I bring you good tidings of great joy. The angel’s announcement took the shepherds by surprise. Joy does that. C. S. Lewis discovered some of its surprises.
Clive Staples Lewis didn’t have a happy childhood. His mother died young. His father was distant. His education consisted of hellish boarding schools to which his father sent him. This fueled in Lewis a search for Joy—a word he capitalized. Joy pointed him to something beyond—to Jesus.
We can chart Lewis’s path to Joy through his poems and prose, as well as his books The Pilgrim’s Regress (1932) and Surprised by Joy (1955). He also left behind stacks of handwritten notes on the theme of Joy. From them, we see aspects of Joy.
For instance… Joy can’t be ginned up. You can’t decide to be joyful. Joy is unsummoned. It’s a response to what we delight in. That’s why scriptures say Re-joice. Re-joicing is regurgitating Joy. Joy enters unsummoned and shows on our face, our mouth, our lips.
I experienced Joy this past Thanksgiving. Friends and family came over for our annual football game. I looked around and suddenly felt Joy. Later that day, gathered around the table with the mayhem of kids and grandkids, I found myself experiencing deep Joy.
This is different than happiness or pleasure. We can decide to seek pleasure but Lewis felt “Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”1 Like John in The Pilgrim’s Regress, who mistakes pleasure and happiness for joy, seeking joy through sex, we too can often miss Joy in seeking pleasure. “I wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy.”2 Lewis knew God wasn’t opposed to happiness or pleasure. But happiness is happenstance and pleasures are passing (Heb. 11:25).
Lewis also knew that Joy makes us generous. After coming to faith, Lewis’s writings became popular. As his fame grew, so did his income. He and Owen Barfield devised a charitable trust called the Agape Fund. Lewis put two-thirds of all future royalties into the trust, being perfectly content to live simply. That’s Joy.
Finally, Lewis learned that Joy can sting. He was a confirmed bachelor until he met and fell in love with Joy Davidman. They wed in 1956. That autumn, Joy tripped over a telephone wire and was unable to get up. In the hospital, doctors discovered cancer throughout her body. Joy told friends “it is very probable that I am going to die.”
She did—after a brief but joyful remission. Lewis was crushed and later wrote a poem to beloved wife, Joy, entitled, “Joys That Sting”:
Oh do not die, says Donne, for I shall hate
All women so. How false the sentence rings.
Women? But in a life made desolate
It is the joys once shared that have the stings.
To take the old walks alone, or not at all,
To order one pint where I ordered two,
To think of, and then not to make, the small
Time-honoured joke (senseless to all but you);
To laugh (oh, one’ll laugh), to talk upon
Themes that we talked upon when you were there,
To make some poor pretence of going on,
Be kind to one’s old friends, and seem to care,
While no one (O God) through the years will say
The simplest common word in just your way.
Joy can sting. Joy makes us generous. Joy can’t be ginned up. These aspects of Joy might be surprising to you, but they’re all part of what makes for a Merry Christmas.
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1 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), p. 7.
2 Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p. 140.