This article is part of our series, “Cloud of Witnesses: Stories from the Church.” Read more from the series here.
Over the course of his life, C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) was a son, brother, student, soldier, poet, professor, literary critic, author, apologist, philosopher, theologian, husband, step-father, and caretaker. How do we sum up the life of a figure so well-known and accomplished, with such a diverse array of roles? Perhaps by focusing on what he saw as the unifying force in his life: joy.
Early Experiences of Joy & Beauty
Several childhood experiences of joy profoundly shaped Lewis, haunting him for years. First, his older brother, Warnie, brought him a tiny toy garden that he made on the lid of a biscuit tin. “That was the first beauty I ever knew,” Lewis writes. The memory of this brush with beauty, along with several others, would provoke in him “an unsatisfied desire, which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which here is a technical term which must be distinguished from happiness and pleasure.” Joy, as Lewis described it, is not so much an emotional state, but a deep yearning to have, or participate in, beauty. Later in life Lewis would say of this connection between longing and beauty:
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
Over the course of his life, Lewis came to believe this deep desire was truly the longing to be united with God, the source of all beauty. However, it was many years before he would make this connection.
Loss of Security
Lewis prayed fervently, but his prayers did not work. His mother died of stomach cancer on August 23, 1908. He was only 10 years old. Much later, he reflected, “My mother’s death was the occasion of what some (but not I) might regard as my first religious experience.” He looked at God as a “magician,” who, “when He had done what was required of Him . . . would simply — well, go away.” For Lewis, there was no great crisis of faith because he didn’t have faith in God. To him, God was more like a vending machine than a person. His prayers hadn’t pressed the right buttons to get the result he wanted, so Lewis moved on. But he was deeply affected by his mother’s death: “With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security.”
Less than a month after his mother died, Lewis’s father sent him from his home in Ireland to England, where he would be a student at Wynyard School. It’s an understatement to say Lewis had no fond memories of his time there. On educational quality, he quipped: “The only stimulating element in the teaching consisted of a few well-used canes.” The cane was used frequently, and by Lewis’s account, with a disturbing glee by “Oldie,” the headmaster of Wynward.
Lewis attended several schools in quick succession after Wynward closed. He didn’t care much for any of these schools and the final, Malvern College, he positively loathed. After many entreaties that he might leave Malvern, Lewis’s father decided to pursue an alternate route for his youngest son’s education. Lewis would prepare for university under the tutelage of Mr. William T. Kirkpatrick, or the Great Knock as Lewis called him.
During this period of his life, Lewis continued to be haunted by joy. He would periodically come into contact with beauty through a landscape, a story, or a poem, and have that same childhood experience of joy that left an ache—a longing—in his heart.  He wanted more but couldn’t seem to hold on to it. What Lewis realized later in life is that his focus on the beauty and joy of things themselves blinded him to their source:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.
But Lewis took time to come to this realization.
World War I
As Lewis grew close to the end of his studies with the Great Knock, war broke out in Europe. For the first couple of years, it was unclear whether or not Lewis would be required to serve in the military. As he grew older and the war dragged on, Lewis decided to enlist, though he continued to prepare for the entrance exams to Oxford University. As it turned out, Lewis was accepted into Oxford largely because of the War. He couldn’t pass the necessary math exams, and during ordinary times would not have been accepted. However, Oxford needed students and Lewis had otherwise met the entrance requirements, so he was admitted. He moved to Oxford, but began training as a cadet before he could start his education. Shortly thereafter he was sent to the front lines.
Between arriving at the front line and being injured by an English shell that fell short of its intended target, Lewis spent time at the hospital recuperating from trench fever. There, he began to read the Christian author, G.K. Chesterton. When he picked up Chesterton’s essays, Lewis writes, “I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” Though he didn’t realize it at the time, God was planting seeds of faith in Lewis’s heart.
Surrounded by Christians
At Oxford, God began to water those seeds of faith through friendships. Lewis described meeting Nevill Coghill, a fellow student, and states, “I soon had the shock of discovering that he—clearly the most intelligent and best informed man in that class— was a Christian and a through-going supernaturalist.” He discovered the literature which he thought most beautiful and moving all shared the same annoying feature: the authors were Christians! After finishing his studies, Lewis began his teaching career and “made two other friends, both Christians (these queer people seemed now to pop up on every side) . . . They were H.V.V. Dyson . . . and J.R.R. Tolkien.” God was surrounding Lewis, and it would only be a matter of time before he had to seriously consider Christianity.
Conversion to Theism
Lewis’s conversion to Christianity happened in stages. First, he was drawn out of atheism into a general belief in God. In many ways, this was an intellectual and philosophical decision. Yet in other ways, Lewis felt that rather than deciding on his own terms to believe, God was irresistibly drawing Lewis toward himself:
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. . . . In the Trinity term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Though Lewis believed in and submitted to God, it would take more time and conversation before he would place his faith in Christ.
