The he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
There is a strange thinking and teaching among us who believe in biblical and conservative Christianity, a retained thought through the history of the Church, that echoes through the halls of monasteries and among Puritans, Calvinists, Pietists, and Revivalists as well – this strange thought of morose self-absorption to the point of depression and misery. It can be described as spiritual stagnation around one thought, the idea of self-loathing due to constant negative evaluation and moral and spiritual failure. It is the idea that stops at bearing the cross without ever arriving at Calvary, let alone the open tomb.
The idea of Christ, “take your cross daily and follow after me” (Luke 9:23), was an invitation to die in order to live, and not an invitation to live a half-life in the perpetual death-throes of the spirit. The passage continues, “For whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). He described a crisis of the spirit that results in a catharsis of joy, that breaks through by His grace and enabled by His Spirit until there is joy. And it is, in fact, the thought of the joy of the Lord that pulls us through to the other side of this experience.
The “Joy of the Lord” as Nehemiah described it was a command not to let the conviction of God for our failures leave us in depression, but to realize God’s intention to redeem and bless us. The scene in chapter 8 of Nehemiah recounts a great day in the history of Israel, when the people who had returned from Babylon rebuilt the temple and the wall, and they gathered “as one man” in an open square in front of the Water Gate. Ezra read from the Law of God, and his Levites further instructed the people about how to understand and to obey.
After Ezra had finished reading the Law, the people worshiped the Lord “with their faces to the ground” (Neh. 8:6). The scripture is silent on the motivation of Nehemiah but he was of a different temperament of Ezra, and very likely (at least to my mind) he was concerned that the people would fall into a spirit of self-loathing, as they had earlier when Ezra wept openly for the sins of the people (Ezra 9:1-10:1). So he commanded the people to rejoice in the Lord, and to let the joy of His redemption become their strength.
The strange teaching that masquerades as deep spirituality – one of unending self-loathing – is not a biblical teaching. We bear the cross to get to Calvary and then on to the inner resurrection within us of the Spirit. The repentant soul, no matter how deeply he mourns his sinfulness and spiritual failure, does so with the expectation of the Lord lifting him up in his soul and spirit. James wrote, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (Jas 4:10). And in Hebrews 11:6, in the clearest description of biblical faith we find the hope in which true faith invests is that God is a “rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”
Christ said, “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). The elements of His joy are the realization of our sin and of His forgiveness of our sin, receiving His new life through the Spirit’s presence in our hearts, looking forward to the future with hope and expectation (positive thinking), and in the Spirit helping others. we could say that this is simply having a Christ focus in our minds and in our actions. For the Christian the best is always yet to come. “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
The most miserable people are selfish. The most joyous people are Christ-centered and unselfish. Many Christians are not experiencing the joy of God because they are greedy, selfish, and unwilling to share with others. So help others and you will enjoy life more.
If you have ever bought into this morose, miserable, self-loathing brand of spirituality, move on in your spiritual life to the promises of God’s grace and love. Christ came that we might have life and love and joy and peace.