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Surprised by Joy

In 1956, C.S. Lewis published a memoir of his early life, titled Surprised by Joy. As a young enthusiast of Lewis’ famed Chronicles of Narnia series, I devoured many of his other works once I got to college. Surprised by Joy was my favorite. In it, Lewis describes the bitter-sweet ache which would come over him as a youth sometimes during his encounters with beauty. It was a sweet stab–a mystery that pierced the heart with longing and desire. He called it joy.

Lewis writes,

[Joy] is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. [1]

After finishing his book, I was irritated to begin noting its frequent use (or misuse) in sermons about that sweet emotional quality most of us are referring to when we use the word joy. Pulpit preachers exploited Lewis as a kind of trophy convert: “See,” they would say. “C.S. Lewis was an unhappy atheist. But once Christ entered his life, he experienced joy! Hallelujah!” Sometimes I wondered whether these preachers had actually even read the memoir they quoted with such authority. Lewis’ use of the word “joy” seemed so very different from theirs!

This week’s Sabbath School lesson begins by drawing some fairly sharp distinctions between joy and happiness. The principle contributor argues that “Happiness is the result of favorable circumstances; joy, in contrast, is the result of being—as in being connected to Jesus, the True Vine.”

I rebelled when I first read this, and set about arming myself with word studies from the Greek and Latin that would debunk the dubious distinction made between the words joy and happiness. Finally I realized that from an experiential and even biblical perspective, the distinction is perhaps not so dubious after all. And maybe Lewis’ technical term “joy” does indeed have more to do with Christian joy than I originally thought. In Galatians 5, joy comes from being connected to the Spirit of God. Likewise, at the end of his book, C.S. Lewis discovers that his periodic mystical encounters find their ultimate fulfillment in the reality of God. That is, in connection to the Vine.

What we still don’t have, however, is evidence that joy feels good (like the preachers say). Lewis says is hurts, though it is a hurt we long for. The lesson study points out Isaiah 53:3: Jesus was a “Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief,” and yet it also describes Jesus as a “man of joy.” If joy only refers to the feel-good quality we usually use the word to describe, then Jesus was not a man of joy at all. And joy for us, who rely on the Vine Jesus, is an unrealistic expectation.

Some years ago, the Christian duo Out of the Grey wrote a ballad and called it, simply, “Joy”:

Some say the face is unforgettable

I’m sure I’ve seen it many times

Ah, but you know me

I forget so easily

I thought I saw you in a Sunday crowd

But then I lost you in a blur of color

Water color clouds

Like deja vu, was that you?

Last week I made a pilgrimage to a place that is very dear to me—an old home filled with memories of Divine activity. But when I got there, I discovered that winter had fallen. The season of snow was settling in, both literally and metaphorically, and the joy of that place was no longer mine. It was very painful, and I was tempted to clutch after what used to be. C.S. Lewis discovered that whenever he tried to re-invoke old feelings of joy, he failed. “I frightened it away by my greedy impatience to snare it,” he writes, “And, even when it came, [I] instantly destroyed it by introspection, and at all times vulgarized it by my false assumptions about is nature.” [2]

Out of the Grey reminds us that joy is fragile. C.S. Lewis teaches us that joy is complex, mysterious, and that it cannot be controlled. Galatians 5 tells us that it is a fruit of the Spirit God, who we already know is like the wind, coming and going as he pleases (John 3). And yet even after putting these truths together in our minds, we are still tempted to parade joy triumphantly, to explain it, and to seize what can only be received as a gift.

So what then is joy? How do we synthesize all the things we know about it? I’ve found an answer in the text given us for Sunday, Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast (vs. 7-10).

As Lewis came to understand in his senior years, joy is tasted when God brushes up against us, whispering through nature, through music, through stories and verse. But these moments point us to a deeper truth: that behind it all, when we are connected, God is actually present to us in all of life’s experiences. We cannot flee from him. Whether feeling high or low—even in the depths of depression—there is joy, because joy is the presence of God. It doesn’t always make us feel better; indeed, sometimes God’s companionship makes our valleys seem very vast, because we are empowered to see them with the honesty of his vision. But we need him. And we want him. As Lewis says again, “I doubt whether anyone who has tasted [joy] would ever, if bother were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.”

To me, this is very good news. For instead of feeling guilty and unchristian when I am sad, I have confidence that God is with me—that I am in joy and that joy is in me, regardless of how I feel. I understand that the ache is as precious the sweetness on my journey to the Kingdom. Such assurance makes me feel not only joyful, but happy too!

* * *

[1] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by joy (London: Harcourt, 1955), 18.

[2] Ibid., 169.

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