C. S. Lewis’ “The Problem of Pain”

Upon finishing C. S. Lewis’ book The Problem of Pain, I can highly recommend it. The reader will perhaps not agree with all of Lewis’ positions, but the treatment is deliberate and delightful enough to allow anyone of good mind the space to think deeply along with him. Some highlights in no specific order (supplemented by my readings in another book I would even more highly recommend, Margaret Turek’s Atonement):

1 – Pain differs from sin and error in that pain, once it has run its course, does not proliferate but rather leads to joy. Sin and error, on the contrary, proliferate. Sin leads to more sin, error leads to more error. Correlated to this is Lewis’ insight that, while sin and error are masked evil, pain is unmasked evil. Sin and error do not want to be seen for what they are–falsehood and evil. They want to hide, unconfessed, unseen by anyone and especially not by God. And they want to pretend as if they do not have consequences, do not produce a worse world. Pain, however, is the obvious, material testimony to the fact that sin and error do have consequences. Even if I, the sinner, do not encounter the repercussions of my bad acts (at least not right away), someone else does. Sin has an objective aspect which, moreover, is not cancelled by the subjective act of repentance. Imagine an addict who gives up their addiction, who makes the initial conversion to a new form of life, who has fully resolved in their heart to never return to the addiction. Still, there will be consequences that the contrite person will have to face; and that other, perhaps unknown people will have to face, given that the past sin made its imprint on the world. In this scenario, the pain that the contrite heart feels when confronting the consequences of their past sin, however, is restorative and redemptive. It means not only that one is finally accepting the truth of one’s actions, in all their ugly dimensions. It also means that one is materially atoning, through one’s pain, for the sin of one’s past, and through that atonement bearing the sin in a way that reverses it and turns it around. For unlike the masked evil of sin, which perpetuates itself blind to its own falsehood, the unmasked pain one undergoes through repentance and atonement will not continue past a just point: for past that point is joy, a restored relationship with the Lord, for which the pain of atonement is a segue.

2 – Pain is therefore the sinner’s opportunity for amendment. Confronted with pain, he can either continue in rebellion or adjust, repent, and atone. Pain removes the veil which had been there between the evil act and its consequences: they cannot be overlooked anymore. Even if, in response to seeing them, the rebellion intensifies.

3 – Our true joy is had through our collaboration with God, that is, when our will and God’s will are aligned, when we live in obedience to Him (and so “live in” Him). But this means that the criteria for our action is not happiness first of all, but obedience. It is not the agreeableness or pleasantness of our life that counts, in fact, Lewis implies that these contribute more to our disobedience than anything. This is where pain can play the role of focusing us back to Him. When pain, suffering and loss shows us (or remind us of) the futility of seeking our joy in mutable things, we have a chance also to see that what we really want to seek is God. God wants to make us blessed. He does not want mediocrity but the superabundance of Himself to fill us and be our food. So, Lewis argues, God sends misfortunes and sufferings to break us out of our (perhaps well-intentioned) illusions. Pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world” and thus to provoke a response in us–a response that moves toward active collaboration with God more in accordance with the laws of the Kingdom of God. The idea that we are self-sufficient must be shattered, and God can use any means of fear or trouble to produce this result.

4 – The culmination of this argument is to advocate for a “daily death” to self. This is to finally act with the proper motivation–not a natural motive or support like security, contentedness, ample possessions, or any natural good, but rather this: to act in obedience to God because obedience to God is intrinsically good, for it reverses “the act by which we fell” (i.e. rebellion, disobedience). The perfect example of this obedience is Christ, who went to the Cross in atonement for sin because it was the will of the Father. He did so with no self-interest, no desire to aide him, save the highest desire and interest: to do the determined will of Goodness itself. To emulate the Son in filial obedience is the only road to Heaven–and we now know that that road goes through the Cross. The question is how to recover this self-surrender. For Lewis, to fully act out our surrender to God “demands pain,” for it means correcting our rebellious nature day in and day out. There is no avoiding that this will be unpleasant at times, but here we see again that pain and pleasure are no longer the criteria: obeying God is.

I may add to this list some very interesting things Lewis says about Heaven and Hell, but for now I will leave it there. A recommended read!

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