C. S. Lewis on Longing

Introduction

You can trace the theme of longing through most of Lewis’ writings. In some places, it is explicit in other places it is implicit. For example, Perelandra does not so much make an argument as much as make you desire and long to experience something of what Lewis wrote. When reading some of Lewis, we often find ourselves hoping what he writes about is true. Lewis’ argument is not really cognitive and logical as much as it is “kardialogical,” that is, reasoned from the heart. As Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.”[1]

It is also important here to look at what Lewis meant by longing or desire. Lewis himself said, “From the age of six, romantic longing—Sehnsucht—had played an unusually central part in my experience.”[2] Sehnsucht is a German term that communicates the longing that all of humanity has. It means “longing,” “yearning,” or “craving.” It is a way of saying, “something is intensely missing, there must be more.” Joe Puckett defines Sehnsucht this way:

The aching, and yet pleasurable, intense longing for a life that we cannot yet have but naturally and universally crave. It is the feeling of having lost something that we once had—giving us a sense of homesickness and discontentment with the less-than-ideal world we currently find ourselves in.[3]

Lewis was specially equipped to discuss longing since from a very young age he had experienced such longing and had the ability to write about it with apologetic force in both narrative and essay form. My thesis is that Lewis is correct, our longing does point us beyond this world. Our longing ultimately points us to the Lord and His coming Kingdom.

What is Lewis’ Argument from Longing?

Formal Argument

Lewis does not give a formal argument from desire. Though, you could write the formal argument out like this:

  1. Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.
  2. But there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy.
  3. Therefore there must exist something more than time, earth and creatures, which can satisfy this desire.
  4. This something is what people call “God” and “life with God forever.”[4]
Informal Argument

Lewis said “most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.”[5] People think if only I tried another romantic relationship, or a more expensive vacation, or whatever it is, then, I would find what I’m looking for. “Most of the bored, discontented, rich people in the world are of this type. They spend their whole lives trotting from woman to woman… from continent to continent, from hobby to hobby, always thinking that the latest is ‘the Real Thing’ at last, and always disappointed.”[6] And, as Lewis says, “What does not satisfy when we find it, was not the thing we were desiring.”[7]

Thus, we are left disappointed because our desires, our longings, point beyond thisworld to something, or someone, else. “The human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given—nay, cannot even be imagined as given—in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.”[8] Lewis says our “soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions.”[9]

So, while the formal version of this argument, in my opinion, is not possible to prove, it does truly seem “that pleasures here on earth awake the desire for more and act like cosmic pointers to the real things which can ultimately satisfy us.”[10] What is the best explanation for this? Lewis said, “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.”

Many would clearly disagree that that is the “most probable explanation.” We will consider the legitimacy of Lewis’ argument below. For now, at least, we have briefly looked at what Lewis believed and argued. Now, we will briefly turn to the historical and biblical precedence for Lewis’ belief of longing, or Sehnsucht, being a pointer to things divine.

The Historical and Biblical Precedence

Christians have been talking about longing for quite some time. Lewis, however, perfected its apologetic value. Let’s look, however, at some of the other voices of which Lewis was an echo. One such voice is Augustine. He said in his autobiographical Confessions, that our hearts are restless until they rest in Him. The LORD is the summum bonum (“the highest good”). Augustine also had a good observation in his Confessions regarding the low of diminishing returns. He said the less God allowed him to find pleasure in other things, lesser things, the greater, he knew, was God’s goodness to him. This is because those lesser things will never truly satisfy. John Calvin also knew that humanities search, though often unrealized, is a search for the Divine. Calvin said “a sense of Deity is inscribed on every heart” (sensus divitatis).[11] People often suppress their desire for God, their ultimate good, and seek to find meaning and life in subordinate goods or things which are nearly sheared of all good.[12] Blaise Pascal, the mathematician and Christian philosopher, says the same type of thing. He asks, What does our desire tell us? It tells us that there was once in us a true happiness of which we now have only the empty trace, which we in vain try to fill from our surroundings. All those things, however, are inadequate. Our infinite emptiness can only be filled by an infinite object, that is, only by God Himself.[13] There are others, such as George Herbert, George MacDonald, John Piper, and Alvin Plantinga, that we could look at.

