She allured men to many places,
She who is fatally coy.
Men, who knew not her embraces,
Called her by the name of Joy.
I can’t recall the first moment I experienced the tease, the turmoil, the torment of Joy.
When most speak of joy — when for many years I mentioned her — they mean a smiling joy, an uplifting joy, a joy for sunny days, a pleasant satisfaction. Comforts, fulfillments, good health, gratitude fills her banquet. She bequeaths a desire to be where you already are, a wish for what you already have.
But these were mere honeybees; the hive held a Queen.
The empress Joy emerged with a supremacy that murdered her rivals. She made common stones of former jewels; ruined my appetite for other meals. When she came nearest, the world beside leaked emptiest. Beauty was her weapon; splendor, her sorcery; allure, her deadly art. She was as a goddess, divine, bewitching.
She did not bestow a quiet contentment; she provoked a desperation, carnivorous and untamed. She knifed an ache for somewhere I wasn’t — a fierce and restless angst (a madness, it at times seemed) for a blessedness I did not possess, a blessedness I did not even know truly existed. What before I never needed, I could no longer live without. My Helen of Troy, hers was the face to launch ten thousand ships.
Shadows in the Water
She had but to smile in my direction and I set sail. She became my White Whale — or rather I her Ahab.
I remember her shadow showing beneath the waters during late evenings salsa dancing at Latin restaurants. While we inhabited the music, dramatizing masculinity and femininity in rhythm, a flicker transcended the fluidity of the dance — a moment — a glimpse.
I sensed her nearness on the football field, the place men feign war. At the helm of combat, time-warped and slowed. A friendly uniform flashed down the sideline. The ball catapulted — spiraling forth with mathematic eloquence, returning from its flight as a falcon diving at its prey. The crowd exhaled a roar — she, for a moment, smiled.
I heard her ancient voice through doorways into other worlds. In stories bigger than men, valor glistened from other lands, evil threatened, a mission dawned worth dying for. Beyond the make-believe worlds of magic and orcs and elves, beyond the battles and the wars and the triumph and restoration — she summoned. But to where?
At other moments, she would peer at me from the other side of a sunset, hike with me through kingdoms of green, smite me with her strings during beautiful symphonies, chuckle with delight through a child’s laughter, or converse intimately while on an evening’s date — but these were never her. “Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance” (The Weight of Glory, 41). She but left her perfume upon the doorknob.
Yet, for a moment, as fragile as a whisper, everything seemed right; a ray pierced into the clouded world. But the blaze soon extinguished; the snowflake melted; the credits rolled; the song fell with the heavy thud of silence. These Moseses brought me only to the borderland; quitted me on the wrong side of the Jordan. She invited me up to glance at the land flowing with milk and honey — but not to taste.
As quickly as the thought surfaced — Now this, at last, is what life is all about — she vanished. Her sun set violently. She teased and tore through my sky only to pass the scepter again to the lesser lights, leaving behind a dark and colder night.
She led me there and back again,
Old age and blisters all I found.
The Siren of the souls of men,
Forsook me to the ocean’s ground.
Years fled away in this fashion. She would neither give herself to me nor let me die politely with earthly pleasures. Upon these waters I learned the throb, the pain, the menacing loveliness of this Joy unheld, uncaught. I spent years searching at sea, and yet she drew no closer than Tomorrow. Her silhouette draped over creation, estranging me to my own world. Was this angel from heaven or from hell?
“Vanity,” a voice sighed from a farther and sadder sea. He too searched this world for her. “I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself’” (Ecclesiastes 2:1). He built massive houses, planted gardens. He piled gold atop silver. Peerless was his crown; matchless, his wisdom. The choicest singers followed him with song. He drank nightly from a vineyard of women (Ecclesiastes 2:1–9).
“Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure,” came his testimony (Ecclesiastes 2:10). But behold, vanity! All is vanity. She did not exist under the sun, he said, tossing aside the best earth had to offer. If he could not capture her, what chance had I? Should I turn back?
“Joy itself did not reveal God to me, but she kept me groping after more than this earth.”
