Surprised by Joy

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Book Summary of Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis

Surprised by Joy

C. S. Lewis

Main Idea 17 min read

Among all the influential Christian thinkers throughout history, C.S. Lewis is among a select few who were, at some point in their lives, strongly atheist. Looking at Lewis’ literary output and his profound influence on popular and academic Christianity in the 20th century, one might be hard-pressed to believe that, as a young man, Lewis was an avowed unbeliever.

Surprised by Joy details that long, varied journey from faith to atheism and back again. Lewis carries us through his early childhood, a hapless, happy existence, into his rowdy adolescence, his priggish high-school years, and his early adulthood’s burgeoning rationalism. Throughout, Lewis encounters horrid and brutal schoolmasters, the death of his mother, suffocating intra-scholastic social hierarchies, strains and bonds with his brother and father, friendships, losses, and a myriad of other formative events.

Defining that journey, always lingering at the fringes of Lewis’ life, was a certain inexplicable feeling — one that would be the first key to his religious awakening: Joy. This is not joy in the standard, connotative sense, but something much deeper — as Lewis puts it, Joy with a capital J.


17 min read

Key Insights

Key Insight 1

A Faith Journey Is a Winding Road

For Lewis and many of us, the journey to a genuine Christian faith is arduous, lengthy, and never lacking in trials and tribulations.

For many, C.S. Lewis is the pinnacle of the faithful Christian, a person who dedicated much of his life to explaining Christian ideas and the defense of the Christian lifestyle. For many still, whether through his expert defense of the faith in Mere Christianity, his damning examination of sin in The Screwtape Letters, his moving allegories for the faith in The Chronicles of Narnia, or one of his many other explorations of the Christian life, C.S. Lewis helped to bring them to the faith.

Lewis’ account of his childhood up through his intellectual maturation shows us that, even for a person like the one that Lewis became, the journey of faith is not a straight line, nor is it a short one. Just as Lewis converted many non-believers to the faith through his writing, at one point, Lewis was in dire need of conversion himself. From the beginning of his religious life, he was a Christian by rote more than anything else a cultural Christian. He participated in the duties and celebrated the holidays, but he knew no deeper spiritual experience than those.

For a moment, Lewis’ Christian spirit rose up, and during his time at boarding school, he became a genuinely devout Christian, praying, studying, and practicing his faith in the company of faithful mentors. After an unfortunate series of spiritual struggles and personal and literary encounters, the seeds of doubt began to loom large in Lewis’ mind. As his increasingly pretentious and rationalist mind developed throughout his teens, a newfound atheism became more and more pronounced and rigid.

Still, even from this deep hole, Lewis would emerge a Christian only a few short years later. After several encounters with Joy, some influential friends and professors, and some crucial readings of Yeats, MacDonald, and Chesterton, Lewis shed his intellectual preference for atheism and materialism in favor of Christianity. Do not be discouraged when your friends, family members, or fellow Christians experience struggles with their faith Lewis’ story demonstrates that finding one’s faith is a highly personal process, in equal parts self-discovery and intellectual and emotional exploration.

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Application Questions

  • What can you do for people who are struggling with their faith? What’s the best approach?
  • Is it better to proselytize to a person who has lost or never had faith or to wait and let their journey run its course?
  • Key Insight #1 App Question 3

Key Insight 2

Atheism Is Untenable

Part of Lewis’ conversion was not only realizing the truth of Christianity, but recognizing the incoherence of atheism.

Though Lewis spent many years at different levels of spirituality, there was a long, crucial stretch where he was both an atheist (did not believe in the existence of God) and a materialist (believed that only physical matter exists).

An important step in his conversion process was the slow realization that atheism and materialism were, ultimately, unjustifiable ideological positions. He could not hold them if he wanted to maintain his intellectual consistency. 

Many friends and influential instructors were involved in this process, as well as a variety of works of fiction and philosophy. Lewis clung to his materialism for a long time, as it allowed him to shut out questions of metaphysics and immortality. As he put it, “Every man who is afraid of spooks will have a reason for wishing to be a Materialist; that creed promises to exclude bogies” (p. 218). As he matured intellectually and spiritually and he further examined his experience of Joy, a tension began between materialism and his burgeoning understanding of the transcendent. 

One turning point for Lewis was the realization that without some form of theism the power of human reason could not be trusted. If the world is just physical matter and nothing else, then humanity’s ability to reason abstractly was nothing but a byproduct of evolutionary forces — there would be no actual reason to believe that our logic is correct or that it actually says true things about reality and the universe around us.

Eventually, atheism and materialism could not support Lewis’ knowledge of the transcendent reality he’d been made aware of through his studies and his experiences with Joy. Through Lewis, we learn that a proper examination of the facts of experience and the intellect, when approached with an open mind, actually force a person into leaving atheism behind.

