Longing in Lewis’s Life and Writing

Small Talk — 2013 National Conference

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis

My subject is Longing in the Life and Writing of C.S. Lewis. And by longing, I’m talking about what Lewis referred to as joy, the German word sehnsucht. It’s a deep longing. Joy, Lewis said, is an intense longing in the human soul for something that cannot be grasped here on earth. He put it this way in Mere Christianity. He said:

I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy. If I find this and no experience can satisfy it, then the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

Well, I want to tell you something about how I first encountered the theme of longing and who I encountered it from.

A Confrontation and an Awakening Desire

I’m a midlife convert to Christianity, and when I was teaching American history at the University of Denver, I had a young undergraduate student who was a history major in one of my classes. He confronted me after class one day and he said, “Prof, did I understand you to say that intelligent people are not Christians?” I said, “Lauren, I didn’t say intelligent people are not Christians. I said, thoughtful, intelligent people are not Christians. Reflective, intelligent people are not Christians.” He said, “Oh sir, I wanted to make sure I got that right.” And then he said, “Sir, have you ever read any books by G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis?” I said, “No, Lauren. I haven’t.” He said, “Well, you keep telling us all the time in class that you believe in a free trade of ideas. I think you owe it to yourself to be introduced to their worldview.”

He was really a humble guy, but he was very direct with me. The next class period, a couple of days later, Lauren came and handed me a paperback copy of G. K. Chesterton’s book titled Orthodoxy. I had never read it. I didn’t know anything about Chesterton. By the way, I need to just add parenthetically that Lauren was not well off financially. He wore faded blue jeans when they were not fashionable. His shirts were always clean, but they were frayed. Sometimes they even popped out at the elbow. He carried his lunch in a brown paper sack. When he handed me that book, I said, “I’m not a dilettante. I don’t have time to borrow this. I won’t get to it.”

He said, “Sir, I bought it for you. You keep it. Read it at your leisure.” Because Lauren made that gesture to me I dropped it in my briefcase, took it home, and I read it that night. It’s a short book. I did not understand most of that book when I read it. But there was a sentence that jumped out at me, and the sentence was this. Chesterton said:

After I became a Christian, I understood why I’ve always been homesick at home.

He didn’t say, “After I became a Christian, I was no longer homesick at home.” He said, “After I became a Christian, I discovered why I’ve always been homesick at home.” That sentence haunted me.

I saw Lauren a few days later and I thanked him for the book. I said, “You’ve trumped me on the brightness. This guy is a lot sharper than I am. I can’t even understand all of his book, but I don’t deduce your Trinity, your faith in Christ from this.” He said, “Sir, may I buy your lunch next week at the Bluebird Cafe?” I said, “No, Lauren, you can’t afford to buy my lunch, but I’ll tell you what. I’ll go to the Bluebird Cafe with you because I enjoy you. You’re a breath of fresh air. I’ll buy lunch. We’ll go together.” So we went.

By the time I left, he’d taken me into the little book nook and he had talked me into buying three books by C.S. Lewis. I don’t remember what all three were, but I remember two of them. One was Mere Christianity, where I encountered that phrase that says, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation as I was made for another world.” I also bought Surprised by Joy, which you could call Surprised by Longing, if you will.

Three Great Longings

I know C.S. Lewis read widely. He read eclectically. I’ve seen evidence of this. When I was at Wheaton years ago and we bought his library, I discovered that he read deeply of Evelyn Underhill. One of the things Evelyn Underhill says in one of her books (Mysticism) is this:

There are three deep cravings of the self, three great expressions of man’s restlessness, which only mystic truth, “Christianity”, can fully satisfy.

What she lays out there is that there are three deep longings in every human soul, and increasingly I’m convinced this is what classical literature is. It is literature that transcends centuries and cultures. It has people in these books that have one of these three great longings. The first longing is the longing for the perfect place to live, a longing for home, if you will.

The second longing is the longing of soul for soul, a longing for that perfect mate. And the third is a deep-down yearning and longing for purity. I don’t think there’s a man or woman who’s ever lived that can’t identify with at least one of those three longings. And these are longings that are part of what it is to be a human being. But these longings will not be met on this earth.

I heard my wife say to a group of people one time, “Lyle might have been born nude, but he had a passport in one hand and a satchel in the other, because he’s always been a traveling man and he’s always been looking for that perfect place to live.”

Our True Home, Soulmate, and Savior

After I became a Christian, I learned as I read the Scriptures that this world is not my home. Here we have no enduring city. I seek a city that is to come, the new Jerusalem. You see, all these longings ultimately come to fruition only in Jesus Christ. Our home is in glory in the new Jerusalem.

Lewis understood these things. This is why his books are laden with longing. Whatever you read, whether you’re reading Till We All Have Faces, or you’re reading The Chronicles of Narnia, or you’re reading Mere Christianity, or you’re reading The Space Trilogy, you encounter longing. It could be for place or for person. The children in the Narnia Chronicles are longing for Aslan. At his very name their heart fluttered, and they hadn’t seen him yet. But the name Aslan stirred the depths of their souls, longing to go back through that wardrobe to get to Narnia. It stirred them.

You see that longing for the perfect mate. That will not be found here. I’ve got a wife. I’ve been married for 43 years. My wife and I were 10 and 12 when we got married. We were very young. We had to get permission. I’ve got a great wife. But she can’t meet all my needs. She’s the perfect spouse for me. But she knows and we really had liberation when we learned we can’t meet all of one another’s needs. But only Jesus, our great spouse, can do that for us. He’s our groom.

And finally, purity. My goodness. Lewis’s writings are replete with the truth that you can do anything and everything, you can commit works and righteousness ad infinitum, and you’ll still not get clean. Because only Jesus can wash away our sins. He’s the one. He’s the doorkeeper. He’s the way, the truth, and the life to the new Jerusalem. He’s our perfect soulmate. And he’s the one that will wash us clean. I suggest to you, go back and reread Lewis. Dig into Lewis and look for this theme. That theme has transformed my whole worldview, and it’s made me a much happier guy. God bless you.

has been the Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism at Beeson Divinity School since 2005, and teaches courses in evangelism, spiritual formation and church history. He also serves as the pastor of Christ the King Anglican Church.