C.S. Lewis and the Pursuit of Happiness

“I just want (fill in the blank), then I’d be happy.”

It’s a common enough thought in our society, but is it true? The right guy, job, or stuff never bring us fulfillment. To me, this is seen most clearly in the lives of the rich and famous. They have everything we chase after, yet it’s not hard to see that they aren’t fulfilled in these things.

This chasing after the wind seems pointless, but famed author and apologist C.S. Lewis saw these longings as purposeful, if understood correctly, for leading us to God. In fact, though a master of logical arguments for Christianity, this more internal and emotional apologetic of desire arguably played the biggest role in his own conversion.

Lewis explains that mankind was fulfilled in God at creation but lost something in the Fall. This loss gives mankind an inherent ache of longing throughout his life. Longings for intimacy, peace, security, happiness, and freedom drive our thoughts and actions. Lewis points out that God gives us these desires as signposts to lead us to the only place we can find fulfillment.[1]

Unfortunately, many people do not recognize these markers for what they are.

We feel longings. But rather than look to where they come from, we chase the object that brings the feeling, only to discover when we have gotten “that thing” or to “that place,” our desire has moved further out of reach. “Every one of these supposed objects for the Desire is inadequate to it,” explains Lewis.[2] Even things that are not “earthly,” such as godly marriage or a lovely vacation — nothing ever is all we hope it will be.[3]

Lewis proposes three responses to these unfulfilled desires. Each path can be seen in humanity and Scripture.

The first response is the fool’s way. She determines that the “things” are the problem. If she craves loving companionship, she blames each man for his failure to meet her need and never gives up hope that the next one will be her all fulfilling soul mate.[4] Lewis compares this to the women at the tomb, seeking “the living among the dead.”[5] He points out that all things, in some sense, reflect eternal truths.

But that does not mean the pursuit of them is the pursuit of God, just a shadow.[6] Romans 1 speaks about this when Paul explains how creation shows heavenly realities, but man often is content to worship and focus on the natural objects instead of the supernatural realities they point to.

The second response is that of that of the sensible man, who gives up at this chasing much sooner. At the end of chasing after a desire that is never grasped, he becomes disenchanted and determines that his desires are actually impossible to satisfy, so he had better learn to make due with what he’s got.[7] Lewis notes that this is a reasonable path if this life is all there is, but if life is eternal and the “something” desired does exist. He is to be greatly pitied for giving up the hunt.[8] The book of Ecclesiastes expresses much of what this person feels.

Ecclesiastes 1:8-9 says, “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” The sensible man believes he must come to a place of acceptance, his longings will not be satisfied. All he chases after is ultimately the same dead end he has found before.

The third path is the Christian response. Lewis says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists…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.”[9] If we will stop and actually look at our longings we start to see where they come from. He points out that while our desires easily accept false idols, they just as quickly overturn them when we realize the whole point of this wild goose chase was to see that this great “something” is beyond the physical world[10]

Lewis explains that the only thing that can fill our longings is God Himself.

God designed us to run on Himself so it should be no surprise that any other fuel fails miserably.[11] Scripture speaks about this world as being a temporary shadow of the real, eternal world. Second Corinthians 4:18 says, “we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” Second Corinthians 5:1-10 refers to the world as tent believers live in before they enter their true homeland in eternity. Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Here alone the seeker finds his longings for intimacy and purpose and happy ending fulfilled.

What then is the believer to do with desire once she has embraced what it pointed to? Are we to stifle our desires as no longer important or even as evil distractions from the “real”? Lewis proposes a more balanced view of these shadows. If these things point us to God, Lewis says, “I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country.”[12]

C.S. Lewis’ apologetic of desire is a deeply personal argument which aims more at the heart than the mind. It echoes love into my imperfect marriage. It speaks comfort of my real home in my suffering. It offers peace to my friends who are still chasing desire and hope when they reach another dead end. May we accept the blessings of God in our lives as well our unfulfilled longings that we have as reminders of our eternal home and may we guide the lost to Joy in Christ.

 

Bibliography

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity : A Revised and Amplified Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books, Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality. 1st HarperCollins ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

Lewis, C.S. Present Concerns. 1st American ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy; the Shape of My Early Life. . New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Lewis, C. S. The Pilgrim’s Regress : An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism. [New and rev. ed. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1943.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Tolkien Reader. 1 vols. 1st ed. New York,: Ballantine Books, 1966.

 

[1] Lewis, Surprised by Joy; the Shape of My Early Life. 238.

[2] Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress : An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism, 9.

[3] Lewis, Mere Christianity : A Revised and Amplified Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books, Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality, 135.

[4]Ibid., 135-136.

[5] Lewis, Surprised by Joy; the Shape of My Early Life. 167.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lewis, Mere Christianity : A Revised and Amplified Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books, Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality, 136.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 136-137.

[10] Ibid., 10.

[11]Lewis, Mere Christianity : A Revised and Amplified Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books, Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality, 50.

[12]Lewis, Mere Christianity : A Revised and Amplified Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books, Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality, 137.

2 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis and the Pursuit of Happiness”

  1. Jillian McNeely says:

    Thank you so much for sharing, Maggie. Such a timely read for me, personally, as God has been reminding me currently of the vanity of pursuing anything apart from Him to fulfill the longings in my heart. I pray that we will always remember these important Truths that you have shared with us. =)

  2. MsGeeCarvin says:

    This was very good!! I shared it with several friends.