I am all about practical application when it comes to learning new things. I feel it does absolutely no good to be taught something if there isn’t a direct way of implementing it in my life. It doesn’t necessarily have to be done right at that moment, but I don’t find relevance in things that are so complicated that I can’t use them at some point. Many Scriptures in the Bible have a direct and practical aspect to them. Take for instance, Luke 6:31:
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Simple – plus, I can go out and do that today without having to think too much about what it means. On the other hand, there are Scriptures that are as equally important to apply to our life, but require a bit more head-scratching on how to go about it. The one I have been specifically thinking about is found in the book of Nehemiah.
“Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10
Wait a minute…I thought that protein shake I just drank a few minutes ago was my strength. How does something abstract and a little hard to pinpoint – the joy of the Lord – translate into strength for me? It’s a question that’s critically important to find the answer to.
We can begin by looking at a growing trend in today’s agricultural and dining practices – “farm-to-table.” This term is used to describe the desire to shorten the distance between where our food is grown and where it is consumed. There are a huge number of benefits this provides, including freshness, maintaining a high nutrient content, less environmental impact for transporting, supporting local businesses, plus it just tastes better! In fact, this style is in such high demand that some farms themselves are hosting dinners with food harvested that very same day. On top of this, there is an increase in shared neighborhood gardens and individual families growing their own organic food too. The bottom line being that the maximum nutritional, economic, and sustainable impact is gained the closer you get to the source; in this case, the farm, but in our case – God Himself. How many times have you bitten into an apple that has traveled thousands of miles to get to you, only to have it be rotten inside? Contrast that with picking one right off the tree, and you get the point. In the same way, we can’t expect to draw any strength from God unless we eliminate the span between us. I hear the words of Jesus echoing in my ears…
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” John 15:5-6
How do we bridge the gap? Remain in the vine? We need to look at the story surrounding our Scripture from Nehemiah to gain more insight. At the point that he instructed the people to not grieve and declared their strength would come from the joy of the Lord, the Israelites had just been through a real-life miracle. Under Nehemiah’s instruction, they banded together and rebuilt the ruined wall around Jerusalem in just fifty-two days! A feat that would have taken years, if not decades, had God not been involved. Everyone knew it was His miraculous touch that had enabled it to get done so quickly.
What’s interesting to note at this point in the story, is that the people had recently come out of this miraculous experience with God, yet they didn’t take away all the necessary understanding needed to draw upon His resources, such as strength. This is a predicament that we find ourselves in all too often. Many of us have experienced God’s touch on our lives at various key moments. We can remember them vividly, and He felt so close to us during those times. However, if we are not actively thinking about that moment, God can appear to be distant. It’s like periodically tasting the apple that came from a thousand miles away – it’s okay and can remind us of our love of apples, but it pales in comparison to the joy and flavor that can be found from harvesting the tree in our own back yard, the tree we’ve nurtured and taken care of to make sure it produces the sweetest and most nourishing fruit possible.
Nehemiah was aware that the people needed to be taught more about the gracious God they just had an encounter with; therefore an assembly was held to begin to teach them from the Word of God. As they had the Scriptures translated for them, many for the first time, the Bible says they “listened attentively,” “lifted their hands and responded,” “bowed and worshiped,” and “had been weeping.” The understanding of what they had experienced was beginning to sink into their hearts.
As the assembly was drawing to a close, Nehemiah instructed the crowd to go and enjoy food together, take some to those that didn’t have any, and to not grieve. He then concluded with the now famous words, “…for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” In other words, the gladness of heart that comes from truly knowing God is the ultimate source of strength for us to continue on. Through God’s Word, the people began to put a face to whom they had just encountered. Their gladness of heart was increasing, and the reality that God’s deep well of abundant resource was theirs to draw from was beginning to be clear. They understood that there could no longer be distance between them and the Lord in order for this to take place.
If rejoicing in the experience of miracles and understanding God through His Word cause our gladness of heart to increase, how exactly does that translate into strength? To me, this is the hardest part. How do I take my experience and knowledge of God and turn it into something I need, when I need it? How do I open the strength faucet on demand? Like any skill to master, it’s done with practice. We must practice pairing our experiences and knowledge together. It sounds simple, right? It actually doesn’t come naturally, and we often focus on one or the other, not in conjunction.
When I first began following God, not unlike the people in our story of Nehemiah, I didn’t have any example to go by other than my own experiences. I had an incredible, life-transformational season when I gave my heart to Jesus, and over the past fifteen years, my life has been marked by several unforgettable miracles. Notice, I said “marked.” I’m certain God performs miracles every day, but the ones that are pronounced in my life have come at different intervals and frequencies, with gaps of time in between. If I rely solely on experiences to maintain my closeness to God, I can be certain the gaps in between will become unbearable. I often hear people who rely on an experiential relationship with God describe these times as “unfulfilling” or “dry.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum, a person’s pendulum can swing too far the other direction also. I admit, I’ve fallen into this category at times as well. You don’t have to read too far into the Bible before you realize that experiences with God can often times leave you with more questions than answers. It’s a fact that people are uncomfortable with the unknown; therefore they will go to great lengths to find the answers. This quest can lead a person to shelve the miraculous in exchange for understanding. The problem is that the Bible makes it clear that there will always be an element of mystery to God, and having a knowledge of God and His ways is much different than knowing Him personally. Jesus spent much of his time on earth confronting the Pharisees and religious leaders on this very issue.
It is not until a person can marry their experiences and understanding that the fullness of who God truly is can come into focus. Even then I still think we’ve only just scratched the surface of grasping His ways. Ask any farmer, restaurant owner, or chef, and they would tell you that farm-to-table methods take practice. They didn’t get it all flowing smoothly immediately, but the goal is to eliminate any unnecessary influences or practices that would take away from the pureness of the food. They have found that most of the contaminates can simply be taken care of by reducing the distance between the farm and the table.
The same can be said of our relationship with God. If it doesn’t come from Him directly or from His Word, there is a very good chance we can do without it. The result of eliminating the outside influences is closeness to the Originator and Source Himself. As I sat down to write this message, I have to admit, I was feeling a bit weary. However, it forced me to think about my own experiences with God and the miracles I’ve seen Him perform. I also spent considerable time in the book of Nehemiah to gain understanding of what the Israelites were going through at that moment in history. Something interesting happened as I joined my experiences to God’s written truth – my joy swelled at the thought of all God has done, and my weariness began to give way to the strength that was there all along.