Thursday, October 9, 2008

Who Cares about Joy? Is Anyone Really Happy?

Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 10A
Nehemiah 8:10
Bob Rakestraw

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)


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your transparency, Bob. Thank you also, for being faithful about writing. Your faith and determination are a big encouragement to me in my walk with the Lord. I look forward every new posting. Praying for you, Amy

Anonymous said...

I think that the distinction between joy and happiness is truly something to think about. In so many ways the "pursuit of happiness" seems to be completely against loving one another and loving our Lord. Joy seems to be a far richer, far more dimensional experience.
Bob, you are a blessing.
Love, Anna

Lori said...

Dear Bob -
I received this benediction from a friend via email and immediately thought of you and your benediction project. After reading todays post I thought it fit well. Thank you for being transparent and authentic in your writing! I look forward to each post and being challenged by your writing and encouraged by your faith. Your sister in Tokyo, Lori

A Franciscan Benediction

May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in the world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.

Anonymous said...


I will be repeating others' words, but thank you for being honest about your feelings and circumstances, but holding on to Jesus in the midst of them....

Thinking and praying for you;

Robert V. Rakestraw said...

This is a test#1.

Robert V. Rakestraw said...

Hello Amy,

Thank you for your note, your encouragement and your prayers for me and our family.

You mention transparency -- I try to write faithfully out of my head and heart, seeking to combine both as God leads me.

Blessings and peace to you and yours,

Robert V. Rakestraw said...

This is a test#2

Robert V. Rakestraw said...

Dear Anna,

I believe you are right about the distinction between joy and happiness. I try to strike a balance between, on the one hand, setting the two in stark contrast and, on the other hand, equating them.

It's always good to hear from you. Thanks very much for writing, and for your insight.

Robert V. Rakestraw said...

This is a test #3.

Robert V. Rakestraw said...

Hello Lori,

So good to get your posting. Thanks for your excellent contribution by sending A Franciscan Benediction. It has very much the tone of Franciscan material. It sounds like something Brennan Manning would read. I want to keep it and re-read it occasionally.

Trust that things are well in Tokyo. Your recent communications have been very personal and transparent, and surely this is the best way to keep your friends not only up to date but also praying.

Peace and deep joy in Christ,