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Surprised by Joy

Some are eager to enter the Kingdom of God. Others are dragged in against their will. The Apostle Paul is a classic example of the latter, but he’s far from the only one.

C.S. Lewis called himself the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. Here is the full quote of what he had to say:

"You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen [part of Oxford College], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words “compelle intrare,” compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy [see Luke 14:15-24]. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation."

What caused C.L. Lewis to enter the kingdom of God kicking and screaming? Lewis wrote an entire book about the subject of his most reluctant conversion to Christianity.

He entitled his memoir, Surprised by Joy

While Lewis writes of his upbringing in Northern Ireland, the early death of his mother, and his years in boarding school in England, his focus is largely on his inward journey.

"With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis."

"You will remember how, as a schoolboy, I had destroyed my religious life by a vicious subjectivism which made 'realizations' the aim of prayer; turning away from God to seek states of mind, and trying to produce those states of mind by 'maistry' [mastery]…."

"For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion."

While happiness proved elusive to Lewis, joy kept cropping up, and he couldn’t account for its existence.

"Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing…."

"The reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else. For those who are still disposed to proceed I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which 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. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is."

It was joy that brought Lewis, kicking and screaming, back into the Christian fold. He couldn’t account for joy apart from God. He would think about joy for the rest of his life.

Joy is the serious business of heaven.

"I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy."

"All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be."

"We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us."

A lifelong bachelor, Lewis finally married decades after writing his memoir. His wife’s name? It was Joy.

"All joy... emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings."

In the truest sense, Christian pilgrims have the best of both worlds. We have joy whenever this world reminds us of the next, and we take solace whenever it does not.

I’m guessing that the shepherds and the wise men would agree with Lewis.


C.S. Lewis marriage to Joy would be short-lived. She succumbed to cancer a few years after the two wed. Here is an excellent overview of Joy's own spiritual journey:

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