A Grief Observed: C.S. Lewis And The Truth About Pain

My Dear Readers,

Answers. We are all alike in that as human beings, we want answers. Why did this happen? What causes this thing? How does this work? We want answers; we like solutions. We like to make sense of our little corners of the world. It feels good when things make sense, because we like the feeling that we know what’s going on: it gives us the idea that we can predict outcomes. It gives us a sense of control.

That’s it. Answers make us think we are in control.

I do not think that this is inherently a bad thing. Having answers, having control, can be good when applied rightly, as to when we learn to discipline ourselves to go to Church, learn a new skill, mature, rent an apartment, buy a car. These are things we need control over.

But every now and again our answers fall short. Every now and again we are hit with startling realizations or devastating losses that alter us completely. The pain and suffering that follows causes many to despair, some to cry out to God, and some to reject Him completely. And always it causes bitterness. From both the devout Christian and the diehard Atheist comes the question: “How could a good God allow pain?”

The Problem of Pain: A Scholar’s Answer

C.S. Lewis answers this question in his monumental work, The Problem of Pain. His words gained much recognition for their poignancy, relevance, and wisdom.

To summarize the book, his argument ran that pain occurs when two or more men and women, operating on their Free Will, have conflicting interests. Naturally, if I have a desire, and you conflicting desire, then if either decision effects either person, then something will be done about it. Because Man is fallen, the possibility that I, you, or both of us will not care about the other’s interests is very likely. And so we experience pain. Hurt at betrayal or being taken advantage of, lied to, physically harmed, et cetera. Naturally, when Christians say there is a good God, most people scoff at the idea because of pain. Why would a good God allow pain to continue, they ask? Because God wants your love, Lewis explains, He does not want to take away your ability to choose Him. Naturally, this means you can say “No” too. So why does God allow pain? Pain, Lewis says, is God’s megaphone, crying out to people everywhere that something is wrong with this world: and we need to turn to our loving Father for help.

The Problem of Pain is a wonderful book. If you’ve not read it, I encourage you to do so. It is such a comprehensive, convicting, eye-opening work that it seems hardly possible that the same man would later write A Grief Observed. C.S. Lewis, world-renowned Christian apologist, the man who knew the meaning of pain, who had all the answers, could not fathom the loss of his wife. His pain was so great and his grief weighed on him so heavily that the book he subsequently wrote required a pseudonym. Lewis and publishers thought that it might cause a stir if the great Christian apologist were seen to have doubted God or blamed or hated Him so strongly. But certainly his love for his wife, Joy, was of a character that it is an amazement he bore the loss at all.

Life with Joy

He first met Joy Gresham in 1952, and they found each other’s company very enjoyable. Joy was a lesser known American author who had converted to Christianity due in no small part to Lewis’s writings. At the time, Joy was in a failing marriage with novelist William Gresham, an alcoholic who was in an affair with Joy’s cousin. Two years passed, and they divorced, leaving Joy alone to care for their two sons. While Lewis was not “in love” with Joy, and would never believe in the concept, he desired to care for her. Thus, they married civilly in 1956 in order that she could stay safely in the United Kingdom with home and income secured.

To his friends, Lewis’s marriage to an American divorcee was the strangest and worst thing he could do. Tolkien, whose opposition to marrying a divorced woman was absolute, called it a “strange marriage.” He and Lewis would not speak for some time. Yet Lewis saw it as a perfect arrangement, and he grew to respect her more and more for her literary achievements, asking her advice more frequently for his own works.

In 1957, Joy developed cancer. It is here we see the oddity, and perhaps the tragedy, of Lewis’s character in full. Where charm and beauty were never the sort of thing to excite romantic or marital love in him, one would think wit and intellect would push him over. Joy’s intellect so singularly affected her new husband, yet he never gave her such a thing as romantic love. Only when cancer threatened to take her from him did he realize his great love for her. What I find to be the tragedy of the thing is that this was the same disease that took his beloved mother from him. I imagine this affected him deeply.

Without delay, they applied to the Church of England for a proper marriage. After some difficulty (due to Joy’s former marriage), they were finally married, and Joy went into remission. After three years of a happy marriage, the cancer returned, and Joy died.

A Grief Observed: The Sufferer’s Answer

After her death, Lewis became desperate. The man who knew pain couldn’t understand it. The only real solace Lewis could find was in his writing. He could write about her death, getting it off of his chest. Of course, the pain remained, but the written expression of his hurt was nonetheless therapeutic. The result was a collection of notebooks that would become A Grief Observed. If The Problem of Pain is an attempt to answer as to the question, “Why would a good God allow pain?”, then A Grief Observed is a manifesto of pain in the human experience, such that most of us are unable to accept God. We are all capable of explaining pain abstractly until we are in pain. Then, suddenly, all of our answers are meaningless. Once again, we are groping in the dark. We don’t want answers. We want restoration. And if we can’t have that, then we turn to blame, to bitterness, to resentment.

