Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 10A
I have just finished listening to the news. I had planned to catch a brief summary of national and international events and then start working on this piece about “the joy of the Lord.” I am doing that, but now I am more hesitant as I begin. The news was wretched: economics, wars, violence, politics, ethics, horrible crimes against persons, and the travail of nations. Not only does the news make me hesitate to write about joy, but my personal circumstances do as well.
Why Write about Joy?
This is a difficult time for me—health-wise and in several other ways—and I would rather write on just about any other scripture text than this one. Of all times, why am I now choosing to write on the joy of the Lord? The reason is twofold.
1. I am coming to the end of calendar year 2008, and there are only three months remaining to write on my top twelve all-time favorite scripture passages, and I know Nehemiah 8:10 has to be covered soon if I am going to write honestly on what the most crucial texts have been throughout my Christian life.
2. This really is the best time to write on this Bible verse because if it is true, as I believe in my head it is, it must apply in the down times as well as the upbeat times. I need to write on this promise precisely at this difficult time in my life, not when I am in easier circumstances or in a happier frame of mind. In this way I believe my words will be most real and helpful to you, my readers.
Lots of Questions
It is a fascinating sentence from the Bible that I wish to focus on this month: “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). While I will be looking at the historical context of these words in another posting, I want to raise some questions linking the ancient text with the present day.
• What is the joy of the Lord?
• In what sense is this joy one’s strength?
• Is grieving always forbidden?
• How can we experience the joy of the Lord when the world is filled with so much suffering, sadness, and evil?
• Is this Bible verse simply a literary device to comfort us, or is there real substance behind it?
• How do circumstances—positive or negative—affect our mood?
• Is this a conditional or unconditional promise?
• Are there certain steps or beliefs one must follow in order to obtain this joy?
• Does it work in my own life and in the lives of those I know well?
I do not intend to answer all of these questions now, but hope to address them in a subsequent essay. However, simply to raise questions such as these is in itself a significant step in the direction of understanding and benefiting from our text of the month.
Real Problems and Real Joy
Last evening was a rough time, as evenings often are for me. Here is what I wrote.
"I am lying here in bed, frustrated with life. I am irritable, discouraged, burning hot (but have no fever), nauseated, weak, headachy, angry at my circumstances, and feel like yelling and crying at the same time. An hour or so ago, sitting on the sofa with my wife, I blurted out, ‘I want to die.’ She said, ‘No.’ I answered ‘Yes.’ Then I repeated the words. What prompted my outburst was a question Judy asked about something. I didn’t feel like discussing anything, or living any longer, so I said so. I’ve said this often (mostly within my own mind) during the past five years since my heart transplant, but probably not for a couple of months."
I hope I have not disappointed you by printing the above. I always want to be honest in this blog, and if I am discussing joy, I need to say it as it is. I have never claimed to float on some cloud above the storms of life. I know I wrote in July that I believe firmly in Christ’s yoke being easy and his burden light (Matthew 11:30). Am I now contradicting myself, and saying that I don’t believe that? No, but I am saying that I sometimes find the circumstances of life to be very difficult, especially regarding my health, and I do not always do as well with my attitude as I would like to, and believe possible by God’s grace.
I want to close by holding out this amazing scripture text to you (and to myself) with the confidence I have developed in it over many years. Joy is not the same as happiness, since people tend to measure their happiness by the circumstances in their lives. The more pleasant the circumstances the greater the happiness. This is a fact of life. Christian joy, however, is a deep delight and satisfaction with the person and mission of God, and increases more and more as one identifies with and enters into the heart and mission of God. Joy is the atmosphere of the Godhead: Father, Son and Spirit celebrating and loving one another and inviting the people of this world into that love. Until next time, ask God sincerely and expectantly to make the joy of the Lord your strength.
My brothers and sister, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4, NRSV)