This post has been floating around in my head for weeks, and I thought I would finally give it the words it needs to form. The move to Bradford and working at CAP has challenged me, not just as a person, but also in the way I view my faith. When you work in a Christian environment it’s inevitable that you will find yourself feeling a pressure on your faith to be a particular way. CAP culture is one of joyfulness and positivity, and I must admit it’s been something I’ve struggled with, especially after the events of the summer. Several times these past few weeks I’ve heard a particular verse from the book of Nehemiah quoted.
Nehemiah was the old testament prophet who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem after Israel’s exile. He had completed the wall and Jewish exiles returned to fill the city once more. Nehemiah gathered all the people together and read out the book of the law of God given to Moses, they were taught and worshipped God. Then Nehemiah said to them:
“This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve for the joy of the Lord is your strength” Nehemiah 8:10
In Christian communities we often take this verse, or in particular ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength’, and then extrapolate from it. By taking this verse in isolation, we construct communities based on the dangerous idea that Christians should be happy all the time. Because that’s what this verse means, doesn’t it? And as this idea goes unchecked and infiltrates our churches and Christian groups, we end up with communities where people interact from behind a carefully constructed mask. We’re afraid to show other people that we struggle too, hiding our weaknesses and flaws. Our struggles and heartaches become something for the safety of our homes, just so we can show the world that we have joy, we have it sorted.
I know I lack joy. I know it’s supposed to be overflowing out of me, but some days it’s not even trickling under the surface. And when I can’t match the joyfulness that seems to be expected of us as Christians, there’s a part of me that wants to shut the doors and stay at home. Part of me that feels like maybe the communities I’m a part of, would be better off without me on those days. If I’m really honest, this is where I am today.
The thing is, if Christians really are meant to be permanently joyful, then we exclude a lot of people from the gospel. We shut the door on the depressed, turn our backs on the bereaved, and send the sick and hurting elsewhere. And in doing so we loose the power of the gospel. After all the only reason Jesus is good news is because he came to save the broken. If he came for the people who seemed to have everything sorted out, then that would have been bad news for most of us. Jesus didn’t come for the Pharisees who hid behind their religious traditions, pretending everything was okay, whilst people suffered around them. He came for broken people like you and me.
Neither did Jesus shy away from sorrow. When his friend Lazarus died, Jesus did not give his sisters platitudes and tell them it was okay, he was in a better place. Instead we read that “Jesus Wept” (John 11:35), and he didn’t wait until he was alone to do it. Then in the garden of Gethsemane we find a man whose soul was ‘overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death’ (Matthew 26:38). The most influential men in the bible, great figures like David, Moses and Paul, had much heartache and pain in their lives. Reading the Psalms you can’t help but wonder if David was himself depressed. These men didn’t hide away from their pain, instead they embraced it and took it to God.
Life hurts, we always have God with us and on our side, but that doesn’t guarantee us an easy road. We are not exempt from suffering, in fact we enter into it as we decide to follow Jesus. I don’t believe our Father calls us to paper over the hard times with a layer of false positivity. He wants us to be real with Him, just like the psalms, taking our sorrow to Him whilst acknowledging his sovereignty. Before we can build honest and genuine relationships with each other, we have to start with God.
So what does it actually mean for the joy of the Lord to be our strength, if it’s not about being happy all the time? I would argue that this ‘joy’ is deeper than just a surface level emotion and it only comes from God. I think it is a knowledge and a hope that ultimately we have been rescued and saved. Our future is secure and we have a Father who loves us and won’t abandon us. This is the joy that sickness, heartache and pain can’t steal. It endures in the dark of the night when we feel lost and are hurting, and it sees us through into the light again.
For me this contrast of joy in the midst of the struggles of life, can be summed up in one very special photograph. This photo was taken in Norway last summer, where we lost our friend James. Several days after James died in a hiking accident, we decided as a team to climb back up the mountain where he had last been seen alive. On the top we shared memories of him together and we took this photo of the group to send back to his parents.
I can see the pain in our faces. I remember the crushing sorrow and brokenness that we felt on that day. But in those faces I also see a hope, a hope because we knew where James had gone. Yes we missed him terribly, but we had the assurance that he had started his most exciting adventure yet, in heaven. And whilst that didn’t stop the tears from flowing, nor did it mean we understood why it had happened; it did give us the strength to go on. We were ‘hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed’ 2 Corinthians 4:8-9.
This is the joy that I believe this passage is talking about, the joy that our world desperately needs, now more than ever. The assurance that no matter what life throws at us, God is in control and will see us through. It is not neat or tidy, or based on Christian platitudes. It is raw, honest and real. It can open up the doors of our communities to the hurting and the broken. It is our strength.