That is all well and good, but, what does the Bible itself say about an innate sense of longing? Does the Bible say we possess something like that? In Ecclesiastes the “preacher” addresses various ways that people seek to find meaning and true lasting satisfaction. People seek it in knowledge (Eccl 1:16-18), pleasure and money (2:1-11), and work and accomplishment (2:16-23). In the end, however, it is “striving after wind” and “vanity.” Many people experience yearning and striving because God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (3:11). People long for lasting satisfaction but nothing lasts.

The Bible does seem to explain that there is something like Sehnsucht. It seems to be part of the human condition since the Fall. It is the LORD that makes known to us the path of life, in His presence there is fullness of joy, at His right hand our pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11). It seems then, that until we are with the LORD in the new heavens and the new earth, until the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17), until we experience “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the mind imagined” (1 Cor. 2:9), we will continue to feel a sense of longing.

The Legitimacy of Lewis’ Argument

First, it is important to say that though the Bible does not necessarily use the concept of Sehnsucht as an apologetic argument it does seem to support it. That, at least for me, adds a level of legitimacy to Lewis’ argument. Further, at times there are “distorted mental maps, wrong perceptual models, and invalid interpretive narratives in which God doesn’t make sense” but Lewis’ argument can be used to provide a “proper model, an accurate narrative, that corresponds with reality and in doing so enables [people] to see life in the proper perspective.”[14]

Second, there are other responses to the argument from desire. One could completely “trivialize human aspirations and desires, reducing them to a quirk in our physiology.”[15] That is what Richard Dawkins does.[16] That option is open. The argument from desire, is thus not foolproof. I do not, however, believe it needs to be. It will still be very effective and moving for some. Even if the argument from desire does not “create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief can flourish.”[17] I believe the argument in this sense has a lot of legitimacy. For the Christian, who has faith, it is a big confirmation of the legitimacy of their faith. It is also a spur to press on. As Lewis said, “You and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness.”[18] Christians need reminded that selling everything to purchase the treasure hidden in the field makes sense.

As Lewis said, “All joy… emphasises our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire.”[19] As Christians, we are waiting for a better place, a heavenly homeland (Heb. 11:16). We will soon be rescued from every evil action and brought safely to His heavenly kingdom (2 Tim. 4:18). We are looking to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Heb. 11:10). We are sojourners and exiles (1 Pet. 2:11), this earth is not our true home. That is important to remember. And as we wait, it is encouraging and helpful to remember that “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.”[20]

Third, there are different legitimate approaches to apologetics.[21] The Bible itself “takes a contextual approach to apologetics.”[22] It is also important that we realize that people are more than minds. Humans are not merely reasoning and thinking beings; we are also desiring and believing beings. The Bible recognizes this, and while logic is ever present, it is employed within framework and a shared set of assumptions that take our total humanity into account.”[23]

Lewis is certainly not setting out to build a cumulative case from his argument from desire but he does, in my opinion, build a legitimate case.

Screen Shot 2020-06-15 at 6.24.40 PM

Figure 1.1: Adapted from Apologetics at the Cross, 106.

