When I was in college, I worked at a Pier 1 store. It was fun – lots of new and crazy items all the time, laid-back atmosphere, interesting customers. I had varying levels of friendship with my co-workers, but one of my managers…I had a hard time figuring him out.
He was a cyclist and surfer, kind of quiet until he’d pop up with either something really snarky or really profound. He knew I was a student at a local Bible college, and every once in a while he would challenge me on things he had heard about God. He didn’t seem to think much of my faith, but like I said: he was hard to figure out.
One night, the store was insanely slow…we were literally the only two people in it for almost two hours. I was just preparing myself for a Really Boring Shift when he said, out of the blue: “Why are you always so happy?”
That one caught me off-guard. I’m not exactly a depressive person, but I’m not the stereotypical “happy-peppy-uppy” type of girl, either. I like to have fun and get silly, but I also tend to be pretty realistic about things. I was kind of speechless and stammered through something…I don’t even remember what I said.
“Huh,” he responded, completely serious. “I think you’re always happy because you know Jesus.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
“Well, yeah, there is that too!”
The Difference between Happiness and Joy
When I was 18 and a freshman in college, I wouldn’t have pegged myself as “happy.” I was 3,000 miles away from my family, trying to figure life out without a safety net. I was a broke college student living off of ramen in a hot pot with the occasional cheap treat from Taco Bell. And because my parents had pulled my college fund less than a year before, I had literally moved to Southern California with enough money to make it through the semester. I had no idea if I was going to be able to enroll for spring, much less have a place to live.
But he pegged me as “happy.” All the time.
Because the store was dead that night, we spent the night walking around the store, straightening the shelves and talking about God. He asked me every question he had, and I answered to the best of my ability. Some of the answers came out of my textbooks, but a lot of them came out of my life.
He kept coming back to the fact that even though I didn’t know what was going to happen, I was still “happy.” He couldn’t figure out where that would come from, unless it was from God, but it stood out to him.
That night it hit me. “Joy” and “happiness” are not the same thing. A pastor friend of mine once explained it as, “Happiness comes from happenings. Joy comes from Jesus.”
I’m not always all that happy. I do, however, have joy and peace that can only come from God.
The Joy of the Lord
Remember that old song from kid’s church camp? “The jo-oy of the Lo-o-o-ord is my strength…” It was one that I used to sing over and over. I liked the tune, even if I didn’t fully understand the words.
But it really is true.
This passage – “The joy of the Lord is your strength” – is found in Nehemiah 8:10. In this passage, a group is Israelites have traveled back to Jerusalem from 70 years of exile in Babylon. They have rebuilt the wall around the city to reclaim some sense of security and sovereignty, but what was once “the City of David” is now a sorry remnant of its past glory.
The people have lived for 70 years in a pagan land, surrounded by those who do not fear God. In the process though, they have also been humbled. They have shifted from the thought process of those before the exile – “we’re the chosen people of God and He won’t let us be conquered, no matter what” – to humbleness and trust.
The people gather for a reading of the Torah, the law given to Moses. Levites stood among the people, explaining each passage in detail so they could really understand it. Now, the Torah is the bedrock of the Jewish faith, something that was meant to be discussed, contemplated, and acknowledged in everything.
While living in a pagan nation, however, this didn’t go as planned. Upon hearing the law afresh, the people began to weep as they began to understand how far short of God’s standard they had fallen.
Nehemiah, the governor over the Israelites who returned, instructed them not to weep. Instead, he said, they were to consider that day sacred and celebrate it. He ended his exhortation to them with, “Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!”
But What Is Joy?
In biblical Hebrew, there are a couple different words that are translated “joy.” The one used here, chedvah, comes from a root that carries a meaning of “makes him joyful.” It’s not just a passing, “Oh, this is fun,” or “Thanks for a fun afternoon.” It means something more along the lines of, “This level of joy and security doesn’t make sense, but it’s real.”
Nehemiah didn’t instruct the people to be happy. He instructed them not to focus on their past failings or their current fears, because God provided them with something more real. They couldn’t control it, they didn’t understand it…but they could rely on it without a doubt.
And not only could they rely on it, they were exhorted, commanded, to do so.
Joy like this is not something we talk about a lot…we usually equate joy with happiness. But happiness is temporary – as soon as the feeling wears off, it’s gone. Joy – the chedvah of the Lord – lasts. Because it’s not made by man, it can’t be taken away by man. It offers a security and strength that can stand up to anything.
Joy In My Life
Since that day back in college, I’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs. I’ve had my share of troubles and fears. I’ve walked through situations that were overwhelming, that I couldn’t control and seemed like they would never end. I’ve had amazing successes and epic failures.
I’ve had times when I was over-the-moon happy, and times when I felt like I’d never dig myself out.
But never once in that time have I not known the joy that God offers. Sometimes it’s just a small, quiet foundation, and sometimes it rises up and bubbles over. But it really is there. And it is my strength.
With all the crazy things going on, it’s easy to feel lost. The things that are happening are very real, and in a lot of cases, devastating. But even just the chaos of daily life can easily send us off-kilter.
Whatever the case – whatever you’re facing – remember where true joy comes from. “Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!”