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Year of Reading Lewis: The Problem of Pain

The Problem of Pain was written in 1940. According to Lewis’ preface it was written as a result of a request by Ashley Sampson, who was a publisher at the time and who had requested this book as part of a series he was publishing on the Christian Challenge. According to Bruce Edwards, in C.S. Lewis: An Examined Life, in 1939 Lewis began to meet with a group of Christian undergraduates, and it was either with this group or some other students that Lewis shared his work in progress on The Problem of Pain, reading a chapter each week and getting their feedback on it, with the aim of making sure it was understandable to college students.  The book is dedicated to the Inklings, his group of writerly friends (including J.R.R. Tolkein, and Charles Williams), who, by all account, were generally deep in discussion over one thing or another. I’m certain this “problem” of pain would have surfaced among them a time or two. It was WWII, after all, and there was plenty of suffering being experienced by people all over the world.  And even without the environment of a world war to prompt it,  most people of faith  eventually wrestle with the problem Lewis poses in this book: “If God were good, He would wish to make HIs creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.” 

At any rate, in his characteristic style which is both rigorously intellectual and utterly approachable, Lewis gives us his answer in this book.

My 1983 copy, along with slightly yellowed pages and underlined sections. Interesting to see what I underlined then....

My 1983 copy, along with slightly yellowed pages and underlined sections. Interesting to see what I underlined then….

As with all his works on Christian doctrine and living, Lewis insists on making the reader face the “question behind the question.” In other words, to honestly address this problem, one needs to understand what we are actually talking about. So he begins, in the introduction, to show us the problem of pain is really only a problem for the Christian. Obviously, if you don’t believe in the specific God of the Christian faith, who is presented as a God of Love, then you don’t wrestle with this question.

The next couple of chapters help us examine the nature of God, including His omnipotence (power to do all) and goodness, and shows how a true understanding of these can help us understand the existence of pain and suffering. First, omnipotence. Lewis argues that, “not even Omnipotence could create a society of free souls without at the same time creating a relatively independent and ‘inexorable’Nature.” If you think about this for a moment you realize it must be so. There must be a “field”, as Lewis calls it, where the members of a society meet, or a “world”. If this world varied at the whim of each individual within it, you would be unable to act in it and thus lose your free will. One member might want a soft place to stand and another a hard one, for example. One might want rain and another sunshine So, “if the fixed nature of matter prevents it from being always, and in all its dispositions, equally agreeable even to a single soul, much less is it possible for the matter of the universe at any moment to be distributed so that it is equally convenient and pleasurable to each member of a society.” You can’t have your cake and eat it too – you can’t have both free will and have everything be exactly as each individual person wants it to be. And if God intervenes so that He turns to dust a beam which we might use to strike another person, well, that would mean that wrong actions would be impossible and therefore our free will would be null and void. As Lewis points out, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” 

Lewis then tackles divine goodness. What is really meant when we say this? Again, this concept needs some deeper understanding. For, as he points out,  “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven – a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.'”  Ouch. I’m afraid that is precisely how many would describe their desire when it comes what they want God to do or not do. However, is that really love? What is love if it is not the desire for the ultimate good of the beloved? In what sense can we call “everyone getting what they want” the ultimate good? For surely some of our desires are “bent”, as Lewis puts it in his Space Trilogy. A “good time” by a psychopath would look entirely different to a “good time” by a care-free college student and something entirely different again to a child in a playground. Lewis compares God to an artist who is making the ultimate work of art, the work that will define his life’s work. How much care will he put into that painting, or sculpture, as opposed to how much time he puts into a careless scribble as he talks on the phone which means next to nothing to him? And if that work of art were sentient? Would it like the scraping, the rubbing, the fixing? Ah. “In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed us for a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.” 

I hope you can get a taste from this  short summary of the first few chapters of how many rich insights into the problem of pain Lewis gives us. He is a patient teacher, but an exacting one. He will not let us get away with platitudes or assumptions, he makes us face the hard topics head on and urges us to wrestle with the questions they pose. You can get a hint of this by seeing the topics of the other chapters in the book: human wickedness, the Fall of man, human pain, hell, animal pain, and heaven.

There are so many good quotes and thought-provoking statements in this book. And all of it is an encouragement to those who struggle with this problem of how to reconcile a loving God with suffering. The answer that Lewis gives is not necessarily an easy one, but it is one that makes sense in the context of Christian faith and doctrine. We need not fear that we have no answer to this problem. Indeed we do, and it points to a greater and more loving God than we imagine now. I’ll leave you with a final quote, and an encouragement to read this book and discover the answer to the “problem of pain” for yourself:

“We are bidden to ‘put on Christ’, to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want. Once more, we are embarrassed by the intolerable compliment, by too much love, not too little…..God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God – to be like God and to share in His goodness in creaturely response – to be miserable – these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows- the only food that any possible universe ever can grow – then we must starve eternally.”