When you picture strength, what comes to mind? I envision a couple of things:
• a sculpted body that can run swiftly and lift heavy things
• a financial portfolio that can withstand economic ripples
• a house that is well built and sturdy
• a rigorous mind that delves into the complexities of the world
• a relationship that can withstand hardship
However, Nehemiah, the author of the Old Testament book of the same name, writes that “the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
Joy is the last word I typically associate with strength. Joy seems like a description of a five-year-old hitting a colorful piñata at a birthday party. It seems a little too juvenile and fleeting.
Nehemiah’s words are even more striking when you consider his context. Everything around him had literally crumbled. Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar. Many Jews were still living in exile in Babylon and had begun to worship foreign gods. A good number were struggling financially. The book of Nehemiah is a story of the Israelites overcoming internal and external struggles to rededicate themselves to God. While rebuilding the city walls, they had to defend themselves against three different armies that were thwarting their efforts. Nehemiah actually had to set up guards to protect the workers from being shot with arrows while they worked.
So Nehemiah’s statement wasn’t an, “Aw, shucks, guys, look on the bright side of life! Things aren’t so bad!” It was an acknowledgment that things were bad—about as bad as they could get for the Israelites. And yet, in the midst of all the physical and emotional despair, Nehemiah declares: “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our LORD. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the LORD is your strength!”
When we’re used to hearing verses taken out of context, they lose their potency. Nehemiah’s words about joy can often feel like a clichéd throwaway used to try to encourage someone in a rough time. But the context that Nehemiah speaks into gives depth to the phrase. Celebration in the midst of destruction and despair isn’t escapism; it’s a hard-core way to declare that our strength is found in God, not our circumstances. Throughout Scripture, this is the story of God’s people and a picture of how joy is developed as a fruit of the Spirit.
Joy is cultivated when we realize we can find strength, hope, and freedom in the Lord despite what is happening to us or inside of us. It’s easy to be joyful when things are going well—to praise God for his goodness, provision, and protection. But joy is developed through hardship.
You might not feel like praising or celebrating God when things are difficult, but this is precisely the time when the Lord is able to overwhelm our hearts, minds, and spirits with joy because of who he is. In him we can find the strength to pray, to celebrate, and to persevere in the face of systemic injustice, financial loss, sickness, and depression. And we do so in community with all of the Lord’s people who are trying to cultivate joy in the midst of their struggles in life. We remind each other that joy isn’t found in what you can create or attain for yourself; it is found in the everlasting love and strength of a God who saved us and loves us.