In November 1908, the nine year-old “Jack” Lewis experienced the first major crisis of his life. His beloved mother “Flora” (or Florence) died of cancer. His later autobiographical reflections reveal the depth of his suffering.
With my mother's death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.Though the young Jack was conventionally religious and a member of a Church of Ireland family, this trauma would lead him gradually to atheism. As he describes it, the path to unbelief began with prayer. He asked God for something very specific for his mother (as he later wrote in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy), “When her case was pronounced hopeless I remembered what I had been taught; that prayers offered in faith would be granted.” Despite these prayers, on August 23, his mother died. “The thing hadn’t worked, but I was used to things not working….” God—it appeared to this young brilliant boy—was irrelevant to the crisis of suffering in life. If irrelevant to suffering, then God probably did not exist.
In less than one month after his wife’s death, Lewis’s distraught father sent him and his brother to a series of boarding schools. He arrived at the first of these, Wynyrd School in Watford, Hertfordshire, in 1908 just after his mother's death from cancer. Lewis' brother had enrolled there three years previously. Because of a lack of students, Wynyrd was closed not long afterwards. There Lewis was under the thumb of a sadistic headmaster, who was shortly thereafter committed to a psychiatric hospital. Later in life, Lewis summarized his experience at these schools in a letter to a child who wrote him about his Narnia tales, “I was a three schools (all boarding schools) of which two were very horrible. I never hated anything so much, not even the front line trenches in World War I. Indeed the story is far too horrid to tell anyone of your age” That is quite a comparison and perhaps the reason that Lewis invested three chapters in Surprised by Joy, with his experiences in boarding school.
As noted in above, Lewis served in World War One, having enlisted, and returned home wounded in April 1918. Jack’s later the war wasn’t free from suffering and pain, to be sure, but the crises were significantly abated by the time he took up the request by Ashley Sampson to write a book on suffering in a series of popular theology called Christian Challenge. Lewis had learned a great deal after his bombastic and heavy-handed Pilgrim’s Regress, which appeared seven years earlier in 1933. The Problem of Pain is really his first apologetic work and demonstrates a lighter touch, part of which is Lewis’s honesty and humility. Lewis writes that he could not begin the book without writing a disclaimer: “If any man is safe from the danger of under-estimating this adversary [of serious pain], I am that man.”
The experience of a mother dying of cancer with two young boys hit him again in 1956 when he met Joy Davidman, an American divorcée, who was also mother or two young sons and who shortly was diagnosed with cancer. Undoubtedly, he saw his own life being replayed. There was, however, more about Joy: Lewis respected her mind and, for her part, she devoured and cherished his writings. He felt the crisis imminent enough that he married her first in a civil ceremony (and told few of his friends) simply in order for Joy not to be deported. Gradually, they fell in love, and he was married by her hospital bed in a Christian ceremony. After a prayer for healing by an Anglican priest, Peter Bide, she recovered briefly, and they enjoyed a honeymoon, including a trip to Greece (Lewis had only traveled between Ireland and Oxford to that point), but within eighteen months she succumbed to bone cancer. She died on July 13, 1960. In response, he wrote the piercingly honest reflection on this trauma, A Grief Observed. This book displayed what he wrote twenty years earlier (about not underestimating pain) because here Lewis expresses a profound doubt in the face of this emotional pain.
The resolution of these crises—and the wider concern about why there is suffering—demonstrate why his writings still speak today—five decades after his death. Lewis did not write these as detached speculation but as resolutions to his own traumas. They are also resources for us, to help us through our crises of faith and doubt. They have been forged in fires of crisis. That fact makes their wisdom durable.
In fact, this is the question I hear most often in my pastoral work, the problem of pain and suffering: the parents who son has turned away from Christian faith, the young dad diagnosed with cancer, the wife who’s husband left one day for no apparent reason. I talked recently with a mother whose son was going through a difficult experience, and yet an experience that seemed to bring his son, after some years of meandering, back to God. She appreciated Lewis’s insights into the purpose of pain, which she found in my blog posts, because Lewis made sense of why God might use suffering to help her son come to know God. Lewis’s were tough, but true words. Or to use Lewis’s own phrase—which he wrote to a student Sheldon Vanauken at the death of his wife—they were a “severe mercy.”
In fact, Vanauken offers a beautiful eulogy to Lewis’s companionship in suffering:
C. S. Lewis was to be the friend in my loss and grief, the one hand in mine as I walked through a dark and desolate night. Other friends gave me love, and it was a fire to warm me. But Lewis was the friend I needed, the friend who would go with me down to the bedrock of meaning… he gave me not only love but wisdom and understanding and, when necessary, severity.Vanauken’s words could summarize Lewis’s companionship to his readers. He offers not only wisdom and understanding, but also severity and this fact brings me to his approach to suffering, or as he phrases it, “the problem of pain.”
