The joy of the Lord is your strength. Nehemiah 8:10f
I remember the first time I heard that scripture verse…and I remember how I struggled to understand it. I was just a child and the verse seemed to make no sense to me at all. How am I supposed to know how joyful God is? And even if God is very, very joyful, how is that supposed to make me stronger? None of it seemed to make sense at that point, I think mostly because I didn’t need much strength from God to get by on a daily basis at that point in my life.
During my childhood, my family was blessed with relative stability. My dad had a good job, so my mom was able to stay home and focus on caring for me and my brother. My household was free of addiction and abusiveness. I lived with two parents who loved each other and loved both my brother and I despite the fact that we were messy and sporadically obnoxious and rude. Actually my brother was consistently obnoxious and rude, which made it relatively easy for me to seem angelic in comparison, meaning that I could get away with all sorts of stuff if I just stayed out of trouble in general and offered to help mom and dad with chores once or twice a week. My parents were deeply faithful and involved in our local church, and I grew up helping out in Sunday School and attending youth group. I had few reasons to contemplate the joy of the Lord and I could not really imagine what circumstances would make me need to seek out that joy so that I could have the strength that supposedly came from it.
Fast forward to adulthood, marriage, and parenthood.
I have to admit that parenthood gave me a much deeper understanding of God. Having children was an epiphany for me; my deep love for my own children began to instruct me in how God must feel about me, and I had to admit that God’s love was bigger and more expansive than my own love, more all-encompassing than my own love, and far more endless than my own love. Suddenly, I could look at my beautiful little girl and get a glimmer of how God must feel about me. It became impossible to maintain the image of God I had developed in childhood—the one where God eternally wags his finger, shakes his head, and is overwhelmed with disappointment at my endless list of sins. Because of my daughter, I imagined God shaking his head at me…and laughing at my ridiculous antics, much like I did with my daughter. Toddlers are a gift from God that helps you understand just how much God loves you.
And then God grants that your children become teenagers.
Personally I think the teenage years might be God’s way of making us apologize to our own parents for all the crap we pulled when we were younger and thought we knew everything. I know my mother looked forward to the day that I would have teenagers and would come to understand just how impossible I had been when I was in my teens. By the time that both my daughters were teenagers, I had apologized to my mom so many times that she eventually began cutting me off before I could get very far into my apology. After a while I gave up on apologizing and simply asked my mom “Did I do anything this dumb when I was her age?!” She answered in the affirmative more than I want to admit to, but I was comforted by the realization that I was no longer that stupid, which meant that my daughters would eventually grow out of this behavior and sprout some brains. Please understand that this entire argument is predicated on the idea that I actually have grown a set of functioning brains… something my parents, my husband, and my bosses still occasionally dispute.
And then we moved beyond simply “teenage rebellion” and I came to understand all sorts of things about God that I had not understood until then.
I won’t go into tons of details (unless you are a parent dealing with this, in which case you are free to contact me here and I’ll tell you everything I know) about what happened, but let it suffice to say that my oldest daughter became a 15 year-old drug addict. I cannot begin to describe the mess our lives became while we tried to figure out what was going wrong. Her behaviors left us stunned and confused. Short periods of good behavior would be followed by months of increasingly worse behaviors and no punishment seemed to be enough to stop the downhill slide. My husband and I became full-time detectives, constantly trying to catch her in the act of sneaking out. We became full-time lie detectors, forever looking for the tiny crack in her story that would reveal the lie. We started paying attention to every item of clothing, every possession, convinced she was stealing. We came to distrust everything and everyone except each other, and every day we became a little crazier trying to figure out what was happening to change our beautiful little girl into a sneaky, thieving liar. Neither of us knew that we were watching our daughter become the monster that addiction creates in the place of the person you love. I still remember standing in the office of the residential rehab where we placed our daughter, hearing the director explain that our daughter was addicted to multiple substances and needed long-term inpatient treatment. I was incredulous. How did we get here? How could I possibly send my child away from me…and they told us that the average stay in order to achieve success in treatment was eighteen months.
I was devastated, but what choice did I have? We had to save our daughter’s life! We returned home from the visit to the rehab and began to buy the items she would need for an extended stay away from home. Sheets. Blankets. Winter wear (we live in the desert and she was going to the high country where it snows). Every purchase brought me closer to the edge, to the brink of disintegration.
I was a mother and I was about to send my daughter away from me and refuse to let her come home until she was sober…entirely, totally sober—no matter how long it took.
I would see things in the store as I shopped and I’d think “Oh! Alex would love that!” only to realize that Alex wasn’t going to live with me for at least a year if not longer, and I would start crying. I would be driving along and suddenly I’d realize what we were about to do and I’d become inconsolable.
My only consolation was in prayer, when I would remember that God already knew how this would all end. God had my daughter in hand and would not let go of her, even when I had no other choice but to let go of her. I had to trust that God had led my husband and I down the right path, to the right treatment facility, and to the right professionals and therapists. We had done all the footwork and now it was time to trust in God and find my consolation there.
The joy of the Lord is your strength.
It made sense now. As I drove down the road, sobbing and inconsolable, God was not disturbed. God was not distraught, nor was God fearful of what would happen next. Certainly God’s love for my husband and I caused His heart to ache when He watched us suffer over our little girl, but God was not worried about Alex. God knew exactly what it would take to heal her of her addiction and God was already at work.
The joy of the Lord is your strength.
You see, nothing perturbs God the way that it perturbs us. God isn’t worried, or fearful. God doesn’t get anxious and He doesn’t have anxiety attacks. God is never inconsolable over what is happening here in His world, because God is in control. Nothing can steal God’s joy because God has everything in hand. It is all in God’s control, and nothing escapes His notice, or overwhelms His power. Just because things don’t end the way you and I want them to doesn’t mean that God is done with the situation. God has the long view…God sees all the way into eternity, and that means that nothing is outside of His saving hand. There is nothing in the world that can reduce God’s joy in His children and in His ability to bring His children home to Him.
Over time I found that trusting God was the greatest comfort I could find in all the chaos of addiction.
The joy of the Lord is my strength.
I get it now.
Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, 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