I believe Lewis’ argument from desire would be in quadrant 7 on the bottom right side of figure 1.1. Much of the way Lewis made his argument from desire was embedded in narrative. I agree with Alister McGrath that “narrative apologetics is a theologically legitimate and culturally appropriate way of engaging the concerns, anxieties, and questions of our age.”[24] That is because “narratives possess enormous potential, when rightly used, to capture the human imagination, and create receptivity to a Christian way of thinking and living.”[25] As Lewis said, through certain narratives, what Lewis calls “great myth,” “we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.”[26]

Fourth, Lewis’ argument has legitimacy because it is another example of the explanatory light of the Christian view of the world. The Christian view of the world, for instance, explains how humans became humans, it shows what it is humans are to do while on earth and why, and it sheds light on the longing that humans so often fail. As Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[27] As Donald T. Williams has said, “Desire is… one more aspect of human experience that makes perfectly good sense if Christianity is true, and presents a very difficult problem if it is not.”[28]

Relevance of the Argument from Longing

In evaluating Lewis’ argument it is also important to consider whether it is relevant to our current context. I believe Lewis’ argument is perhaps more relevant and poignant now than ever. It seems a similar argument was relevant to the audience of Ecclesiastes but many in the world now have access to more than what many kings in times past had access to. We have access to what would seem to be limitless information through the internet as well as various forms of pleasure. We also live in a day when people are not only working on building vast works of architecture on earth but even working towards doing it on mars. People are also building virtual kingdoms and going on virtual quests. Yet we also live in a day where one of the repeated mantras is “vanity of vanity.” People are riddled with depression and there is sadly a near-constant stream of suicides. People still experience longing. If anything, it is highlighted now more than ever because we can experience and see so much and own so much, but still be left searching for the next thing.

We see this same type of perspective in secular culture. Artists realize we have a desire for more. See, for example, the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” and U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I Am Looking For.” A few modern lyrics further demonstrate humanity’s angst. Like this from Bastille’s song “Flaws”:

There’s a hole in my soul
I can’t fill it, I can’t fill it
There’s a hole in my soul
Can you fill it? Can you fill it?

Or look at “Devil Pray” from Madonna:

The ground beneath my feet’s getting warmer
Lucifer is near
Holding on, but I’m getting weaker
Watch me disappear
And we can do drugs and we can smoke weed and we can drink whiskey
Yeah, we can get high and we can get stoned
And we can sniff glue and we can do E and we can drop acid
Forever be lost with no way home
Yeah, we can run and we can hide
But we won’t find the answers…

Humanity has a hole, a longing, a search for more. So, it seems to me that Lewis is clearly hitting on something that has a lot of contemporary relevance.

The former guitarist for the heavy rock band Korn, Brian “Head” Welch, said this in his book Save Me from Myself:

Here I was, the guitarist for one of the biggest rock bands in the world, racking in millions of bucks, and playing huge concerts all over the globe, but I was completely miserable. I didn’t understand how a person who had everything he wanted, with millions of dollars in the bank, could be unhappy.[29]

Later he said that the love of God is what he had really been craving.

Take it from me: nothing you chase after on this Earth will satisfy you…

Nothing.

Trust me.

While I was in Korn I had people waiting on me left and right. Anything I wanted, I got. Anywhere I wanted to go, I went. All I had to do was give the word, and it happened. I had the world in the palm of my hand, people; and I have to tell you one last time, there’s nothing there. I promise you.

Jesus Christ is the only one that can make you complete.[30]        

It seems then that a large swath of people—Blaise Pascal to Bastille and from Madonna to modern theologians—agree, humans have an innate longing. Where there is disagreement is what that longing is ultimately for and why we have it. This gets us to my critique of Lewis.

Critique

Lewis said that he believed he was more of an apologist and not as much an evangelist. He said that he believed that apologists and evangelists should team-up. To all that I agree. But I also think that apologists should grow in evangelism if they are weak in that area as evangelists should grow as apologists.

