The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis
Updated: Aug 22
Preface: this is a long post, but I hope that you will enjoy it. It is not merely a book review, but also involves a personal reflection. I hope that, during this time of social isolation and distancing, this post may perhaps open avenues for conversation.
Recently, I attended an Orthodox group discussion on "When God Doesn't Answer our Prayers." During the discussion, several participants recommended the book titled above. To preface this blog write up, I will note that this will not merely be a book review. Living through a global pandemic has truly opened my eyes to personal reflection and introspection, but also to suffering. And, by suffering, I do not necessarily mean physical pain, although certainly that may be included, but more to tribulation, hardship, feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, hopelessness, emptiness, lack of understanding of personal purpose, and even questioning the strength of my own faith. I have also experienced others' sufferings with loss of jobs, income, loss of loved ones, personal injury, depression, and a lack of purpose.
Personally speaking, living by myself in an unfamiliar state without any close relations or family has been extremely difficult during this time. It has certainly magnified feelings of loneliness and, more concerning, feelings of a lack of purpose. So many times, I have cried for the Lord to reveal to me His purpose for this phase in my life. What is His intent for me? What am I meant to do during this time? Who am I destined to connect with or to serve on a broader term? Why have I chosen to come to this point in my life and where is my life heading? This does not just apply to personal and social connections, but also to a bigger purpose. I have had such a strong desire to serve, and yet, feel so limited and constrained during this pandemic. This is further complicated by the fact that I, honestly, do not have many social connections in the town where I currently reside. And, yet, despite all of these uncertainties, I have started a "gratitude" journal. I am grateful for health and my family's health and safety. I am grateful that I do reside in a town where the number of COVID-19 cases is not overwhelming (certainly a blessing considering that I am on the front lines). I am grateful that I have had the chance to be alone with God. It is certainly difficult during this time to express gratitude because all we can think of is "God, when is this ever going to end?" How long will You withhold your mercy from us? Why have You forsaken us, God? How long will I continue to feel this loneliness? When will I ever get the opportunity again to see my family? When will I ever get the opportunity again to attend church regularly? For me, the latter issue has been ever more present particularly given the fact that the closest church is at least 1.5 hours away. To further complicate that matter, advanced sign ups are required to be able to attend the service.
It is not easy for me to feel vulnerable and yet, during this time in particular, I have opened up to the closest people in my life, close friends and family, in ways that I would have never imagined I would. Even building relationships at work has allowed me to open up more. Why? Because, we are all craving social interaction and relatedness. And, how is that built? When we become vulnerable with one another. For those people who have shared their vulnerabilities with me and have opened up to me about their struggles, I say thank you! You have paved a way for me to practice gratitude and to also practice humility by allowing a platform for me to also be more vulnerable. We are in a position to offer a listening ear to others who may be struggling with issues that are beyond our comprehension. Our kindness, although it may not be evident to us initially, may potentially play a huge role in providing comfort to others during a time when everyone is suffering on some level.
The Will of God:
So, now with that said, I will delve into the salient points that I personally learned from reading this book. Firstly, for so long, I have always wondered how can I reconcile my free will with the will of God? Ultimately, this book illustrates the simple point that the will of God is for our good. And, our good is to not only love Him but also to be transformed in His image, to undergo deification ourselves and sanctification (this is termed Theosis, a concept that I recently learned). And, what better way to reveal that love than for us to practice complete self surrender to our Creator. C.S. Lewis quotes George McDonald, who noted that God is telling us "you must be strong with My strength, blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you." He gives us the ultimate happiness to be like Him and to share His goodness in creaturely response. That degree of love may cause pain to its objects, but only with the supposition that the object needs alteration to become lovable, or to become defied. And why do we need so much alteration? It is because our own free wills have honestly led us to making bad choices, and, ultimately to evil. If we learn to relinquish complete control and to surrender wholeheartedly to Him and to genuinely trust Him, how much happier will we be? This is certainly not an easy task, particularly during a time when the future remains unknown and uncertain.
Recognition of our own depraved natures:
Every man has to live to the outward appearance of others, oftentimes supposing himself better than person X or "not as bad" as said person. We do not really know our own personal corruption and thus are more apt to suppose "corporate guilt" rather than personal accountability. We assume that there is safety in numbers. If all men are bad, then it is, in some way, excusable. The universe is a local pocket of evil where "minimum decency passes for heroic virtue and utter corruption for pardonable imperfection." And yet, if our depravity is total, then we would not know ourselves as depraved. We are, ultimately, humbled by our sins and shortcomings, if we come to recognize them as such and seek retribution. We recognize the depravity of human nature rather than becoming disillusioned by it or placing our faith in human nature. We are creatures whose character should be recognized as a horror to ourselves. The holier a man is, the more fully aware he becomes of that fact. However, C.S. Lewis also warns that recognizing the first sign of corruption within ourselves does not equate to humility because despite that recognition, we are still vile. So then, the next question follows: how did we become so vile?
