I wasn’t thinking about the approach of Easter as I drove along listening to the radio. At the time, there was no apparent relationship between the lyrics of a song that began to capture my attention and looking ahead to Resurrection Sunday. That connection didn’t emerge until later. What interested me initially was one of the phrases included in the lyrics. Over and over the singer declared, “Ain’t nothing gonna steal my joy.” Repetition made the line hard to miss, and it led me to think more directly about what was being said.
“That sounds nice,” I thought. The song seemed to indicate a state of continuous, unshakeable joy as a settled reality, and it sounded really appealing. But in spite of all that, a few questions began to invade my musical interlude. For instance,
- How does one define this “joy” that nothing the world can throw at us could deprive us of?
- How is it acquired?
- Is it automatically installed when we place our faith in Jesus?
- Does it look and/or feel the same for everyone?
- Is it a thing to be consciously sought, or just Sovereignly dispensed?
- If somebody did somehow lose it, could he or she get it back and if so, how?
Thankfully, we don’t have to depend on songwriters alone for the answer to questions like that. God has a lot to say about joy, but space demands that we limit our discussion at this point to a few references that unveil aspects of it that are profoundly encouraging.
In addressing God’s people at a significant point in their history, Nehemiah makes a comment about joy that is very familiar to most Christians:
Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10 NKJV)
Clarification Needed ~
Asking a question or two about this intriguing statement might help our understanding of the role God intended His joy to play in our lives. It might be helpful to ask what, exactly, did Nehemiah want for his people? Was he hoping they would have some good food and a fun day? Or did he want something more than that for them?
The answer lies in the term translated as strength. Strength can describe lots of things – and if joy is the source of strength, we should ask what kind of strength we’re talking about. In this passage, the word translated as strength does not refer to physical strength or stamina. In other places, the same term describes a refuge, a stronghold or fortress, a place of protection and security. That’s what Nehemiah wanted for his people – and it gives us a clue as to the role God wants joy to play in our lives.
Joy is one of those profoundly powerful gifts of God that the satanic world system has twisted beyond recognition. What the world has done to God’s definition of love, it has also done to our understanding of joy. Like love, joy is consistently portrayed as a set of transient feelings that differ with everyone and that have no consistent definition, no definable purpose, and no dependable outcome. Golgotha and the road leading to it demonstrate that nothing could be farther from the truth. The writer of Hebrews declares this about Jesus and the role that joy played when he penned this admonition:
. . . looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross… (Hebrews 12:2 NKJV)
A Different Resource Provided ~
As His destined appointment at Calvary drew near, Jesus knew that His beloved followers would face things they were not equipped to handle. They would be forced to face challenges beyond anything they had encountered before and would need resources powerful enough to enable them not only to survive, but to overcome. Physical strength would never be enough, so Jesus took care of it by imparting two things. He transmitted into them the love that lived in Him and joy as He Himself experienced it. He gave them the things that would sustain Him through the agonizing torture and deep humiliation of the cross.
Understanding the role that joy was intended to play in our lives begins with acknowledging that it was never designed to be some kind of giddy spiritual high that we walk around with all the time. God designed joy to be a post-deliverance celebration. When we find God’s people experiencing joy in the Biblical record, it was directly or indirectly an expression of deliverance from things like bondage, persecution, suffering, defeat, devastating losses, and failure. In the theater of life, God designed joy to be the celebration that emerges at the thrilling conclusion of whatever painful drama precedes it.
Not a Passive Thing ~
Joy as it was described in Jewish antiquity is also an active experience. To the Israelites, joy was a physical and behavioral phenomenon involving things like raising their hands in spontaneous praise, loud singing, laughter, shouting, clapping hands, jumping up and down, and other exultant expressions of gratitude and relief to God. Obviously, we don’t find people doing things like that in the midst of their worst ordeals, do we? So, if the joy of the Lord is our strength, what does that mean and how does it work? The answer begins with the realization that joy doesn’t begin as an exuberant celebration. It begins as a quiet promise.
As I write this, I’m thinking about the awful trials that some of our dearest friends are going through right now. My wife and I often choke back tears just talking about what they’re facing. We picture a couple we love watching helplessly as their young special needs daughter struggled to breathe. Or in another case, it’s potentially terminal cancer. In others it’s the imminent loss of someone they love more than life. Another friend is having physical abilities disappear that have virtually defined who he is. Trust me, none of them were gleefully jumping up and down in the midst of all that. None of them were shouting victorious hallelujahs or engaging in glad-hearted applause as those hard times unfolded.
Not a Shield ~
Right now they need strength they don’t have. They need the stamina to keep on when everything about them wants to collapse in a worn out heap on the floor. They need the strength to just climb out of bed one more time and face another day. They need strength to take what may be another round of bad news, to shoulder the weight of relentless pressures, and to endure the pain for another minute. So, where’s the joy of the Lord for them? Did somebody slip in and steal it? Were the circumstances too much for it? No! Absolutely not! Joy is exactly where God intended it to be – and doing exactly what God intended it to do. Joy is a promise, not a shield.
