August 19, 2014

How is the Joy of the Lord Our Strength?

The conversations we have with close friends are often life-giving and filled with laughter and encouragement, but they are always telling. These conversations tell us, like a mirror reflection, what we're thinking and concerned about most. And because we ease down our guards and reveal more of ourselves to those we feel safest with, they tell on our hearts.
In the spring, my conversations with women who know me best were starting to tell on me. I noticed a pattern developing: when I let down my guard, cynicism, pessimism, and complaints poured out of me like a waterfall. I'm just being real, I'd tell myself, but almost every time I left those women, I felt yucky and convicted and would immediately text or call them to apologize. Unfortunately, I had to do a lot of texting and calling and they were all so gracious with me, but at some point I told myself that enough was enough. My conversations were telling on me, and I needed to listen.

It was pretty obvious what my conversations (and thoughts) were telling on me--that I had no joy. I had weariness, frustrations, and discontentedness in abundance, but I felt so far from having joy that I wondered if I'd ever had it at all. And I wanted joy. I didn't want my words and my life to be overflowing with complaints and resentments. I wanted joy in the Lord each and every day, joy in reading His Word, joy in relating with my children, joy in the work and ministry He's given me, joy in relationships, and joy even in the smallest details of life.

But how does one get joy? Is it a choice or is it given? Is it a feeling and, if not, how do you know you have it? Are there things you can do to increase or decrease joy? These were my questions.

If I know one thing about joy, it's that it is associated with the Lord, so I asked Him to teach me through His Word and to renew my heart in the process. I did a word study on joy, focusing on three words: joy, delight, and rejoice.

As I plowed through the Old Testament, everything was well and good until I got to Nehemiah 8:10: "The joy of the Lord is your strength." That verse is one of those that I've heard a million times and probably quoted a million times but have not had a clue what it means. I suppose, though, I hadn't really stopped to think about it or understand its context.

In Nehemiah, the Israelites are returning from a physical and spiritual exile; they're rebuilding. Ezra, their spiritual leader, gathers them together in one place and reads the Law aloud. They hear, many for the first time in their lives, what God expects of them, and in their hearing, they realize how they've fallen short. The entire nation begins weeping and grieving their sin.

That's when Ezra says, "Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow,  for the joy of the Lord is your strength."

In other words Ezra is saying, "Yes, we've sinned, I've sinned, you've sinned. But the Lord has made a way for us. He has rejoiced to make a way for us. The fact that He is a God full of joy over you is the strength you need for each day and the motivation for obeying His commandments."

Because this was true for the Israelites under the Law, how much more for those of us who are sons and daughters of God under Christ. We've sinned, I've sinned, you've sinned. But Jesus has made a way for us. He has rejoiced to make a way for us. The fact that He is a God full of joy over us is the strength we need for each day and the motivation for following Him in obedience.

His joy--the fact that our God is a joyful God--is the foundation of all our joy. Our joy rises up as we recognize that our God delights in us. Like a father showing off pictures of his kids and telling stories of the funny things they do, He delights in us. Like a mother staring at her child lovingly as she rocks him to sleep, He delights in us. Like a bridegroom amazed at the startlingly beautiful woman coming down the aisle toward him, He delights in us.

"As for the saints who are on the earth, 'They are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.'" (Psalm 16:3)

"For as a young man marries a virgin, so shall your sons marry you; And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you." (Isaiah 62:5)

Thinking about God as a joyful God who delights in and sings over me changed things for me. All that pessimism and cynicism couldn't stand in light of God's joy. All the resentments at not being loved as I thought I deserved to be loved by people fell away when I saw how God delights in me. My complaining was checked by the Holy Spirit because my God doesn't complain; He rejoices.

As I stopped trying so hard to create joy for myself and simply turned to meditate on God's joy, I found joy. The joy of the Lord really is my strength.

And it's yours as well.

I'd love to share with you more of what I learned in my word study on joy. If you'd like to see and print out my outline, click here.