The Joy of the Lord is our strength: choosing joy to rise above our troubles

In the film Inside Out 5 characters, representing different emotions, live inside the mind of a young girl who they help to cope with life. Joy is one of those characters and her incessant joyfulness becomes problematic as the child experiences a number of challenging and upsetting experiences. The character of Joy has to learn what it means to be joyful in the face of these challenges.

What is joy the emotion? Is it the same as happiness? Yes and no. They are similar but are not the same. They are synonyms and so inextricably linked that many dictionary’s use each word in the defining the other.

Happiness is an emotion and like all emotions it is hard, if not impossible, to choose to feel one or another. Emotions are influenced by external events: an unexpected sound in the dead of night can make us scared; a piece of music in a minor key can make us feel sad; a joke can make us happy. We don’t consider all the evidence to decide if we should be afraid, sorrowful or laughing, we react automatically.

Our emotions and feelings can be manipulated by things outside of our control. Film-makers know this only too well and know that however you are prepared for a scary moment they can still make you jump out of your skin and feel afraid. And newscasters often like to finish off with a happy “and finally” piece or cheer us up after a bulletin of miserable news.

Happiness and joy are different by the degree of their longevity and depth. Happiness is a short-lived and fleeting emotion whilst joy is deeper, richer and longer-lasting. Reading the sport news has provided many a happy moment for many of us but that happiness quickly disappears when we watch or read news about a tragedy somewhere in the world.

Happiness is temporary but joy lasts. A single act of kindness by a friend bound to bring a smile to our face but it is their continued presence in our life that brings us joy. Think of it like this, happiness seeps into our heart but joy seeps into our soul.

Although we can’t choose how we react or feel we can choose factors that will influence them. We can look to surround us with things that bring joy to help us cope with the trials and tribulations we may face but even the best and most reliable sources of joy in the world are temporary, but there is a source of joy that doesn’t run out. Given that joy is part of the Fruit of the Spirit gives us a clue as to where we can find it.

It is why Nehemiah directed people to God.

The joy of the Lord is your strength

Nehemiah 8 tells of when Ezra had been asked to teach the Israelites and help them refresh their knowledge of God. That Ezra had been asked to remind them of God’s standards for living shows a people who were eager to learn and to live according to how God suggested they should. Why else would someone ask to be reminded about the rule book? They knew there was something more to life, something that could be found in scripture that would help them to find it.

Ezra not only reminded them of what God had said and done, but helped them to understand the degree to which they and Israel as a whole had fallen short of God’s standard. That they were upset by finding this out was a good thing! Being upset can be something positive when it is followed by action, when it causes us to do something to remedy the very thing which has caused the sadness. But hearing that is one thing, being able to do that is another thing entirely and cannot be done without help.

After Ezra had spoken, Nehemiah chose to reminding them that that day was special. It was a holy day, a day to be dedicated to God. He was reminding them to think about God and His grace rather than thinking about themselves or their sadness. It was his way of helping them to get their minds in the right place, a positive place. Remembering the good in God, the good in each other and the good in life makes us feel good. Remembering God’s grace diminishes the sadness and brings joy.

What Nehemiah didn’t do was to then say, “stop moping about it and do something about it instead”. Going up to someone who is struggling and telling them to snap out of it, to stop feeling sorry for themselves and be happy about how lucky and blessed they are is not particularly pastorally sensitive.

But Nehemiah was not going to let the people get stuck in a rut feeling sorry for themselves. By first telling people to enjoy themselves their focus would have been taken off the sorrow and onto joy. By then telling them to help others celebrate their focus would have been taken off themselves and onto others. By telling them to consider the day holy their minds were set to remember the goodness they had received from God. This was no simple distraction technique but a reminder of the way out of their state of sadness.

When Nehemiah said “the joy of the Lord is your strength” he was summarising in words the effect that focusing on God has. He was telling them that they would find the strength they needed to start living up to God’s standard by focusing on God. And if you read the rest of Chapter 8 you will see that they did just that and did indeed find great joy.

Choosing joy in times of trouble

Choosing to act and find joy though is something that is easier to do when we are happy than when we are sad. Yet we can feel joy whilst also feeling sorrow. Indeed joy can be made richer by the times out sorrow, another thing the film Inside Out showed very well. Being sad about a loss helps us to appreciate that which it once gave us, and that appreciation brings us back to a joy in its memory that outlasts the sorrow.

When we face times of trouble it is easier to give into the negative emotions than it is to fight for joy. It is why Nehemiah directed us to God, because it is God’s strength that we need to pull us out of the deep pits we can find ourselves in. And there are few better examples of doing just that than King David.

1 Samuel 8 tells the tale of when David entered the city of Ziklag to find that the Amalekities had not only destroyed it but had taken the population away with them as captives, including his wives Ahinoam and Abigail, sadly too similarly repeated today by ISIS in Iraq and Boko Harum in Nigeria.

The time 1 Samuel 8 covers is naturally a time of great despair for David and the Israelites, but for David it gets worse. As he grieves the destruction and the thought of what Abigail, Ahinoam and the rest of the population may be going through, he also has to cope with the knowledge that those with him were holding him responsible and wanted to kill him.

Finding the emotional, mental and even physical resources to overcome such troubles would be beyond me, and David recognised it was beyond him so he turned to God. David found the strength he needed by looking to God but didn’t immediately find joy. That came when he was guided to an abandoned slave who in turn guided them to Abigail, Ahinoam and the rest of the abductees. Everyone and everything was returned, including joy.

The Psalms attributed to David are full of how he wrestled with despair and joy.

In Psalm 28 he sets out a litany of trouble, of people set to do him and others harm. He feels persecuted, under attack and under resourced to cope. He calls out to God in desperation, knowing that He will be listening, whilst at the same room time reminding himself of God’s qualities and promises. In doing so he finds both strength and joy.

7 The Lord is my strength and my shield;
my heart trusts in him, and he helps me.
My heart leaps for joy,
and with my song I praise him.
8 The Lord is the strength of his people,
a fortress of salvation for his anointed one.
Psalm 28: 7-8

Rick Warren, the leader of Saddleback Church in the USA, said “Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation”. David knew that. So in good times and bad David chose to turn to God and trust Him. By doing so he received an undercurrent of peace and joy that sustained him through his times of trouble. David didn’t expect, nor does Rick Warren, that everything feel alright or fair but that ultimately, eternally, God will make things alright.

Like David we live in a world of complimentary opposites operating in parallel. We can experience things that bring pleasure and contentment whilst in the same day experience things that disappoint or hurt us. We can be experiencing something deeply painful yet be aware of the beauty and goodness of this world. Whilst we should not feel like failures if we are not skipping for joy throughout each day, we should not feel guilty when we feel joy in moments of sorrow for joy transcends sorrow.

Paul instructed the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord” and to “not be anxious” but like Nehemiah I don’t think he wasn’t saying that we won’t be or that we are sinners if we are.  Paul, Nehemiah and David knew that when we are anxious or sad we should focus on God and His blessings.

Choosing to focus on God means choosing to be supported through life with joy. And when we choose the God-generated joy we can have confidence that He will somehow help us rise above our troubles.

3 Though an army besiege me, my heart shall not fear;
though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.
13 I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

Psalm 27:3, 13-14

We need to remember God’s promises and blessings as David did. It might sometimes be hard to see them but they are there. And in all times, whether we are sad or happy, fearful or fearless, we need to look to God so that He can establish and nurture joy within us, bolstering our defences and strengthening us.

Joy comes from the word rejoice and rejoice is an act of will. Don’t be passive, don’t stay in a rut or coast along on a wave, but choose to rejoice. Don’t focus on problems, focus on God’s solutions. Choose God, choose joy.

Your thoughts, comments and feedback are most welcomed.

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