C. S. Lewis: A Second Key Purpose for Suffering

02/18/2015 04:31 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

We all know that solving the problem of pain and suffering is, among other things, intellectually excruciating. The Harvard philosopher Alfred North Whitehead spoke rightly when he commented,

"All simplifications of religious dogma are shipwrecked upon the rock of the problem of evil."

Similarly the great medieval Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas concluded that the biggest reason not to believe in theism was the problem of evil.

Here I'm following my previous post on the 20th century Oxford and Cambridge academic, C. S. Lewis, and his views on the purposes of suffering. One of the arguments in my book, C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian, is that readers too often mistake Lewis for the "Christian Answer Man" because the writing that fills his multi-million selling books is almost deceptively smooth and winsome. Instead I argue that Lewis's crises throughout his life--beginning with the death of his beloved mother at age 9--form his writing and force him to seek resolution. Those crises persisted through his life (such as serving, and being wounded, in World War One, caring for his alcoholic brother) and continued to shape his writing. Here I am asking in what ways Lewis revised his early comments about pain and suffering (particularly in The Problem of Pain) in his final book on suffering, A Grief Observed.

Lewis certainly believed that one purpose of personal suffering is to break down our ideas of God. Along with Whitehead--who suffered a terrible loss when his son died in World War One--a principle and painful discovery that Lewis makes in suffering is that God is the great "iconoclast" who breaks down our overly simplistic images.

To be fair, Lewis knew the limits of his ideas. Even as a religious apologist--one who defends the character of God in light of arguments against God's existence--Lewis knew that his own thoughts could never be ultimate. As he penned in the "Apologist's Evening Prayer":

"From all my thoughts,
even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free."

Indeed Lewis found his earlier intellectual formulations--that God is still good even in light of pain in the world--hard to take when his wife, Joy, died. Not only had he lost a cherished spouse, whom he only met late in life in his fifties and so finally got married at age 57, but he also saw his own life replayed--Joy had two young sons whom she left behind at almost the same age as Lewis and his brother at their mother's death. His unflinching honesty remains the most arresting feature of A Grief Observed, which was initiated after Joy's death:

"Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him."

This initial outburst gradually gives way in the book to a more measured realization that any simple versions of God's goodness had to be re-written. In fact, all "icons" we construct about God's attributes are shattered... by God. As he writes:

"My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are 'offended' by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not."

Suffering is never something that human beings relish. As Lewis phrased it succinctly in The Problem of Pain, "Pain hurts." And we are repelled by what hurts us. In his searing A Grief Observed, Lewis even called God the "divine Sadist" for the pain he suffered.

Later in the book he resolved that even God does not respond to every inquiry, and--it seems even--to some of his earlier formulations of God's goodness:

"When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of 'No answer.' It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, 'Peace, child; you don't understand.'"

The oddest thing here is that Lewis's "No answer" not only doesn't bring anger, but it carries a certain acceptance. Accepting that not every question receives an answer brought Lewis the resolution and peace that lies beyond human understanding.

If Lewis has become a somewhat universal symbol of Christianity, let us not conclude that the perfect Christian life can be discovered through the uncomplicated resolution of all crises, nor the easy answer to every problem. Instead, Lewis models an engagement with suffering and a life that lies beyond easy answers.