Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
Nehemiah 8:10 (NRSV)This is an interesting piece of Scripture. The people of Judah had been through so much. They had lost their king. They had lost their temple. They had lost sovereignty over their land. Now, some important leaders had returned to them and helped them begin the process of recovery.
As part of that process, Ezra the priest set up a stage and began to read the Law of Moses to the assembled people. His helpers explained, or perhaps even translated, the Law for the people so that they could understand the instructions that God gave to Moses.
So how did the people respond? They wept. On top of everything else that had happened to them—all the abuse at the hands of Babylonian soldiers, all the ridicule heaped upon them by their neighbors, all the economic deprivation and social decay—there was now piled a heaping helping of guilt. You see, they were to blame for their own downfall.
And yet, Nehemiah tells them to rejoice. Sure, they had some things to rejoice about, but is rejoicing really appropriate in this context? Nehemiah said that it was, for “the joy of the LORD” was a source of “strength” upon which the people could rely.
Walking in Judah’s Steps
Maybe you have felt like the people of Jerusalem. I know that I have at times. You know that you are supposed to be happy, that you have received more blessings than you deserve. But you just feel broken. Or, maybe you feel utterly disconnected from God. Maybe it has dawned on you that your life is a mess and that you have no one to blame but yourself.
Maybe these words from Tenth Avenue North’s song, “Worn” resonate with you.
My heart is heavy
From the work it takes to keep on breathing
I’ve made mistakes
I’ve let my hope fail
My soul feels crushed
By the weight of this world
Nehemiah’s counsel is sound. If we have the joy that comes from a healthy relationship with our Creator, we can survive a lot of things that we otherwise might not. Indeed, we can thrive even in difficult circumstances because we know who we are in relation to God and in relation to others who are also related to God. It isn’t just that we are not alone (although that helps a lot); it is that we are genuinely loved—both by the One who made us and by people who are bound to us by the love we share in common.
Of course, the underlying presupposition of Nehemiah’s counsel is that the people to which he speaks actually possessed “the joy of the LORD.” And that is where things get tricky. It is easy for us, in retrospect, to see God’s hand at work in their lives, but our own struggles with the question of whether God loves us ought to demonstrate to us that it is a lot harder to see God at work in real time. Why am I talking about this question in terms of God’s activity? Because it is a lot harder to connect with the Almighty on an emotional level (that is, with the right side of our brain) when we do not see His handiwork in our lives. We can logically work out that God is always truthful, and therefore He loves us, whether we feel it or not, precisely because He said so. But it won’t make a difference in how we feel (and, yes, joy is an affective reality) unless we actually experience that love.
In other words, our relationship with God is like any other relationship. If we don’t feel like we are getting something from God on a regular basis that is worthwhile, we will not feel connected to or valued by God. If we do not feel valued by God, we will not be motivated to give those things to God (particularly love and trust that manifest in obedience) that are necessary for our relationship with God to thrive.
So how do we cultivate joy in our relationship with God? Sometimes, we just have to take the risk of expressing joy. That is what Nehemiah called his people to do. As heirs of the postmodern tradition, we resist this kind of advice because it feels inauthentic. But we need to recognize that actions sometimes have the power to change how we think and even how we feel. So, maybe we just need to take the plunge. We need to put ourselves out there and see what happens when we rejoice.
Sometimes, though, no amount of “fake it until you make it” will suffice to increase our joy. Our hearts are deeply wounded, and our souls long for a genuine connection with God that results in genuine change in our situation. That is when we need to go back to the basics of our faith. We need to engage God with prayer, worship, Scripture reading, and perhaps fasting in order to rediscover God’s goodness—both in the abstract and universal and in the concrete and personal.
Next week, we will discuss how we recognize God’s goodness, especially as it manifests itself in His conduct towards us. We will look at three ways in which God blesses us, and we will explore how these blessings both reflect God’s goodness and reshape our expectations of the implications of God’s goodness for our lives.