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C.S. Lewis and Suffering, Part One: The Role of Experience | Seminary Student Blogger

February 27, 2014

Josh Kluth

C.S. Lewis has always been a close ally to Christians struggling with the reality of pain and suffering. Fifty years after his death, one would be hard-pressed to find another outside of Scripture who is more often quoted in times of suffering. His statements are well-regarded for their clarity, poignancy, depth, and care. Consider just a couple of his famous quotes:

  • “Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken.’”
  • “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
  • “The death of a beloved is an amputation.”
  • “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.”

What is it about his writings that makes Lewis’ perspective so helpful? In this post, I want to suggest that it was Lewis’ own experience wrestling with the reality of suffering. He was not immune to the pain and suffering of life. He did not hide away in the ivory tower of academia observing the facts of suffering while absent from their touch. Many are unaware that it was suffering that initially drove Lewis to abandon his Christian heritage and embrace atheism. Here is a short list of his varied experience with suffering:

  • As a child, he lost his mother to a painful death brought upon by cancer despite his prayerful expectation that she would be healed
  • He was estranged from his father most of his life and considers an inability to reconcile to be one of his biggest regrets
  • He suffered from feelings of insecurity and physical deformity
  • He attended a school he called “Belsen” (naming it after a Nazi concentration camp) attesting to his miserable experience under a “maniacal” headmaster
  • He faced a severe and disturbing hierarchal system at school that produced “a world of fear, compromise, and anxiety” for young students, like himself, who were victims of cruelty
  • He served in the trenches of World War I and was discharged due to an illness called trench fever
  • He was obliged to care for his best friend’s family (after his friend died in the War) for much of his life despite a heavy emotional and financial toll
  • He lost his wife to cancer
  • He was repeatedly overlooked for positions due to the way many of his colleagues frowned on his Christian fiction and apologetics

Lewis wrote two books addressing the issue of pain, both of which he purposed to write anonymously. This in itself could be instructive. The Problem of Pain, written in 1940, addresses the complex issue of the existence of suffering alongside a belief in a good and all-powerful God. He wrote A Grief Observed in 1961 following the death of his wife in which he focuses on the sense of suffering. These works belong together because of how Lewis addresses the suffering differently in each book. He wrote The Problem of Pain to address theoretical and cerebral questions on suffering; he wrote A Grief Observed to address experiential and personal nature of suffering.

The role of experience is incredibly important if we are to understand why Lewis continues to be helpful to those who suffer. In a day and age where there are books and blog posts on every subject imaginable, Lewis serves as a reminder of the importance of sympathy, empathy, and understanding. This comes through experience and understanding. We would do well to learn what experience could teach us prior to trying to coming alongside those who experience suffering. I would like to believe Lewis was simply trying to model our Savior. As Hebrews 4:14-16 points out,

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” 

Josh and his wife, Tara, are from Washington State. Josh is pursuing an MAR and MATH while Tara works as a hairdresser in Manchester-by-the-Sea. Together, they are most captivated by the story in which God has placed them in this fascinatingly bizarre world that spins across this universe. In the midst of it all, they are stabilized by what Sally Lloyd-Jones describes as “God’s 'Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love' in Jesus" (Jesus Storybook Bible).


Tags: Author: Josh Kluth , student blogger , thoughtfully evangelical

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