Blogape vs. C.S. Lewis? Joyfully, No.

by Jul 9, 2011Books, Dissertation, Piety, Theology

My dissertation chapter on joy argues that the article on joy from the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible is mistaken about much of the following.


Positive human condition that can be either feeling or action. The Bible uses joy in both senses.

Joy as Feeling.

Joy is a feeling called forth by well-being, success, or good fortune. A person automatically experiences it because of certain favorable circumstances. It cannot be commanded.

The shepherd experienced joy when he found his lost sheep (Matt 18:13). The multitude felt it when Jesus healed a Jewish woman whom Satan had bound for 18 years (Luke 13:17). The disciples returned to Jerusalem rejoicing after Jesus’ ascension (Luke 24:52)…. Psalm 137:3 shows that the emotion cannot be commanded. The Jews’ captors wanted them to sing in the land of their exile, something they were unable to do. Faraway Jerusalem was their chief joy (Ps 137:6).

Joy as Action.

There is a joy that Scripture commands. That joy is action that can be engaged in regardless of how the person feels. Proverbs 5:18 tells the reader to rejoice in the wife of his youth, without reference to what she may be like. Christ instructed his disciples to rejoice when they were persecuted, reviled, and slandered (Matt 5:11, 12). The apostle Paul commanded continuous rejoicing (Phil 4:4; 1 Thess 5:16). James said Christians are to reckon it all joy when they fall into various testings because such testings produce endurance (Jas 1:2). First Peter 4:13 seems to include both action and emotion when it says, “But rejoice [the action] in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad [the emotion] when his glory is revealed.” Joy in adverse circumstances is possible only as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, who is present in every Christian (Gal 5:22)….

Here’s what I like about this: “Joy is a feeling called forth by well-being, success, or good fortune. A person automatically experiences it because of certain favorable circumstances.”

Here’s what I would add: It takes regeneration—and subsequent sanctification—to change us so that we automatically experience joy when we ought to. And maybe I’d adjust “automatically,” because I don’t want to dismiss the role of personal choice in our ability to find joy in trial, for example. But I tend to think that the choices that make me able to rejoice in trials happened a long time ago. And underneath even those choices was a new heart making me the kind of person who could possibly count it all joy when I fall into various trials.

Here’s what I don’t like about the BEB article on joy: emotionless joy is a contradiction in terms. You cannot engage in joy actions regardless of how you feel; joy is how you feel. I won’t get into all my reasons for saying that now; here’s just one: every major Koine-Greek lexicon defines χαρά and χαίρω with words like “joy, happiness, gladness,” and, yes, even “feeling.” Language is flexible, but not flexible enough to take emotion out of joy. Joy is irreducibly emotional. (In other news, Pope Benedict XVI was recently revealed to be a Catholic.)

But as I thought through this, my mind ran up an objection: Wait a minute, C.S. Lewis is someone who seems to know real joy; he has said some very insightful things about it. But didn’t he say that joy is not the same as happiness?

Good thought, mind. So I ran down the quote. Sure enough, my mind was right (I won’t say “as usual”—my dissertation committee has convinced me that that’s not true). But ouch. Disagreeing with C.S. Lewis? I didn’t want to do that if I didn’t have to. My little mind is like a 1993 x86 PC to his brand new Mac.

Here is the footnote I ultimately wrote to resolve this conundrum (paragraphing added for clarity):

C.S. Lewis, it is true, said in his autobiography, “Joy…must be sharply distinguished both from happiness and from pleasure.” But the surrounding context reveals that he is not at all saying what the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible did. By “Joy” Lewis meant “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” He said of that desire, “I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished from Happiness and from Pleasure…. Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is” (17–18).

But Lewis never claims that his Joy is what is meant by the words translated joy in Scripture. Moreover, Lewis felt free to use “enjoy” and other forms of “joy” in non-technical ways. He does so twice in one paragraph:

“The first lifelong friend I made at Oxford was A. K. Hamilton Jenkin…. Jenkin seemed to be able to enjoy everything; even ugliness. I learned from him that we should attempt a total surrender to whatever atmosphere was offering itself at the moment; in a squalid town to seek out those very places where its squalor rose to grimness and almost grandeur, on a dismal day to find the most dismal and dripping wood, on a windy day to seek the windiest ridge. There was no Betjemannic irony about it; only a serious, yet gleeful, determination to rub one’s nose in the very quiddity of each thing, to rejoice in its being (so magnificently) what it was” (193).

Lewis even uses “joy” itself nontechnically:

“On every half-holiday I went dutifully to the B6 notice board to see whether my name was down to play that afternoon or not. And it never was. This was pure joy, for of course I hated games. My native clumsiness…had ruled out all possibility of my ever playing well enough to amuse myself, let alone to satisfy other players. I accepted games…as one of the necessary evils of life, comparable to Income Tax or the Dentist. And so, for a week or two, I was in clover” (86).Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1995).

Lewis was not describing unsatisfied desires; he experienced happiness and pleasure and called it joy.

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