Thursday, April 12, 2012

C. S Lewis on Two Purposes for Suffering

(Note: This is the next installment of my chapter on "C. S. Lewis and the Purpose of Suffering." Let me know what you think.)

Suffering can lead us to cling to God
Lewis’s favorite verse was Jesus’s cry of dereliction,[1] “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When we are in moments of hurt sometimes God seems to have abandoned us. The promises of God’s companionship can see distant, or even non-existent. And here Lewis does not play the card that “God suffers with us” (which is a popular theological today). He faces the brutal reality of these moments and says they are hellish. Nonetheless, when we turn to God in those moments—as Christ did—we realize a central purpose for suffering, and God deepens our relationship with him. Notice in this citation the allusion to Jesus on the cross. This reflection is not mere monotheism, but it is Christ-centered. And, according the Lewis, the devil shudders. As the senior tempter, Screwtape, writes to the junior devil, Wormwood, in the imagined correspondence, The Screwtape Letters.
Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.[2]
Once again we turn to Lewis’s insights on soul-making—pain, for those who see it through, trains our wills to stay fixed on God. (Or maybe I should say, suffering can train our wills, much like hill-climbing trains the biker to race more effectively and strengthens her.) Once we have learned that side of faith, we learn faithfulness in our relationship with God.

            Suffering is God’s “megaphone” to rouse us
            True faith implies full surrender to God. Sometimes the only way to get us there is through suffering. This is a tough truth, but Lewis, at least, was willing to say that we are often asleep, or at least, deadened to God’s voice. We can become complacent. So God uses pain in our lives to rouse us. (I have to concede that this sort of conclusion contrasts with much of contemporary “feel good” Christian writing and therefore I trust it.) Lewis estimates that our desire for self-will is an intoxicating addiction: “The human spirit will not even try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it….” And he knows that, if we are satisfied with our lives, we will take whatever gift comes our way—whether food, or wealth, or sex, or good fortune—and forget the Giver. “But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[3]

            Lewis is frank and admits that this “megaphone” may turn us to God. It might also turn us away: “No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead us to final and unrepented rebellion.”[4] Pain is no guarantee; it may cause considerable growth in faith or its abandonment. I am thinking of the various pastoral conversations I’ve had where the disappointment with God turns the former believer away. One of the most poignant, contemporary examples is the New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, who describes his own story of leaving the faith while he served as a pastor of Princeton Baptist Church. He simply could not come to terms with the existence of God and the reality of pain:
I finally admitted defeat, came to realize that I could no longer believe in the God on my tradition, and acknowledged that I was an agnostic: I don’t “know” if there is a God; but I think that there is one, he certainly isn’t the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the on who is actively and powerfully involved in this world. And so I stopped going to church.[5]
Ehrman has created a bit of a cottage industry, writing books about his disappointment with God and his disdain for the mistakes in the Bible and the authors that penned them. He stands as a brilliant exponent of the way that God’s megaphone can simply make some go deaf.

            But not all do. And my encounters with people of faith demonstrate that right in the midst of suffering, many find God, that God’s “megaphone” of pain can slow down in order to find God because so often we rush on with life and give little heed to God, who is the Source of life itself. There is nothing like a physical injury or an emotional wound to bring the pace of life to a crawl.

            The need to slow down is fundamental to our return to God. When I looked back over my life as I was writing Say Yes to No—on the importance of nos, as well as yeses, in finding happiness—I realized that I couldn’t go forward simply by pressing on faster. Instead I needed “to turn around” and slow down. To frame the book properly, I began with this insight from Lewis,
We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
            Progress is the result of “turning around” around fast. Helpful here is the New Testament Greek word for repentance, which means “to turn around.” Sometimes we need to slow down and get on the right track. Sometimes suffering does just that.

[1] Cf. Michael Ward, Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, 210.
[2] The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast (New Jersey: Barbour, 1961), 47.
[3] The Problem of Pain, 93.
[4] The Problem of Pain, 95.
[5] Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer (HarperOne, 2008), 4.

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