C.S. Lewis & Pain: How Obedience Conquers Suffering

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When philosophers discuss the problem of evil, most often they deal with the logical problem—why does evil happen? When ordinary people speak of the problem of evil, most often we are focusing on the existential problem of evil—why is this evil happening to me?

C.S. Lewis, as a trained logician, approached the logical problem of evil and crafted The Problem of Pain. Lewis, as a grieving widower, dealt with existential problem of evil and poured out A Grief Observed.

Through both these books and his other works, fiction and non-fiction, Lewis communicates the only solution to encounters with pain and evil—obedience. Lewis demonstrates the most appropriate way for the Christian to confront the existential problem of evil is to continue trusting God through obedience.

In earlier non-fiction works, the Oxford professor hints at, intellectually, what would later become the foundation during his emotional suffering at the loss of his wife. In Mere Christianity, though a different context, he writes of obeying God when it is contrary to our feelings.

“Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.” He recognizes this type of love sounds like “a very cold thing,” but it leads, paradoxically perhaps, to a destination full of life and emotion. You learn to love by acting in love.

More to the point, in The Problem of Pain, Lewis describes pain as “God’s megaphone,” a method of communication that cuts through layers of shallow thinking like nothing else. This scream shatters the illusion that we can do just fine without God. It is in that state which God wants to show us, as he did with Abraham about to slay Isaac, that obedience is possible even in the worst moments.

“The full acting out of the self-surrender to God therefore demands pain; this action, to be perfect, must be done from the pure will to obey, in the absence, or in the teeth, of inclination.” Lewis finds, as an intrinsic good, “that rational creatures should freely surrender themselves to their Creator in obedience.”

It is in this obedience, that Lewis finds humanity working to reverse the curse and the Fall. The inhabitants of the garden chose, despite their surrounding goodness, to embrace disobedience. The Christian who chooses, despite their surrounding pain, to embrace God and obedience has found the answer.

Obedience despite pain, and in spite of no obvious assurances of a positive outcome, displays faith and trust in God. Lewis argued these actions would later lead to the feelings of trust and comfort.

This concept spilled over into the pages of Lewis’ fiction. In Perelandra, Ransom faces a test of obedience on the planet of Venus, as he works on God’s behalf to prevent another race from falling as humanity did. In Till We Have Faces,Orual, who convinced her sister to mistrust the gods, presents the consequences of disobedience.

Perhaps most vividly, Lewis shows obedience in the face of pain through the eyes of Digory in The Magician’s Nephew. Digory believed the newly created land of Narnia would hold the cure for his deathly ill mother. Aslan tasked him to go to a garden to retrieve an apple to protect Narnia from the witch whom Digory had awakened and brought into the new land.

Before he left, Digory blurted out a request for Aslan to help his mother. Before the Lion answers, Digory was shocked to see tears in his large eyes, “as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he himself.” While Aslan expressed his own grief, he never promised to help Digory’s mother.

At the garden, the witch tempted Digory to take the apple and cure his mother, asking him why he should be a slave to some wild animal when he could make his own mother well again. In the end, Digory follows Aslan’s directive.

As he brought the apple back to Aslan, Digory discovers that had he disobeyed he would have seen his mother healed, but he, and his mother, would have regretted her healing. Aslan, however, gave him an apple that would cure her and bring joy through Digory’s obedience.

Finally, in A Grief Observed, what Lewis portrayed in his fiction and non-fiction became devastatingly real. His beloved wife died after an extended battle with cancer and he turned to writing to express his emotions and thoughts.

Initially, Lewis seems to be contradicting much of what he had written earlier. He speaks of God slamming and locking the door in his face, of God bringing glimmers of hope for a cure only to wretch them all away, even of seeing God as a type of Cosmic Sadist.

Yet, as Lewis continues to pour out his broken heart on the pages, the reader finds Lewis was doing nothing more than the psalmist did – expressing all of his emotions to his God, but in the end resting in the God he knows is there.

He comes to a fresh realization that God is “the End” after which we must seek. God has not locked the door and He is not refusing to answer questions. He is gently telling us, “Peace, child; you don’t understand.”

The remarkable reality of A Grief Observed is not that Lewis fought through doubts in the weeks directly after the death of his wife, rather, it is the fact that so much of what Lewis intellectually understood and expressed in earlier writing was lived out when he was emotionally tested. His was, at its heart, a very practical theology—one consistent with reality that could be lived out.

ln The Problem of Pain, he wrote, “I am not arguing that pain is not painful. Pain hurts. … I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made ‘perfect through suffering’ is not incredible. To prove it palatable is beyond my design.”

In A Grief Observed, he confessed, “[God] always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.”

For Lewis, both as a philosopher and as a sufferer, the answer to the existential problem of evil for the Christian is to obey God, regardless of the feelings.

2 Comments

  1. Wayne

    I agree with Lewis, not because he is famous, but because he came to his conclusions by reading the scripture and understanding how God was working in his own life. I too have arrived at the same conclusions as Lewis through the reading of scripture and allowing God to move me in His will, not my will. Thank You, Lord!

    “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,” – James 1:2

    “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” – 1Peter 1:6

    “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” – Romans 12:12

  2. Just wanted to let you know how much this information has touched and equipped me. I am a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist and End-of-Life Coach, as well as a Christian believer (even though that content does not infuse my work unless my clients invite it). This “taste” reminds me that I need to read and absorb what CS Lewis has to say on this subject, along with other thought leaders in my field(s). It was also great to share with others whom I knew would appreciate and benefit from this, both personally and professionally. Thank you – I really enjoy your blog!

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Aaron Earls

Christian. Husband. Daddy. Writer. Online editor for Facts & Trends Magazine. Fan of quick wits, magical wardrobes, brave hobbits, time traveling police boxes & Blue Devils.