For the next couple of months in this blog, I will be writing about the communication of C.S. Lewis. Specifically, we will explore how Lewis took one important theme, pain and suffering, and unpacked it in many different genres of writing, including non-fiction, radio, letter-writing fiction, fiction, essay, children’s fiction, autobiography, adult novel, and journal. On the topic of pain, Lewis had a central point (with serval sub-points): God uses pain redemptively to bring us back home, to pull back our rebellious wills. Lewis wrote in a wide range of genres but his core message on pain never changed. We will explore how Lewis communicated his message on pain in his many writings, one each week. Later, we will examine his method as a model for Christian communication.
We aptly begin with Lewis’s book The Problem of Pain, published in 1940. From a communication standpoint, we immediately notice something unique about Lewis: the book is not very long, especially for a theodicy (defense of God’s goodness). In fact, most of Lewis’s writings are not very long; he had a way of saying so much with so few words (a good trait to emulate). Lewis begins by stating the purpose of the book was to solve the intellectual problem, knowing (from experience) that the personal problem of pain can only be borne with fortitude and patience. He would, 20 years later, write about the personal experience of pain in his book A Grief Observed.
In The Problem of Pain, he begins by stating the problem: there is pain and yet we believe in a good God (p.15). First, there is some pain that Lewis does not seem to consider part of this problem. God created a natural world with fixed laws: gravity means we can fall and get hurt; wood being hard means you can build a house for shelter and also stub your toe on the table (p.25). Second, the problem of pain is a question that only conscious people can ask – people have a sense of “self” (p.3). This self allows us to question God and includes the possibility of evil. Self allows you to take wood and hit someone with it. Self allows one to want a corner of the universe that is yours and not God’s (p.77). The true purpose of the self, says Lewis, is to be abdicated and so become more truly self (p.158). This abdication, this coming back to God, is painful. Therefore, pain is part of the process that God uses to reclaim our “self”. This echoes James who wrote that pain produces perseverance (1:2-4), and Peter who wrote that suffering proves the genuineness of faith like gold refined in the fire (1 Peter 1:6-7).
Lewis makes sure to clarify that suffering is not good in itself (p.111). Humans need to comfort each other and work to alleviate and end pain when and where we are able. He also clarifies that although God may use pain to bring about good, that does not mean that the pain was good itself. What Lewis is driving at is the goodness of God in the midst of human suffering. God is good, and His goodness is greater than ours. God’s goodness includes allowing pain for the sake of growing His children. God loves us – but true love demands the perfecting of the beloved; it is not mere tolerance (p.39). Our world doesn’t want God’s love, we only want kindness. We don’t want God to be our Father who shapes and punishes us, we want Him to be our grandfather who spoils us and gives us everything we want (p.32). Lewis is reframing the problem and laying out the biblical truth of who God is, who humans are, and how pain works. In The Space Trilogy, published around the same time as this book (1938, 1943, and 1945), Lewis would use the medium of science fiction to illustrate the message of the rebellious human will causing evil, and God allowing suffering that will grow the character of the books’ main protagonists. The victories in the books are only achieved by suffering.
Throughout The Problem of Pain Lewis is pointing to a bigger problem – the rebellious human will. It is painful to give back the will we have so long claimed as our own. First, God uses pain to wake us up, to plant a flag in rebel territory. Pain helps us see that our lives are not the way they are supposed to be and that what we have is not enough. Second, God uses pain to shape us and to call us back. God allows us to suffer to become better people; He is driving at our growth and the perfecting of our will. The will has fallen from its created state and needs to be brought back to God. Third, pain ensures that we are acting only for God’s sake, because it is against our personal interest. This is not just a Christian doctrine, it is reality and it is tapped into by all great traditions (p.104). Christianity teaches the fulfillment of this truth in Christ. We imitate Him who did most of the work for us. Lewis’s point is that the problem of pain is actually the problem of the rebellious human will. We are the cause of most of the pain in the world, and God allows pain to grow us. Coming back to God is a painful road that transforms our character as we surrender our will to the good and loving Father. Lewis is working to recover “the old sense of sin” in his readers (p.51), so that they would understand the diagnosis before the painful procedure that God is performing.
Lewis’s main point about pain is that it is remedial and redemptive. God is a loving Father who uses pain to shape and bring back His rebellious children. Humans can cause pain but God can use it for a greater good. Humans who follow God need to trust in the Father, to bear the necessary pain, and to comfort each other. We also need to do good and work to end suffering in others. These points about pain, and his perspective on the character of God and humans, do not change in any of his future writings. In fact, he will use the variety of genres in his writings to make the same point in a variety of different ways. Next week, we will look at Lewis addressing his nation on the radio, in a series of talks that became Mere Christianity.