Joy And The Holy Spirit

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.

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5 Comments

  1. I really appreciate your blog! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. May I ask if you can give some feedback to my own personal blog: https://theaspiringcatholic.wordpress.com/

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    • Thanks for stopping by and for leaving a comment. You’re on the right track if you want to bring more traffic to your blog: leave comments and engage others at their site and chances are, if they like what you say, they’ll visit your blog as well. I don’t think leaving the link and asking for people to come is helpful, though. Maybe it’s just me, but it smacks as disingenuous and reads like a commercial. Hope that’s not the case.

      Becky

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      • That you very much Rebecca for your honest feedback. I’ll keep it in consideration. Thanks again!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Amen! In biblical times, grieving actually had a time limit on it. Today we say, “take all the time you need to grieve.” Then people will spend 40 years grieving some childhood slight. I’m laughing here, but it’s true. While the loss of people we love is understandable and something we may feel for the rest of our lives, we have to actually let “joy come in the morning.” I’m speaking mostly of grief over stuff, circumstances, even persecution, perceived slights.

    I really don’t understand the Christian opposition to happiness. I think the assumption is that happiness is more of a selfish pursuit? Like, allowing happiness to be a motivator for what you do, the pursuit of pleasure? Hedonism, perhaps? I guess I just don’t distinguish between happiness and joy much because most of my happiness has always come from joy in the Lord. Chocolate perhaps? Chocolate can be happiness sometimes. 🙂

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    • I think the distinction Christians started making between happiness and joy came out of an expectation of happiness. So if I’m not happy, then something is wrong. And what brings happiness? A good marriage, sufficient finances, lack of fear, an interesting or exciting experience. So people weren’t happy in their marriage if they had a fight with their spouse. Or were bored with their job. Or had a medical condition that put all of life in turmoil. Are we to let unhappy circumstances drive our response, was the question. And if not, why not?

      James says it best, I think: Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials. Joy in trials. Trials don’t make us happy, but they can produce joy.

      But on the flip side, I think divorcing the two has had an unforeseen negative consequence. We don’t see that we can also have joy in our happiness. Now we sort of segregate happiness from the spiritual, and it results in us looking to derive our happiness from some other source than God. At least that’s my theory, which I only developed because your comment caused me to think more deeply on the subject, IB. Thanks for that! 😀

      Becky

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