After 70 years of exile in Babylon and Persia the people of God returned to their own land which had been reduced to rubble. They got to work rebuilding, determined to become a nation that honored God once more. When they gathered to hear Ezra the priest read the Scriptures aloud, they bowed their faces to the ground, knowing that what was about to happen was an awesome and holy thing. They stood from dawn till noon, listening to all that had been written, and as the weight of those laws and commandments became clear to them, they wept. They realized how they had offended God, had forgotten Him, had personally sinned against Him, and that the past seventy years of exile were the consequence of their forefathers rejecting Him as well. They were far from God, and knew it.
Right away, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites called out to the people to stop weeping, because it was a holy day. It was a day to celebrate, not to mourn. Their tears were supposed to turn to joy. They were commanded to go out and celebrate, eat delicious food and drink sweet drinks and be joyful, because God was restoring their relationship with Him! So the people wiped their tears, obeyed what they were told, had a great party in honor of God’s forgiveness and mercy, in honor of their renewed relationship with Him and looked forward to a blessed future. It’s funny that we usually picture repentance as something that involves a long time of grief and slowly working our way back to being worthy of someone’s good graces. But that’s not how God’s holiness works. Sometimes holiness requires tears and sorrow, and sometimes it requires celebration!
How do we know when God requires either of those reactions? Obviously there has to be repentance – deep sorrow for what we’ve done and actively turning away from that sin, determined never to repeat it again. But the Bible says that weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30). Holy sorrow isn’t meant to be a constant state of feeling unworthy and ashamed. Its purpose is served the moment our repentance is sincere. Then God has no more need for our sorrow. It’s the devil who eagerly shames us with accusations, and if we confuse the devil’s condemnation for God’s will, we will be stuck in a trap of religiosity. Only religious spirits use manipulation to make us feel guilty and afraid of God for days and weeks and months. God wants real repentance (not the fake kind that never intends to change), but then He immediately embraces us with joy so we can return to a loving relationship with Him.
Take a good look at the emotions that motivate what you do. Have you been dragging yourself to church out of guilt, or out of joy to be in His house? Do you dread reading the Bible because it seems to come true for everyone else and not you? Do you feel even worse after you pray because you have an nagging sense that God is refusing to listen to you? Do you repent and repent, begging God for forgiveness and mercy with no sense of peace? If you do, the good news is that you’ve been listening to lies, and can now be free of a burden you were never meant to bear! Don’t allow anyone – not even a pastor – tell you that you have to live in shame when you are genuinely repentant. God lifts up the humble, and brings low the proud. As soon as you have asked for forgiveness, whether the sin is large or small, God wants you to celebrate, even if you feel like you don’t deserve it! Have a wonderful meal with your family, sing for joy and look forward to the future He’s prepared for you as you humbly live in obedience to Him. Treat the day as holy with the joy of His Spirit.
Then Nehemiah the magistrate, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were teaching the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Stop mourning and weeping.” (This was because all the people wept when they heard the words of the Law.) Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat, drink the sweet drink, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites quieted all the people, saying, “Hush! Because today is holy you should stop being so sorrowful.” Then all the people went to eat, to drink, to send portions, and to enjoy a great celebration because they had understood the words declared to them. Nehemiah 8:9-12, MEV