For those touched by grief, a faithful friend might be someone who knows pain themselves, one who is empathetic, respectful, non-anxious, and flexible. About a year ago, I wondered if C.S. Lewis might be, through his life and literature, one such friend. After all, here is a man whose own lived experience was dramatically shaped by oscillations of profound joy and intense suffering.
And so, for a course at Fuller Theological Seminary, I decided to explore the friendship of C.S. Lewis by studying his life, and especially his two major publications on grief and theodicy: “The Problem of Pain” and “A Grief Observed.” The two part series that follows will be an adaptation of this project with the hope that I will remember, and perhaps the reader will discover an unexpected, imperfect, and welcome friend.
You can read part one, here.
Lewis the Author: The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed, and The Chronicles of Narnia
Few authors have possessed the ability to write popularly in so many literary genres as did C.S. Lewis. Lewis’s knack for such literary dexterity is fully on display in his works The Problem of Pain (hereafter, Pain) and A Grief Observed (hereafter, Grief) as the author takes on similar themes with nearly opposite rhetoric. Certainly, the genre of Pain and Grief can be juxtaposed as Lewis’s approach to understanding suffering and theodicy develops and shifts between these two works. The result is that Lewis leaves distinct qualities in each book which the reader must allow to surface despite his or her attention to the overarching unity in Lewis’s convictions. As different as Pain and Grief remain, taking a step back to examine the larger picture of Lewis life and writing reveals that these works often convergence, revealing central insights into Lewis’s convictions about suffering.
The most obvious point of contrast between Pain (1940) and Grief (1961) is the posture and tone of the author. A rational, well-reasoned, and well-researched account of theodicy might best describe Pain whereas Grief fits better the categories of expression, experience, and emotion. Even the qualifier of “A” in A Grief Observed shows that Lewis’s later work is admittedly bound to the particularities of his experience, whereas the definiteness in “The” Problem of Pain shows concern with suffering at a level much more universal. Pain’s interest in metanarrative (e.g. God’s omnipotence, Heaven, and human wickedness) feels altogether distant from the deeply personal sets of questions Lewis considers in Grief. If Pain attempts to provide a theological framework for suffering, then Grief, in a sense, pushes back on that structure, making the argumentation in Pain appear insensitive and disembodied. Perhaps surprisingly then, such tension between lived experience and theological systematization find moments of convergence and overlap.
With the inevitability of suffering in mind, Pain offers readers a chance to do the preemptive work of preparing theologically for loss by calling attention to the larger story of God’s relationship to humanity—a story difficult to contemplate in moments of intense personal suffering. Grief, on the other hand, allows the arguments of Pain to become presuppositional for readers who now bear witness to a model of questioning, lament, and expression. In this sense, Lewis wants to teach his audience that in the absence of meaningful theology, suffering can be intensified and isolating. And yet, without the freedoms of authenticity and lament, even the best theology rings annoyingly hollow. For this reason, it is my opinion that individuals and communities would do well to read Pain and Grief together in an act of balance.
“Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process … It is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape. As I’ve already noted, not every bend does. Sometimes, the surprise is the opposite one; you are presented with exactly the same sort of country you thought you had left behind miles ago. That is when you wonder whether the valley isn’t a circular trench. But it isn’t. There are parallel recurrences, but the sequence doesn’t repeat.”- Lewis in A Grief Observed
The recipient, or dialogue partner, to whom Lewis is engaged with in his two books is an important point to consider. Lewis’s assumptions in Pain reveal that this book is written in response to the sort of nineteenth-century idealism which tends to anthropomorphize God. Lewis is providing an apologetic for the common argument by non-Christians who—assuming that God’s goodness ought to resemble human ideals of goodness—notice the amount of pain in the world and conclude that either God does not exist, God is not powerful, or God simply is not good. These are precisely the sorts of questions Lewis responds to directly in Pain but only touches on briefly in Grief in his reflections on the impossibility of a “Cosmic Sadist.” Yet, Lewis’s conversation partner in Pain is not a hypothetical representative of such skepticism, it is rather Lewis himself—or at least his younger self. Lewis opens Pain by recounting his own experience with atheism which, while emotionally triggered by the loss of his mother, was intellectually rooted in the conclusion of an evil, powerless, or non-existent “Spirit.” A chief concern of Pain therefore is to argue that as pain is necessary to understand joy, it can lead even to godliness. According to Lewis, therefore, suffering can exist in the created order of a powerful, involved, and good, Creator.
Grief, in contrast, is concerned with a different set of questions in part due to its own conversation partner. Like Pain, Lewis’s writing in Grief converses with his own thoughts, concerns, and fears. Yet, this time Lewis is not a hypothetical representative of a certain philosophical position. Instead, the author writes as one documenting a demoralizing pilgrimage–the loss of his beloved wife. Lewis is not out to convince, offer an apologetic, or deconstruct any worldview because questions rather than answers are at the heart of his expression of grief.
An Offering of Self
Part one of this blog series which documents significant moments of suffering in the life of C.S. Lewis is essential to understanding his written accounts of Pain and Grief. This is because Lewis’s writing on suffering was not detached from his lived experiences but rather develops directly out of them. Readers are assisted by Grief not because Lewis writes directly to their own needs. Instead, they are helped by Lewis’s ability to offer himself, in all of his woundedness, as an experienced guide for the pilgrimage. Unlike in Pain, in Grief, Lewis is able to make his own personhood available, allowing a certain contrast to develop between the books. However paradoxical it may seem, both books remain aimed at Lewis himself, allowing the author to provide an intimate look into his own intellectual and emotional intelligence. As bereavement is both an intellectual and emotional affair, Lewis’s gift should be well received.
