The Problem of Pain

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When an editor asked C.S. Lewis to write a theodicy, the Oxford scholar penned The Problem of Pain, which came out in October 1940. In some ways, this book—like theodicies in general—presented a philosophical defense of God’s justice in light of evil. Lewis often returned to this topic in his writing because he wasn’t satisfied with just a conceptual defense of God’s ways in a world full of hurt. Even in The Problem of Pain, readers can sense Lewis’s discomfort with overly abstract answers, “When pain is to be born, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.”

Lewis in fact moved to a practical theodicy: Can we find any use for suffering? What does suffering do for us as followers of Christ and for our compassion for others?

Humility: One Purpose for Suffering

It’s easy to think of Lewis as simply a brilliant scholar who popped out ideas from the glorious ivory towers of Oxford and Cambridge—that he was St. Clive, patron saint of theological answers. But that’s inadequate. Lewis lost his mother in childhood, and fought (and was seriously wounded) in World War I. He was living through the Great Depression when he wrote The Problem of Pain. After that he endured the German bombing campaigns of World War II, took care of a friend’s mother who eventually went insane, lived with an alcoholic brother (also one of his best friends), and lost his wife to cancer.

Still, Lewis was convinced that we need to find at least one purpose for suffering: humility. God can get our attention through pain if, through it, we become humbled and less self-sufficient: “He wants you to know Him: wants to give you Himself.” To know God is to 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.”

It’s true that suffering can produce humility. But this often sounds like a pyrrhic victory to the skeptic: “If that’s the remedy for human rebellion, then what kind of God is this?” Lewis’s point is not this terrible remedy, but how much more pernicious our pride and self-centeredness are—and that they block our full experience of God.

And this isn’t just for our own benefit. Scientific studies indicate that when we’re humble, we show “generosity, helpfulness, and gratitude—all things that can only serve to draw us closer to others” (Greater Good Magazine). Forgetting about ourselves allows us to care for others in their pain. In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul praises God “who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” This humble approach only makes sense if God, and relationship with him, is truly the greatest good. And in this sense a theodicy—or at least Lewis’s version—is not for unbelievers, but for believers.

Adding Hope to Humility

Recent scientific studies have also revealed that hope is critical for human life. When we hope, we are open to the future and we find deep peace. Lewis also knew that humility must be joined to hope, and not simply optimism or “hope in hope,” but hope grounded in the God who brings fulfillment: “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” (Rev 21:1-3).

To be sure, this particular hope—that God will bring all things to fulfillment—lies beyond the scope of what science can discern. As physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne has pointed out, natural indications describe a universe that, like each individual life, will come to an end. Indeed, we need to grasp that the world is fallen, flawed, and prone to decay. Putting hope in this world is therefore bound to disappoint. But Christian hope rests in the God who raised Jesus from the dead and can raise the entire creation to new life. To put hope in the fulfillment of creation means we have a secure ground for enjoying our current experience on Earth as we await what’s to come.

Lewis suffered greatly through many crises, and so his are not abstruse reflections—they are forged in the fires of experience. He believes that suffering creates a desire for our eternal destination: “Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

While many of us ask why we suffer, Lewis looks at it from another angle and asks: “What use can be made of suffering?” He tells us that suffering can shape us into being humble and hopeful—and that God can bring us a humble strength and an empowering hope that can carry us through times of trial.


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