She defied my nets, but I couldn’t escape hers. How could I give you up, O my Ephraim? Her seal was upon my heart, her name upon my hopes. My desire for her burned as fire — a fire these many waters could not quench. Although harpoons floated, broken in the sea, she still beamed just beyond with the brightness of first introductions. In truth, I would die reaching out for her; fall slain in her shadow. Fleeting dances with her upon the open water were better than all the inlands of worldly pleasures.
Man After My Own Heart
I perplexed myself. Why strain to sail beyond the sea? Why hunt a brook whose water left me thirstier?
Because “though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight,” voiced another in the waters. “This desire, even when there is no hope of possible satisfaction, continues to be prized, and even to be preferred to anything else in the world, by those who have once felt it. This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth” (The Pilgrim’s Regress, 234).
A hunger better than any other fullness; a poverty better than all other wealth. Nowhere have I found Joy better captured than in C.S. Lewis.
Joy sweetly dragooned Lewis onto the seas through a childhood memory.
Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison. (Surprised by Joy, 17)
Decades later, this Romantic voyager would recount, “In a sense, the central story of my life is about nothing else” (19).
What was Joy to Lewis?
Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with [Happiness and Pleasure]; 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. (19)
A grief better than other delights, a golden unhappiness. Lewis would travel further still to translate the Longing’s secret: you were made for another world.
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. (Mere Christianity, 136–37)
Men hunger because food exists; they desire women because sex exists; they crave Joy and a beauty bigger than this world because another world exists.
Water at the Well’s End
God used Joy in my own story to prepare me for Jesus. Her honeyed voice cried in the wilderness, “Among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:26–27). The Father used this inconsolable longing to “make known to me the path of life,” to accept with David that “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). I was made for another world, another Deity.
Joy itself did not reveal God to me, but she kept me groping after more than this earth. Joy did not forgive my sins, but she kept me from being gratified with or “given over to” my sin. She did not have the words of eternal life, but she helped them resonate when I did hear them.
Heaven’s hive buzzed when Joy’s Master finally came to earth. And he visited me. He approached my shallow wells of small pursuits and said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13–14).
He stood up at the feast of my greatest enjoyments and cried, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37–38).
He spoke over every lust and darling sin, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that [you] may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). “Bring your hunger,” he said. “Bring your strongest and most violent appetite for the good, the true, the beautiful, the everlasting, the ever-increasing — I can meet it. You search for Joy because you think that in her you may have eternal happiness, but it is she that bears witness about me. Come to me and have Life.”
His Joy — a waterfall pouring down from forever, shattering the tiny hearts of his worshipers — is what I needed. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). As a ruined and rebellious son of Adam, I bartered away the knowledge of what I truly desired my whole life. By the Spirit’s recreating power, the long-standing hunger knelt to feast on the Bread of Life.
Old and Stubborn Ache
But if I may end with a word to fellow sailors: the old sore will still irritate — even after knowing Jesus. Lewis would write, “The old stab, the old bittersweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life” (Surprised by Joy, 291).
Does this mean we have not found what we are looking for? A moment’s reflection bids us to ask the opposite: Why shouldn’t Joy still pierce with her sugared melancholy? Are we finally home? Are we safe upon the right side of the Jordan? Is the dwelling place of our God now with man? Is Christ before us, shining the sun into retirement?
“Time holds its breath; we hold our breath; Joy holds her breath — for him.”
No, not yet. The old ache — now unmasked — still aggresses my journeying heart, as it did Lewis’s. We still “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons” (Romans 8:23). Joy still serves salvation. We read that it was the Lord’s mercy that moved angels to seize lingering Lot and his daughters, and bring them out of Sodom to safety (Genesis 19:16). Joy has angelic hands, so guiding us from this Gomorrah all the way to glory.
But for all of that, the importance of Joy, for those who have found Christ, changes. He must increase; she must decrease. The thirst is no more a goddess. She meekly (yet still sometimes roughly) reminds us to go to Christ, drink of Christ, wait expectantly for Christ. On his diminishing interest in Joy, Lewis wrote, “It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed larger in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter” (291).
The end of Joy, for those who have come (by grace) to translate the purpose of Joy, is the homesickness for Christ “who is [our] life” to return (Colossians 3:4). One thing have we asked of him; one thing do we seek after: to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his presence forever (Psalm 27:4). Creation groans; Christians groan. Time holds its breath; we hold our breath; Joy holds her breath — for him.