Lesson Helps: Learning from Trials (John Taylor Lesson 22)

The following is an excerpt from an essay by Brent L. Top, published in C. S. Lewis: The Man and His Message. For more on this subject, read his entire essay or try C. S. Lewis' books A Grief Observed and The Problem of Pain.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why would a perfectly loving and just Father in Heaven allow His children to suffer all manner of tragedies, trials, and tribulations? Why would God create a world seemingly designed for the happiness and progress of man yet enveloped in crime and corruption, pain and poverty, sin and suffering? Great philosophers and theologians have wrestled with the apparent contradictions between the theology of a God of perfect love and beneficence and the reality of a world filled with inequities and injustices. Such contradictions often defy the best logic of both philosopher and theologian. Often we are left with more questions than answers.
C. S. Lewis's rise to spiritual understanding of the problem of pain and the goodness of God came first to the head, then to the heart. While it may seem backwards to some, Lewis unexpectedly discovered that the rational answers he had long articulated in the defense of God's designs brought him only so far down the path of his spiritual journey. He may have thought he had the right answers when he wrote the book The Problem of Pain in 1940, but those insightful answers may well have seemed quite empty in his own life after the death of his beloved wife, Joy Gresham Lewis, in 1960. From the depths of his broken heart came some of the most poignant questions—some filled with anger toward God, and others showing a vulnerable man desperately clinging to his faith when it seemed there was little reason to believe. From the questions and personal struggles Lewis recorded in the book A Grief Observed, we are able to see how he gained greater understanding of the role of evil and suffering in the world. From his personal loss came questions from the heart that resulted not only in a deeper understanding of the answers he had already found in his head but also in a comfort and peace that came from finding God. From his writings and personal experiences, from his questions as well as his answers, we can be strengthened spiritually and enlarged intellectually in our own efforts to reconcile the problem of pain. As Lewis demonstrates, it is not enough to just find answers. We must find God.
Head Knowledge: Having the "Right Answers"
Prior to his conversion to Christianity C. S. Lewis felt that the strongest evidence for an argument against the existence of God was the existence of so much pain, evil, and injustice in the world. If God was both all-powerful and good, why would he not eliminate such things from the world and protect His children from the awful effects of such suffering? After his conversion Lewis once again encountered the seemingly irreconcilable problem of faith in the goodness of God despite the overwhelming reality of evil and suffering among God's children. This time, with firm faith in the goodness of God and the wisdom of His purposes, Lewis attempted, as an apologist for Christianity, to suggest a reasoned yet faithful explanation. Such a reconciliation of the existence of God despite the reality of evil and suffering in the world is known as theodicy.
Amidst the gathering storm clouds of World War II and the anxiety and worry it brought, C. S. Lewis was asked to write a book as a part of the "Christian Challenge" series of Centenary Press. The purpose of the series was to introduce the tenets of Christianity to people outside the faith. At first Lewis rejected the offer; then he agreed only if he could use a pen name rather than his own, for he felt it would be presumptuous as a non-theologian to write about such a serious philosophical topic. But there was no pen name. C. S. Lewis's theodicy would stand on its own. In 1940 The Problem of Pain rolled off the press and was immediately received with much acclaim. In the preface Lewis modestly stated that he "believed himself to be [merely] restating ancient and orthodox doctrines." Although he may have felt that he wasn't "plowing any new ground" theologically or philosophically with this book, it was his genius for using well-reasoned, clearly articulated arguments, highlighted with brilliant analogies that all could relate to that made The Problem of Pain one of his most popular works. It is also what one scholar characterized as "faith seeking understanding" spoken in plain, everyday language, that makes Lewis so appealing to us today. "Any fool can write learned language," Lewis wrote to a literary critic. "The vernacular is the real test. If you can't turn your faith into it, then either you don't understand it, or you don't believe it." Lewis firmly believed that people could not really understand a complex philosophical or theological issue until they could understand it in simple language.
For Latter-day Saints in particular, C. S. Lewis has great appeal, but not so much because he teaches us anything new or dramatically different from that which is found in our own theology and scriptures. It is, rather, that he simplifies the complex with common sense and illustrates the philosophical explanations with understandable and relevant metaphors, which in turn helps us to understand our own doctrines and scriptures better. Lewis's response to the "problem of pain" basically falls into two major categories: the free will of mankind and the goodness of God. Each of these explanations finds a complement in the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and each plays a significant role in helping us to better understand the causes and purposes of evil and suffering in the world.
