Read the excerpt: The Problem of Pain, chapter 6: Human Pain
Lewis begins the sixth chapter of The Problem of Pain by differentiating between two meanings or senses of the word pain. First, the physical sensation of pain, transmitted by the nervous system, and second, “any experience, whether physical or mental, which the patient dislikes. These senses are not mutually exclusive; pain in the first sense may be pain in the second sense. However, not all suffering is physical—there is also emotional and mental anguish. And Lewis claims that not all physical pain is necessarily disagreeable, though I can’t think of a case in which it isn’t to some degree. An itch may not be “suffering”, but it certainly isn’t pleasant or enjoyable—hence the urge to scratch. Even a small, persistent physical pain can wear a person down.
Lewis is most concerned with the second sense of pain—that is, human misery in general. Why does a wholly-good, wholly-merciful and compassionate God allow human beings to suffer? This sounds an awful lot like the problem of evil, and the two are actually intertwined—after all, much of what we think of as evil is pain, from war and hunger to murder, betrayal, and social injustice. But is pain really evil? Lewis walks a fine line. While he doesn’t exactly say that God causes human suffering, he certainly believes that God uses suffering for His own ends, and even implies that he goes beyond merely allowing to encouraging. How this could be without God impairing free will and forfeiting His holiness is difficult to understand. God, obviously, cannot cause human beings to sin. Yet, throughout the chapter Lewis describes pain as God’s tool for human salvation, essential in bringing souls back to the point of complete obedience and self-surrender.
Pain, in Lewis’s opinion, serves three purposes. First, pain is the only method of communication loud and clear enough to penetrate the sound-proof walls of our sinful complacency and contentment. Sin is rooted so deeply in our thoughts and actions that, often, we don’t even realize that it has taken hold. We stroll through life unawares, masters of self-deception and intentional ignorance. Pain, however, is “unmasked,” “unmistakable,” “immediately recognizable evil,” an evil that is “impossible to ignore.” Think of a man who steals, is caught and sent to prison. Suddenly, he is suffering. He is lonely, and everything he has, even his freedom, has been stripped away. He knows that something is not right, and has reached a crossroads. Either he can blame the system and fall even deeper into self-pity and hatred, or he can realize that his condition is his own fault, that he is to blame and that repentance is his only recourse. Without pain, however, the man would never have realized that anything was amiss in his life. He would never even have had a chance to feel remorse. Pain, Lewis says, is “God’s megaphone”, “a terrible instrument,” but a necessary one. For without it, we would never become aware that sin has built up a cocoon of false security around us. Pain breaks through the illusion, and frees us to turn to God.
Second, by taking away our comfort, pain reveals our need for God. Lewis here gives the example of people who, seemingly, don’t deserve to suffer. The criminal in jail should suffer as payment for his crimes; if it brings him to repentance, so much the better. But what about hardworking, honest people, who haven’t done anything to deserve the bad fortune that befalls them? In this case, God wrenches away life’s comforts until we have no choice but to acknowledge Him, for “while what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it”. This may seem unfair at first, but Lewis asserts that any earthly happiness is “false happiness”. Only obedience to God can give us true joy, and once again, pain is the only path to surrender.
Finally, the presence of pain is the only way to know that we are truly and fully submitting to God’s will without any thought for ourselves. If something is pleasurable, even if it is also good we will always do it first because it will benefit us. God’s will is a secondary consideration, a “mere happy coincidence”. Complete obedience is following God’s will even when it will do us no good, and even do us harm—perhaps great harm. Because of this, Lewis cites martyrdom as the epitome of the Christian life, modeled for us by Christ, and visible in all of creation (as part of general revelation). “We cannot therefore know,” he says, “that we are acting at all, or primarily, for God’s sake unless the material of the action is contrary to our inclinations”. In short, true obedience must be painful in order for us to recognize it as obedience at all.A final, quick note—I was fascinated to see the Euthyphro dilemma (which came up in “The Poison of Subjectivism”) referenced again. Shockingly, however, Lewis answers the question differently in this book than in the essay I read previously, and answers it in such a way that I can’t agree with him! (He asserts that God commands things because they are right, and talks about certain things being intrinsically good, and even being good apart from the will of God!) I couldn’t find out when “The Poison of Subjectivism” was written in order to see which came first. Apparently it was published in a collection of essays posthumously. Professors Ribeiro, can you help me answer this pressing question?
Update: Professor Paulo helped me discover that "The Poison of Subjectivism" was written in 1943--3 years after The Problem of Pain. Clearly, Lewis's thought on this subject changed substantially during that time. I'm curious to find out more about what happened to change his mind!