When I was first saved, I was working for my dad installing septic fields during my first summer home from Bible College. I was working with a guy who was probably about 23 or 24 and I had been witnessing to him on and off. One day we were installing a filtration bed and it required that we shovel huge piles of gravel and strew it across the tile filed. Over a long period of time, I was shoveling and spreading the gravel at a fast pace and he could not keep up. Finally, he threw down his shovel in exasperation and exclaimed, “Man…does the Lord give you your strength?”
Indeed, the reason I worked so hard after I was saved was because I wanted to represent the Lord as a hard and good worker as a testimony to the power of the gospel to change lives. My unsaved father, to whom I was witnessing, was a worker’s worker. He was the quintessential example of hard work and he respected those who had the same ethic. Coming from a third-grade education in the hills of Kentucky, he and his older brother started their business in 1949 after moving north. Before I was saved, I was a slacker and my dad knew it. I knew that those in that work context admired and appreciated hard work and it would reflect well on the gospel that changed me if I was a hard worker. In that sense, my strength did come from the Lord.
In Nehemiah 8 the rebuilt wall around Jerusalem was being dedicated. Ezra the scribe was reading from the law clearly, giving the sense of the text, and causing the people to understand the Word (v. 8… this by the way is the biblical definition of expositional preaching). The result of this exposition of the Law was that the people mourned and wept because they realized how profoundly they had violated God’s Word (v. 9b). However, Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites who taught them the Word encouraged them to not mourn or weep. They told them to go their way and “eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone, who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved…” Then they gave the reason why they should not mourn and weep; they said, “…for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
I’m impressed by that. It tells me that Christianity is not a call to mourning, grief, and asceticism (i.e. the “beating of the body” and depriving ourselves of any pleasure). On the contrary, Christianity is about joy, rejoicing, pleasure, and fulfillment. The reason God wants us to be joyful is “the joy of the Lord is our strength”. Joy in the Lord is what brings about our energy to serve God. Joy is what motivates us to greater heights of fealty. Joy in the Lord is what strengthens us to live in the power of the Spirit. Joy is what gets us up in the morning to live the day for him. Joy, pleasure, and fulfillment are always a greater motivator over and above brute discipline or a sense of duty. Now both discipline and duty are part and parcel of our Christianity but should not be its prime motivation. Christ should be. The Lord should be.
For example, why is eating pleasurable…why did God make it to taste good? It is because food is needed for our survival. If it were not… if eating was simply a distasteful duty, we had to perform…if people had to be forced to do it… the survival of the race would be in peril. Likewise, why did God make sex pleasurable? Again, for the propagation of the race. If sex was painful, if it was in no way pleasurable, the continuation of the race would be in question. At the very least, propagation of the race would not thrive.
It is pleasure that drives us more than pain. It is delight that inspires us more than duty. It is joy that moves us more than sorrow. Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites in this passage knew this. They knew that grief and sorrow over their failures, while legitimate and somewhat necessary, would not be that which would sustain them spiritually. Only joy in the Lord…in his holiness, in his person, in his love, in his mercy, in his forgiveness, and in his faithfulness… would be sufficient to give them the strength they would need to reestablish Jehovah worship coming out of the exile.
While theology is foundational, it is not enough to strengthen us to be what we should be. While a commitment to duty is necessary, it is not enough to sustain us in our commitment to serve God. While parental, pastoral, or peer expectations have their place, they are not adequate to maintain our spiritual intentions to follow Christ. The only thing strong enough to maintain our spiritual lives is the pleasure we get from knowing God, the joy we have in knowing Christ, and the delight we receive from being in Him!
From where does your strength come? It comes from joy in Christ…then, the joy of the Lord is our strength. Victory, growth, and commitment in the Christian life comes more from pleasure than pain. The extent to which we find our joy in the Lord, is the extent to which we will find spiritual strength. Be strong!