Joy’s promise is not that the hard times won’t come or that the pain won’t hurt. Joy won’t ensure that our precious things won’t be lost or that disease won’t invade our body. Joy won’t stop a trusted ally from betraying us, and it won’t keep some distracted driver from taking the love of our life away from us. The “strength” in God’s promise of joy isn’t in what it protects us from. It’s in what it guarantees. Joy’s promise enables us to rise up in defiance of every torturous trial because the risen Son of the living God declares that no matter what, deliverance will come. What God has promised, He will not fail to do and we have joy in that. Peter said it in this comment about Jesus:
… whom having not seen, you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory. (1 Peter 1:8 NKJV)
So what does joy feel like? That’s easy. It feels like blinded eyes seeing light for the first time. It feels like ragged burning wounds suddenly being healed. It feels like strength flowing into weak twisted bodies, it feels like the love of a father we never knew or a mother we’ve missed for years. It feels like shackles falling off, love overcoming fear, gnawing hunger sitting down to a banquet, and death being laid to rest forever. Joy feels like Easter morning.
“TWEETABLES” ~ Click to tweet and share from the pull quotes below. Each one links directly back to this article through Twitter . . .
- “When God’s people experienced joy in the Biblical record, it was an expression of deliverance from things like bondage, persecution, devastating losses, failure. It was designed as celebration emerging at the thrilling conclusion of the painful drama preceding it.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “The strength in God’s promise of joy isn’t in what it protects us from, but in what it guarantees. Joy’s promise enables us to rise up in defiance of every torturous trial because the risen Son of the living God declares that no matter what, deliverance will come.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “So what does joy feel like? It feels like blinded eyes seeing light for the first time, like shackles falling off, love overcoming fear, gnawing hunger sitting down to a banquet, and death being laid to rest forever. Joy ‘feels’ like Easter morning.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “Joy … It feels like blinded eyes seeing light for the first time, like ragged burning wounds suddenly being healed, like strength flowing into weak twisted bodies, like the love of a father we never knew, a mother we’ve missed for years … like Easter morning.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
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Excellent reading! Biblical explanation of joy is reminder of God’s promises and His everlasting presence in our daily lives and seasons of lives we get to walk not alone but with the Lord. Thank you Ron for sharing your amazing thoughts!
I’m so sorry for being so late responding, Maia–please forgive me for somehow missing your gracious and encouraging response. I’m not sure whether my normal notice mechanism didn’t work, or something else interfered, but I’m glad I finally saw it. Diane and I are continually blessed to be in your circle of friends and to be a part of the same spiritual family. It’s humbling to know that you read the article, but even more so that you took the time to send a response. May God bless you and your wonderful family for the faithful and courageous stand you take for His truth.
Joy, undoubtedly feels like Easter morning, Ron! We can rejoice in the knowledge that God’s plan is already unfolding before us, and He has invited us to walk that path with Him, no matter what troubles or anxieties may line the way. Knowing that Jesus has overcome the world gives me an inner peace that can only be described as quiet joy.
Blessings, my friend!
Thank you, Martha– You always find a way to lift us up and inject a dose of fresh spiritual optimism, Martha. You are so right about God’s plan already unfolding before us, and there is no better place and no grander source of joy than knowing where the path leads when we follow Him. Because of Jesus, we have already left the tomb behind and can live in the joy He experienced when death had lost its sting forever. God bless you, my friend. Hearing from you just made a good day better.
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“Count it all joy… “; how many times has this admonition played itself in my head as it wells up from my heart during times of challenge in my life? It is in facing those “trials of this life” that His joy has been found to be the strength needed to look beyond the momentary troubles this life is so filled with. As someone who has spent a considerable portion of my adult life immersed in a world of acronyms, I often refer to the process of living with His joy, imparted as a gift of the Holy Spirit, as EGT (End-Game Thinking). It is when the trials of life feel as though they’re about to overtake me, that the words of James are brought to mind, reminding me that nothing happening to me in the moment is permanent. My permanent state happens when my Abba decides it’s time to bring me home. Then, my joy will be complete. Until that time, the Holy Spirit who brought the joy of Christ into my life, is there to help me draw from that well of hope that is my faith. Such an inspiring and encouraging post today sir. Thank you so much for “filling my joy cup” to overflowing this morning. My day is blessed! God’s blessings to you, Ms. Diane, and your wonderful family.
Relating personally to what you share is never a surprise, Brother. It’s a recurrent experience that I’ve gotten used to and one that always leaves me grateful, encouraged, and spiritually reinforced. I loved reading your comments about the source of joy in your life and the strength it gives you and it resonates in my own heart this morning. It’s one of the ways God helps us to endure the trials and engage in the tasks that confront us. I’ve discovered, too, that some of the most heartwarming joy I get to experience is brought about through the love and fellowship I get to share with other followers of Jesus. Listening to their stories of God’s faithfulness and how He brought them through the trials in their lives bolsters my confidence in His faithfulness, and you, my friend, have been doing that consistently for Diane and me ever since we met you. As always, your gracious response has nourished our hearts, strengthened our hope, and expanded our expectations.