“You tell me ‘she goes on.’ But my heart and body are crying out, come back, come back.”- Lewis in A Grief Observed
C.S. Lewis was however imperfect in offering his own experiences to readers, as both Pain and Grief clearly reveal. In both of his major publications on suffering, Lewis’s ability to compartmentalize reason and emotion from one another is shown to be…let’s say, impressive. The lack of apathy and emotional sensitively in Pain opens the book up to easy critique from those who find Lewis’ work an act of stoic rationalism. For some, Lewis’ frequent remarks in Pain such as, “God intends to give us what we need, not what we think we want” seem divorced from pastoral concern and practicality. Yet, Lewis takes little time to address such empathetic concerns in Pain. In Grief, Lewis’s struggle to harmonize emotion and reason becomes even more obvious as the author follows intense periods of poetic lament with statements: “Feelings, and feelings, and feelings. Let me try to think instead.” With the story of Lewis’s own childhood sufferings as context, it may be worth considering further how compartmentalization had possibly become for Lewis a primary coping habit as it does for so many victims of childhood tragedy.
When Theodicy in Nonsense & The Presence of the Holy Spirit
Rather infamously, Lewis describes Aslan, the God-figure in the Chronicles of Narnia, as a beast who is “not a tame lion.” Rather than promising safety, Aslan is only said to be “good” and “king.” Such an image of God may have been born out of Lewis’s own understanding of suffering as expressed in both Pain and Grief where God is anything but domesticated. In Narnia, characters often find themselves longing for a God (Aslan) who seems utterly distant and detached. This often leaves Aslan’s followers to trust that Aslan is who he claims to be and that Aslan can be “on the move” even when one is not sure what that means exactly. Seen especially in The Last Battle and Prince Caspian, the presence of suffering and adversity often shakes one’s hope in the good character of Aslan. In short, there are episodes in Narnia were Aslan makes little sense to those facing severe tribulations; at times he is even terrifying.
This idea of a God who is anything but domesticated finds its way into both Pain and Grief as well. In Grief, Lewis expresses desperately in his bereavement: “Meanwhile, where is God?” and “The real danger is coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.” In his grief, Lewis notices that God’s goodness and presence are easily called into question. Contrast such questions with the conclusions of Pain in which Lewis asserts that God must not respond miraculously to every individual’s request for a miracle because it not only anthropomorphizes God but also deems human free-will nonsensical.
Here lies the reason why Grief may be a more important and more helpful book for readers: it is honest in its questioning of God and in exposing the folly of theological answers that are detached from experiences of suffering. Of those who would meet his grief with sound theology Lewis writes: “don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.” It is not until the end of his expressed grief that Lewis can decide to let his experience of suffering lead him to a matured place of worshiping God: “Not my idea of God, but God.” But in order to arrive at this conclusion, Lewis must lament, even yell, his thoughts to God. In this period of time, which is identifiable for most bereaved people, mutual suffering is needed because even the best theodicy falls flat and meaningless, signaling a betrayal of trusted friendship. In both Grief and Pain, Lewis admits that suffering can lead to the good of the sufferer if she or he submits to God’s will and remembers that tribulation can lead to redemption. Yet, it is in Grief that Lewis can confess from experience suffering’s ability to expose even the most intellectually satisfying theology as “nonsense questions” in the initial processing of bereavement. Pain and Grief agree that suffering brings maturity, but Lewis shows through his own reflections that once tragedy unfolds, it is prayer, reflection, lament, and relational suffering that provide space for such mutation. Above all else, it is Aslan’s presence, his very breath (i.e. the Holy Spirit), which brings comfort and bravery to those unsure of his sustaining goodness.
Conclusion: C.S. Lewis as a Friend and Teacher
So certain in life is suffering and loss that we might all do well to embrace the inevitability of grief maturely (e.g. through counseling), relationally (i.e. with others), and communally (e.g. structurally, in church and society). A fundamental theme which can be traced throughout the cannon of C.S. Lewis is this: suffering, and the process of bereavement, is a condition of humanity with which we must be intentionally and theologically engaged. As a man who had experienced loss and throughout his life Lewis is able to admit of suffering:
Bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure.
The life and writings of C.S. Lewis teaches readers that in the midst of tragedy, theology and rationality might best serve as a preemptive framework which allows one to begin healing through memory-making, storytelling, and lament. It is after the loss of his wife through reflection and memory that that Lewis is able to tell her story and thereby attach new meaning and understanding to Joy, his marriage, God’s goodness. Coming full circle then, personal suffering shaped Lewis’s spirituality as much as his spirituality shaped his bereavement. Communicating with depth and accessibility, living in complexity messiness, perhaps Lewis’s most valuable gift to readers is an imperfect model for creating meaning and hope out of their own unique experiences of pain and suffering. Lewis is a trusted friend, indeed.
 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 26.
 Robert Walter Wall, “The Problem of Observed Pain: A Study of C.S. Lewis on Suffering” (JETS, 1983: 443-451), 445-446. See also: Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 26.
 C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 30-31.
 Lewis, The Problem of Pain, “Introductory,” 1-15; Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 65.
 Lewis, A Grief Observed, 36.
 See: C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: Macmillan, 1950), 80; 182.
 Lewis, A Grief Observed, 5-6.
 Lewis, A Grief Observed, 25.
 Ibid., 67.
 Lewis, The Problem of Pain, chapter 7; GO, 66-70.
 Lewis, A Grief Observed, 76.
 Lewis, A Grief Observed, 50.
 Ibid., 48-49.