In the early 80s, our church sang lots of scripture. One particular scripture song was from Nehemiah. It went like this: (Remember to clap your hands. This was the 80s). Ohhhhhhhh…
“The joy of the Lord, is my strength!
The joy of the Lord, is my strength!
The joy of the Lord, is my strength!
The joy of the Lord, is my strength!”
I think the songwriter was trying to tell us something. Since then, the Lord brings such songs to my heart, not only this song; but many of the other scripture songs I had learned too. Though only finally starting to get it, this song has always edified me because of its truth.
I'd not understood this song because my understanding of ‘joy,’ was cultural, rather than biblical. I understood joy as happy, giddy, or extremely cheerful. But how could that explain God’s joy really being my strength? I'm not so selfless that, when during hard times, the very thought that God was happy, would make me strong. That would be cool though, eh?
Last fall, I met some neat folk who were really going through hard times. I committed myself to praying for them. That week while praying for them, “The Joy of the Lord Is Your Strength,” kept coming to mind. So did that song from Nehemiah! And after 30 years singing it, I wondered for the first time, “How can God’s joy be our strength?”
For days I concentrated prayer for our new friends. I began searching the scriptures for more understanding of joy. Actually God was leading me because I needed to find His joy myself! Funny how that works! I needed His joy for something I was facing. I needed His strength.
So in my reading scripture on joy, here’s what I learned: There are too many verses to quote. But if you do a word study on “joy,” using a concordance, I think you’d see this too.
“What is joy?” and “How can we get ‘the joy of the Lord?’”
Joy’s not simply 'happy' or glad! Joy is a profound surety that right now, our situation is in God’s all-powerful and completely loving hands; and the strength from this, His joy, enables us to do His will. Scriptural joy was not only, not simply 'happy;' joy is also not at all trouble free. When Nehemiah told the people that the joy of the Lord was their strength, they’d been weeping! He said:
“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.
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.”
Nehemiah 8:9, 10
Jesus endured the cross, “for the joy set before him.” (Hebrews 12:2) Despite the anguish He felt in the garden that night before, He was strengthened to endure the cross, “for the joy set before Him.” People can even be afraid and yet have joy:
“So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”
Fear and happy don’t go together. But these women were both afraid, and yet filled with joy. The first time I experienced both fear and ‘joy of the Lord,’ together, I was a new believer. Walking home to my trailer one night, I was quite nervous. My boss couldn’t pay us yet, and rent was due that night. I had never been late on rent before. I knew the landlord would be by that night for it. I was young and scared.
Crossing a field towards home, the Holy Spirit brought a praise song to mind. As I sang the song, new lyrics were added which suited my present situation. I sang of God’s amazing love, and of how He would not let me be put to shame, because I trusted in Him. I had joy.
I can’t say I was happy seeing my landlord’s car pulling out of the trailer park; heading towards me. But I had joy. I smiled and waved, having no guarantee of his response. I only knew that I could face him now. God’s joy had become my strength.
Stopping, my landlord rolled down his window and asked, “Mr. Harvey, do you mind if I collect rent next Friday? I’m just heading out of town.” I assured him that that would be just fine. “I can work with that! Have a great week!”
I went home singing that day. God had made me glad! Maybe that’s why people equate joy with happy. That day, joy enabled me to face my fear, which then lead to my becoming very happy!
In reading scriptures on ‘joy as strength,’ joy is found in several ways: Firstly, joy is found in the presence of the Lord:
“You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.' “
Secondly, joy is found when people see God working on their behalf:
“The seventy-two returned with joy and said, "Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name."
One day some new believers invited us to dinner. Among the group of about 15, were several who’d come from a Muslim background. They were praying, anticipating telling their families about Jesus for the first time. Earlier too, some men from the Islamic College had come threatening the men physically if they continued reading the Bible.
As brother Ahmetjan prayed, the room we were praying in shook. It felt like someone had lifted the building 2 or three feet, and just let it drop: ‘Thump-bump!' All our eyes were opened wide! It didn’t feel like a tremor. Those in the very next room asked what the noise was. They’d heard things rattling loudly, but they felt no shake. Just that room shook!
