“The Joy of the Lord is your strength.” I’ve heard this phrase many times, but through the study of Nehemiah it began to take on new meaning. In Nehemiah chapter eight, Ezra gathered the people together to read the book of the law. For half the day the people listened to the truth and they understood it clearly. All the people wept when they heard this truth; they realized how far they had fallen from this truth and they knew that their sin grieved the heart of God. Ezra told them not to cry, not to mourn for the day was Holy to the Lord. He then told them to go, feast and celebrate. He tells them “Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” God rejoices in repentance!
I used to work in a church nursery and there was one little boy whose soft heart I will always remember. One day after misbehaving with his brother he came up to me and told me, with tears in his eyes, what he had done. No one had caught him, his brother was not going to tell on him, but he knew he had done wrong and was clearly grieved by it. Through his tears, he told me how he loved his brother and did not want to be mean to him. His sentence trailed off and he headed to seat himself in time-out. I pulled him into a hug and we prayed, thanking God for his forgiveness and asking for his help to do what is right. I told him that he didn’t need to sit in time-out this time. I could tell that God had done a work in his heart that led him to repentance.
I have this image of Christ enfolding me in His arms when I return to him in repentance. When I am convicted and can clearly see where I have not walked with the Spirit, I begin to feel sorrow for what I have done, but God has felt that sorrow already. He has felt the grief throughout the course of my sin and his grief turns to joy when I repent. He took my sorrow and my shame for all that I have done wrong and all that I will continue to do wrong. I am free to leave my sorrow and my shame at the foot of the cross and rejoice with the Lord in the light of my repentance. God’s joy is my strength; He is my fortress, my refuge. It doesn’t seem like a particularly joyful time when you are understanding the gravity of your sin, but God’s joy in our repentance becomes our safe place. For my little guy in the nursery, he felt like sitting in time-out and crying as he realized he had not treated his brother the way God would want him to, but I was rejoicing with the Lord at his understanding and repentance and I could enfold him in a hug and let him know that now was the time to move forward. God is our safe spot, our strength, and in Him, we can find joy knowing that His grace has covered over our sin and shame.
I can recall two times of repentance in my life that really stick with me. One was on a middle school retreat and after the Holy Spirit showed me where I had fallen, I accepted the invitation to write my sins on a piece of paper and nail it to a cross that had been placed in the chapel for this opportunity. The visual aid of hanging your sins on the cross with Christ was powerful At points throughout the night, I began to feel ashamed and thought about taking my paper back off the cross, but God continued to strengthen and uphold me. He reminded me that I didn’t need to return to the comfortable life in sin, but to continue to walk with him, even when it got hard. Another time was when a friend and I were talking, she spoke as if she knew the sin I was carrying. I had convinced myself that my sin wasn’t so bad, especially compared to others. I mean, I’m definitely no murderer, so I thought that made it okay, but when my sweet friend talked with me that night, I knew that God had sent her to shine a light of truth into my heart. We sat in the basement for half the night and as she shared truth with me, I, like the Israelites, began to understand how my life was not aligned with Christ. We prayed, Thanking God for his Mercy and His Grace through his physical and emotional suffering on the cross. I could feel the weight of my sin being lifted and I began to grasp the weight that Christ must have felt as he hung on the cross with the guilt and the shame from the sins of every person to ever live. It grieved my heart, but I knew that God’s call was to move forward and not remain in that pit of despair. God calls us to repentance and then into joy with Him.
In Luke 15, Jesus speaks in parables to explain how God pursues His lost children like a shepherd who has lost a sheep or a woman who loses one of her ten coins. He says there is rejoicing in Heaven when one sinner repents! God uses the law to show us our need for a Savior (Romans 3). He is merciful in not giving us the death that we fully deserve and He is gracious in giving us His son as our Savior. Look to the Law. Read it. Understand it. See the ways that you have not followed God’s ways. Repent. Now Rejoice, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
The Joy of the Lord is my strength.