The strongest critique that I have of Lewis’ argument is that it is not necessarily theistic, let alone Christian. I believe it can be and should be employed to argue for our desire for the LORD who we were separated from and Messiah Jesus and His Kingdom by the Spirit. My critique is that Lewis did not take the argument far enough, to Christ and His Kingdom.[31] Aslan would be the closest he gets to communicating that Jesus is the ultimate answer to our longing. Lewis does, of course, explicitly challenge people with the identity and deity of Jesus Christ. I think right away of Mere Christianity where Lewis challenges people that Jesus is a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. I also think of Lewis’ essay “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?”[32] My critique is not so much that Lewis did not point people to Jesus but that his argument from desire should have, in my opinion, culminated in our longing being met in Messiah Jesus and His coming Kingdom. In some places, I fear, it is not clear that Lewis is arguing for a distinctly Christian conception of longing being fulfilled.

The problem and the strained longing we feel is because we are separated from God because of sin. “God was our original habitat and our hearts cannot but feel at home when they enter that ancient and beautiful abode… While we take to ourselves the place that is His the whole course of our live is out of joint.”[33] Jesus is the sole answer to Sehnsucht.

When we seek for other things to fill us, make us whole, fill our void, it does not work. Those other things merely work their ruin. When we, like our first parents, turn from God to listen to, and find our life ultimately in others things, it damns us. Romans chapter one says that when we know God but do not honor Him as God then we become futile in our thinking, and our foolish hearts become darkened. We may claim to be wise, but we’re fools. Because we exchange the glory of the immortal God for other things, foolish things, like sex, success, and a sordid amount of other things.

By not clearly connecting humanities Sehnsucht with sin and our hope and solution in a Savior we left with a condition, that is, longing, but no clear diagnosis or cure. The Bible, however, clearly and gravely gives the diagnosis and also, thank goodness, a cure.

The Damning Diagnosis. Millard Erickson has rightly said, “For us to put any finite object, whether ourselves or some other human, ahead of God would be wrong, for it would be a denial of the very structure of reality.”[34] And yet that is what we do when we sin. We turn to polluted puddles that infect and kill and away from the fount of living water that alone can satisfy (Jer. 2:13). Sin is thus damning, damaging, and dumb.[35] Sin is our diagnosis, the ultimate reason for our problems and Sehnsucht. As James K. A. Smith has said, “At the heart of our being is a kind of ‘love pump’ that can never be turned off—not even by sin or the Fall; rather, the effect of sin on our love pump is to knock it off kilter, misdirecting it and getting it aimed at the wrong things.”[36] God has, however, provided a cure for us in Christ.

Christ the Cure. In the beginning, humanity had unhindered fellowship with God, God even walked with man (Gen. 3:8). But an abominable breach was introduced because of sinful rebellion. All sorts of chaos and curse ensued. Humans no longer have ready access to God and the blessing that friendship with Him entails. This, ultimately, is the origin of our longing: sin and the separation from God that it brought. And Jesus alone is the cure to the various curses that sin has brought about. Jesus is the Great High Priest and the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world and allows access and even friendship with God. In Lewis’ book, Perelandra, Ransom is used to prevent the Fall, in reality, Jesus is the ransom to pay for the penalty of the Fall. Ransom made it so all things would be kept right, whereas, Jesus makes it so all things can be set right again.

Jesus alone “satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul He fills with good things” (Ps. 107:9 cf. Ps. 42:1-2). Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, no one obtains the summum bonum, for which we all yearn, apart from Him (Jn. 14:6 cf. 1 Tim. 2:5). In Jesus our longing soul finds satisfaction. In Jesus, we have, even now, eternal life (Jn. 17:3). Christ gives the shalom we all seek that the world can never give (Jn. 14:27).

Conclusion

Lewis was right, Sehnsucht is a pointer.[37] But it points ultimately to a person, Messiah Jesus and His eternal Kingdom of peace that He will bring where all things will be new and even better than we can conceive. Through many of Lewis’ writings, we get beautiful and imaginative glimpses of what it is we long for. Lewis provides powerful pictures that work as an argument, although not so much logical and cognitive but instead “kardialogical,” it pulls at our heartstrings. It makes us want Christianity to be true. Lewis’ argument factors in that we are whole people and I believe it helps us to love the LORD our God with all our heart[38] along with our minds.

