In my guitar-strumming days, I used to enjoy playing and singing a Twila Paris song entitled “The Joy of the Lord is My Strength.” It was an upbeat song with a catchy tune, performed with lots of country music-style twang. The lyrics had something to do with walking by faith and not being afraid, but I always found the title perplexing. To me, joy and strength were two totally different characteristics. I could understand how a person could be joyful AND strong, but I couldn’t quite grasp how joy could BE strength.
Fast forward a couple of decades to a time in my life when I really needed strength…..a time when I was weak from battling health problems. I needed emotional and spiritual strength to fight the fear that comes with illness, and I needed physical strength to overcome the nausea and pain brought on by my illness. At the time, the pastor of my church was preaching from the book of Philippians, which teaches us that we can have joy in all circumstances. My circumstances were certainly not joyful, but I learned that I could still find joy in my relationship with the Lord.
My illness required major surgery, and for a couple of weeks after I was discharged, I was housebound. On Sundays I grieved because I couldn’t go to church. Since I couldn’t attend church, I watched the service on line. Sitting on my sofa, I sang the worship songs along with the choir, and for a few brief moments, I forgot that I was hurting and simply praised.
When I was able to return to church and choir practice, I did so with a renewed appreciation of the privilege of corporate worship. There is something special about joining with other like-minded believers, enjoying their fellowship, hearing God’s word and singing His praises.
I was uplifted. My spirit soared as I sang each chorus as loudly and clearly as I could. I delighted in hearing my voice blend with the voices around me. I was thrilled to be among God’s people once again. These were the people who prayed for me, sat in the waiting room of the hospital, brought me meals, texted and emailed to check on me. It was a joy to be with them in person again. It was a joy to be in the Father’s presence, to feel His Holy Spirit in that room. I completely forgot my aches and pains. I laid aside every fear or worry and instead focused on our awesome God. I felt strong. The joy of the Lord was my strength.
Nehemiah Chapter 8 tells about a gathering of God’s people, too. God’s people were returning from exile, and under Nehemiah’s leadership, (despite opposition), they had rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. The people gathered into the square to listen Ezra and Nehemiah read from the Book of the Law of Moses. The people listened attentively as the Scriptures were read and explained, and then they prayed and worshiped. The people wept as they heard the words of the Law.
“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe,
and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people,
‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’
For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.
Then he said to them, ‘Go your way.
Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready,
for this day is holy to our Lord.
And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Nehemiah 8: 9-10
Perhaps they wept because they recognized how often they had failed to keep God’s commandments. But Nehemiah and Ezra entreated them not to weep but to celebrate, to focus not on their sins but on the greatness of God. They were to rejoice, and in rejoicing, they would find strength to complete their task. Sometimes it is appropriate to grieve and to mourn our sins, but for the Jews this was to be a time of rejoicing.
When we’re joyful,
our difficulties don’t seem so insurmountable.
Our work doesn’t feel like drudgery.
Merriment lightens our load.
Proverbs 17:22 says, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” It’s good to laugh. Laughter has therapeutic value.
When I was sick, I found it was important to keep things in perspective and look for the humor in my circumstances. A good laugh would cheer me up. Well, actually, right after having abdominal surgery, I found that a hearty belly laugh was painful, but even then my husband and I could make a joke out of the pain. “Hey, did you hear the one about….,” and he’d begin to tell a joke. “Don’t make me laugh! It hurts to laugh!” I’d say. I couldn’t help smiling, but I did try to repress that belly laugh.
I tend to be serious-minded. For a long time, the concept of rejoicing in all circumstance was an idea that I couldn’t quite grasp. I think I confused it with stoicism; that is, when life was tough, I thought God meant for me to steel myself and say through gritted teeth, “I’m rejoicing.” But I’m learning that God actually does want us to laugh and celebrate, even when trials come our way. That doesn’t mean we have to be happy ABOUT our trials. (As in, “Oh, great! More pain! Bring it on!) But in the middle of our pain, we can still find reasons to celebrate, while we trust that God will use our pain for greater good.
So I’m learning to lighten up and rejoice. Here are a few things that helped me find that Happy Place:
“Though the fig tree does not bud
And there are no grapes on the vine,
Though the olive crop fails
And the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen
And no cattle in the stalls
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer;
He enables me to go on the heights.” Hab. 3:17-19
Could Habakkuk really rejoice if everything around him were to come crashing down, if he lost his livelihood, if he had no food on his table? How could he endure it? Would there be a smile on his face--a genuine, spontaneous smile? Would he still laugh and joke and sing? Would he be partying?
Now that I’ve experienced firsthand the joy of the Lord, I believe I know what Habakkuk meant when the said, “I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength.” He could look at his circumstances and say, “It’s all OK. I have a relationship with the God of the universe, and He is in control of everything that is happening. My troubles are only temporary. One day, God is going to make everything right. He gives me strength for whatever comes my way. He enables me to rise above my circumstances.” And that’s a happy thought. The joy of the Lord is my strength. When I am joyful, I feel strong.
Rejoicing in Him,
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