The Difficult Discipline of Joy

What Keeps Us from Seeing God?

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Perhaps you’ve encountered this famous line penned by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins aimed all of his poetry at helping people see that we live in a world drenched in divine delights — a world that everywhere reveals the glory of God. That is a wonderful reality, but for the child of God, the wonder goes even deeper.

For the Christian, the glory revealed in the world is not the glory of some generic deity; it is the goodness of our happy Father. “The earth is full of the lovingkindness of the Lord” (Psalm 33:5 NASB). And so, the pleasures we experience in the world are paternal pleasures. The beauty of the world is our Father’s smile in stuff. And, wonder of wonders, our Father delights in our delight in his gifts. Like a happy dad on Christmas morning, the Father of lights lavishes on us all things richly to enjoy so that we might be happy in the Giver of all good things (James 1:17). Who then could resist reveling in the pleasures of God?

We do — daily! Like fussy children, aren’t we often too greedy or self-focused or distracted to enjoy our Father in his gifts? Consider yourself for a moment. Did you enjoy the sunrise this morning? I’m not just asking if you saw it. No, did you marvel as the sun vaulted the horizon? Did you delight in the fanfare of light and color? Or maybe you’re not the “outdoors type.” In that case, did you find pleasure in a cup of coffee? Or the comfort of a good pair of socks? Or the smile of your child? Did you really attend to any of our Father’s gifts?

As you can see, there is a reason C.S. Lewis called enjoying God the difficult discipline of hedonism. Joy is hard work, but eternally worthwhile. In Letters to Malcolm, Lewis writes, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito” (101). And pleasures are his footprints, reminding us that he is here. “Pleasures are shafts of the glory as it strikes our sensibilities” (121).

So, if Lewis is right, if we can nowhere evade the presence of God, then how do we so often — consciously or unconsciously — evade the pleasures of God? How are we so easily distracted from enjoying our Father’s gifts? Lewis gives three reasons well worth pondering.


Lewis starts with low-hanging fruit: greed. Why? Because greed corrupts the pleasures of God by seizing them in degrees, times, or manners outside of God’s design. We are all prone to wander into those wonderless sins.

Greed is a scaly beast. It stashes and hoards and sleeps on treasure. Greed is always hungry, always demanding more. Lewis calls this the demand of Encore. That fatal word encore knows no boundaries. It recognizes no proper times or rhythms. It always overeats. It loves to say “just one more.”

Unfortunately, almost all of our consumer society aims to allow us to demand encore in a voice that cannot be gainsaid. And the dragon fusses — and fusses loudly — if the demand is denied. Yet Lewis doubts that God ever fulfills this desire for encore. “How should the Infinite repeat Himself? All space and time are too little for Him to utter Himself in them once” (35). Ironically, the demand for encore is too easily pleased! God wants to give more than we desire to get. How many present pleasures do we render rotten by demanding again and again what God once gave?

But greed does not always announce itself in fire and destruction. Perhaps the sneakiest form of greed comes when we use God’s gifts without enjoying them for what they are, giving no heed to what Lewis called “the quiddity” of things (Surprised by Joy, 244). When we indulge this form of greed, we force honey to school us about wisdom without ever actually tasting the honey-ness of honey (Proverbs 24:13–14). We order birds to soothe our anxiety without ever delighting in bird-ish beauty (Luke 12:24). We close the sun into the classroom of theology without ever basking in his sunny glory or his Eric-Liddell-like delight (Psalm 19:5). We should delight that things are before we seek to use them. As Chesterton once said, we must take fierce pleasure in things being themselves. Here there be pleasures the dragon never knows.

“God is eternally, graciously, stunningly generous with his pleasures.”

God is eternally, graciously, stunningly generous with his pleasures. The daily sunrise says so. And as Thomas Traherne — who was one of Lewis’s great inspirations — points out in his book Centuries, we are not yet nearly as happy as he means us to be. What an antidote to sticky fingers, the itch for encore, and the pragmatic misuse of God’s good gifts!


According to Lewis, the wrong kind of attention also distracts us from the pleasures of God. He explains that this kind of attention subjectifies pleasures. It turns from the sunrise (the object) to try to see what’s happening in me (the subject).

We’ve all had the experience of turning inward to grasp a feeling only to have it slip through our fingers. I suspect this dynamic is often at the root when Christians struggle with assurance. A saint looks inward to find evidence of faith and discovers faded footprints in the sand because his gaze has left the object of faith. He has ceased to attend to Christ.

Pleasures, just like faith, are object dependent. When you stop looking at the sunrise to ask, Am I really enjoying it? you lose the whole pith and pleasure of the sunrise. Thus, self-focus, the wrong kind of attention, can gut the pleasures of God. This scoliosis of the soul can be traced right back to the garden, which led the ancients to call man homo incurvatus in se — man bent in on himself. So, how do we become unbent?

Ultimately, only the Spirit of God can rip our attention off self and rivet it on God. But Traherne provides a way to act that miracle: lose your “self” in wonder. “When you enter into [God’s world],” Traherne writes, “it is an illimited field of Variety and Beauty: where you may lose yourself in the multitude of Wonders and Delights. But it is a happy loss to lose oneself in admiration . . . and to find God in exchange for oneself, which we then do when we see Him in His gifts, and adore His glory” (9). Childlike wonder crowds out selfishness and makes room for divine pleasures to enchant us to God.


Finally, Lewis warns that inattention is the greatest enemy to the pleasures of God because, over time, we fail to see what we see. Like an old bungee cord, our senses become slack — our vision veiled by familiarity. What we once enjoyed with assiduous attentiveness soon fades to the background like art on a hallway wall. Traherne warns us, “The most beautiful object being always present, grows common and despised. . . . Were we to see it only once, that first appearance would amaze us. But being daily seen, we observe it not” (65). In our fallen state, the current of human sensibility ever drifts toward this negligence.

Let me try to prove this. Have you walked past a tree today? Did you see it? If you’re like me, you didn’t even notice. But what a fantastic work of the triune imagination. This star-powered wood-tower becomes a pillar of Eden in summer, a heaven-high flower in fall, a snow-robed statue in winter, and a living signpost of hope in spring. Just imagine a world without trees! Yet we observe them not.

Just here, the poets are so helpful because, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge explains, poetry aims to “give the charm of novelty to things of every day . . . by awakening the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us, an inexhaustible treasure” (Biographia Literaria, 208). Poetry — perhaps preeminently — arrests our attention and helps us savor the pleasures of God.

The Psalms do this so well. These inspired poets awaken us to men that bear fruit like trees (Psalm 1:3), to the sun that runs across the sky like a giddy bridegroom (Psalm 19:5), to the moon and sundry stars that hold court at night (Psalm 136:9), to wind heaped up in heavenly storehouses (Psalm 135:7), and, of course, to the sea, that fathomless playground of Leviathan (Psalm 104:26). In this theatre of glory, we shall never starve for want of wonders. If we had but Spirit-opened eyes, we would out-awe the angels. “The real labor,” according to Lewis, “is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake” (Letters to Malcolm, 101).

The pleasures of God are good — in the full, fat, dripping sense of the word — but they require work. Joy is indeed a difficult discipline. Greed, self-centeredness, and the relentless pull of inattention constantly creep in and cut us off from divine delights. Therefore, Traherne exhorts us, “Apply yourself vigorously to the enjoyment of [God’s world]” (63).