The urge to joke, “Wow, Ahmetjan! When you pray, you really pray!” was strong. But these new believers were seriously and rightly awed. One sister asked if the Bible ever mentions God shaking a room like this before. Immediately Acts chapter 4 came to mind, and we read it together. And amazingly, the prayer recorded in verse 29 was so similar to what Ahmetjan had been praying when the room was shaken, we became quite convinced. Still, one of my fellow foreigners suggested we check with the papers to see if there was an earth tremor.
So we all agreed to come back the next week, to share how the Spirit of God will have given us boldness to speak His word, like He did for the believers in Acts chapter 4. And indeed, each came back the next week, filled with testimonies of God emboldening us to speak about Jesus in surprising ways. Situations where prior to the room shaking, we’d have been too cautious or not even thought to be an opportunity to share, God gave boldness to speak.
And yes, one brother did call the weather bureau. (And it wasn't me!) There was no seismic activity that week. We had joy.
Thirdly, joy is simply a blessing given by the Lord:
“You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,”
My favorite discovery is that this 'joy' is not an option for the believer. If the Spirit of God indwells you, you have His joy. That's because there’s only one Fruit of the Spirit:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
Galatians 5:22, 23
The fruit of the Spirit “is,” not “are.” So instead of being different fruits, ‘love, joy, peace,’ etc. are all qualities of one fruit: “The fruit of the Spirit.” We can’t pick and choose between fruits as from a bowl of fruit. Paul is describing just one amazing fruit, whose qualities are many. Those with the Spirit indwelling have them all; including joy.
A peach is one fruit with many qualities: A peach is soft: sweet, juicy, has a wrinkly pit, is peach colored, round, and fuzzy. These qualities together make a peach! How many people would buy my peaches, if I shouted, “Come one! Come all! Buy my peaches! They aren’t sweet or juicy, but they sure are fuzzy!” I’d not be in business very long! Joy is not an option.
And fourthly, joy is found in obedience to God. When we honor God, we experience it:
“The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.”
“There is deceit in the hearts of those who plot evil, but joy for those who promote peace.”
We need each and every quality of the fruit of the Spirit. Yet joy often gets treated as if it’s not for all believers in all situations. Patience yes, kindness yes, etc. but not joy. If joy were giddy or happy, then joy at a funeral would be rude.
But God would give us surety of His goodness and power at a funeral. Believers are different. We grieve with hope and we're called to serve others. We need His joy to serve hurting people. I truly have experienced this joy at my own son’s funeral, and at my own mother’s funeral, and at my dad’s! I didn’t realize then that this was “the joy of the Lord,” because my definition of joy was not biblical. Ha! I remember after my mom's funeral, wondering if I was insane. I sure grieved later! But during the wake and funeral, I was boldly and with a gentle joy, telling hurting people of God's love. His joy made that possible. I just didn't understand in those days, that it was His joy.
We must tap into God’s joy. We do so by declaring the works and greatness of the Lord: by “shouting for joy,” by “singing for joy,” and by giving Him thanks.
There was a season in my life, when I was so ungrateful that I had started to become bitter. I’d praise God well enough when I got what I wanted; then minutes later grumble when things didn’t go my way. I was a mess! And so I sought help.
My brother challenged me to daily write 100 times, “Thank you Lord for _______.“ And I was to fill in each blank, reading them aloud. I was so far gone I didn’t even know how to begin! My brother said, “Well, you are breathing right? Try OXYGEN!” So I did. After four or five lines, I was on a roll, and it only took 10 or 15 minutes to fill in the 100 lines. Within three weeks of doing this daily, my soul was flooded with joy. It felt and was amazing!
If you aren’t experiencing joy, I recommend this. If the road ahead is daunting, let His joy be your strength. If you have His Spirit, you have His joy. Tap in! Sing, shout, declare His works, praise Him, and give Him thanks. His joy will be the strength you need.
(A psalm. For giving grateful praise.)
Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the LORD is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.