Of Joy and Desire, Part 2


This is part two in a series on CS Lewis and his observations on desire and joy.

After spending years searching through literature, mythology, and relationships, Lewis came to a revolutionary conclusion that he states in his work Mere Christianity: “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.” It was just after his conversion to Christianity that Lewis penned the following words that explain how he came to this conclusion: “It appeared to me… that if a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given… in our subjective and spacio-temporal experience.” Of all of Lewis’s writings on the subject of sehnsucht and the quest for the fulfillment of this unknown desire, it is actually his friend Owen Barfield who most simply explained Lewis’s conclusion to the matter: “true longing is never fulfilled by anything in the earthly life, but… it’s always a disguised longing for God.”

God, says Lewis, is the object of our longing. This belief goes along with the words of Augustine when he wrote, “O, Lord, you have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” The great works of secular literature are often ascribed their greatness because of the eloquent manner in which this longing is described and personified. Even these works confirm the fact that the objects most desired, if they are of this world, do not, when they are attained, fulfill those longings.

This longing for the things of God is addressed at length in the Scriptures that were written on behalf of a people that God knew would be seeking something greater than themselves. The writer of the Psalms wrote at length about his desire for God, saying, “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (63:1). The writer of the Psalms also stated, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (42:1-2). Someone with a thirsting in his soul, his body longing for something as though in a “dry and weary land” sounds like the descriptions of the characters in much of modern writing. But this writer is not thirsting for drink, hungering for food, or lusting for companionship. He is desperately searching for a way to meet with the One he has discovered will fulfill those longings. He desires God. “Like Augustine, Lewis believes that if there is a God, in whose image we are made and in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:23), then it would stand to reason that we would have a longing and a built-in craving for a Joy beyond all earthly satisfactions” (quoted from Dave Brown, “Real Joy and True Myth,” Real Joy and True Myth [1997] <http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/3505/LewisJoy.html>).

Testimonies like those from the Psalmist fill the Bible and confirm that Lewis’s thinking is a common thought among people. In fact, in the New Testament, the apostle Paul goes even a step further. He confirms not only that God will fulfill our longings; he also gives his personal conviction that the things of this world never will. “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8). All things that he once considered worthy of his time and attention, all the things man pursues daily in an attempt to fill that desire with temporal matter, Paul says here that once he met Christ, those things became to him like garbage.

“In great Lewis tradition, Alister McGrath describes the apologetic opportunity this (the realization that the things of this world are truly unfulfilling) presents us: ‘This feeling of dissatisfaction is one of the most important points of contact for the gospel proclamation. In the first place, that proclamation interprets this vague and unshaped feeling as longing for God. And second, it offers to fill it…” (Dave Brown). In the Scriptures, God essentially offers to fill that longing He placed within us with Himself.

The aforementioned argument begs the question, “What of those that do not believe in the existence of God?” How are they to explain this longing? Atheist Austin Cline has researched Lewis’s argument of desire at length, and he gives this rebuttal:
According to Lewis and other apologists, every desire is necessarily a desire for something, and every natural desire must have some object that will satisfy it. Since humans desire the joy and experience of God, therefore there must be a God that will satisfy our desires….It is true that every desire is a desire for something, but it does not automatically follow that every desire is a desire for something that actually exists…. [H]ow many people desire the ability to fly or the ability to read minds?

While this point should be considered and respected, one should also be quick to notice that one can very readily argue the fact that there is a tremendous difference between desiring the ability to read minds so that one may sneak into the mind of his or her nosy neighbor, and desiring an object that will cause us to feel complete as entities within the universe. If the point is looked at on the truly grand scale of finding one’s identity in the cosmos, the ability to read another’s mind is really inconsequential. This is a point that C.S. Lewis understood well. As a former atheist who journeyed through the progression of all false objects until they proved their falsity, he knew that the closer one got to finding the One to whom we are all drawn, the farther one moves from all other aspects of existence.

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