and even some of those who do) will seriously mess up their lives by the time they’re my age.

Bleak thoughts, no?

Pessimism and Realism

Or perhaps simply realistic thoughts. I’ve seen it before; it is the nature of the fallen world in which we live. In a group of church kids or teenagers of any significant size, time will demonstrate whether the professed joy of the Lord in their lives is a genuinely transformational force or whether God, singing and Bible stories become nothing more than a distant memory.

I’m making it sound as if joy is for the immature and the willfully naive, not for morbid middle-aged men who can watch a bunch of kids having a good time and think nothing but sad thoughts about their futures, and certainly not for those who have actually made the sorts of mistakes I’m thinking of.

But blessed are those who mourn.

The Joy of the Lord in Jerusalem

In fact, the joy of the Lord is not a thing suited merely to idealized childhood (not that many childhoods these days are ideal). The song they sing in Sunday School is taken from a verse in Nehemiah, of all places:
“Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
(Nehemiah 8:10)
It’s what Ezra, Nehemiah and the Levites told a large group of Israelites gathered in Jerusalem to hear the reading of the Law of Moses. Back then there was no Bible Society and no Gideons. You knew, enjoyed and benefited from precisely as much of the word of God as you were willing and able to carry in your head, or as much as others who had memorized it cared to share with you. And just like today, there were problems with understanding, some of which were surely related to the fact that nearly 800 years had passed since Moses had written down the Law of God. And so they not only read it publicly but they “gave the sense” so people could understand it. We’re not told what parts of the Torah were read aloud, but since it took from early morning to midday, we can be confident they read most of it.

At which point the joy of the Lord was very likely far from the minds of the listeners.

A Measurement of Failure

The people of Judah who listened to the word of God that day were deeply distressed, because for the first time in their lives they really understood how far short of the law’s standard their lives fell, and that knowledge was devastating. “No wonder we were exiled to Babylon,” they must have thought. Every clause, every rule, every precept and every obligation must have weighed heavier and heavier upon them as they realized that the curse of God was the inevitable consequence of disobedience, and that they were under it.

That’s pretty much what law is for: to tell you where you fail. Without a law, there is still sin, of course. But add a specific set of commands, and suddenly the magnitude of our failure becomes quantifiable. It can be measured, both by us and by those who know us.

And so “all the people wept as they read the words of the law”, and Ezra and Nehemiah and the Levites had to tell them not to mourn and wail. Because the joy of the Lord is not for perfect people; it’s for people who recognize precisely how imperfect we are.

See, the joy is the Lord’s, not ours. God rejoices when sinners repent, and his joy overflows to us. It is not merely some kind of satisfaction we taken in a job well done on our part. If that were the case, we’d never experience any. Instead, it’s us recognizing that we serve a God who has cause to view us as acceptable not because of ourselves, but because of what he has done (or in the case of Israel, because of what he was going to do) in the person of his Son.

That’s why we can find real strength in it.

Exuberance and Exhibitionism

But joy in the Christian life is a sadly misunderstood quality.

Firstly, some people confuse joy with exuberance or excitable behavior. But any crazy behavior going on in Nehemiah’s day was a product of sorrow, not joy. In fact, the Levites had to calm the people down and tell them “be quiet” because they were distraught by how comprehensively they had screwed up their lives, both personally and nationally. But it is the joy of the Lord that enables one to live calmly and wisely rather than coming unglued in the face of the consequences of sin.

How were they to manifest their joy? Not by dancing and carousing but rather by eating, drinking and sharing with others; perfectly ordinary activities that fortify the soul.

Secondly, some people confuse joy with the mere appearance of joy, a point well made by Louis Voyer:
“… there are some Christians who try to give the impression that they are always happy and cheerful.

But surely there’s a world of difference between a person who is trying to give such an impression — and the believer who is genuinely joyful in the Lord.

We are to avoid ‘playing at being happy’. Eventually, people will notice that this is only skin deep and is but a sham.”
I think Louis is correct here. ‘Sham’ joy is joy that we try to work up within ourselves.

Joy is Strength

The joy of the Lord is neither a party nor a pretense; neither fireworks nor fakery. It’s not something we have to contrive at any level. Real, deep-down joy — which for us comes from the settled realization that we are not condemned by law for our sins but that they have been done away with forever by the work of Christ — is not an affectation.

It is, instead, manifested in strength: in the ability to get up and go on in a calm and orderly way despite the consequences of sin around us and even in our own lives, and to have something left at the end of the day for others.

Maybe memorizing that verse as a kid was not such a bad idea …


  1. Joy is not the same thing as happiness. At times I'm very happy in the Christian life, but I tend to think of joy as a "confident satisfaction in the Lord". I know the final outcome, even if there are some messy details I must experience while getting there.

  2. "Because the joy of the Lord is not for perfect people; it’s for people who recognize precisely how imperfect we are."

    You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink. To experience that type of joy implies that you made a decision to seek it out, or better yet, to respond to the suggestion, through the holy spirit, that such a joy is attainable. Instead, what we often see is that sadness that sets in when we realize that the water was refused because of the misunderstanding that worldly "happiness" (as Shawn points out) is that joy. And that happiness eventually evaporates and leaves behind a void that many no longer care to, or even know how to, fill. In its worst form, this then leads to the desolate cycle of bad news we are daily inundated with. The joy is abiding and steadfast if you learn to, and have allowed yourself to, cling to God truly as a child does to his parent (and not minding this metaphor even though you have reached adulthood).

  3. Your comments make me think of David Adams Richards' award-winning novel, "Mercy Among the Children", in which a young man goes through a nightmare childhood and a horrid early adulthood, and then declares, "It has been a life of joy. Of joy unending." And he can say this because in all his suffering he discovered he was still loved.

    When you know the love of God, then circumstances are not your joy. Nor are your emotions you joy. It's the confidence of the Lord's joy in you, his delight in you as His child, that is the strength to get through every trial.

    Emotions count for zero in that.

    "In this world you will have sorrow. But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."