Joy Misunderstood

Joy Misunderstood

Written by: Lemuel Teo (Photo by: Ronald Lim)

How I saw joy anew

I’ve always wondered what people mean when they say, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” When faced with a menial task ahead, when someone is feeling depressed, or when going through a tough relationship issue, the solution is simple: Let the joy of the Lord be your strength. To me, this “joy of the Lord” seemed to be a catchall formula for life’s problems — it is thoughtlessly tossed around, like throwing a bunch of “miracle drugs” at a dying patient.

Simply put, why would the joy of the Lord become my strength when I am feeling weak? In my cynicism, I equated it to having the “don’t worry, be happy” mindset. It appeared that when going through a difficult situation, we just had to seek for His “joy.”

One day, God powerfully broke this mistaken mindset. With the rays of the Saturday morning sun peeking through the curtains, I woke up, spellbound. I screwed my eyes shut, desperately trying to remember the dream that I just had. Soon, floaty images came back to my mind. I knew God was speaking to me through a dream!

I saw a buffet tray containing something that looked like cream chicken pasta. A line of people had formed and they were happily helping themselves to the dish. Although it looked very appetising, a closer inspection sickened me — squirming within the pasta were hundreds of maggots! Camouflaging themselves against the cream sauce, they were dispersed all around the buffet tray. If you have ever smelled something contaminated with maggots before, you would never forget the smell — the stench inundates your entire nasal cavity and seemingly penetrates through your skin into your bloodstream. It chokes you and causes your eyes to water.

Maggots eat only dead and decomposing flesh. Oddly enough, everyone was oblivious to the powerful stench — they were all simply so used to the smell of death that it no longer fazed them.

Then I saw someone (possibly Jesus) come to the buffet tray. Using a pair of tweezers, he started removing maggots from the tray, one at a time. With each maggot he took away, the smile on his face widened ever so slightly. It was painstaking work that required ages to complete. Yet he was abundantly patient in cleansing the entire dish of any defiling maggot. I did not get to see the end result of this person’s meticulous effort as the dream stopped there.

However, the message from God was clear. He was showing me the condition of my life. I had become so accustomed to the sin in my life that the accompanying smell of death no longer affected me. My life was like that tray of cream chicken pasta, where sin and death ruled unbridled! Thankfully, Jesus was working on my life; he was painstakingly and patiently removing the offending and sinful bits of my life — lack of faith, addictions, laziness — through the ministry of His Word (Ephesians 5:26).

As I lay in bed in a groggy state, He brought Psalm 51 to mind. This is a psalm David wrote after he committed adultery with Bathsheba. In verse 12, he cries:

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

I was utterly broken. I was like David, committing adultery against Jesus, who was supposed to be my first love. I had chosen other loves that took the place of Jesus: sensuality, lust, self-effort, and strife. Now, through this dream, God was making me come face-to-face with the stench of my sin; and it was revolting. I hated the condition I was in. I was absolutely devastated with who I was. All I wanted to do was to hide away, to cover it all up so that no one would know. Yet Jesus was extremely selfless in lovingly purifying me, bit by bit, all the while showing forbearance to my condition that reeked of death. He has a vision of perfection for my life (Philippians 1:6).

In that moment of mourning over my sinfulness, I realised that Jesus was bent on saving me! He gave all of His perfect self to redeem me from sin and death. His intent, while hanging on that cross, was to begin the process of removing any contaminating sin in me, that I may be made perfect in Him! I burst into jubilant praise; He was “restor[ing] to me the joy of [my] salvation.” I no longer had to lament over my sinfulness. He has replaced all of my abjection with His salvation — because of His salvation, I can be joyful.

With this dream, I now better understand the context of the oft-quoted verse in Nehemiah 8:10:

“And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

The process that the Israelites in Nehemiah’s time went through parallels David’s experience in Psalm 51. Specific to the Israelite context, they had just completed rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and the exiles were returning from different lands. As they gathered together, they had the Law read to the entire assembly. The words they were hearing cut them to their hearts and they mourned as they realised how disobedient they had been to God.

Yet the leaders quieted the mourning assembly and told them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So they all “went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” (See Nehemiah 8.) They realised that their God was “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Nehemiah 9:17). Despite their disobedience and deviance, He still extends His salvation to all who call upon His name (Joel 2:32).

As it did millennia ago, the Word of God exposes our inner thoughts and motivations. We will always find that we are severely short of God’s standard. With our sins laid bare, our “strength fails because of [our] iniquity” (Psalm 31:10). Yet, in understanding His abiding salvation we can go our way with great rejoicing, as the joy of the Lord becomes our strength!

This “joy of the Lord” is not something that should be flippantly prescribed to someone who is feeling sad. We can only experience it when we realise our true condition and the greatness of His grace in our lives. This “joy” arrives when we celebrate His protection and salvation!

LEMUEL enjoys good conversations over a cup of kopitiam kopi. He connects with God while playing the piano and is frequently in awe of His creation—sunsets, sea breezes, and tropical downpours. View his attempts at capturing interesting or beautiful moments @lemuelteo.

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