Most Christians have probably heard or read that joy is not the same thing as happiness. I think we’re pretty clear about the distinction.
A quick study reveals that joy is grouped with patience, peace, love, faithfulness, and a few other traits to constitute the fruit of the Spirit.
Why, then, I ask myself, do I think I need to manufacture joy?
And since the Holy Spirit is the source of joy, wouldn’t it be fair to say, if I’m not experiencing joy, I must be quenching the Holy Spirit?
I mean, Galatians 5:22-23 doesn’t make joy an optional piece of fruit. If we have the Spirit, we have the fruit. It’s a matter, then, of walking by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25). Or not.
As I’m writing this, the little chorus “The joy of the Lord is our strength” comes to mind. The words simply repeat that line over and over — a line from Nehemiah 8:10.
The returned exiles, struggling to make a go of it in the homeland most of them had never seen before, asked Ezra, one of their leaders, to read the book of the law. He read from dawn to midday. A group of others then explained the text and taught the people what it all meant.
Their reaction? Nope, not joy.
They were weeping and mourning. The Law exposed their sin, and they were undone.
That’s when Nehemiah stepped in. Stop crying, he said. Today is a holy day, set aside for the Lord. Get up and let the feast begin. Don’t grieve. The joy of the Lord is your strength.
And the people calmed down, got up, and celebrated “because they understood the words which had been made known to them” (Neh. 8:12).
Except, two verses earlier, their understanding caused them to grieve. But now? Celebration. How can that be explained apart from the joy of the Lord?
The Spirit convicts of sin. The proper response should be sorrow leading to repentance. And then comes joy, not a manufactured joy or an inauthentic emotion.
The reality was, their circumstances hadn’t changed. They were still returned exiles struggling to get it together. In their own estimation, they were still slaves:
Behold, we are slaves today,
And as to the land which
You gave to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its bounty,
Behold, we are slaves in it.
Its abundant produce is for the kings
Whom You have set over us because of our sins;
They also rule over our bodies
And over our cattle as they please,
So we are in great distress. (Neh 9:36-37)
Under those circumstances, Nehemiah gave them that salient truth: The joy of the Lord is your strength. Not bitterness or complaining, certainly. But not continued grieving, either. And not what we rely on today, a can-do spirit.
Their strength came from what only the Spirit could provide — joy from the Lord.
Ironic, then, that quenching the Spirit leads to the opposite of what someone going through difficult circumstances needs — strength. The little recap of Jewish history in Nehemiah 9 spells it out:
You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them,
Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth,
And You gave them water for their thirst. (v. 20, emphasis mine)
Indeed, forty years You provided for them in the wilderness and they were not in want;
Their clothes did not wear out, nor did their feet swell. (v 21)
You also gave them kingdoms and peoples … (v. 22)
You made their sons numerous as the stars of heaven … (v. 23)
So their sons entered and possessed the land… (v. 24)
They captured fortified cities and a fertile land… (v. 25)
But they became disobedient and rebelled against You (v. 26, emphasis added)
Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their oppressors who oppressed them. (v. 27)
Listening to God’s Spirit strengthened the people; rebelling against Him, didn’t.
So what was it those Israelites Nehemiah addressed, understood that made it possible for them to calm down, stop grieving, and celebrate?
Not a change in their circumstances, as I’ve noted. Not the promise of a change in their circumstances either. Rather, I believe they understood how faithful the Lord is and how He had not left them or forsaken them, and that He would not. They had the Lord, so they had His joy which gave them strength.
This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in August 2011.