One man's search for joy

One man's search for joy: The conversion of C. S. Lewis

An inspiring account of the life quest of Jack Lewis

David Marshall, Ph.D., is senior editor at The Stanborough Press, Ltd., Grantham, Lincolnshire, England.

People come to God in many different ways. One of the great Christians of our times came dragging his heels.

C. S. Lewis, known to his family and friends as Jack, had read books about "man's search for God." But years after he accepted God's existence, he said that his search had been like "the mouse's search for the cat"! Accepting God, let alone accepting Christianity, outraged every inclination, prejudice, and preconception in this Oxford don.1

When the Father set out in search of Jack Lewis, it took Him many years to convince this prodigal He existed and much longer to lead him home.2

Of the night when he "gave in to God," Lewis wrote: I "admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. ... The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore the Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of es cape. ... The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation."3

The reason for the return of this prodigal is of interest here not just because he became the twentieth century's most read and listened-to defender of Christianity. Nor is it because two major motion pictures the most recent Shadowlands have been made of his life and spiritual struggle. Nor is it because a tidy number of us were brought up on his Narnia books. We are interested because we want to understand what it was that drew such a prodigal, what it was that constrained a man like Lewis to take on the quest he did.

Pursuit of joy

Jack Lewis, from an early age, came to see life as the pursuit of an elusive Joy (with a capital J). Commentators on Lewis's work have written that we shall not understand him unless we have a stab at understanding his Joy. They chart the evolution of its meaning through his poems and prose, his books Pilgrim's Regress (1932) and Surprised by Joy (1955), and his mountains of hand written notes on the theme of joy.4

Lewis's consciousness that life was about a search for Joy began in his child hood. It preoccupied him through the hellish boarding schools to which his father sent him, one of which he nicknamed Belsen (for good reason!). At first, Joy meant to him no more than "an unsatisfied desire which is in itself more desirable than any other satisfaction." The desire might be fed by a scene or a sunset or by his adolescent enthusiasm for Wagner and Norse mythology. Gradually, as an Oxford scholar, Lewis realized that he would only know the joy he sought when he came to know the object of joy. Only at age 33, not on the Damascus road but on the road to Whipsnade Zoo in his brother Warnie's sidecar, did he realize that the object of his search was Jesus Christ and that the Joy he sought was the Joy of Jesus. Lewis's realization was so strong that he remained alone, outside the zoo, thinking. "He felt like a man who, after a long sleep, is now awake."5

The long road

The road to Whipsnade Zoo had been a long one. His mother's death, when he was nine, had devastated him. He had abandoned the last vestige of the vague Christianity of his Belfast childhood, when he encountered a kindly matron in his prep school. She was the first of a number of mother substitutes in his life. The youthful, personable matron had involved him "in the mazes of Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism, and the whole Anglo-American occult tradition." He had, however, recognized "the passion for the occult" as "a spiritual lust" which, "like the lust of the body has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts." An aspect that attracted him about what he then thought of as "Higher Thought" was that "there was nothing to be obeyed, and nothing to be believed except what was either comforting or exciting."6

As he pursued his secondary education, however, he acknowledged that "authentic joy" had vanished from his life and that pessimism had taken over. He writes: "Like so many Atheists or Antitheists" he lived in a "whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating the world. . . . God had flown.... I was in the Wordsworthian predicament, lamenting that 'a glory' had passed away."7 Nevertheless, Lewis acknowledged that occasional "stabs" of this "glory" came into his experience through his studies and extracurricular pursuits.

As a student at Malvern, he acknowledged, he missed the joy and recalled past experiences when he had felt it, "To get it again," he wrote, "became my constant endeavor." But his search for joy was in the various areas of his intellectual interest, which proved satisfying in a limited way but did not fulfill his need and desire for joy. As he went to Oxford he acknowledged: "I should have realized that, with the fading interest in Norse mythology, the Object of my joy was further away." But there was no such acknowledgment.8

Lewis came to accept that all his ordinary pleasures were substitutes for joy. He also acknowledged after reading (and meeting) W. B. Yeats that there was no joy to be found in the area of "spiritualism, Theosophy, and Pantheism." He came to contrast "the imaginative longing for joy" with the "quasi-prurient desire for the occult." He concluded: "My best protection [from the Occult] was the known nature of Joy. This ravenous desire to break the bounds, to tear the curtain, to be in the secret, revealed it self more and more clearly the longer I indulged it, to be quite different from the longing that is Joy." The occult was not only irrelevant to joy; it was, in some sense, an opposite direction.9

In his fourth year at Oxford, Lewis "changed scents." Curiously in his own ac count of his spiritual odyssey in Surprised by Joy, Lewis omitted certain vital influences in his growth toward Christianity.