How did we become so vile?
The answer is simply that we are of a fallen nature. We have become corrupt, a horror to God and ourselves, creatures unable to adapt to the universe because of the abuse of our own free will. Christianity asserts that God is good and He created everything good, amongst which is free will for rational creatures, which by its very nature also included the possibility of evil. Creatures, then availing themselves of this possibility, have become evil.
So then, if God is good, why did He not abolish the first sin and why did He allow the fallen world? If there is divine interference for every sin, then nothing important would ever need to depend on human choice or on free will. Ultimately, we would all be living in a Utopia without any possibility of making any decisions or choices. There then would be no need for alternatives. The next point then, if we are given free will, then we are then responsible for those choices we make. The first sin was that of pride. “From the moment a creature becomes aware of God as God and of itself as self, the terrible alternative of choosing God or self for the centre is opened to it.” This is the basic sin behind all sins, choosing self over God. Before the fall, man was the prototype of Christ, “enacting in joy and ease of all faculties and senses that filial self surrender which the Lord enacted in the agonies of the Crucifixion.” God was man’s first love. Then, came the fall, when man desired to be on his own, to take care of his/her own future and plan for his/her own pleasure. Self surrender no longer existed. Prior to the fall, there was complete delight in self surrender and as such, really no struggle, no temptation to choose self, no passion or inclination for self adherence. But, then, man cut himself off from the very source of his being, from his source of power. His human spirit revolted against its Creator. So, then, God began to rule man not by the laws of the spirit, but by the laws of nature, which are themselves imperfect.
So why is there pain, trouble, and suffering?
That fall and our sinful nature is not a “misfortune” but a fact. And, by realizing our true sinfulness in that regard, we can then mend those ways and truly repent, realizing the shame and guilt of our sinfulness. In our present state of sinfulness, good to us means remedial or corrective good. What part pain plays in this remedial process is then to be considered. The possibility of pain exists inherently in a world where wicked souls reside. “Until the evil man finds evil unmistakably present in his existence, in the form of pain, he is enclosed in illusion” And, in turn, he is not open to retribution or, better yet, repentance. Pain gives the only opportunity for amendment. Pain also shatters the fact that what we have, good or bad, is our own and enough for us. I mean, how often do we call out to God in our good times? We don’t feel the need for Him, we have not submitted to self surrender. To us, God is there only for emergencies. We seek Him when we are facing pain, suffering, tribulation. We seek happiness in other things, rather than in God. God makes life less sweet to us so that we can turn to Him and not fall to our tendencies. This is a concept of what C.S. Lewis calls “divine humility.”
God wants us eventhough we have shown Him that we want anything but Him, only self reliance. If God only wants us when we only come to Him with the purest intentions, then who would be saved? "The creature’s illusion of self sufficiency must be shattered and, by trouble or fear of trouble on earth, God shatters it, unmindful of His glory’s diminution". In other words, God is glorified and He does not need our praise, and yet, despite our stubbornness, He still seeks us. Through pain, we are humbled and cognizant of His glory. Kant mentions that self surrender cannot be willed to the height by fallen creatures unless it is unpleasant. By self surrender, it means complete obedience to God, which is something that goes against the fallen creature’s nature and, hence, inherently difficult and painful. And, so what motivates the fallen creature to pursue this obedience? It is by troubles which are “sent to try us.” All that is given to a fallen creature with free will will be "two edged, not because of the nature of the giver, but because of the nature of the recipient". For example, pain can either result in indignation on the part of the recipient, or to patience and humility.
C.S. Lewis makes clear that suffering is not good. What is good in any painful experience is that it allows the submission of the sufferer to God. You can carry out God’s purpose for good either by serving God as a son or by being used by God as a tool to achieve that ultimate good. C.S. Lewis comments that both Judas Iscariot and John were used for the ultimate good to serve God’s purpose, but in different ways. It makes a difference whether we serve as Judas or John in carrying out God’ plan.
I will end with this thought. A soul is but a hollow which God fills. The soul's union with God, is by definition, a continual self abandonment, a surrender of itself. “A blessed soul is a mould ever more and more patient of the bright metal poured into it, a body evermore completely uncovered to the meridian blaze of the spiritual sun.”
So, ultimately, I may not know God's plan. I may continue praying for His purpose for me and the answer may not be revealed soon or even at all. I may continue to feel lonely. But, despite all of these feelings, I will continue to pray. I will continue to thrive and I will continue to trust
in Him despite the many uncertainties that remain all present in my life. I have to learn to surrender myself wholly to Him to allow Him to work in me. It is not an easy task, but it is a necessary task for attainment of pure happiness.