The first time author and theologian C.S Lewis perused an Icelandic saga, the picturesque imagery and storyline entranced him. The Nordic European island in the northernmost region of the Atlantic Ocean captured his fascination and transported him into a place detached from his Irish childhood abode.
Over his lifetime, Lewis read every Icelandic story he could get his hands on. His obsession was so intense that he learned Old Norse so he could read these accounts in their original language. No stone was left unturned.
In his partial autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis said that what he had hoped to experience in reading these stories ultimately did not pay out. Sure, there was temporal happiness, but that soon faded to a desire to experience a certain emotional high once again. He sensed there was something behind his pursuit. Something bigger. Something grander.
"I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer," Lewis wrote.
I can identify with Lewis. His obsession with Icelandic novels reminds me of my fascination with information. But not just knowing information -- collecting it.
I recently took the Clifton Strengths Finder assessment test and discovered one of my fortes is something called "Input." Someone who "inputs" is constantly collecting information or objects for future use. Didier Krzentowski, the owner of the Parisian design gallery Galerie kreo, shares my fixation.
"I don't know why I do it, and I don't care," the collector of more than 800 late-20th-century French and Italian lights said. "Years ago, a museum here in Paris arranged for psychologists to speak to various collectors and they said my collecting was neurotic. Maybe it is, but it is something I need to do."
Icelandic stories, information, French and Italian lights. Sports, recreation, shopping. Health, children, money. Work, community service, religion. Our lawns, our cars, our stocks, our food. These are a few of our favorite things.
Alice Rawsthorn, design writer for the New York Times, in writing about Krzentowski, opined that we go through the trouble of our serving our obsessions for the pleasure of spending time with things we love. Rawsthorn is right -- but not completely.
We love to spend time with our favorite things not only because we believe they give us a return on our investment. They become our favorites because we believe that they will give something back to us that we think we want. Or better -- something we think we need.
So is gratification from our self-focused loves a worthwhile quest? Does temporal satisfaction truly fill the void of happiness we so deeply desire in this life? Or is there something grander behind our chase that is actually more satisfying?
In his first letter in the Holy Bible, the apostle John believes there is something other than circumstantial pleasure that really can fulfill us. In 1 John, chapter one, verse 4, he tells his friends why he transcribed his letter to them: "And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete."
John is saying that a completing joy is what truly satisfies us. But what is joy? And why is it more lasting and nourishing than transient indulgence?
Preacher and author John Stott says that the main mark of a Christian is joyfulness. If Stott is right, then that means that a true believer is one who is filled with joy. So how do we get this kind of joy?
Generally, it can be found in meditating on a summation of the good news of the gospel message: "God saves sinners." The gospel empowers and sustains our joy. But what does this look like on the ground?
First, the gospel message reminds us of the greatness of our danger. Before we place our faith and trust in Jesus, we are sinners that deserve God's wrath but don't understand how bad it is. But when God reveals himself to us, quickens us to believe in him, he helps us see the magnitude of the debt -- the depth of the danger -- which we were in before.
Pastor and author J.C. Ryle says one of the reasons we get so upset about our financial debts is that we don't realize the great debt of sin -- the only debt that could really sink us -- has been paid.
What Ryle is letting us in on is that when you let that truth sink deep into your soul, all other debts seem small in comparison. This leads us down the path towards joy but doesn't take us all the way. Understanding the depth of our danger is only part of the equation.
The second thing we must remember is that lasting joy only comes to us when our comprehension of the gravity of our spiritual jeopardy encounters the magnitude of Jesus' absorption of it in our place. Joy is unearthed when the substitutionary work of Jesus on the cross is front and center in our hearts and minds.
Jesus lost all joy so we could have true joy. He experienced anguish so we could have new life. That's how joy surprises us. That's how joy trumps happiness. That's how joy sustains us in the face of suffering. We look at what Jesus has done.
Happiness is a fleeting, horizontal pursuit many of us live for. It's wrapped up in our obsessions, our loves, our favorites but is evanescent. Joy, on the other hand, is a vertical reality, unaffected by circumstance, which we live from. It sustains, it endures, it braves.
In Jesus, real, enduring joy has come to the world. In Jesus, real, enduring joy is now ours for the taking. May our hearts prepare him room.
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