Joy: The realm of the cerebral

Lewis represents his early search for Joy as being entirely in the realm of the cerebral. As early as his army days in World War I he had written, "A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful in his reading." Throughout his time at Oxford he acknowledged that nonreligious authors were "tinny" and boring in comparison with Christian ones. He quoted Roland's Chanson: "Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores." At the back of his mind he resolved to find out if Christians were, in fact, wrong.

Among the Christian authors who exerted an influence on him were Milton, Samuel Johnson, John Donne, and George Herbert. George Herbert "was a man who seemed to excel all the authors I had ever read in conveying the very quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment; but the wretched fellow" impregnated all his writing with Christianity.

Following his election as a Fellow of Magdalen College in 1925, Jack Lewis began to speak of God as the "Adversary" who was "tracking him down."10

Lewis's conversion

His "waitings and watchings for joy preoccupied his mind disproportionately." Then in 1929, "There was a transitional moment of delicious uneasiness, and then instantaneously the long inhibition was over; the dry desert lay behind." "Joy was a desire (and... it was also a kind of love). But a desire is turned not to itself but to its object," owing "its character to its object." He asked himself if he had been right to desire Joy itself, rather than the object of Joy.11

Lewis was selective in giving credit to his colleagues as influences in his struggle toward Christ Himself.

He did give credit to "the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew" (he doesn't name him), who had conceded that "evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good." But he was slow to give credit to his close friend Professor J. R. R. Tolkien, a practicing Christian, who had long conversations with him. George Sayer believes that Tolkien had a major influence on Lewis's 1931 conversion. He provided further proof of the historicity of the Gospels and, immediately prior to Lewis's Whipsnade decision, had a long conversation with him that lasted from midnight until four o'clock in the morning. William Griffin also believes that this conversation with Tolkien, as well as Tolkien's long-term influence, was instrumental in bringing Lewis from mere Theism to Christianity. Indeed, in the chronology of events, it seems hard to discount the influence of Tolkien. 12

Lewis himself gives further credit to an unnamed Christian in his circle at Ox ford who was "clearly the most intelligent and best informed man in the class" and who, from Lewis's description, was clearly a Christian of the user-friendly type. 13

Lewis's conversion, like any genuine conversion, involved an acknowledgment of his sinful nature, his poverty of spirit, his inability to help himself. 14 The central feature was the Person of Jesus Christ. And it was through his encounter with Christ that Lewis acknowledged that here, at last, was a state of mind that could be described as Joy. 15

The crux of the foundation of Joy, Lewis had discovered, as he had the assurance of God's salvation. The world and the church are crying out for the kind of faith and understanding that made Jack Lewis the man he was for God. 

1. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (London: Collins, 1955), 182.

2. George Sayer, Jack: The Life of C. S. Lewis (London: Hodder, 1997), 217.

3. Lewis, 182,183.

4. Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide (San Francisco, Calif.: Harper Collins, 1996), 181-193.

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5. William Griffin, C. S. Lewis: The Authentic Voice (Colorado Springs: Colo.: Lion, 1986), 89.

6. Lewis, 52, 53.

7. Ibid., 61, 95,134.

8. Ibid., 135-137.

9. Ibid., 138, 141-143.

10. Ibid., 168-172.

11. Ibid., 173, 175, 176, 178.

12. Ibid., 178,179; Sayer, 222-225; Griffin, 65, 66, 88.

13.Lewis, 170.

14. Ibid., 181.

15. Ibid., 188, 190.


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David Marshall, Ph.D., is senior editor at The Stanborough Press, Ltd., Grantham, Lincolnshire, England.

November 1998

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