There are few things more common to the human experience than pain and suffering. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) their universality, there are also few things that seem more incompatible with the human experience. This is why a period of suffering, and especially a prolonged one, causes us to ask God why–to question the purpose behind our pain.
C.S. Lewis, the famed atheist-turned-apologist, was himself intimately acquainted with suffering–essentially orphaned at the age of 9 when his mother died and his father shipped him off to a strict boarding school, physically and mentally wounded while serving in the trenches in World War I, and tragically widowed when he finally married following a long bachelorhood. Unsurprisingly, considering his experience, his literary works are filled with references to, meditations on, and explanations of the problem of pain. How do we reconcile an omnipotent, benevolent God with the existence of pain and suffering? What possible purpose can pain have?
What’s interesting is that while Lewis agrees that pain is undoubtedly evil, he insists that it is sometimes a necessary evil (God in the Dock, 224-25). He goes even further in The Great Divorce, an allegory about the afterlife, when George MacDonald, his guide through the purgatory-like state in which the story takes place, tells him “that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory” (The Great Divorce, 69). He doesn’t actually explain how one’s pain results in glory, beyond saying that “the good man’s past begins to change so that his … remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven (The Great Divorce, 69), but based on the rest of the Lewis canon, there are at least 5 ways that this “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17):
1. Pain captures our attention. Lewis brings this up in both of his seminal works on pain: The Problem of Pain, an apologetic work in which he argues that pain and suffering do not negate the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God, and A Grief Observed, a first-person account of his grief following the death of his wife.
In the former, after describing how we humans are capable of ignoring our sins, ignorance, and even our pleasures, Lewis writes,
But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. (The Problem of Pain, 91)
He admits (perhaps reflecting back on his own decent into atheism following his mother’s death and World War I) that this may actually
lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul. (The Problem of Pain, 93)
However, pain not only forces the unbeliever to consider God and his own morality, it captures the attention of the believer as well. In his writing about the death of his wife, he writes about great sorrow:
Nothing less will shake a man—or at any rate a man like me—out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. (A Grief Observed, 28).
More will be said about this later, but clearly Lewis came to believe that God uses pain to pierce through our self-centeredness–to get the eyes of our souls off ourselves and back on him where they belong.
2. Pain cures our sense of independence. Lewis applied this principle in a letter concerning as mundane a topic as slight financial difficulty, writing to Mary Willis Shelburne, who had been forced to rely on her daughter and son-in-law for assistance, “it is good for us to be cured of the illusion of ‘independence’” (Collected Letters Vol. III, 359).
However, it was not just independence from others that must be cured, but also one’s refusal “to recognise one’s dependence on God” (Collected Letters Vol. III, 163) for “the redemptive effect of suffering lies chiefly in its tendency to reduce the rebel will” (The Problem of Pain, 112-13).
3. Pain crumbles our pride. Perhaps the best illustration of this principle in Lewis’ works is found in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in the person of Eustace Clarence Scrubb, a boy so unbearable that he almost deserved his name (Dawn Treader, 1). Throughout the early portions of the book, Eustace is about as self-centered and prideful as a person can be–“an ass” is how Edmund describes him (Dawn Treader, 91). Things change, however, when Eustace is magically turned into a dragon. The transformation itself is enough to initiate a change in his personality, but his transformation back into a boy is where it really gets interesting.
The great lion Aslan appears and tells Eustace to undress–to remove his dragon skin. Unable to do so himself, Aslan steps in to help with his claws. Eustace recounts,
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve every felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. … Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off–just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt … It smarted like anything but only for a moment…. I found that all the pain had gone … And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.” (Dawn Treader, 90-91).
Lewis does not stop there, however. He goes on to ensure that readers have no doubt that the transformation was not just physical, but had in fact humbled the prideful child:
“It would be nice, and fairly nearly true, to say that ‘from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.’ To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.” (Dawn Treader, 93).
4. Pain creates opportunities for our sanctification. This is hinted at in Eustace’s story above and elaborated on in Lewis’ letters. In writing to others about suffering, Lewis is careful to differentiate between God’s absolute will and his relative will when it comes to suffering. “God never absolutely wills the least suffering for any creature, but may will it rather than some alternative” (Collected Letters Vol. III, 379).
God allows his children to suffer for the same reason a parent allows a child to suffer: in order to bring about a greater good or to avoid a greater pain. In a letter from 1952, he writes to Mary Van Deusen,
I believe that all pain is contrary to God’s will, absolutely but not relatively. When I am taking a thorn out of my finger (or a child’s finger) the pain is ‘absolutely’ contrary to my will: i.e. if I could have chosen a situation without pain I would have done so. But I do will what caused pain, relatively to the given situation: i.e. granted the thorn I prefer the pain to leaving the thorn where it is. (Collected Letters Vol. III, 163 [emphasis his]).
Then, a year and a half later, he again tells her,
No one absolutely wills to have a tooth out, but many will to have a tooth out rather than to go on with toothache. Surely in the same way God never absolutely wills the least suffering for any creature, but may will it rather than some alternative. (Collected Letters Vol. III, 379)
The greatest example of this of course is Jesus Christ, for God
willed the crucifixion rather than that Man shd. go unredeemed (and so it was not, in all senses, His will that the cup shd. pass from His Son). (Collected Letters Vol. III, 379)
In Lewis’ mind, human freedom and sin made pain inevitable. It is the mercy and grace of God that limit that pain and turn it around for our good.
5. Pain confirms our faith. The raw emotion of A Grief Observed, especially in comparison to the logical faith of The Problem of Pain, has led some to wonder if the death of Lewis’ wife caused him to lose his faith. However, A Grief Observed is more a man struggling to apply his logical faith to an emotionally devastating situation—allowing the intellect to correct the emotion, but also allowing the heart to impact the mind. He wrote of suffering, grief, and sorrow as a journey or a process rather than a permanent state, and a journey “where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape” (A Grief Observed, 45).
Any doubt that he expresses is not the forsaking of old beliefs, but the building of new ones. No doubt Lewis was experiencing what George MacDonald, whose works had impacted his coming to faith, had in mind when he wrote,
“Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to rouse the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood […] Doubt must precede every deeper assurance.” (Shadows and Chivalry, 94-95).
Indeed, Lewis’ doubts were ultimately not about the truth of Christianity in times of grief, but rather about their consolation in times of grief:
Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand. (A Grief Observed, 18).
Rather than causing Lewis to doubt the truth of Christianity, the pain of losing his wife, by causing him to reevaluate his faith, only made him more sure of its truth:
You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. (A Grief Observed, 15-16).
It is often said of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac that God tested Abraham’s faith not because God needed a sign of his faith, but rather because Abraham needed it. Similarly, Lewis ultimately concludes that pain and suffering prove the quality of our faith not to God, but to us.
For all these reasons, these 5 purposes of pain, Lewis was able to conclude his personal account of suffering upon the death of his wife with the assurance that God does in fact work all things, even pain and suffering, for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28):
Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked from under our feet. We shall see that there never was any problem. (A Grief Observed, 55)
Lewis, C.S. 2007. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle.
———. 1970. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
———. 2009. The Great Divorce. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle.
———. 2009. A Grief Observed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle.
———. 2009. The Problem of Pain. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle.
———. 1970. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. New York: Collier Books.
McInnis, Jeff. 2014. Shadows and Chivalry: C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald on Suffering, Evil and Goodness. Cheshire, CT: Winged Lion Press, LLC.