I recall the words of my priest, who has often said that “the problem of pain is between God and the sufferer.” In The Problem of Pain, we meet Lewis the intellectual, the scholar, the Christian who desires to use his talents to proclaim God. In A Grief Observed, we meet Lewis the man, the vulnerable, the old warrior who has fought all his life and now has been dealt the most devastating blow ever sustained by mortal men: a crushed spirit.

Lewis did not hide his doubt. His fear. Great was his fear that he would forget her. Not literally, of course. But, he said, he had no picture of her that satisfied. Would he remember her face? Worse yet was the image that he feared to create. He always thought of her, he said, but in the select memories and facts of her–looks, laughs, behaviors, namely–that he particularly enjoyed. Would he forget his wife in this image? Would he make more (or less) of her than she was? Would he create a new person entirely?

Yet in some ways he recounted the gratefulness he had to have had the experience of marriage: he knew the reality of love. It was not some esoteric image that he could dream up, it was real. I myself have written of love as a person, and how anything divorced from personhood, whatever that thing may be called, is not love. Lewis learned this truth in marriage. And here he wrote that he finally understood that Christianity was not some endemic nonsense that restricted mankind from experiencing the joy and the pleasure of erotic, romantic love. It was within the fullness of truth that he and Joy were so happily married. In marriage, Christ became more real, not less.

Having said that, the war of Lewis’s soul was so great that he could not help but put full blame on God. God gives gifts to men and to women, Lewis wrote, only to snatch them away when we are most enjoying them. That God has played “a vile practical joke” on men was more evident than anything. Gone was the theology of the Fall, out with the blame to humankind for propagating sin. Pain is not a megaphone. No. God, wrote Lewis, was simply torturing His creation. Torturing.

Here I must recall the time I read the book, what gave me the greatest pause. The question. I still do not quite know how to react to it. I have not quoted directly from either The Problem of Pain or A Grief Observed up to this point. I will quote A Grief Observed now:

“Is it rational to believe in a bad God? Anyway, in a God so bad as all that? The Cosmic Sadist, the spiteful imbecile?”

I remember quite well the feeling that I had upon reading that question. It was less of a question, it seemed more an accusation. My mind dwelt on it for the better part of the next day. I am not a strong man, I of course have failings. But him? Buckle under pain? Blame God?

And then I had a horrible thought. Had I read blasphemy? I beg your pardon, my friends. I know this may seem a useless aside to the larger point, but I beg you excuse it. You cannot know the debt I owe this man. When my own Christianity was floundering, Christ sent to me Screwtape and Mere Christianity. These books humbled me, inspired me, kept me on the narrow path. To see my hero fall so deep into despair that he should call God “the Sadist”—it was beyond me to comprehend.

Reading A Grief Observed taught me that there are no heroes, only men. Sometimes men are cowards and fall into sin. This was Lewis the Atheist. Sometimes, men are brave and listen to God. This was Lewis the Christian. And both Atheists and Christians grieve loss. The question is not will they grieve, but how? Lewis the Atheist hated God for the loss of his mother. Lewis the Christian only needed time. He never fully recovered from the loss of Joy, but he did learn to accept her death and turn to the Lord his God.

In the end, Lewis knew that he had to accept her death. She was now with God, he said, like Him in Eternity. If this be true, then she is holy. Far beyond what Lewis, in that moment a fallen man in a fallen world, was. The greatest lesson Lewis seemed to have taken from the loss of his wife was this: that God was drawing him closer to Himself. God knew that Lewis was faithful, and He knew that he would rail against Him, flounder, but knew that Lewis would nonetheless continue to be a faithful servant. It was not for God that this was done but for Lewis himself. For, he wrote, his faith needed to deepen, and he needed to know to depend on God.

Closing Remarks

Truly, my priest was correct. The problem of pain is between God and the sufferer. Is there a reason for widespread pain? I do not deny it. But I would ask you to think about the last time someone said to you that your pain was shared by a great many others. Perhaps you said it to someone. It has happened to me. And I have also done it. So I would ask the effect: was your pain lessened? Did it lessen the pain of the person(s) you said it to?

The real problem of pain is not academic, and it cannot be answered with mere words. Pain is an experience. Experience is something known, touched, seen, heard, tasted, smelt. Experience is a possession. In the case of Lewis, he possessed, he experienced, grief. Here, I feel I must disagree with a belief of his: in The Screwtape Letters, he asserts agreement with Immanuel Kant that experience is the mother of illusion. Many have said it, and many believe it. I think it is very wrong. Experience is not the mother of illusion. We are. If we respond wrongly to an experience, we delude ourselves. We are at fault, not experience. Experience is a teacher, and if we allow, a purifier.

What then may we do if the problem of pain is taken out of a grand, general point of view and into a personal context? If experienced, we may seek God, friends, wise counsel. If it is someone we know, comfort them, sit by them. Be present. We may need to speak, but I’ve found this is rare. I talk too much. I have learned it best to shut up most of the time. The problem of pain for the sufferer is to suffer, but to be sure never to suffer alone. The problem of pain for friends of the sufferer is simply this: be present. Be patient. Be kind. Always.

Adieu, my friends.

The Quill

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