C. S. Lewis is known for his apologetic and erudite defense of Christianity. But he is not so well known for his ‘Romantic’ theology. By ‘Romantic’ I do not mean what happens between two lovers and their sexual exploits. Instead, it refers to what Lewis says is a ‘kind of longing, but a special kind of longing’. Longing for what? Lewis calls it ‘joy’. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, he describes it in this way, ‘It is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.’ He intensely desired this joy throughout his life even though it could never be satisfied. Why? Because, although his longing for joy always resulted in temporary disappointment, it never ended in a final disappointment because the disappointments are themselves steps along the way of progress towards the goal of fully experiencing this joy. In other words, just a taste of this joy was far beyond anyone could experience in this lifetime. Therefore, each taste leads one to wanting more of it.
It might seem odd to the reader that Lewis’ Christian faith was driven by his desire for joy, especially one that is never satisfied in this lifetime. Today’s Christian says the highest of the Christian virtues is unselfishness. Lewis concedes the bible talks quite a lot about the virtue of unselfishness. And yet, the great Christians of old say love, not unselfishness, is the highest of Christian virtues. Notice, the former is a negative activity whereas the latter is a positive one. Today’s Christian may lean towards unselfishness because, on the one hand, the pietistical movements and revivals of the last 300 years, especially in Protestant circles, have shaped our thinking in this direction. On the other hand, the prominence of today’s moralistic centred liberal-minded Christianity, most especially in mainline churches such as our Anglican one, has influenced us in the same way. But, for whatever reason, it did not impact Lewis’ Romantic emphasis on desiring God’s promise of joy. And, I believe, he has good reason to focus his attention here.
The reason is, simply, that is what our Lord teaches and what we, as God’s creatures, are made for and promised. Jesus became a man so that we can partake in the same love and joy He has experienced from all eternity with the Father in the Holy Spirit. On the Cross, Christ became the bridge, as it were, that can now take us one day to fully know and be with the Father in the Spirit, the result being, unimaginable joy. We can now cross this bridge, not because we are worthy, for we relinquished that status when we turn away from God to be our own gods. Rather, we can cross this bridge to eventually live in, as Lewis says, the ‘far away country’ we are meant for because Christ has now made us ‘right with God’ thanks to His death on the Cross. Therefore, for Lewis, the greatest Christian virtue is not self-denial, but instead our own good and faith in God’s promise of this joy. Unfortunately, argues Lewis in a sermon, Weight of Glory, ‘our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.’
But should we desire such joy and seek it as a reward? Are we being selfish to do so? Lewis responds to this question by making the distinction between a reward that has a ‘natural’ versus an ‘unnatural’ connection to our actions. For example, money is not the natural reward of love. Whereas marriage is the proper reward of the real lover. Likewise, the natural reward for the Christian life that seeks to follow God’s ways in Christ as His disciple is joy. In other words, the natural outcome of the Christian life that seeks, by God’s grace, to follow and become like Christ, is to experience this joy as He does with the Father. Jesus came down to this earth, so He could lift us up to and participate in God’s Triune joy.
Lewis warns that what exactly this joy looks like is not achievable in our lifetime. We do get tastes of it, and that’s what keeps us desiring it. And yet, the ‘far-off country we’re made for and seeking to find this joy is not something we can truly grasp because it’s not like anything we’ve experienced in our earthly life.’ That’s why we tend to seek after whatever joy the dumb idols of this world offers us, even though it never compares to God’s joy. The philosophies of today that say our shy, persistent, inner desire for joy can be satisfied on this earth is wrong because earth cannot be made into heaven, the place we are ultimately made for.
But what does this taste of joy consist of? God promises us many things – that we shall be with Christ, one day be like Him, join Him in a feast, and have a position of honor. But the one promise of God Lewis pays particular attention to is that God will glorify us. It’s a very prominent idea in the New Testament and early Christian writings. Salvation is consistently associated with palm crowns, white robes, thrones, a beautiful bride, and splendor. Lewis notes two aspects of the glory God promises us.
First, glory as fame. By the word ‘fame’ Lewis does not mean what we think of today – whatever attention the rich and movie stars receive in today’s culture. Far from it. For Lewis, this type of fame is hell, not heaven. Instead, fame refers to God’s approval and appreciation of us. It is God’s affirmation of His children such as a parent would affirm his/her child. We are not approved of because in some way we’ve earned it. No, instead, the Father approves of us because He can say to His Son, Jesus Christ, ‘well done, thou good and faithful servant’ after He died on the Cross for the sins of the world. When you turn to Christ in faith, trusting what He’s done for you is true and now, by grace, you can live in his footsteps, you share in the same glory Christ has and is receiving from the Father.
Second, the glory God promises us is one of splendor. Lewis does not mean one day we will light up like Christmas lights or shine in the sky like stars. It refers to something much deeper and more wonderful. God can give us joy because He is joy, or sometimes called beauty. Once you’ve got a glimpse of God’s beauty, as did Moses, you don’t just want to see Him. ‘You’ll want something else which can hardly be put into words,’ says Lewis, ‘to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, and become part of it.’ It’s like when you see a beautiful beach on a beautiful sunny day. You don’t just want to see it. You want to jump in and bath in it.
But the fame and splendor of the glory God promises us that result in joy is not just an individual affair. It’s also a cosmic one, meant for all of God’s creation. Joy, when it’s true joy, must be shared because God’s delights in glorifying everyone no matter who they are and what they’ve done. Therefore, says Lewis, ‘the load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back’ because 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.’ There are no ordinary people. Remember, ‘next to the blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses, …, for in Him is also Christ, …, where the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.’