One of the most powerful and popular examples of God’s people girding themselves with joy is found in the book of Nehemiah. This Old Testament leader was sent to rebuild the city of Jerusalem after it was destroyed by the Babylonian army more than a century before.
Rather than give into the despairing situation, the prophet chose to fight back with joy. Nehemiah shifted his focus. He began to familiarize himself with stone and mortar, while his buddy Ezra worked through Scripture. Side by side, they teamed up to restore the walls of the once-great metropolis and the holiness of God’s people.
Despite a variety of challenges, Nehemiah finished the project in record time—52 days. The reconstruction of the wall served as a physical representation of the spiritual need of rebuilding among God’s people. Upon completion, the people gathered as Ezra recited the teachings of Moses. The crowds wept for their shortcomings as they heard God’s law proclaimed.
Then, Nehemiah did something startling: He instructed the people to dry their eyes and celebrate. Nehemiah, whose name means “comforted by God,” ushered that same consolation to God’s people when he said, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10, NIV).i
So, Nehemiah instructed the people to throw a party. Light the grill. Hang the streamers. Slather the cake with extra icing. Send to-go portions to those who have nothing—the strangers and servants, the orphans and widows—even the poor should partake in the fiesta.
That’s why joy is so crucial. When it comes to the fights of life, we need joy to be our companion. Joy does three crucial things:
1. Joy lifts us above circumstance.
Like a helium-filled red balloon, joy gives us levity in life. Sometimes the wall of difficulties we face appears too large or cumbersome to overcome. But the presence of joy lifts and carries us. We become more agile—infused with what we need not just to face the barrier, but to search for a way around, or possibly even over, that we may never have considered before.
2. Joy refocuses our attention on God.
Not only does joy infuse our stride in life, but it also changes our perspective. Imagine yourself holding a handful of helium-filled red balloons for a moment. Feel the tug of the red ribbons against your palm and fingers. Notice the way each inflated bulb floats ever so gently. Now, consider your posture.
Just as clinging to the balloons invites us raise our eyes in admiration, so does joy. Its presence is an invitation to do one of the simplest yet most powerful things a follower of Jesus can do: Look up! Refocus our attention on God. Seek Him as the source of all satisfaction and pleasure.
3. Joy draws others to Christ.
Joy is a powerful magnet for sharing the gospel. When you walk into a dark, formidable situation with joy, people turn their heads. Happiness and levity are the last things they expect to see.
Fighting back with joy is a powerful spiritual discipline.
When we fight back with joy, we declare that the darkness does not win. When we fight back with joy, we embrace the deepest reality of our identity, which is not a weary, beaten-down one but is a beloved, joyful one.
When we fight back with joy, we are confident that God is with us and for us. When we fight back with joy, we do so with the assurance that we’re held in the tender arms of the One greater than us.
When we fight back with joy, we set our eyes on an eternal reality that is more tangible than what we’re enduring. When we fight back with joy, we are deeply convinced that the battle has already been won through Christ.
Now let me ask you: What does it mean for you to fight back with joy in the midst of your circumstances?
As we close, may I pray for you?
Dear Jesus, I don’t know what battlefield this leader is on, but I pray, right now, that You would fill Your servant with exceeding joy. I ask that the joy of Your presence would sustain Your faithful servant in the days ahead. Father, we know victory rests with You. We entrust ourselves wholly and fully to You. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
iIt's important to note the call to celebrate doesn’t contradict that grief is necessary—rather it expresses the sentiment of the writer of Ecclesiastes that there is a time for weeping and for laughter. We need discernment, and both are essential. The Scripture provides us pictures of holy grief and pictures of holy celebration—including this feasting in the midst of a difficult time.