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Posted on May 10, 2022 by Mike LeDuke Next article:A Shifting Perspective

Unshakable Joy

How is it that God could command happiness? Isn’t happiness an emotion?

And yet, the last post explored multiple verses in which God ordered the Israelites to rejoice, and even threatened to force them out of the land if they didn’t serve Him with joy.

So what did all of that mean? Was God implying that His people needed to learn better emotional control? Or did joy mean something different than happiness?

We are given an example of this command in action in the book of Nehemiah. There, Nehemiah gathered God’s people together to celebrate a feast. At the celebration, Ezra the priest read the law to the people––and the people realized how far they had strayed from what God required. Thus, they reacted strongly to hearing the law:

“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law” (Nehemiah 8:9 ESV).

But, the people were supposed to rejoice at feasts! That’s what God had commanded. So, Nehemiah attempted to keep the people from crying. Thus, happiness was part of the command for joy. Yet there was more to it––and that’s what Nehemiah says next:

“Then he said to 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’” (Nehemiah 8:10 ESV).

It wasn’t just that the people were supposed to be happy. They were supposed to have the joy of the Lord. This was something that wasn’t fleeing––something that was so immovable that it could be their strength, even when they were feeling sad. This is perhaps similar to the joy that John the Baptist experienced as he recognized that his own role in Jesus’s ministry was fading, while Jesus was becoming more and more important:

“The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:29-30 ESV).

John saw himself as the friend of the bridegroom. Though he was fading into the background, he felt joy.

Later in the same gospel, Jesus told his disciples that at some point, when they saw him again after his resurrection, they would have joy––and no one would be able to take that joy away from them (John 16:22).

While happiness may be an element of joy, there’s something deeper to it––something that is unshakable and not subject to the whims of emotion. In other words, God wasn’t commanding happiness. He was commanding joy.

But still, what does joy look like? And how do we experience it in our own lives?

Jason Hensley, PhD