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Application Questions

  • How can knowing more about atheism help you make a better case for Christ?
  • What can you do to convince others of the intellectual poverty of atheism and materialism?
  • Key Insight #2 App Question 3

Key Insight 3

Joy Is Not a State of Mind

The elusive feeling of Joy that Lewis sought for so many years is not a state of mind or simply a feeling, but rather a shedding of the self into an awareness of a holy Otherness.

Though the word joy is a simple one, and one we’re intimately familiar with in everyday life, Lewis’ repurposing of the word carries with it a whole new array of definitions. Though the feeling is often ineffable, what is most crucial to clarify is what joy is not.

Joy is not pleasure. Joy is not the feeling of a cozy cup of coffee, a good popcorn-movie, a pleasant book, or a stimulating conversation. These things feel good, of course, and can even be said to be joyous, but they do not contain the multitudinous, rarefied Joy of which Lewis speaks. Lewis’ Joy has nothing to do with the fleeting, ultimately unfulfilling nature of simple, everyday pleasures. Joy also excludes the erotic or the lustful, whose pleasures, though often quite intense and alluring, are equally fleeting and unfulfilling.

Joy is not happiness. There are moments and stretches in our lives where we feel genuinely happy. We feel good about ourselves, have a sense of direction and purpose, enjoy our day-to-day affairs, and feel connected with those around us. The feeling associated with these experiences, the feeling of what one might call ‘happiness,’ has nothing to do with Joy. Lewis even writes that Joy can be described as “a particular kind of unhappiness or grief” (p. 19) just as much as it can be described as happiness. Its experience goes far beyond our normal emotional categorizations and far exceeds any momentary passion or any long-term state-of-mind.

Joy is an encounter with the Holy, a loss of oneself in recognition of the Other. In Joy, you become suddenly aware of the all-encompassing immanence of the Holy all around you something that is often “too near to see” (p. 221). You cannot find Joy by seeking; in that sense it is a grace of God. It is not a finding but a losing, or as Lewis wrote “if I could only leave off, let go, unmake myself, it would be there” (p. 221). To find Joy we have to eliminate the noise that stuffs up and complicates our everyday existence our worries, fears, cares, desires, happinesses, and pleasures. Joy is unavailable to us “not because of something I could not do but because of something I could not stop doing” (p. 221). When we feel it, we see that Joy is the most desirable thing in the universe in fact, the only thing worth desiring.


  Key Quotes     

Application Questions

  • When’s a time in your life where you’ve felt Joy, or something like it?
  • What should you tell people who say they’ve never felt this kind of Joy?
  • Key Insight #3 App Question 3

Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1

The First Years

Lewis was born into the Church of Ireland in Belfast, in 1898. His childhood (ages one to six) was mundanely happy, though not particularly religious. He had a penchant for creating fictional worlds and writing, all the while lazily participating in the religious rituals of English family life.
Three moments, however, stand out beyond all others in his childhood. In those moments Lewis experienced what he calls Joy: 

  1. His remembrance of a memory of a toy garden his brother had made as a child. 
  2. An epiphany while reading a book by Beatrix Potter
  3. An experience while reading the poetry of Longfellow

In those moments, Lewis experienced not happiness, not pleasure, but a deep, irresistible, fleeting desire. That desire was not erotic and not an infatuation. It was, rather, a profound longing that is to those who have experienced it the one and only object worthy of our attention.

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Chapters 2-3

Concentration Camp

Mountbracken and Campbell

After the death of his mother and his subsequent enrollment in a brutal and cruel boarding school on what felt like another planet, England, Lewis developed an us-against-the-world attitude. He often commiserated with his brother during this time, and in turn their bond grew ever-tighter. Though intellectually unstimulated, Lewis became religious during his time at boarding school, where he learned from faithful men, studied the Bible, and prayed frequently. Joy was largely forgotten during this period.

During their schooling, Lewis and his brother had no desire for friendship — they were too busy writing, reading, playing, and talking to entertain others. These difficult times trained Lewis to acquire a crucial aspect of the Christian faith: hope.

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Chapter 4

I Broaden My Mind

Eventually, Lewis left his cruel boarding school for the much more tolerable Campbell, from which his father removed him shortly after for reasons unknown. At the same time, his Christian faith was becoming burdensome for Lewis. Lacking proper guidance, prayer had become an obstacle for him. He felt he could not attain the spiritual enlightenment he thought he was supposed to feel during prayer. Because it was so arduous and defeating to try and pursue some grand realization every night during prayer, he was all too ready to shed Christianity when, fatally, a teacher introduced him to the Occult. When he discovered the other mystical and magical practices of the world, with great relief, he fell out of practice with Christianity and lost his belief in God altogether.

