Retaking Delight

A Childhood Key to Meaningful Living

When I was in first grade, I was looking at the pictures in a kids' magazine and, with great awe, saw a photo of a red fox. It was standing on all fours in the snow, orange eyes reflecting the sunlight, looking majestic and keen and beautiful. It was nothing all that special, just an animal, quiet, shy, with hidden energy and spunk. I thought to myself, "I like this fox. I want to write about foxes."

So I stapled some printer paper together and started my treatise on all things foxy, coming up with groundbreaking discoveries in the process. Foxes are red. Foxes can be gray. No, you cannot have a fox for a pet. No, foxes cannot be purple, silly! I toted it to church and to basketball games, proud beyond description at the magnum opus. It was my first real attempt at writing, and it was actually fun. It was a simple yet ardent attempt to praise something I thought praiseworthy. Is that the definition of delight?

Drawn Away

If only the wonders of a seven-year-old could go unalloyed for life. While the delight lasted well into junior high, in late high school and throughout college, although reading and writing had become my chosen "craft," I was doing both less than ever, and with less joy than ever. In fact, the thought of coming up with a short story or of sitting down to read a book of fiction all the way through came with fair amounts of dread. Anxiety and deadlines constantly rankled. It seemed that I had lost interest in the world, including red foxes standing in the snow.

Books and writing had become for me a sort of self-involved claim on identity. Writing was no longer a mode of telling about something worth telling about; I wrote simply to be seen as a writer, as some sophisticated guy sitting with legs crossed in the corner of the room, sipping coffee and brooding on how lonely it was to be the only one who felt so alien. In short, the first-grader, so enamored by that fox, got sucked into the prison of a sinful self. Nothing was interesting anymore. Not to the unseeing eye, anyway.

This obviously doesn't happen only to those with an inclination towards reading and writing. There is also the NBA player who started out shooting hoops in the alleyway for the sheer joy of it and now has nothing but rings and brands and bucks on his mind. Love for the game has turned to love of self.

Or imagine an artist like the one C. S. Lewis describes in The Great Divorce, who once painted because he loved "light" but eventually pursued his craft "for its own sake." In Lewis's story, the redeemed Spirit who converses with this deluded artist doesn't pull any punches when he replies: "Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only what they say about Him."

It was really only towards the end of my undergraduate career that it became evident that without "Him," without the Source of all delight, of all foxes and trees and people, that any thought or action or word would proceed out of this vapid, self-interested base. It wasn't just writing and reading. Everything would be consumed. And the emptiness would only intensify so long as my gaze was on myself and not on God.

Why Bother?

Lewis understood this dynamic, but he also argued that reading gives the reader special moral insight, suggesting, at least to some, that those who don't read lack a certain self-transcendence and virtue. However, David Mills critiques the view of the reading life as something that automatically causes the reader to transcend himself. He writes:

It is very easy to be moved by great literature without being changed. Many of us will know the feeling of sympathy and grief with which we read a story of loss, and how quickly the feeling passes and we go back to thinking first of ourselves; or the feeling of distress that strikes us when we read a story of someone doing something petty and stupid we would do in the same circumstances, and how quickly we forget the lesson.1

The reading person has no moral superiority over those who don't read, and it is dangerous, according to Mills, to assume so. The literary critic is no better than the mechanical engineer, or the philosopher than the gardener. The consumption of a lot of stories and information doesn't ensure one's moral transformation. So why read? Why write? Why paint? Why play basketball?

Drawn Back

There is not much reason at all, it seems. If the things we do are intended to build a kingdom of the self, the foundation we build on is one of sand. Things we once may have pursued out of a genuine interest are no longer recognized as gifts but instead start to tyrannize our lives and identities.

But what happens when one believes and realizes that God is real and that the world and the people he created are worth loving and worth delighting in? Then there is much reason to do all these things, and to do them well. Author and pastor Gregory Boyd writes,"People whose identity is solidly rooted in God's love moment-by-moment still try to do their best. But they do so because only this expresses their unsurpassable worth and significance."2 In other words, our worth no longer depends on the security of a career or reputation, but on the love of God.

A friend of mine once reminded me of this missing link, this one-of-a-kind love that gives meaning and reason to every person, every leaf, every fox."Love," he wrote, "is delighting in and wishing the good of another." When the world is recognized as sacred because God created it and is present in it everywhere, then it becomes interesting again. Then I remember that seven-year-old looking with delight at the red fox in the kids' magazine. Then the basketball player jumps with joy up to the hoop in the alley, and the painter smiles at the canvas. Simply being with other people, with no agenda, becomes second nature. We all, with our own voices and roles, start to participate in a dance much bigger than ourselves. And I feel my hand picking up the pen again. 

1. David Mills, "Through Others' Eyes," Touchstone (July/August 2014).
2. Gregory A. Boyd, Present Perfect: Finding God in the Now (Zondervan, 2010), p. 74.

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #56, Spring 2021 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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