The Lessons of Pain

I’m currently teaching a weekly class at my church that I have titled “C. S. Lewis on Life, Death, and Eternity.” We just finished his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, and will, this next week, examine key chapters in The Problem of Pain, certainly a significant part of life as we all know it.

Lewis began writing this book in 1939 and was able to read it chapter-by-chapter to the Inklings when they met. I’m sure the feedback he received was valuable.

When it was published in 1940, it was just one entry in a “Christian Challenge” book series. It may be the only one remembered today. This is the book that caught the attention of the BBC and led to Lewis’s WWII series that eventually was edited into his well-known Mere Christianity.

Lewis, as he often does, lets his readers know right from the start that he is offering what little knowledge he has on a subject. He doesn’t claim to be omniscient, as is shown by this excerpt from the preface:

A proper perspective on the word “pain” was essential from the start, so he makes it clear that many other words are incorporated into the topic—suffering, anguish, tribulation, adversity, trouble. Pain, therefore, is not merely a physical sensation; it digs deeper into the soul regardless of the external cause.

Dealing with pain is the issue, and Lewis wants his readers to realize that only by self-surrender to God can we navigate these troubled waters successfully. In words that will later be reiterated in Mere Christianity, he admonishes, “The problem is how to recover this self-surrender. We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are . . . rebels who must lay down our arms.” How difficult is this?

In our desire to hold on to our self-willed existence, we seek to carve out a place of calm and tranquility in our lives. But the pains of existence constantly impinge on our desire. That’s how the Lord can get our attention.

As Lewis notes in Surprised by Joy, the Lord is “unscrupulous” in His attempts to get us to think about reality. He is unscrupulous in His intrusions into what we like to believe is “our” life. Some people will react negatively to these intrusions, but those on the narrow way will learn from them.

Lewis knows that these lessons in life are not easy. He makes no claim to being “above it all” and perfectly in sync with what God seeks to do for us when we experience pain. One of the things I love about Lewis is his willingness to expose his own reluctance to immediately respond in the way God hopes we will.

Pain is never palatable. We should never earnestly seek pain. But if we are committed to being made perfect in Him, we need to learn the lessons of pain. Those lessons, to be sure, will never end this side of eternity.