“And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10 (ESV)
From the time I was three-ish to the time I was six-ish, my family lived on the banks of the Brazos River in Waco, Texas. That river figures in to some of my early memories…fishing with my dad, swimming with my best friend who lived a little further down the river, and the time it flooded and came all the way up to our back door. As I grew older I learned that the full name of the river in Spanish is “Los Brazos de Dios”. The Arms of God.
Several years ago, I experienced what can best be described as a very dry time in my faith. I can’t say that I lost my faith or ever stopped believing in God, but I found myself in a place where faith had lost meaning to me. I knew, but I didn’t feel anything, and that led to some doubting, questioning, and even anger towards God. I felt like–and I know this is a much-used metaphor but it’s so accurate–I felt like I was wandering in a desert. A vast, empty, silent desert. It was the silence that angered me so much. I was praying, begging God to just listen to me, to let me know that He was listening, to give me some direction, and to just be present in my life. But there was nothing but silence.
Occasionally I would catch a glimpse of His presence; I would see Him working in someone else’s life, and I would be refreshed, if only briefly. It was like, wandering in that desert, I had come across a stream. But a mere stream wasn’t good enough. I wanted to find the river, the source of God’s mercy and grace, the source of God’s joy. I wanted to see God working in my life and speaking to me. And in my obstinate independence, I decided to strike out and find it on my own. Kind of a silly thing to do, really. I should have just followed the stream. It probably would have led me to the river a whole lot faster than I’d get there on my own.
Eventually, that’s what I did end up doing…following the stream. And God led me to the river, and for me, it was a spiritual Brazos river, the Arms of God. I threw myself in and found that it’s only in the Arms of God, in the depths His Love, and Mercy, and Grace, and Joy–all of which He shows to us through His Son Jesus–that there was relief from the dryness. I learned, as Nehemiah said to the Israelites, that “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” The joy of the Lord is my strength. That became a sort of mantra for me for a while. I repeated it often, reminding myself where both my strength and my joy came from. In the times that I felt like joy had left me, when I didn’t feel strong enough to “keep on keeping on” as a friend often told me to do, I knew that Jesus would pull me through those times.
For a while there was still silence, but I know now, looking back, that it wasn’t really silence. God was still present in my life, He was still speaking to me, but He was teaching me through different methods than He had previously used. He was teaching me to rely on Him rather than my own emotions, and to listen to Him in a different way. It is He who leads me by the Holy Spirit to places of Peace and Joy. He renews me and strengthens me.
After Nehemiah told the Israelites to not grieve because the joy of the Lord is their strength, we see these words in Nehemiah 8:12: “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, for they had understood the words that were declared to them.”
Prayer: Heavenly Father, you bring us through times of sorrow and distress to times of peace and joy. Teach us to walk in your ways, to understand the words that you declare to us, so that we can know your love, mercy, grace, and joy and share those things with others. Forgive us when we stray, and renew us so that we can delight in you. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.