What is the problem of pain? Most of often this is phrased in a why question: Why is there pain and suffering in the world when a good and all-powerful God exists? And this is an important question, but although Lewis willing takes up the question of why, he emphasizes more vigorously the how question: How do we respond to a world of suffering? This chapter seeks to respond to series of questions: How do I make sense of the massive evil in the world and affirm that good can still exist? What to do when we suffer and simultaneously seek to believe in a good and powerful God? Is there any good to be found in a world of pain? Though spread throughout his writings, Lewis worked at these themes most directly in his early, more philosophical book, The Problem of Pain, throughout his later writings, and finally, poignantly, and personally in A Grief Observed. By the way, in these reflections below I will use pain to mean the hurts, usually physical, brought on by the world around us, and suffering to mean the particular psychological traumas that pain causes us.
Two things to get right
In order to grasp Lewis’s resolution to the problem of suffering, two preliminary notes are necessary: one on human suffering and God’s love, the second on human love and suffering.
Frequently, the “problem of evil” is solved through the necessities of freedom. If human beings are given the freedom to choose God’s love or not, they can say no; they can blaspheme or simply ignore God. If they are offered the possibility of caring for others, they can also become cruel. Similarly with natural evil: the same fire that brings warmth can burn the innocent faun trapped in a forest fire. Both moral and human evil—and the pain caused—result from misusing freedom.
I think this defense has merit; otherwise I wouldn’t have made it myself in Creation and Last Things. Lewis also presents some of these arguments in his chapter on the “Fall of Man” in The Problem of Pain. And yet, it has telling failings and therefore must be incomplete. For one thing, freedom cannot be solely defined as the ability to do evil. In fact, the biblical traditions tell us that true freedom is the capacity to do the right. Moreover, as Lewis himself realized—probably most poignantly in his analysis of Paradise Lost, the fall of Adam was absurd at the core. By “absurd,” I mean that we cannot fully understand why a perfect human being would rebel against the good God who created him. There is unreasonableness at the heart of evil that we can never understand.
Therefore, along freedom provides some insights into the problem of evil, this is a minor theme. Primarily, Lewis takes another tact. He reminded his readers that God’s love desires to make us better. It is our suffering that is intended to make us surrender more and more to God. In that sense, Lewis’s response to human suffering is that God uses pain to develop us. It has been called a “soul-making” approach to suffering. (Incidentally, reading his The Problem of Pain transformed my conceptions of God’s love. I have read this book repeatedly and find it one of the two or three most important theological reflection on God’s goodness I have read.)
The first topic to get right is the nature of divine love. Here is one of the key sections, which—in order to understand the full import of his argument—needs to be cited at length:
When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some “disinterested,” because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of terrible,’ is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes. How this should be, I do not know: it passes reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in their Creator’s eyes. It is certainly a burden of glory not only beyond our deserts but also, except in rare moments of grace, beyond our desiring….The classic question is bringing together two statements: that an all-powerful, truly good God exists and that human beings (and the rest of creation) suffer. The resolution, Lewis offers, exists in a proper understanding of love:
The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word "love", and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. ‘Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.’ We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the divine love may rest “well pleased.”
Secondly, suffering is essential to human love, at least in Lewis’s definition. “Love,” Lewis wrote, “is not an affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person's ultimate good as far as it can be obtained." Lewis’s definition of love opens us to suffering. And so another way to understand pain is that it is implied in the nature of love itself. When Lewis reflected on the different Greek words for love in The Four Loves, he reminds us that the nature of loving someone is that it opens us up to pain, but that the pain is worth the greater good of love. (This comes from the section on charity, or gift-love.) Lewis reminds us of both the importance, and cost, of love, and that, if we want to love, we will have pain. Formed by his loss early in life, Lewis admits he would like to avoid this conclusion.
Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as ‘Careful! This might lead to suffering."
To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such prudential ground—because the security (so to speak) is better? Who could even include it among the grounds for loving?... One must be outside the world of love, of all loves, before one thus calculates….
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
So, how does Lewis see God using suffering for the purpose of our growth in faith? In Lewis’s writings, I have found six key purposes, but another might categorize him differently. At any rate, below are mine.
These endnotes are largely accurate, but certainly not complete.
 Surprised by Joy, 21, italics mine.
 Surprised by Joy, 24.
 Jacobs, 22.
 The Problem of Pain, 10.
 A Severe Mercy (New York: Bantam, 1977), 185.
 Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science (Geneva, 2002), 64-66.
 See Romans 6-8, for example, and David Bentley Hart, Atheistic Delusions.
 A Preface to Paradise Lost.
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: MacMillan, 1962), 46-48.
 Light on Lewis, ed. Jocelyn Gibb (Geoffrey Bles, 1965), 40.
 Michael Ward, “On Suffering,” The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, eds. (Cambridge, 2010), 210.
 Ward, “On Suffering,” 209.
 Mere Christianity.