C. S. Lewis and the Problem of Pain

He called pain “God’s great unwanted gift.” In 1940, C. S. Lewis, the great mind of the last century, wrote The Problem of Pain. His words flew in the face of proponents of the prosperity gospel. We have all heard it. “By his stripes we are healed.” The famous words of Isaiah 53:5 are often and grossly misinterpreted. If they have it right, if Jesus’ death on the cross assures healing, why does anyone die? Every man or woman who honestly believes everyone can assuredly be healed by “his stripes” should visit and pray at every hospice care facility in America. They should stop at every hospital on their way home from work at the end of the day. C. S. Lewis knew pain, and he came to embrace it as the “unwanted gift” of God.

As a boy, Lewis experienced the death of his mother and the abandonment of his father. As a young man, he saw the ugliness of war. As a brilliant Oxford scholar, he suffered rejection from academic colleagues. As an older man who finally discovered young love, he endured the painful loss of his wife. He introduced The Problem of Pain, written at age 42, with an humble admission. The problem of pain, he said, fueled the atheist movement, and his acknowledgement of a God who allows pain and even uses it would present a problem for nonbelievers.

How could a loving, good, and powerful God coexist with suffering that is so pervasive? Theodicy, derived from the Greek words for “deity” and “justice,” refers to the attempt to justify the goodness of God in the face of manifold evil. Lewis asks, “If God is good and powerful, why does he allow bad things to happen?” Lewis takes issue with our terms good, loving, and powerful. He postulates that it is because God is indeed good, loving, and powerful that it is “abundantly clear” our view of these attributes “needs correction.”

Let’s summarize Lewis’ views on pain with a few simple summary statements. First, because God has created man with a free will, and because man often makes bad choices that result in pain, God cannot be blamed for such pain. Second, we must embrace a higher view of “good,” one that sees the bigger picture. It is because God is good that he allows pain that brings about repentance, correction, and life change. Third, pain removes our false sense of happiness, an illusion of self-sufficiency. Fourth, when pain is withdrawn, we tend to forget God and return to our own ways. The truth is that God does not care about our comfort nearly as much as he does our character. If one must be sacrificed, it will always be our comfort.

The person who is most susceptible to illness is the one who never feels pain. The person who is most susceptible to crowding God out of his or her life is the rich young ruler, not the woman caught in adultery. Paul said it is in our weakness that God becomes strong. Tony Evans correctly asserts, “When bad things happen, God either caused them or allowed them.” C. S. Lewis understood pain because he lived with it all of his life. I’m not suggesting pain is not a problem. I’m just suggesting it has a higher purpose that we must not miss. For many of us the bigger problem would be non-pain. It is my back pain that drives me to the medicine cabinet. And it is my heart pain, insecurities, and hurtful memories that drive me daily to my God. Pain is a problem, but it is also a gift – “God’s great unwanted gift.”

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