To Latter-day Saints the principle of free will, or what we would call agency, is a fundamental principle of the plan of salvation and for the divine purposes of life itself. Because of this supreme significance, agency is a protected principle. In order to safeguard the purposes of our mortal probation the Lord will not infringe upon the free exercise of agency. C. S. Lewis also taught this fundamental principle of Christianity not only in his religious apologetic works such as The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, Miracles, God in the Dock, and, of course, The Problem of Pain, but also as a recurring theme in some of his fictional books, such as Perelandra. "Free will is the modus operandi of destiny," he wrote. In his classic work, Mere Christianity, he elaborated on this principle.
God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.
Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk. . . . If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will—that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings—then we may take it is worth paying.
While this promotes the progression of humanity, it also carries with it certain "side effects" that may result in suffering and sorrow. Free will is linked to adversity: many times our suffering and sorrows in life come as a result of the use or misuse of agency.
One cannot read the daily newspapers or watch world news on television without being graphically reminded of the crime and corruption and other social injustices that result from human choice. Some question the justice and goodness of God or even His existence. They may ask: "Why does God allow the wicked and the corrupt of the world to victimize the righteous and devout, the innocent and helpless?" The unsettling answer lies in the fact that free will is a divinely guarded principle. God does not cause the evil, but if there is to be agency, he must allow it. C. S. Lewis described this phenomenon in this manner: "Pain is inherent in the very existence of a world where souls can meet. When souls become wicked they will certainly use this possibility to hurt one another; and this, perhaps, accounts for four-fifths of the sufferings of men. It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns, bayonets, and bombs; it is by human avarice or human stupidity, not by the churlishness of nature, that we have poverty and overwork."
Because the wicked are accountable for their own actions, and their misuse of their agency will ultimately bring about their own condemnation, God allows them to inflict suffering on others. If He were to interfere with every negative action, creating what Lewis described as a "toy world" as opposed to a "real world," He would not only violate the divine gift of agency but also would negate the law of the harvest. We could not "reap" if we were not allowed to "sow" (see Gal. 6:7-8). Similarly, we learn that the suffering and pain that come with the exercise of the will is two-edged—suffering as consequence of the actions of others and suffering that comes by reason of our own actions. "How could we learn about obedience," Elder Neal A. Maxwell insightfully asked, "if we were shielded from the consequences of our disobedience?"
As Lewis himself admitted, the free exercise of man's agency cannot explain all the trials and tribulations of our mortal existence. "Free will," Lewis wrote, may account "for four-fifths of the suffering of men. . . . But there remains, nonetheless, much suffering which cannot thus be traced to ourselves." While to the unbeliever, it may seem a total contradiction in terms, Lewis contended that many of the trials and tribulations, pains and problems, and suffering and sorrows of life can be attributed to the goodness of God and His perfect love for His children.
The age-old questions about how an all-wise and all-loving God can allow bad things to happen to good people seemingly can only be satisfactorily answered if the terms are properly defined. It is a misunderstanding of the phrases "goodness of God," "bad things," and "good people" that leads some to reject either the entire notion of a Supreme Being or any divine "meaning in the madness" of the universe. It is through helping us to better understand the meaning of these terms that Lewis makes perhaps his greatest contribution to theodicy.
First, let us examine the concept of the "goodness of God." While it is true that the scriptures, both ancient and modern, often use terms such as kindness and tenderness as descriptors of God's love and goodness, there is much, much more. And it is in those other traits that we see the goodness of God at work in the tribulations of life. Amidst the profound grief he felt at the death of his wife, Lewis was forced to tackle the seeming contradiction of God's goodness and love for mankind and the terrible pain He allows. "What do people mean when they say 'I am not afraid of God because I know He is good'?" Lewis wrote. "Have they never been to a dentist?" Years earlier Lewis had articulated so well with the pen what his heart was now painfully discovering. "By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingkindness; and in this we may be right," Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain.
And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness—the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, "What does it matter so long as they are contented?" We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, "liked to see young people enjoying themselves," and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, "a good time was had by all.". . .
Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering. As Scripture points out, it is bastards who are spoiled: the legitimate sons who are to carry on the family tradition are punished. It is for people we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms. . . . If God is Love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness. And it appears, from all the records, that though He has often rebuked us and condemned us, He has never regarded us with contempt. He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense.
