‘Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”’ Nehemiah 8:10
If only things were different. As the people of Jerusalem heard the Law being read, they became aware of the extent of their own sin and failings. They realised how far life was from how it should have been and they responded, understandably, in grief. But Nehemiah turned the whole situation on its head. Instead of grieving how things should have been, he urged the people to choose joy: to celebrate the good things God had given them.
People sometimes get joy wrong. Joy is not the absence of pain, sadness and disappointment. It acknowledges suffering – even embraces it – but moves beyond it and takes delight in the good things, however small.
And the people who show the most joy are often the ones who have seen just how bad life can get. My wife once met a woman in Sierra Leone who had lived through the country’s civil war. This woman had lost family members in the violence and had been mutilated by rebel fighters, leaving life-changing injuries which still required hospital treatment, ten years later. Incredibly, she exuded joy to everyone she met. After hearing her story, my wife asked her if she felt angry about what had happened. ‘No’, she said emphatically. ‘If we get bitter, the devil has won.’
We see this attitude, too, in our friends in Rwanda. They have every reason to grieve. They work with children from extremely troubled backgrounds, they contend with widespread stigma around disability and HIV, and they are handling significant problems of their own – especially to do with health – but they persevere and divine joy shines through them. They don’t deny how hard life is but they take delight in what is good.
Perhaps the most surprising truth about joy is that it’s sacred. Nehemiah tells the people to rejoice, precisely because joy is holy. Of course, there is a time for sober reflection and even for repentance, but celebration can be just as much an act of worship. To celebrate, to rejoice, to suck the marrow out of life, is a holy act.
We have plenty of reasons to grieve at the moment. Any plans we made for the year back in January have been written off. Events have been cancelled, schools have closed their doors and overseas holidays are near impossible. And nobody knows when life will return to normal. But in the midst of it all, God is with us and it’s his joy which gives us the strength to continue. So let’s celebrate! Yes, let’s acknowledge that life is hard right now – really hard – but let’s embrace the life God has granted us, and let’s rejoice in what is good.
By the way, I have ‘borrowed’ one or two of the ideas in this post from Rob Bell’s talk, ‘An Introduction to Joy’. It’s well worth watching and explores the idea of joy more articulately and in far more depth than I have. Happy viewing! (And ‘sucking the marrow out of life’ is a reference to Dead Poets Society. That’s worth watching too.)