At that time, he was introduced to ancient literature as well as a variety of pagan religions. From there, he started questioning why Christianity was any more true than the world’s many other faiths. His general pessimism also contributed to his newfound disbelief in a supreme, loving God as he questioned why such a God would create an imperfect and often cruel world.

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Chapter 5


After a period of immoral rowdiness and vulgarity among classmates, Lewis suddenly remembered those moments of Joy from his childhood. He realized once again that Joy was “the supreme and only object of desire” (p. 88). He began researching the Norse gods and listening to the music of Wagner, and during this time he experienced several moments of that old, elusive Joy. 

His life, at this point, became separable into two exclusive camps: his interior imaginative world where he pursued Joy and his normal “outer” (p. 74) life, where he lived his standard day-to-day life as a schoolboy. Soon, he headed to Wyvern, where he attended a preparatory school called Chartres.

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Chapters 6-7


Light and Shade

After Chartres, Lewis followed his brother to school at Wyvern. There, he got caught up in a life-consuming system of social hierarchy, consisting of Bloods (the school elites), Tarts (the young, effeminate male sexual partners of the Bloods), and young men like himself, the sychophantic wannabe Bloods who lived at their beck and call (a system known as ‘fagging’). Tired of classes, sports, and the ceaseless ‘fagging,’ Lewis grew to dislike Wyvern altogether primarily because it exhausted him. 

There, he also became what Lewis calls a “prig” (p. 123), or an intellectual snob, when he became more aware of his esoteric and elevated taste. Spiritually, Lewis was at this time an atheist, and he condemned the universe for its cruelty.

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Chapters 8 & 9


The Great Knock

Lewis continued to live a dual life: an inner life exploring Joy, and an outer life going through the motions of the world. Lewis’ relationship with his father, whose manner of speech, style of thought, and constant lingering bothered Lewis, became increasingly strained, as did his relationship with his brother, who was greatly disappointed that Lewis disliked Wyvern. On a trip home, Lewis met his first like-minded friend, Arthur.

At last, Lewis’ father agreed to remove Lewis from Wyvern — a great relief for Lewis — and sent him to study at Bookham. There, the ultra-logical teacher Kirk gave Lewis a crucially important education in classics, demanding that Lewis rigorously refine his dialectical thinking abilities and provide sufficient evidence for all his assertions. Kirk exercised a huge influence on Lewis that remained for the rest of his life. Lewis saw his routine at Bookham as one of the happiest periods of his life.

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Chapters 10-11

Fortune's Smile


Lewis was confirmed and took his first communion while still an unbeliever. In Lewis’ view, this was “one of the worst acts of my life” (p. 198). He began reading the Romantics and came to appreciate classic British novels like Austen and the Brontës through the influence of his friend Arthur. As the feeling of Joy becomes rarer, Lewis recalls a fatal error he made assuming that Joy was a state of mind rather than an encounter with the Other, which it is.

He also recalls that his greedy desire to find Joy again was a hindrance to finding it. After a pivotal moment of Joy experienced while reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes, he realized that: 

  1. Joy is not in the Occult or the erotic or the magical or the pleasurable, but in the Holy.
  2. The answer to finding Joy is not to seek it, but to let go of oneself in order to see that Joy is always already there and available.

  Key Quotes     

Chapters 12-13

Guns and Good Company

The New Look

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After being accepted to study at Oxford, Lewis left to serve in World War I. There, he met many influential people, both in friendship and in matters of the intellect, experienced great adversity, illness, and injury, and read two important authors who pushed him further towards theism: Chesterton and Bergson

Lewis returned in 1919 to Oxford. There, he met lifelong friends who were also intellectual sparring partners. He adopted a new intellectual posture that he called the New Look, which glorified common sense and solid, sturdy thinking. Exploring far off matters like immortality and God became anathema to Lewis as they were impractical and flighty. 

Crucially, his friend Barfield convinced him to drop his “chronological snobbery” (p. 254) his preference for new wisdom over old wisdom and convinced him that without some notion of the Absolute, belief in human reason is impossible. 

Lewis was not yet a theist, but he was on his way.

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Chapters 14-15


The Beginning

Lewis, despite continuing to be more and more convinced of the existence of The Absolute or, as he eventually called it, Spirit, still had a resistance to Christianity. After meeting new friends at Oxford (Dyson and Tolkien) and reading Hippolytus by Euripides and being spiritually overwhelmed by it, Lewis inched closer toward God. 