____

[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, sect. 4, no. 277.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Narrative Poems (New York: HarperCollins, 1969), 5. He refers to Sehnsucht in Christian Reflections “Christianity and Culture” as well.

[3] Joe Puckett Jr., The Apologetics of Joy: A Case for the Existence of God from C. S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012), 26.

[4] Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Pocket Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 26.

[5] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 135.

[6] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 136. See also Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Carol Stream: IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2013), 173.

[7] C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 128. “Our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is not mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation” (The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses [New York: Macmillan, 1980], 16).

[8] Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, 10.

[9] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 147.

[10] Art Lindsley, “Argument From Desire,” 3 in Knowing & Doing, Fall 2003.

[11] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.3.1.

[12] Cf. relevant verses Gen. 2:8-10; 26:19; Ps. 42:1-2; Is. 12:3; 33:21; 44:3; 55:1-3; Jer. 17:13; Zech. 14:8; Ezek. 47:1-12; Songs. 4:15; Ps. 36:9; John 4:10-11; 6:35; 7:37-39; Rev. 7:17; 22:1. I believe all, or most, of these verses are connected. Although, not directly, all these verses refer back to fellowship with God being restored. This is what we all truly long for though we seek for it in other things, other idols. As Calvin famously said, “the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols” (Calvin, Institutes, 1.6.8). We long for Eden, we long for restored fellowship with God. May we say with the psalmist, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” (Ps. 42:1-2).

[13] Cf. Pascal, Pensées (148). “What is it then that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.”

[14] Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen, Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness in Late Modernism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), 52.

[15] Lindsley, “Argument From Desire,” 4.

[16] For example, Dawkins seems to think compassion and justice are just mistakes. He says, “Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfirings”? By Dawkins account we have “programmed into our brains altruistic urges, alongside sexual urges, hunger urges, xenophobic urges and so on…. We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce). Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion [First Mariner Books, 2006], 252-53). It would seem then that our desire for the transcendent would also clearly just be a misfiring.

[17] Austin Farrer, “The Christian Apologist,” in Light on C. S. Lewis and other Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1960), 25.

[18] Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 7.

[19] C. S. Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanocich, 1966), 289.

[20] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanocich, 1964), 93.

[21] Chatraw and Allen, Apologetics at the Cross, 106.

[22] Ibid., 61. See further all of chapters 1 and 2.

[23] Ibid., 55.

[24] Alister McGrath, Narrative Apologetics: Sharing the relevance, joy, and wonder of the Christian faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019), 97.

[25] Ibid., 96.

[26] C. S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1970), 57.

[27] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 1980), 140.

[28] Donald T. Williams, “Made for Another World: C.S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire Revisited” in Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 02 (2018).

[29] Brian Welch, Save Me from Myself: How I Found God, Quit Korn, Kicked Drugs, and Lived to Tell my Story (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 2.

[30] Ibid., 217-18.

[31] As David Powlison points out, “when the analysis of what is wrong does not lead directly to our need for the person and work of the Messiah, then that analysis is shallow. The solution necessarily becomes some version of ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition through the Lens of Scripture [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003], 238).

[32] See Lewis, God in the Dock, 166.

[33] Tozer, The Pursuit of God, 67.

[34] Millard Erickson, God and Father: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 246.

[35] Sin is like Gollum’s ring. It enslaves and destroys. It looks good and promising but ends in lava. “The turning away from the living God… is the spiritual equivalent of a diver cutting off his own breathing tube” (N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006109). “God is our final good, or maker and savior, the one in whom alone our restless hearts come to rest. To rebel against God is to saw of the branch that supports us” (Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995]123).

[36] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 52.

[37] See Chatraw and Allen, Apologetics at the Cross, 241).

[38] See Adam C. Pesler, “Reasons of the Heart: Emotions in Apologetics” in Christian Research Journal, vol. 38, num. 1 (2015).

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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