“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
-- C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses
“I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.”
There is something... it's not just a feeling. It's right there, at the edge of your thoughts, when you have an experience that is fulfilling, but you sense that there has to be more. Maybe you've had this happen. You reach your goals, you achieve what you never dreamed you could, and you feel wonderful, but something is still missing. It is the thing that Lewis mentions in many of his writings. He names it, describes it as almost a mystical experience and an excitement, as if there were another world that seemed to intrude on his inner life. He never quite makes it clear, but he was not known to easily express his emotions. So I will try.
It's not pleasure. Pleasure is not fulfillment. Being in love, having a great meal with the most amazing glass of wine, the rush of a roller coaster, a cold beer on a hot day, and of course, sex—they are enjoyable but transitory. We need more of them to recapture the moment, again and again. But there is no real meaning beyond the moment, until the next time. The closest we might come to the thing that C.S. Lewis speaks of, short of the thing itself, is unconditional love, like we might share with our children, or perhaps, if we are so fortunate, with a spouse who truly cares for us.
What he is talking about is infinite joy. That's a good name for it. We settle for lesser, immediate experiences that satisfy, but leave us empty, in the end. They pass and are forgotten. A spouse may leave us or be taken from us. Our plans may crumble due to forces outside our control. Infinite joy, though, cannot be taken away. It is available, ironically, at the very moment the greatest of our ambitions fails. Perhaps for that very reason. This is what he means when he compares us to ignorant children who would prefer to make mud pies in a slum than a holiday at the sea. We can't picture something greater. We do not pursue joy because we don't know what it is. We don't know what it is because we have accepted a substitute. Or rather, a world full of substitutes. As he said, we are too easily pleased.
If you've had it, even once, you know what it is. I cannot explain it precisely, but it's like no other experience in life. Malcolm Muggeridge had the experience. A famous journalist from the last century, he nonetheless lifts it above the pursuit of happiness or self. He can write this because he had experienced the best of everything in this life.
The joy that Lewis speaks of comes by the Spirit of God. It is not just a feeling, though there is an overwhelming feeling; it is a power and a presence. And a lifting of the human spirit that can only be described as joy, though it is beyond any joy we can otherwise know.
It is part of the life of discipleship. If you will embark on that journey, you will know it. In this short space, I can only say one reason why we don't have it, and I can offer one way it comes.
We don't have it because we have stepped off the path he set before us. Perhaps in the pursuit of the things Lewis says we fool around with, though those things, regarded rightly, are not really in the way. But we may accept them as sufficient and go no further. Or we may head in a direction outside his will. Joy is available when we set aside our plans and take on his. It is not a gift, it is our God himself, with nothing between us and him. We can receive joy when we meet him in the pages of scripture. Or in some moment of service, loving others in his name. It is infinite because it is not based on experiences that pass away.
One way we get it is by being broken—having the things that drive us snatched away, leaving us with nothing we have formerly trusted in. In the failure of our ambitions and our own efforts to control our lives, we may find our way, as broken people in need of his grace, to the place he is waiting for us. There is joy there.
When the word is used in this sense, you see it in scripture in the context of suffering and persecution. The readers of 1 Peter were facing probable death because they put their trust in Jesus.
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8)
Faith in Christ is not an idea. It is path you walk on. For those who walk it, there is transforming love, a peace greater than the world offers, and infinite joy. From wherever you are at, you must find your way to the path.