Nehemiah 8:8-10 NIV - They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read. 9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. 10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Godly sorrow, or a sense of conviction settled over God’s people as they listened to the Bible being preached and it exposed their thoughts, intents, attitudes, and actions. The restoration of Israel demanded a time of personal and national repentance, but their spiritual leaders understood an important principle that we must consider and apply. God reboots a person (or a people group) by provoking not only repentance but also rejoicing.
If our faith is one that involves nothing but angst, grief, conviction, and repenting, we will miss God and be miserable. God enforces His holiness with us while also inviting us into His joy. As C.S. Lewis alluded to in the Screwtape Letters, the demons understand that joy is actually God’s sacred territory - so all they can attempt to do is pervert it or substitute it with selfish pleasure. Christians who are joyless or think that regular laughter is somehow unspiritual have misunderstood the testimony of Scripture. God is in the joy business. God is a purveyor and producer of joy.
Those of us as parents know that one of our greatest joys is to see our children laughing and enjoying themselves in right contexts. How would our Father in Heaven be any different? Interestingly enough, when Nehemiah reminded Israel that the joy of the LORD was their strength, he told them to focus on enjoying celebratory feasts in the context of relationships. This is not to say that we should not find joy in worship or prayer or Bible study, but the instruction reminded God’s people that it’s ok to have fun. It’s not the pleasure of sin but the joy of the LORD that gives us strength.
Why is hardness of heart so dangerous? The Book of Hebrews teaches that sin hardens us; therefore, we can never replace joy with mere pleasures of our base nature. When we harden our hearts to the word of God and His conviction over our sin (which often comes through Bible teaching like Ezra’s), it deadens us spiritually and emotionally. Those who refuse to allow themselves to feel the sting of godly conviction will not likely feel the renewal of godly joy to strengthen them. The greatest rejoicers are often the most sincere repenters. Consider David’s prayer of confession and repentance after his sin with Bathsheba:
Psalm 51:4-13 ESV - Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. 5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. 6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. 11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Consider also the spiritual dominoes of Psalm 51: conviction —> repentance —> joy —> evangelism. Perhaps one of the main reasons why Lewis noted that demons do not want Christians living in joy is because joyful Christians reach and teach those who would otherwise be eternally lost. So if Christians can be made hard, cynical, bitter, joyless, and dead, they will resist the catalyst of conviction that leads them to repentance so God can strengthen them with renewable joy, which in turn fuels their passion to love others and help them find God. Why must we have righteous, life-giving fun as Christians? To do so honors God, strengthens us as His children, and fuels evangelism. Happiness is not our chief goal in life, but the spiritual fruit of joy - the joy of the LORD is absolutely part of God’s kingdom. Without sacrificing truth or holiness, we need to intentionally make church as consistently fun and enjoyable as possible and appropriate. And it is appropriate before God to bear the fruit of joy in abundance.
Romans 14:17-18 NIV - For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
Think about your week, and determine which applies more to you: Are you allowing the joy of the LORD to strengthen you as a soul-winner, or are you allowing life’s pressures “under the sun” to rob you of your joy and neutralize your Christian witness? How might you approach church differently on Sunday to make serving God fun for others in a God-honoring way? Have you become immune to feelings of godly conviction - and if so, have you noticed you are also immune to the true joy of the LORD? What two things can you do this week to bear the fruit of joy in a life-giving way for others? Would you like to have a “ministry of joy” as a healing gift for others? Will you be a joyologist not a soul-crusher? What if you made it your sacred mission for one week (as an experiment) to spread and cause others true joy?
Proverbs 17:22 ESV - A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones