Friday, April 13, 2012

C. S. Lewis: Three (More) Purposes for Suffering

(Note: This is the final installment of my chapter on "C. S. Lewis and the Purpose of Suffering." Let me know what you think.)
Suffering can lead us to humility
Another way that God gets our attention through pain is that we become humbled and less self-sufficient. No longer is everything going right because of our own efforts. And we come to a place where we can find contentment in God. Lewis helps us understand why this is important to God:
We must not think Pride is something God forbids because He is offended at it, or that Humility is something He demands as due to his own dignity—as if God Himself was proud… He wants you to know Him: wants to give you Himself. And He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble—delightfully humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life.[1]
The reality of humility sounds like a pyrrhic victory to the skeptic: “If that’s the remedy for human rebellion, then what kind of God is this?” The point is not this terrible remedy, but how much more pernicious our pride and self-centeredness are. When I go to the dermatologist and she deadens pre-cancerous spots on my skin by spraying liquid nitrogen, which—if it’s not obvious—causes a stinging pain. I don’t respond with, “What kind of sadistic doctor are you?” But “Skin cancer is much worse. I’ll go through this if I have to.” The recompense for pain is truly freeing self-forgetful humility. This only makes sense if God, and relationship with that God, is truly the greatest good.

            Suffering breaks down our idea of God
            One of the great and painful discoveries that Lewis makes in suffering is that God is the great “iconoclast” who breaks down our overly simplistic images. We would like to believe God wants our constant pleasure, what a friend of mine once called a world of “bubbles and kittens.” As Lewis writes after the death of his wife, Joy:

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.[2]

Suffering is never something that human beings look forward to. As Lewis phrased it succinctly in The Problem of Pain, “Pain hurts.”[3] And Lewis, in his searing Grief Observed even called God the “divine Sadist” for the pain he suffered. We do not naturally seek it. Nonetheless, the resources Lewis offers can give us some strength when we go through times of suffering and pain.

            Suffering can lead us to hope
            This following paragraph makes the best sense of why we suffer, why this world is not ultimately satisfying, and why these two things point to our hope in a new world. The new world is indeed a fulfillment of this world, which means there is continuity and discontinuity—continuity, we will understand the experiences, but discontinuity, the new world will not have the decay and death that is implicit in our experience. The final book of the Bible, Revelation states that most clearly:

See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. (Revelation 21:1-3)

For human happiness, we need to grasp that that the world is fallen and flawed. Putting hope in this world is therefore bound to disappoint. Put hope in the fulfillment of creation for which Lewis employs “heaven” as shorthand, allows us to properly enjoy our current experience. “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”[4]

            This is an excerpt that ranks as one of the finest in Lewis’s writing, a blend of spiritual insight and philosophical-theological reflection. Notice below how he returns to the loss of “settled happiness” he experienced first when his mother died. These are not abstruse reflections—they have been forged in the fires of experience.

The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.[5]

Lewis desired “joy” (an intense longing that this world cannot fulfill) throughout his life. It is part of his apologetic for God. (If we desire something this world cannot fulfill, then that indicates we aren’t made for this world.) In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, when he discovered that no source in the world satisfied this desire, he ultimately came to faith in God by realizing that this world is not our home and that joy can only be realized fully in heaven. This final reflection brings us to the fulfillment of the story of God’s creation.

            As I type this chapter, a good friend is going through a three-year bout with cancer and thus the rigorous hazing of chemotherapy. He wrote in a recent Facebook post, citing Lewis, “'We shall be true persons when we have suffered ourselves to be fitted into our places. We are marble waiting to be shaped.'” His response? “Still being fitted, I suppose.” Lewis’s version of “why evil?”—or better, “what use is evil?”—tells us that his soul-shaping takes place now, and that is good and happens at the hand of a good God. Lewis also insists that we know that the fit will find its fulfillment in the final chapter according to Lewis’s—and may I say the Bible’s?—understanding of the suffering. It brings us to the final chapter of this book as well as the last word of the Bible.

[1] Mere Christianity, 113-14.
[2] Grief Observed, 78.
[3] The Problem of Pain, 105.
[4] Mere Christianity, 18.
[5] The Problem of Pain, 115.

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