Surprised by Joy is C S Lewis’ account of his childhood. In this book he outlines the experiences and circumstances of his childhood that he sees as formative for his intellectual development, and his preparation to turn from an early atheism to Christianity.
“It is this theme, the longing for a restoration of the joy he experienced as a boy, that permeates the entire volume. By “joy,” Lewis meant not mere pleasure but the sublime experience of the transcendent, the glimpse of the eternal that is only fleetingly available in earthly loves and aesthetics. It is, for Lewis, only finally received in heavenly glory at the consummation of the age, a joy to be found in the Creator who himself invented both world and word, person and personality. It is He alone who redeems his fallen creation and provides them joy. From his earliest intimations of this joy, Lewis depicts himself in Surprised by Joy as precociously oriented toward the metaphysical and ultimate questions. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surprised_by_Joy)
For Lewis joy is not merely light-hearted mirth or pleasure. It is a deep connection to the transcendent, and to what are often referred to as the ultimate questions of life:
What is real?
What is truth?
What is the meaning/purpose of life?
Is there a God? And if there is a God what is He (or She) like?
In a fascinating way then, joy is related to eternity and transcendence, to the ultimate questions of life. These are things which we can never fully experience. The ultimate realization of eternity and transcendence always remains a step beyond us. If, as C S Lewis says, joy is related to these themes that always remain beyond our grasp, then joy can never be experienced as a final and complete realization. Every experience of joy then necessarily includes an infinite deferment of ultimate or final satisfaction.
Transcendence is by definition that which exceeds us. The joy that is connected to an experience of transcendence therefore cannot be the joy of that which we hold without remainder. Our deepest experiences of joy are always quite rightly accompanied, at times even troubled, by the sense that we now experience in part, and even our most sublime moments of joy are not an experience of joy without remainder. Our most exotic experiences of joy are experiences that include a remainder that also leaves us hungry for more. Hence, joy is not only an experience of satisfied appetite. Rather, it is in its highest expression an experience of an appropriate appetite that is experienced as joy precisely as an appetite, not as the satiation of appetite.
Our hunger for God, for example, is an appropriate appetite but it can easily be perverted into a hunger for a god we choose or make that satisfies our immediate felt needs. When our hunger for God is reduced to a hunger for immediate needs it becomes a chasing after idols, rather than God. Ironically, in the very process of reducing our appetites to that for which we can find satisfaction, we render such a god unsatisfactory. This god does not call us to exceed ourselves, leading to increasing appetites and the joy of hope for a future that is larger than our present. This god is reduced to our size, and becomes unsatisfactory for the very reason that he completely fills our anemic vision, but never challenges us to dream bigger dreams. This god never challenges us to follow him outside of our comfort zones, outside of ourselves.
The kind of joy that C S Lewis proposes, however, is a larger joy that offers a satisfaction that is more than can be held in the immediate moment. It is experienced in the immediate moment, but not as an end, rather that joy is experienced as a step in a larger journey. It is a satisfaction with remainder. It is, I think, the kind of joy that is promised us in Christmas, in the birth of God in human flesh.
Genesis tells a story that explains our insatiable hunger for a God that is bigger than we are. It is a story of human beings created in the image of the Creator. At first we enjoyed a relationship and communication with our Creator, repeated every evening in the cool of the day because once is never enough. But even then we wished to be more than friends of God, we wished to be like God ourselves. In reducing our appropriate appetite for God into an appetite for ourselves we broke trust with God and realized too late that satisfied appetites are ultimately unsatisfactory. We cut ourselves off from the only One who could satisfy our appetites with a transcendent and eternal satisfaction, the kind of satisfaction with remainder that is vital to continued satisfaction. Thanks be to the God we spurned, He does not give up so easily. Immediately, in the Garden, even before we were banished from that which might make our estrangement eternal (a banishment that was also an act of grace), God promised redemption (Gen 3:15 serpent will bruise, but the offspring will crush the head of the serpent).
Throughout the rest of the OT this theme is worked out and the plan is embellished. It continues with a promise to Abram (Gen 12:1-3), later ratified by a covenant (Gen 15). This covenant, it is significant to note was ratified by only God passing between the halves of the animals, while Abram was fast asleep.
Throughout the rest of Israel’s history the promises of God to redeem his creation were repeated time and again. These promises were experienced as redemption from slavery in Egypt, as salvation from other oppressors after they arrived in the Promised Land, and as return from captivity after the Exile. In Isaiah 9 the promise is repeated: In Isaiah 49:6ff the promise is expanded from all of Israel to all the world:
All of these experiences of redemption and salvation were significant and concrete instances of salvation by the hand of God, and merited the genuine gratitude of his children, though it could be argued that this gratitude was never equal to the experience. It was not the case that God’s salvation was somehow deficient. It is, rather, that finite humans are not able to experience fully the infinite salvation that God provides.
All these promises finally culminated in the birth of the Messiah, who was asked when He was here “When will you come? What will be the signs of your coming?” (Matthew 24:3). They looked for a Messiah, and they anticipated the coming of their Messiah, but even when they spoke to their Messiah face to face they asked “When will you come?” Their joy at the Messiah’s presence among them was muted by their failure to recognize a promise and an experience that was larger than their imagination.
This Christmas, and every Christmas, we rejoice as we celebrate the coming of the Messiah, the birth of God in human flesh. We rejoice as we celebrate a salvation that is rooted in history, and yet ineluctably exceeds history. We commemorate looking back, but we must also anticipate looking forward. We rejoice in the moment but we should recognize that the rejoicing that also longs for more is a reflection of a healthy appetite for a God who is bigger than we are. To the extent that disappointment reminds us to dream bigger dreams, to leave room for a transcendent God, it is an indispensable ingredient in our rejoicing.