C.S. Lewis and the Fullness of Joy

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I cannot imagine a more fitting tribute to the work of Jesus in the life of author, professor, and apologist C.S. Lewis than Psalm 16:12:

You shall show me the path of life; in your presence is the fullness of joy, and at your right hand there is pleasure for evermore.

Most deeply, this psalm is about Jesus and his glorious resurrection. But it’s also about the hope we share in him. Arguably, no writer in the 20th century did more than Lewis to show that Christianity is the only way to true Joy (always with a capital “J”). In fact, Lewis said that finding this Joy was “the central story” of his life.[1]

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I want to explore this in three ways: his finding of Christian Joy, his writing of Christian Joy, and his dying in Christian Joy.

Finding Christian Joy

Lewis considered himself a staunch atheist by his teenage years. In fact, he recalled with shame his hypocrisy in standing for Confirmation before his bishop, all the while inwardly and consciously rejecting the faith.

But one thing gnawed at Lewis over the years. It was the elusive experience of Joy in the world. Lewis defined Joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” [2] In Mere Christianity, he would later reflect, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Atheism simply could not (and does not) account for this desire.

Lewis’s Highest Joy

Through Jesus, Lewis came to know that God equaled his highest Joy. And he knew it from the other side, so to speak. He knew that atheism was utterly vapid. He’d been there. He tried it and, as England’s “most reluctant convert,” he came up short. By his early 30s, he was a committed Christian.

Isn’t this where we’re at today? Aren’t many around us focused on a hollow pursuit of contrived happiness cut off from the fountain of delights? Lewis knew the difference. He put it this way:

I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.[3]

“Joy,” to quote the late pastor and apologist Tim Keller, “is the thing everyone is after, and yet no one seems to have.” Lewis knew it was real, and, in Christ, he knew where it came from. We can help others know that, too, because everything we do is to lead others into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

Writing of Christian Joy

As a Teacher of the Faith, one of C.S. Lewis’s most significant achievements in his writings was to get people thinking again about the “serious Joy” offered through classic, orthodox Christian faith. He had a way of pulling up the carpet and getting underneath the superficiality of cultural Christianity. He gave language to what he called “the serious [and joyful] business of heaven.” [4] Two examples from his works come to mind.

The Weight of Glory

First, he delivered a sermon in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in 1942 called “The Weight of Glory.” One of the things Lewis does in the sermon (I stress one of the things) is ask us to take each other seriously and, therefore, take Christianity seriously. Toward the end, he puts it like this:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. … There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

Aslan and the Lion of Judah

The second example is a classic; you’ll probably recognize it immediately. Lewis sought to rescue us from a domesticated, truncated view of God. He did this for children and adults in his Narnia series by reclaiming the biblical image of Jesus as the Lion of Judah in the person of Aslan.

So, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which was published first, Aslan is introduced to Lucy through the words of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Upon hearing that Aslan is a lion, Lucy asks if he is, in fact, safe.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Today, as we look out on the spiritual landscape, sociologists tell us of the prevalence in America of what has been termed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” that is, that many people today believe that God is a sort of cosmic butler at our service, but not really part of our lives, but also somehow doling out blessing to “Good People.” We hear that, and we remember Lewis’s challenge: to believe, and to help others believe, that the real Jesus is “good, but not safe.” He is the true King and not our butler.

Dying in Christian Joy

C.S. Lewis died in the same Christian Joy he had found and proclaimed through his life’s work. If I may pause here a moment, here is one of the deepest values of the Commemorations found in our Prayer Book. They teach us not only how to live well for Christ but how to die well, too.

Toward the end of his life, Lewis fell ill with nephritis—inflammation of the kidneys—and eventually died from resulting complications. Ironically, Lewis died on November 22, 1963 (just short of 65!), the same day that U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. This overshadowed Lewis’s death, and he was given a modest funeral attended by only a handful of personal friends a few days later.

Further Up, and Further In

In his death, Lewis lived out, once more, what he believed about the Christian’s Joy. He did not look back, clinging to what would be lost, but instead looking forward to what would come. Lewis said he “had done all that he wanted to” and was ready to go home. He believed that the Christian’s best days are always in front of him, not behind.

I want to end with these words from author Trevin Wax, who captures so much of Jack’s hope in those last days:

Lewis said goodbye to his closest friends, perhaps like Reepicheep as he headed over the wave in his [little boat] in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader—“trying to be sad for their sakes” while “quivering with happiness.” The joy—the stab of inconsolable longing—that animated his poetry and prose was on display in how he died, in those weeks of quiet rest, as he endured his physical maladies with patience and good humor, in full faith that this earthly realm is just a prelude to the next chapter of a greater story, a new and wondrous reality suffused with the deep magic of divine love.

“Further up, and further in!”[5]


[1] Surprised By Joy, 17.

[2] Surprised By Joy, 17-18.

[3]  Mere Christianity.

[4] C. S. Lewis: “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.” Renovate.

[5] Trevin Wax, “The Last Days of C.S. Lewis.” TGC.


Photo courtesy of Aronsyne at Wikimedia Commons.

Published on

November 29, 2023

Author

Justin Clemente

The Rev. Justin Clemente serves as Associate Pastor to the people of Holy Cross Cathedral in Loganville, Georgia. With his wife, Brooke, he has six beautiful children.

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