C. S. Lewis’ Thoughts on the Problem of Pain and Suffering

From The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., Free Press, 2002, pages 210-213

Lewis develops his response to the problem of suffering in several of his works, the two most popular being The Problem of Pain, a cerebral work dealing with the intellectual aspects of the problem, and A Grief Observed, a more emotional, visceral response to the death of his wife.

Lewis possessed an uncanny ability to reduce complicated issues to their very essence. He described the problem with startling clarity. He writes: "If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both." This, Lewis explains, is the problem of pain in its simplest form.

To understand the problem of suffering, Lewis asserts we must first understand what we mean when we use terms like "happy," "good," "almighty," or "omnipotent." If we give these words their popular meaning, Lewis writes, then the "argument is unanswerable." For example, the word "omnipotence" "means the power to do a11 or everything." We are told in Scripture that "with God all things are possible." but Lewis states that this does not mean that God can do anything. God cannot, for example, answer nonsensical questions - such as how many miles are there in the color blue? Likewise, He cannot do both of two mutually exclusive things; for example, He cannot create creatures with free will and at the same time withhold free will from them. Lewis writes: "Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to [God], but not nonsense."

Lewis explains that if a creature is to have free will there must be an environment in which there is "the existence of things to choose between." Therefore, some choices will be right, some will be wrong. The choices that defy the moral law – like the choices that defy the law of gravity – will incur pain. Lewis explains that “if matter is to serve as a neutral field it must have a fixed nature of its own" and not one that changes at the whim of its inhabitants; "if matter has a fixed nature and obeys constant laws, not all states of matter will be equally agreeable to the wishes of a given soul..." Lewis writes, "Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free will involve and you find that you have excluded life itself."

Lewis warns we must not confuse God's goodness or love with our concept of kindness. He writes, "Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness... There is kindness in love: but love and kindness are not coterminous, and when kindness is separated from the other elements of love, it involves a certain fundamental indifference to its object, and even something like contempt of it." Lewis points out that “love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; that the mere 'kindness' which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love."

Kindness, when one thinks about it, may sometimes interfere with 1ove: for example, our kindness may keep us from sending a child to the dentist to spare her pain, while our love, our wanting the best for that child, will insist that she confront the pain now to prevent more later. Lewis insists that "we were made not 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."' And to arrive at that state, Lewis says we need "alteration." The "problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence or a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word 'love."' Lewis emphasizes that we must also change our concept of happiness. He believes the Creator is the source of all happiness and that most of the unhappiness and misery experienced over the centuries results from efforts to find happiness apart from that Source. He writes: “and out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery – the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” He concludes, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”

Last but not least, Lewis agrees with Freud that the pain we experience from other human beings is the cause of most of our suffering. Lewis writes: "When souls become wicked they will certainly use this possibility to hurt one another; and this perhaps accounts for four-fifths of the sufferings of men. It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns, bayonets, and bombs; it is by human avarice or human stupidity, not by the churlishness of nature, that we have poverty and overwork."

As Lewis continued to study the Old and New Testaments, he came to a new understanding of the Creation, the Fall, and the doctrines of Atonement and Redemption. He explained that "God is good; that He made all things good… that one of the good things he made, namely, the free will of rational creatures, by its very nature included the possibility of evil: and that creatures, availing themselves of this possibility, have become evil ... man is now a horror to God and to himself and a creature ill-adapted to the universe-not because God made him so but because he has made himself so by the abuse of his free will."

The abuse of this free will to transgress the will of the Creator is the primary cause of suffering, illness, and death. In a letter written when Lewis was fifty years old, he explains: "I do not hold that God 'sends' sickness or war in the sense in which He sends us all good things. Hence in Luke XIII: 16, Our Lord clearly attributes a disease not to the action of His Father but to that of Satan, I think you are quite right, All suffering arises from sin."

Lewis says that pain is evil-that God does not produce pain, but will use it to produce good. Many do not acknowledge God until they encounter pain or great danger – for example, when their plane hits turbulence. Lewis writes: "...pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, hut shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." But Lewis warns pain may also drive people away from God. He writes: “Pain as God's megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion.” Lewis says God may use pain to help us realize our need for Him, not by turning to Him, but by turning our backs on Him. I once heard a medical colleague say, "If God permits that kind of horror, I want nothing to do with Him."