C. S. Lewis’s winding path from atheism to Christian faith is a fascinating journey. We can take that journey with him in Surprised by Joy, his step-by-step account of how God led this proud young intellectual to the point of surrender—to becoming, in his own words, “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Lewis, the avidly voracious reader, found, at a certain point in his life, all of his books beginning to turn against him. They kept leading him to Christ. “I must have been blind as a bat,” he wrote, “not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader.”
He then offered a litany of those experiences:
George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it.
Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spencer and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too.
The ancient authors like Plato, Aeschylus, and Virgil, Lewis complained, were the kind he could best admire, and they were the ones who were the most religious, even if not Christian. He knew, as a modern intellectual, he was supposed to like others better, but found them wanting:
Those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete—Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire—all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called “tinny.” . . . There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books.
It was at this point in his life that Lewis became so uncomfortable with God’s infringement on his proud self that he began to refer to the Deity as “My Adversary.” Lewis famously noted that “a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers lie in wait for him on every side.”
A self-examination led him to a most depressing realization. What he found inside himself was appalling: “a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.”
Out of all of Lewis’s poignant comments in Surprised by Joy, this one stands out to me:
People who are naturally religious find difficulty in understanding the horror of such a revelation. Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about “man’s search for God.” To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat [emphasis mine].
All his life, Lewis had been on this relentless search for an undefined sense of “joy.” He thought if only he could recapture those fleeting moments of joy he had experienced off and on, he could find the meaning in life. Yet he finally came to the understanding that those experiences were not the reality, “for all the images and sensations, if idolatrously mistaken for Joy itself, soon honestly confessed themselves inadequate.”
All said, in the last resort, “It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?”
Lewis concludes his autobiography with the perspective that those moments of Joy are merely signposts telling us where the right road lies. They are not the destination; rather, they point us to the destination: “We would be at Jerusalem.”
I’m thankful that God is the Great Interferer in our lives. I’m grateful that He continues to beat down our defenses and make the proud humble. For only the humble will see Him.
But He gives us more grace. This is why it says: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” James 4:6