Have you ever reached a point where you felt completely emptied of joy?
I have. In fact, I have been in that situation multiple times. Perhaps you have as well. After all, there are many circumstances in life that can make us feel this way: grief over the loss of a loved one, failures in our endeavors, clinical depression, or simply the constant background anxiety of living in a world under sin’s curse. There are a billion things that can steal our joy, but only one source from which we can receive it.
Back in 2018, I was suffering through a time of intense mental depression and anxiety set off by my physical experience of chronic pain and fatigue. The longer I was trapped in that condition, the more overtly spiritual it became, so that I felt as if the devil himself was upon my back. Modern people tend to call this a crisis of faith. Martin Luther called it an Anfechtung: a spiritual trial or testing.
There are a billion things that can steal our joy, but only one source from which we can receive it.
I could hardly separate the pain in my body from the pain in my soul. They seemed to feed off one another in a kind of unholy alliance, and I was emptied of joy, such that I doubted I would experience it again.
It was at that critical point in my life that I began reaching out for something that might help to restore my joy. John Piper had written a short work for people experiencing depression in which he links the joy to our satisfaction in God. He showed compassion for depressed persons but encouraged them to work toward a point where they could have joy again, since that is how one must glorify God: by being satisfied in him.
Sadly, this advice was not helpful to me. Try as I might, I could not conjure joy within myself. The fact that I was in the situation at all was proof of my inability.
I found a rather different definition of joy in C.S. Lewis’ autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy. Early in the book, Lewis speaks of “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” To this feeling, he gave a name.
“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.” (Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life, 19.)
Lewis’ definition of joy is radically different from the one commonly used in modern conversation. We tend to imagine happiness and joy as synonyms, but according to Lewis, they could also be antonyms. For the joy of which Lewis speaks is a deep yearning of the soul not unlike the nostalgia we feel upon seeing a favorite childhood object once again. Only in Lewis’ case, he was not looking backward in yearning, but forward.
He encountered this sudden feeling of joy—an uncontrollable longing overtaking his person—in response to several different things, but most especially in his encounters with the great legends of centuries past. When Lewis read of Siegfried riding through the forest, off to gain the treasure of the Nibelungs, he would feel joy. In his adulthood, the works of George MacDonald also had this effect on him.
As a lover of the old Germanic tales, it makes sense that Lewis came to equate this feeling with the German Romantic notion of Sehnsucht, meaning “holy longing.” What he was calling joy was in fact not the end in itself, but a kind of sign pointing toward the end.
Lewis writes, “Joy itself, considered simply as an event in my own mind, turned out to be of no value at all. All the value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring. And that object, quite clearly, was no state of my own mind or body at all.” (p. 269).
When I came to view my own difficulties through the lens of Lewis’ work, I realized that I was not so much rebelling against God as longing for him.
There is something very Augustinian about Lewis’ understanding of desire, for like St. Augustine, Lewis came to see God as the point toward which his desires were being turned, and the joy itself as the work of the Holy Spirit which gifted it to him. He says something very like this in his conclusion: “As for what we commonly call Will, and what we commonly call Emotion, I fancy these usually talk too loud, protest too much, to be quite believed, and we have a secret suspicion that the great passion or the iron resolution is partly a put-up job.” (p. 290).
For joy is a gift graciously bestowed on us by God himself.
“I had hoped that the heart of reality might be of such a kind that we can best symbolize it as a place,” Lewis writes. “Instead, I found it to be a Person.” (p. 282). In surrendering to God, Lewis’ gaze was no longer turned inward, but outward. “To believe and to pray were the beginning of extroversion. I had been, as they say, ‘taken out of myself.’” Or as others might say, extra nos: outside one’s self.
When I came to view my own difficulties through the lens of Lewis’ work, I realized that I was not so much rebelling against God as longing for him. The absence of his felt presence, which I lamented so deeply, was in fact a yearning for the beatific vision which my Christian forbears had sought century after century. I was full of Sehnsucht. Even as my world crumbled around me, I sought desperately for the lone rock upon which I might stand. That is what the Bible calls hope, and it does not disappoint us.
“Joy was not a deception,” Lewis assures his readers. “Its visitations were rather the moments of clearest consciousness we had, when we became aware of our fragmentary and phantasmal nature and ached for that impossible reunion which would annihilate us or that self-contradictory waking which would reveal, not that we had had, but that we were, a dream.” (p. 271).
Even so, I pray for the fulfillment of those beautiful lines of John Donne:
“One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.” (From “Death, be not proud”)
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