Unexpected Joy

In the Garden is a gospel song with more meaning than some have realized. Here is its story.

C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia children's books, was an Oxford scholar of some note. In middle age, he also became a staunch defender of the Christian faith. A few years before his death in 1963, Lewis penned his autobiography, telling of his conversion from atheism to faith in Christ. He called the book Surprised by Joy. And "joy," for the author, meant much more than mere happiness. He would describe it as child-like wonderment, resulting from a glimpse of the eternal. Even before he realized it, his whole life to that point had been a search for such joy. Then he found it in an unexpected place--in a personal encounter with the Lord Jesus.

The Apostle Paul could have said something similar. Heading for Damascus, "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord" (Acts 9:1), he was confronted by the living Christ. His life was never the same again. In a vital relationship with the One he'd previously opposed, Paul found his heart suffused by joy. He writes on the theme in Philippians, referring to joy some sixteen times. He reminds us we Christians have a profound reason to rejoice in Christ (Phil. 3:3); that we should rejoice whenever Christ is faithfully proclaimed (1:18); and that even making a great sacrifice for Christ is cause for rejoicing (2:17-18).

Another who was surprised by joy is Mary Magdalene (Jn. 20:1-18). After Jesus was crucified, she came to the garden tomb early Sunday morning, only to find the stone rolled back from the entrance, and the tomb empty. Not comprehending the true meaning of what she witnessed, Mary began to weep. Then turning, she saw a stranger standing nearby. In the half-light of the predawn, her eyes dimmed by tears, she did not recognize who it was, but assumed he must be the gardener, hired to care for the property where the tomb was located.

Thinking perhaps he was responsible for what had happened, she said, "Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him." But at that, Jesus (for it was He) simply spoke her name, "Mary!" She immediately recognized Him, overwhelmed by the utterly unexpected joy of hearing once more the sound of His voice. Mary sought to hold on to Him, as if to keep Him with her forever." But gently the Lord responded, "Do not cling to Me." Instead, He sent her to carry a message to His followers.

Austin Miles (1868-1946), a one-time pharmacist, turned hymn writer, was meditating on this lovely account at Easter time in 1912 when, as he tells it, "I seemed to be a part of the scene. I became a silent witness to that dramatic moment in Mary's life, when she knelt before her Lord, and cried, ‘Rabboni!'" Inspired by his vivid mental picture of the incident, Mr. Miles wrote the words and music for the popular gospel song "In the Garden." It begins, "I come to the garden alone, / While the dew is still on the roses; / And the voice I hear, falling on my ear, / The Son of God discloses. / And He walks with me, and He talks with me, / And He tells me I am His own, / And the joy we share as we tarry there, / None other has ever known."

The hymn has been called sentimental and meaningless--which it might be if just any "garden" were in view. But the author had a specific one in mind. And he wanted to capture something of the emotion Mary experienced. Miles comments, "Just one word from His lips, and forgotten the heartaches, the long dreary hours….All the past blotted out in the presence of the Living Present and the Eternal Future." Mary had been surprised by joy--a joy like no other. Many who have found the living Christ would say the same. And "though now [we] do not see Him, yet believing, [we] rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory" (I Pet. 1:8).