The Nature of Joy

By Rev. Alvin Herring 8-15-2014 | Series:
Annette Shaff/
Annette Shaff/

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:9-12

War is always ugly. The loss of innocent lives is never easy to swallow. And yet, as tanks open fire on the humble homes of the Gazan poor and rockets rain down on a terrified Israeli populace we are compelled to ask, “How do we keep coming back to this profane and violent place called war?” Why do we consistently and continually fail to understand the simple principles of our own faith and the faiths of those who profess a belief in God?

These simple faith principles speak of a command to love one another and to have a deep and abiding respect for all life – especially innocent life. Then, why do we fail to love justice, peace, and mercy as God commands and seem so determined to visit such violence and destruction on our world and on one another?

Similar questions arise for me in my work as a pastor who labors in organizing people of faith to contend with the tough issues that we face daily in our country. Issues like the mass incarceration of our young, the struggle for human dignity by the poor, the lack of employment opportunities for those who desire only to feed their children and raise their families, and the millions who yearn to step out from the shadows of unjust immigration laws and be recognized as cherished citizens of an open and welcoming nation. These are the tough issues that bring me and so many other clergy and people of faith from the confines of the church into the streets and homes of those whose lives are tethered closest to the pain of injustice. In each of these instances the moral challenges seems so clear but the outcomes are incongruent with the faith principles that are designed to guide our hearts and direct our actions.

In the face of this discordance, I and many of my colleagues often fall into despair; we anguish at the thought that justice seems so far off and real change seems nigh impossible. Yet, we are commanded nonetheless by Christ to have joy — joy not found in misery but found glaring out at us from the toughest places and on the faces of those who bear the deepest imprint of injustice, oppression and suffering.

Our joy is found in bringing the light of Christ into the darkness – into the chaos and the whirlwind of suffering.

In the liberating Gospel of John, Jesus goes to considerable lengths to reveal how God is alive in him and God is alive in us. In that discourse Jesus invites us into community with God and offers us a path and a plan to bring that community to everyone we encounter — and ultimately to all humanity. The guiding principle of that plan — and the source of our joy — is the command to love one another as Christ has loved us and to be willing to give your all for that purpose. The joy then is found in the commitment to that principle.

When I train a group of faith leaders in how to lead a voter engagement drive or walk the troubled streets of cities like Baltimore, Oakland, and New Orleans on behalf of safety for the residents of those communities, I do so with joy. In fact, you will often see me smiling as I shake hands with troubled teenagers or spend time in the embrace of worried grandmothers or playing in garbage-strewn streets with anxious neighborhood children. I am moved to smiles and even laughter by the opportunity to serve God and God’s people. I am overjoyed by the calling to offer the light of God but often find myself, even in the toughest places, surrounded by the light of those yearning to know God.

It is in those moments when I understand best that the simple principle of love — including love of justice — allows the healing of my own despair and anguish and replaces them with joy. It is then that I am overwhelmed by a profound understanding of the true nature of joy itself: to be standing in the midst of struggle, surrounded by those yet yearning to see God for real.

Rev. Alvin Herring is the Deputy Director of Faith and Formation for the PICO National Network, one of the nation’s largest networks of locally based community organizing agencies.

Image: Annette Shaff/

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