Some of us love the sight of a universal gym or a set of free weights. Some of us view such things as being remarkably like our idea of medieval torture devices. But whether we willingly undergo a hard workout or not, everyone admits that becoming physically stronger usually takes a lot of sweat and effort. Similarly, we may think that increasing spiritual strength usually involves hard work and the dedicated practice of disciplines such as prayer and fasting. So if I were to tell you there is a perfectly pleasurable and sweat-free way to increase your spiritual strength you would probably think I was selling something. Yet the Bible tells us that such a source of strength is available to us.
The verse quoted above from the Book of Nehemiah makes an amazing statement if we are willing to focus on it and accept it for what it says: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Given what we know of most strength-building exercises, this sounds almost too good to be true, but Nehemiah’s words are not just some pleasant poetic statement. It’s not that he just happened to mention joy and strength in the same sentence – there are actually a good number of biblical passages that link joy and strength directly.
In fact, 1 Chronicles 16:27 tells us that these qualities are linked in the nature of God himself: “Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his dwelling place.” Once we begin to see the connection between joy and strength in this and numerous other verses, we begin to understand what the connection is. Joy is a source of strength that can help carry us through the difficulties of life just as much as determination and endurance, and in some ways more so.
It is true that Christians are among those who mourn for the evils of the world (Matthew 5:4) and that we experience pain and sorrow just like other people (John 16:33), but these are temporary reactions to specific situations, not our everyday attitude. Joy is the great strength-enhancer that shores up patience and enables endurance. It can carry us through pain and difficulties and enable us to focus on others even in difficult circumstances. Joy can actually enable us to accomplish incredible things beyond what would normally be possible. Do we believe and focus on that fact? Do we believe and focus on the fact that it helped Jesus himself to make the ultimate sacrifice: “… who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:2 ESV, NKJV, etc., emphasis added).
Jesus specifically told his followers “These things I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (John 15:11). Joy is an unmistakable hallmark of those who follow him closely. Those who were imprisoned with Dietrich Bonhoeffer before his execution said that he always spread an attitude of happiness and joy, despite his dire circumstances. Those who knew Mother Teresa say that although her work with the poor and the diseased would have depressed and even crushed many people, her attitude as she did her work was always one of joy.
The kind of joy that gives us this strength is not entirely human made, of course. Galatians 5:22-23 tells us that deep, strengthening joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit of God, but we can help develop that joy by cultivating it in our daily thoughts and actions. To seek the strength of joy in our lives is not to spend our lives in seeking temporary pleasures, but to find joy in what God gives us each day – whatever the situation, whatever the difficulty. That is the lesson that those like Bonhoeffer and Mother Teresa had learned. It is a truth that Nehemiah understood thousands of years before our time, that joy and strength go hand in hand, and that the joy of the Lord is our strength.