The turning point, though, was his reading of Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity, which led Lewis to the conclusion that you cannot perform any “inner activity” (p. 266) like loving, hating, or desiring while also thinking about that thing. He realized that his attempts to find Joy had been “a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed” (p. 268). And Joy, being a desire, could not be directed toward itself in that way its desire had to have an object, a ‘desired.’

Lewis realized that life was indeed about shedding oneself eliminating “the separate phenomenal beings called ‘we’”(p. 271) and orienting oneself toward the object of Joy’s desire, which was the Absolute. At this point, Lewis gave himself to the fact that the Absolute or Spirit indeed existed and became a theist. In 1929, he finally admitted to himself that Spirit was God, and felt like “the most reluctant convert in all of England” (p. 279). 

His transition from theism to Christianity is far less clear to him. He knows that at some point he started to see that of all the thousands of religions Christianity seemed to be the consummation. Unlike the others, it was a holistic and accurate worldview that encompassed the truths in them all. Christ and the Gospels seemed real and authentic to him, and the historicity of the Incarnation and Resurrection plausible. One day, quite suddenly and with no clear motivation, he found himself believing wholeheartedly that Christ was the Son of God.

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Lewis’ journey to the Christian faith was a long and varied one, filled with fascinating anecdotes, impactful interpersonal relationships, and formative religious experiences. More important than those though, were his brief but vital encounters with Joy, a profoundly affecting and ultimately spiritual experience.

Joy gave Lewis insight into another world, one beyond the pleasures, cares, and concerns of everyday existence. The strength of this experience was foundational, eventually pushing him toward the Christian faith and the realization that atheism was both intellectually and experientially false.

A Faith Journey Is a Winding Road

Atheism Is Untenable

Joy Is Not a State of Mind

Book Review & Analysis

AccelerateBooks Score:
3.5 / 5

What Makes It Unique?

What is the book’s unique contribution to the field, genre, or topic? And how is it different than other books on the same topic? It is a rare thing to find a book that speaks to you so thoroughly and on so many levels. This was a complete surprise, something I rather stumbled upon because of a reference to it in another book. And what a surprise! Reading each chapter, each paragraph, each sentence, felt much like catching up with an old and dear friend, someone who understands your thoughts and perspectives like few others ever could.

This book reads also much like a bibliography of important books which affected the author most as a youth during his unwitting journey to faith and enlightenment. He tells of an upbringing in northern Ireland and touches upon such sad episodes as losing his mother early in life, and the subsequent unraveling of his relationship with a more mercurial father. Lewis describes the two like ships passing parallel to one another but in opposite directions, with his father never quite able to grasp or identify with his thoughts and motivations.


What are the strengths of this book? Examples: Good illustrations, well-written, well-structured, well-cited, etc. The highlight of this book for me was Lewis’ profound depictions of feelings, moments, opinions, and truths throughout the book. Not only was the language eloquent, but the insight and experiences seemed timeless as I continued to find many of his observations relatable and still relevant.

Excellent! Verbal artistry at its finest. The mind of Lewis is where emotion and rationality kiss each other. Lewis’s journey from atheism to Christianity is nothing short of remarkable. I appreciated his honest retelling of some of the embarrassing events in his life without being crude.


What are some weaknesses? Examples: Biases, redundancies, ambiguity/complexity. This was interesting, but considering the very lengthy and detailed set-up, the denouement was hasty and disappointing. It barely brought together any of the varied strands he’d investigated; especially, his final treatment of “Joy” is relegated to one brief paragraph on the final page, and he fails to explain how Christianity satisfies/fulfills this feeling.

He believes it does, as he says in Mere Christianity: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

But he could better have explained what N. T. Wright calls “signposts” and “places where heaven and earth meet.” Or, as Van Til says so well: “Christianity stands…in antithetical relation to the religions of the world, but it also offers itself as the fulfillment of that of which the nations have unwittingly had some faint desire.”

Final Review

This is where we offer our rating out of 5 and share whether or not we would recommend this book. We answer questions such as “who and how will readers benefit from reading this book?” Recommended for: Ages 15 to Adult (mentions of sinful behavior by the other boys at school, and mentions of certain temptations)

We offer any precautions or caveats to picking up this book if necessary: The problem with much of his canon is that Lewis changed his mind about many things later in life, especially his approach to apologetics. And then a final wave of change from a real life Joy, came late in life.

There are many references, and complaints, in the reviews here of Lewis constantly citing literary references in his memoir. I think it’s a reasonable assumption that he had his friends and colleagues in mind that would be familiar with all of this.

And end with some other books / topics / resources to explore if applicable:

Meanwhile, I found this article on Lewis very fair and balanced and insightful and definitely worth a read. It won’t appeal to those who see him as some kind of plaster saint (something I think would have horrified Lewis), but it happens to be true, which is always preferred.…

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