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C. S. Lewis on the Purposes for Suffering

02/10/2015 09:45 am ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015
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As Harper Lee gets ready to release her follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird, I've enjoyed her comments on C. S. Lewis -- which apparently includes impersonations of her former lecturer at Oxford -- and particularly her assessment of his work,

"the greatest Christian apologist of the twenty century."

Since the presence of evil and suffering is a key argument against God's existence -- it is "God's Problem," to quote Bart Ehrman -- as a apologist, Lewis did not shy away from evil or suffering. By the way, this piece stems from a chapter in my own book on Lewis. So, as I prepare to give a talk at Columbia University in the upcoming weeks on the subject of Lewis and the Purposes of Suffering, it seemed wise to return to the topic and revise it in light of what new comes to mind.

The first thing to note, on the topic of Lewis and suffering, is the word "purposes" above. Lewis was not presenting a defense, in the style of the philosophers Alvin Plantinga or Ric Machuga, (even as different as these two thinkers are) of how to put together an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God with the existence of evil. Lewis's intent, though philosophically informed, was more practical: How does suffering shape us? Secondly -- and this brings us closer to the topic at hand -- Lewis is making a theologically based reflection. It only works if God is our greatest good. Having offered those initial comments, Lewis presented at least three key purposes for suffering, the first of which I'll address here: Suffering can lead us to humility. (I employed "can" here because suffering can also lead to rebellion. Lewis asserted that pain is God's "megaphone to rouse a deaf world," but was quick to add,

"No doubt Pain as God's megaphone is a instrument; it may lead us to final and unrepented rebellion."

According to Lewis, one way God gets our attention through pain is that we become humbled and less self-sufficient. No longer is everything going right because of our own efforts, which leads us to a place where we can find our contentment in God. Is our humility important to God because God is proud? Lewis responds:

"We must not think Pride is something God forbids because He is offended at it, or that Humility is something He demands as due to his own dignity -- as if God Himself was proud.... He wants you to know Him: wants to give you Himself."

When God says "Worship me," it's not a statement of hubris; it's a statement of fact. And this, according to Lewis, leads us virtue of humility, which is the beginning of freedom,

"if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble -- delightfully humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life."

And Lewis helps us understand why this is important to God:

"We 'have all we want' is a terrible saying when 'all' does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St. Augustine says somewhere, 'God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full --there's nowhere for Him to put it.'"

I've written above the "Lewis us helps us understand," but can pain and suffering be fully "understood"? I want to be sure to say I realize how terrible a thought this might be -- that God uses pain to bring us to him. I've served as pastor and through that experience, I've seen all kinds of suffering: a friend who lives in constant pain without a medical answer, those who are simply lonely and cannot seem to make friends. I've conducted memorials of those who died too young, of others whose lives were taken by murders or suicide. I've seen good people leave a grieving spouse with young children and loads of debt. To be frank, I'm not even sure that I totally agree with Lewis, who himself changed his tone toward the end of his life when he experienced his wife died. (More on that in the next installment.) And to be fair, he was never posed as the exemplar of fortitude under pain, "I have never been in a state of mind to which even the imagination of serious pain was less than intolerable." Nonetheless, Lewis's argument probably sounds like a pyrrhic victory to the skeptic: "If that's the remedy for human rebellion, then what kind of God is this?" The point is not this terrible remedy, but how much more pernicious our pride and self-centeredness are. The recompense for pain is truly freeing self-forgetful humility. This only makes sense if God, and relationship with that God, is truly the greatest good. Therefore Lewis won't work for the atheist because by definition the atheist doesn't have a God to relate to. But atheists are also left with Richard Dawkins's solution of a world that has neither good nor evil, where there's just "blind, pitiless indifference" (which, with his superb rhetoric, is a marvelously chilling phrase). I can't find that a compelling solution. I'm also reasonably sure this post won't resonate well in a culture where we're often told that God wants our best, where God is close and comfortable, where it's a few too many "bubbles and kittens" (to quote a friend). Instead Lewis's conviction that suffering can lead to humility is tied to grasping that Christians worship Jesus Christ, and as the 19th century writer George MacDonald (whom Lewis quotes in The Problem of Pain) commented,

"The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His."

Or as a seminarian friend once commented, "When you worship a suffering Messiah, it sure changes a lot about how you view suffering yourself." God is not out to make us glibly happy, but to make us humble, free, and blessed.

Indeed, this is just the first of three purposes that Lewis presented. As I mentioned above, Lewis realized, when his wife died, that suffering also changes our picture of God, especially the God who desires our constant contentment and pleasure. He is the great "iconoclast." More on that in a future post.