Conversion to Christianity
One night, Dyson, Tolkien, and Lewis went for a walk after dinner and began a deep and engrossing conversation about Christianity. At 3:00 am, Tolkien finally went home, but Dyson continued to talk with Lewis for another hour. This conversation addressed Lewis’ strongest objection to Christianity. He had always wondered how Christianity could be different from any other religious myth. Wasn’t the story of Christ just another version of numerous pagan myths about gods who die sacrificial deaths and come back from the underworld?
Through this conversation, Lewis came to believe that “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with the tremendous difference that it really happened.” At last, Lewis had found the reality that all his experiences of joy pointed him towards. The myths which he loved so dearly and whose beauty moved him so deeply were awakening a longing for something true and real. Christ was the answer to that longing.
At the end of his autobiography Lewis would say, “But what, in conclusion of Joy? For that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian… [The experience of joy] was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer.” Discovering the source of joy gave Lewis new direction and purpose in life. No longer would he pursue those experiences, rather he would seek the God who was the source of them.
Lewis the Christian
For the rest of his life, Lewis would seek to lead people to God—the source of all joy and beauty—especially through writing. Lewis wrote works of fiction, theology, and apologetics that were designed to bring people closer to God in a variety of ways. He appealed to the imagination, the intellect, and the heart in his quest to make Christ known to the lost.
Lewis’s fiction leads people to truth through stories. This is exemplified in his children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis believed that fairy tales awakened a deep longing in people, and he thought this kind of longing could be a sort of spiritual discipline. C. S. Lewis scholar Alan Jacobs says that the Chronicles of Narnia “are a kind of training in how to long, and what and whom to long for.” While no one in their right mind would long to experience the suffering and bloodshed of the Narnia books, the stories awaken a longing for a king who, like Aslan, can and will defeat all evil and usher in peace. The fairy tale guides and aims our desires towards the good, the beautiful, and the true—ultimately, towards God. This same approach is found in Lewis’s other works of fiction including The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and his Space Trilogy (Perelandra, Out of the Silent Planet, That Hideous Strength).
Lewis’s theological and apologetic works are notable for the way they appeal to the intellect as well as the heart (and imagination, for that matter). Lewis is skilled in logical argumentation, which he first learned from the Great Knock, seen in works like Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Abolition of Man, and The Problem of Pain. These present powerful philosophical and theological arguments for theism and Christianity, as well as responses to some of the most challenging questions a Christian must answer about the supernatural and evil. Lewis also wasn’t afraid to share and argue from his personal experience. His autobiography, Surprised by Joy, gives insight into his conversion and, in a way, offers a defense of Christianity. Later in life, after the death of his wife, he would publish what were essentially his diary entries in A Grief Observed. In this book, Lewis wrestles with the problem of evil in a raw and emotional way, very different from his earlier apologetical work, The Problem of Pain.
Much could be said about Lewis’s life after his conversion—his career, friendships, fame, and marriage. However, in keeping with the theme of this essay, I will simply say this: Lewis’s life as a Christian was one of deep and meaningful joy. Alan Jacobs notes, “The pre-conversion Lewis is, though obviously highly intelligent, neither a particularly likable nor a particularly interesting person—at least in his letters. . . . But once he ‘admitted that God was God,’ it is as though the key to his own hidden and locked-away personality was given to him. What appears almost immediately is a kind of gusto (sheer, bold enthusiasm for what he loves) that is characteristic of him ever after.” Once Lewis discovered the creator of beauty and joy, he found and delighted in beauty in a way he couldn’t before. His longing for joy no longer left him empty, but hopeful—hopeful for the day he would be with God.
Entering Into Eternal Joy
On November 22, 1963, C. S. Lewis entered into eternal joy. The truths he preached he now experienced. In his famous sermon, The Weight of Glory, Lewis said,
We do not want merely to see beauty. . . . We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. . . . At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.
Lewis got in. And if we follow the path he showed us through his stories, and arguments, sermons, and life, we can too.
 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Grand Rapids: Family Christian Press, 1986), 6.
 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory can be found online at this link: https://www.wheelersburg.net/Downloads/Lewis%20Glory.pdf
 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 13.
 Alan Jacobs, The Narnian (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 20.
 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy,16.
 A “college” in England at this time is what Americans would call High School.
 Later in life Lewis wrote, “My debt to him is very great, my reverence to this day undiminished.” C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 82.
 One oft-cited example is the feeling Lewis describes being evoked by the opening lines to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Tegner’s Drapa”:“I heard a voice, that cried / “Balder the Beautiful / Is dead, is dead!”
 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory.
 Ibid., 106.
 Ibid, 117.
 Ibid. 119.
 Ibid., 125.
 From one of C.S. Lewis’ letters. Qtd. in Alan Jacobs, The Narnian, 149.
 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 130.
 The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, ed. Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 279.
 Alan Jacobs, The Narnian, 131.
 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory.