A redated post on Lewis on suffering. This was part of an essay I wrote for a Bruce Edwards' C. S. Lewis encyclopedia.
It is after these preliminaries that Lewis beings to talk about human suffering and why it occurs. He first identifies the proper good of a human creature as the submission of that person’s will to God, the surrender of human self-will to God’s will. He points out that even non-Christian and non-theistic religions require this kind of submission, so this is not a viewpoint peculiar to Christianity. Lewis does not argue that pain is the only method God uses to bring about submission to God, but it is a significant one.
God whispers to us in out pleasure, speaks in our conscience, and shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world42.
Lewis delineates three contexts in which pain can be serves the redemptive purpose of driving us toward submission to God. The first is simply an expression of the common belief that bad people ought to suffer. Although Lewis notes that some people object to the idea of retributive punishment, retribution is the only thing that makes sure that punishment is just. According to Lewis, pain “plants the flag of truth within the fortress of the rebel soul.”43
However, if the pain of bad people shatters the illusion that all is well, pain in the lives of other people shatters the illusion that what we have is enough. Even good Christians find it difficult to turn toward God when they feel as if they have all they need. He writes:
Let me implore the reader to try to believe, if only for the moment that God, who made these deserving people, may really be right when he thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children is not enough to make them blessed; that all this must fall from them in the end, and if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. And therefore he troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover.44
In one letter Lewis asked for prayer from a Christian friend because he was going through “A Plain Called Ease.”45 If the kind of good that will make for permanent happiness requires a relationship to God, and if ordinary prosperity takes that away from us.
The third role of suffering is based on the idea that God expects us to submit our wills to him, and that cannot possibly be willed by fallen creatures unless it is unpleasant. Mere obeying is intrinsically good, but given human self-will, obedience cuts against the self-centered will.
We therefore agree with Aristotle that what is intrinsically right may well be agreeable, and that the better a man is the more he will like it; but we agree with Kant so far as to say that there is one right act—that of self-surrender—which cannot be willed to the height by fallen creatures unless it is unpleasant. And we must add that this one right act includes all other righteousness, and that the supreme canceling of Adam’s fall, the movement “full speed astern” by which we retrace our long journey from Paradise, the untying of the old, hard knot, must be when the creature with no desire to aid it, stripped naked to the bare willing of obedience, embraces what is contrary to its nature, and does that for which only one motive is possible.46
In the Book of Job Satan asks “Does Job serve God for naught?” implying that Job’s righteousness can be explained by the benefit Job receives from his obedience, and he asks the question of whether Job would remain faithful and righteous if his life were wracked with suffering. Thus a faithful person, who is prospering, in one sense, is not asked to make the most profound act of self-surrender. This can only occur if the apparent link between righteousness and reward is broken.
In arguing as he does Lewis explicitly says that he is attempting to make the doctrine of being made perfect by suffering “not incredible.” He does not say that he can make it palatable; in fact, he says that it is not palatable.
Now does this understanding of suffering represent a retreat from Platonism? Is it an abandonment of the idea that the standards we use in evaluating the actions of God are commensurable to the standard we use in evaluating human actions? I think pretty clearly that this is not true. There is an intended good which is a good for the creature, which is supposed to make the suffering worthwhile. Nor is it overly difficult to see how Lewis’s own suffering in grief could be thought of as serving a redemptive purpose.
Since the causes of our suffering are complex, we need not presume, as Beversluis does, that the degree to which a person suffers is indicative of state of one’s relationship with God. He writes:
Yet, if we accept this argument, we must conclude that those who suffer only appear to be close to God but in fact are not—otherwise, why do they suffer? We must also conclude that those who do not suffer only appear to have drifted from God but in fact have not. Furthermore, the more you suffer, the further from God you are; the less you suffer, the further from God you are. Furthermore, the more you suffer, the more God loves you, and the less you suffer, the less he loves you, since it is those we love that we punish and those to whom we are indifferent that we allow to be happy in contemptible and estranging modes.47
However, remember, Lewis has given three different circumstances where God might have a redemptive use for pain, and these three circumstances can occur on different spiritual levels. Remember also that Lewis has made the case that the most spiritually advanced persons are persons who recognize that they are “vile,” that is, they recognize more fully than the rest of us just how far they have to go to be fully surrendered to God. Lewis’s claim concerning the reasons for suffering is not a simplistic “shattering thesis,” for people who are far from God, it is a complex thesis concerning how suffering works redemptively at all levels of spiritual development. The last of these uses of suffering, suffering as an opportunity to continue to serve God without the appearance of reward, involves no shattering whatsoever. As Petrik says:
The bottom line for Lewis, however, is that the business of mending souls is so complex that we can not hope to fully understand the manner in which suffering is distributed among human beings. Nothing the vast discrepancy between the degree to which individuals may suffer, Lewis confesses that he is ignorant of the causes of this distribution. And of course he is right. Any speculation as to the role of suffering or its absence is playing in an individual’s spiritual development will always remain fairly blind speculation…48
In addition, Lewis also mentions a redemptive use of suffering for the benefit of others. He writes:
What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.48
So suffering does not merely benefit the character of the sufferer, it can also benefit the character of those who observe the suffering. As Talbott writes, “Nothing, it seems, arouses compassion and melts the heart of the arrogant and the powerful in a way comparable to the suffering of children.” 49
Another objection found in Beversluis is that if we were to inflict suffering on those we love in the way that Lewis is suggesting that God does, we would be acting wrongly. He writes:
On thing is certain in any case: if I were to become as “exacting” with (my children) in Lewis’s awful sense, I am confident that they would not rejoice in their newly acquired discovery that I really loved them. Nor do I believe that such a failure would be a sign of some juvenile deficiency in them.50
However, someone with greater wisdom and knowledge might surely have the right to use means that someone with less wisdom and knowledge would not have the right to use. As Lewis himself says:
To turn this (the redemptive role of suffering) into a general charter for afflicting humanity “because affliction is good for them” (as Marlowe’s Tamberlaine boasted himself as the scourge of God”) is not indeed to break the divine scheme but to volunteer for the post of Satan within that scheme. If you do his work, you must be prepared for his wages.51
So I do not think that Lewis has to violate his “professed Platonism” in order to accept his own account of suffering. Nor was Lewis wrong to see his own suffering during his grief experience as God’s work in getting him to cease his reliance on earthly comforts, even the comfort of a Christian marriage.
Another difficulty, however, pressed by Erik Weilenberg, is that Lewis really does not deal with the suffering of children in his treatment of the problem of pain.52 It is a bit odd, because he is willing to consider the suffering of another class of “special victims,” that is, animals. Children are more like us than animals, and so he cannot make the comment about children’s suffering that he makes about animal suffering, namely, that he really doesn’t know much about the place of animals in God’s plan and that whatever he says about them is going to be speculative. By way of response to this difficulty, I would make three points. One is that no treatment of the problem of evil can be expected to be comprehensive. As Daniel Howard-Snyder points out, if we could explain all of our sufferings we would be contradicting some clear Biblical passages, such as what we find in the Book of Job. He goes on to say:
We do others a grievous disservice to hold out to them in private or in the pulpit any expectation to understand why God would permit so much evil or any particular instance, expectations which we have no reason to believe will be fulfilled, expectations which when left unfulfilled can become near irresistible grounds for rejecting the faith. We are in the dark here. We can’t see how any reason we know of, or the whole lot of them combined, would justify God n permitting so much horrible evil or any particular horror. We need to own up to that fact.53
So we should see Lewis as attempting to give us a substantial understanding of much of the evil we see and experience, but I think he was not foolish enough to think that he had explained it all. But secondly, as is evident from the quote from Talbott, in the case of the suffering of children, here the case is hardest to make that it can benefit the sufferers morally, but it does have the strongest effect of all suffering on those whom Lewis calls “the spectators,” it arouses their compassion in the way that nothing else in the world does. I would have liked Lewis to include more discussion of the suffering of children in The Problem of Pain, and I do consider it a weakness of the book that this was not included. However, that in itself is not, in my judgment, sufficient to make his book an abject failure or a tissue of fallacies.
42 The Problem of Pain p. 93.
43 Ibid. p. 95
44 Ibid. p. 97.
45 Letter to Sister Penelope, 5 June 1951 in Hooper (ed.), Letters of C. S. Lewis, p. 410. Quoted in Purtill, “Did C. S. Lewis Lose his Faith.”
46 Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 101.
47 Beversluis, Search, p. 117.
48 Petrik, “In Defense,” p. 54.
49 Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 110.
50 Beversluis, Search, p. 114.
51 Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 112.
52 Erik Wielenberg, "The Christian, the Skeptic, and the Atheist: C.S. Lewis, David Hume, andBertrand Russell on God", forthcoming.
53 Daniel Howard-Snyder, “God Evil and Suffering,” in Michael Murray ed. Reason for the Hope Within (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 101.