In full disclosure, I have had a hard time moving to Atlanta. I’m not sure how to explain it well, but the fast way is to say I’m never really happy. I love my boys and I enjoy doing fun things, but I find that I’m never smiling. I never feel filled with joy. I’m just kind of doing life right now.
I know a lot of it is transition and probably mourning the loss of our life in Seattle. But knowing this is normal doesn’t make it better. Some days when I’m in the shower I just stare at the wall and think “I have no motivation to do anything at all today.”
I’m sure you have been there. Whether you are going through a tough time or you are just an exhausted mom/student/employee, there are days we just don’t feel anything, the least of which is joy. It’s on those days that I think about the verse that says “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” And you know what I think? I think, “Yeah. Sure.” We hear this verse and assume that, by knowing Jesus, we should be filled with this inexplicable joy that just surges us forward in our day with renewed energy and delight. To instantly fix our problems. To battle depression. To gloss over real emotions that we have regarding real life situations. And when we don’t feel overwhelmed by joy and strength, we think something is wrong with us.
I do believe this kind of joy exists, that can fill us and overwhelm us. But I don’t think that’s what this verse is saying. Have you ever read it? It’s from a great book called Nehemiah. First, though, a very brief historical setting –
Go back to around 586 B.C. Israel as a nation disobeys God and disregards his law and is taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Years pass, many Jews settle into Babylon, make it their home, and start a family. Babylon, meanwhile, is defeated by Persia. The new Persian king decrees that anyone who wants to go back home to Jerusalem can (Read about it in the book of Daniel). Some do, most don’t. The ones that do go back rebuild the temple (read about it in the book of Ezra). That brings us to the story of Nehemiah. He was a second or third generation Israelite living in Persia. Not only does he live there, he works in the service of the king, Artaxerxes. He cares about Jerusalem and asks around one day to see how the progress of rebuilding the city and nation is going. The men say, ““Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire” (Neh. 1:3) This overwhelms Nehemiah with grief. He asks God to give him a way to go help, and then talks to the king, his boss. Artaxerxes lets him go back to Jerusalem. When Nehemiah gets there, he starts crafting a plan to rebuild the wall. In ancient cities, a wall both figuratively and literally defined the city. Without a wall, you had no city. He chronicles his work and his struggles against a lot of opposition. Finally, the wall is rebuilt and he gathers all of the people living there to dedicate the wall.
Now, remember, these people have been separated from the way of their ancestors by generations. They have either been raised in another country, or they were the children of people left in a devastated Isreal because they weren’t important enough to be brought to Babylon. They don’t follow the law of God, but it is because they don’t even know it. They don’t even know their God has a standard of living for them. They have never heard it.
So during the dedication, Nehemiah has the priest Ezra read the law to the people and explain it. And here’s what it says (Nehemiah 8),
“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.”For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
The people were weeping because they understood how much they had missed the heart of God. They had no idea how wrong they were living, and when they were faced with their sin, they mourned. They were saddened that they had turned away. They repented of the way they had lived. But then Nehemiah says the most amazing thing.
Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
Do you understand how powerful this statement is in light of the context?? The people are convicted (as they should be). They are sad (as they should be). They are mourning and crying and trying to show God how sorry they are. And instead of letting them mourn, and cry, and punish themselves, God says, “This is a day to celebrate, not to mourn.” Why? Because he is filled with joy in this moment. His people came back to him. He never sees a repentant heart as a reason to be sad, but a reason to celebrate. And how were the people to wipe their eyes and get enough strength to celebrate? Because they knew that the Lord rejoiced over them.
The joy of the Lord in this verse is not some supernatural joy imparted to us. It is the joy the Lord feels over his people when they are running toward him. THAT is what gives us strength. When I posture my life and will toward him, it THRILLS him.
Now whenever I think of this verse, it holds a lot more meaning for me. No matter what I’m going through, how I’m feeling, or even when faced with things I have done, I can choose to ignore the self-pity and self-depricating thoughts that pop into my head because I know that my savior is rejoicing over me. The joy the Lord has over me gives me the strength to love myself, to be content with who I am, and my perceived shortcomings as a mom and wife. Does this mean I always feel joyful, or full of strength? No. But it does mean that if I am enough to make God smile, I am enough.