As any parent knows, love for one's offspring requires, as Lewis's words profoundly illustrate, much more than "senile benevolence" or kindness at any cost. It requires seeking for that which is best for our children, for that which will bring them happiness and not merely fun, for that which develops character and not merely contentment. Lewis's reference to "bastards who are spoiled" undoubtedly reflects the words of the Apostle Paul. "My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons" (Heb. 12:5-8). To Latter-day Saints this concept should be especially relevant, since we believe that God is literally our Heavenly Father, whose goodness and love are manifest as a perfect parent. In our day, the Lord reminded us by revelation through the Prophet Joseph Smith: "Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you whom I love, and whom I love I also chasten that their sins may be forgiven, for with the chastisement I prepare a way for their deliverance in all things out of temptation, and I have loved you. Wherefore, ye must needs be chastened" (D&C 95:1-2).
God's chastening is neither vengeance nor meanness. The root of the word is the same as for the word chaste—pure, clean, spotless, virtuous. The process of chastening may be long and extraordinarily painful at times, but the product of such chastening is a "new creature," one in whom God's image becomes engraven. How can God's love and goodness be manifest in any greater way?
This leads us naturally to an examination of two phrases in the oft-stated question—"Why do bad things happen to good people?" Just as the phrase "goodness of God" is often misunderstood, so are these phrases; and they are in need of definition and scriptural clarification.
We often speak of good people, and without question there are many whose lives exemplify goodness. But even they are not without need for improvement by the chastening of a good God. Latter-day Saints are familiar with doctrinal statements from the Book of Mormon that help clarify the nature of man. King Benjamin declared that "the natural man is an enemy to God" (Mosiah 3:19), and the brother of Jared testified that "because of the fall our natures have become evil continually" (Ether 3:2). Without believing in the "total depravity of mankind," C. S. Lewis clearly believed that human nature was naturally rebellious and, as a result, the suffering and pains of the world are directly related to God's designs to help bring about an alteration in man's evil and rebellious nature, replacing it with the "divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4). "The human spirit will not even begin to surrender self- will, as long as all seems to be well with it," Lewis wrote. This sentiment certainly complements Nephi's warning regarding "carnal security" (2 Ne. 28:21). There is a natural yet often unrecognized tendency to embrace an "all is well in Zion" (2 Ne. 28:21) attitude, to become less dependent upon the Lord and more secure in self and in the things of the world, when life seems to be going smoothly. To expose the facade of self-suffiency and to break and bridle the rebellious spirit, God uses suffering and pain. "But the redemptive effect of suffering lies chiefly in its tendency to reduce the rebel will," Lewis wrote. God uses pain, as "His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."
Heart Understanding: Finding God through the Trial of Faith
"If you are writing a book about pain, then get some actual pain," C. S. Lewis had mused among friends while working on the book The Problem of Pain. He had been concerned about writing on such a serious subject when his own life had been relatively free from suffering. Theodicy without real personal experience, he observed, "does not either, as the cynic would expect, blow the doctrine to bits, nor as a Christian would hope, turn into practice, but remains quite unconnected and irrelevant, just as any other bit of actual life does when you are reading or writing." He clearly recognized the limitations of having "right answers" without having asked "hard questions." Lewis also felt inadequate in addressing the problem of pain because he felt no great courage when it came to pain and he certainly did not want to minimize its hurtful nature in his attempts of rational explanation. In The Problem of Pain he wrote:
All arguments in justification of suffering provoke bitter resentment against the author. You would like to know how I behave when I am experiencing pain, not writing books about it. You need not guess, for I will tell you: I am a great coward. . . . If I knew any way of escape I would crawl through sewers to find it. But what is the good of telling you my feelings? You know them already: for they are the same as yours. I am not arguing that pain is not painful. Pain hurts. That is what the word means. I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made "perfect through suffering" is not incredible.
In the preface to a book of collected essays of his friend Charles Williams, which he had edited, Lewis remembered being reminded by Williams that God had been displeased with Job's friends. The so- called comforters—"the self-appointed advocates on God's side, the people who tried to show that all was well," Williams stated. They are the "sort of people," Williams continued, "who wrote books on the Problem of Pain."
However, that situation—the "unconnectedness" or "irrelevance" of a thoughtful theodicy devoid of deep personal pain—dramatically changed with the death of his beloved wife, Joy, in 1960. Her death brought with it an ironical turn of the tables. Joy may have found peace with her God at death, but Lewis found anything but peace and comfort.
It was ironic indeed that C. S. Lewis—the internationally acclaimed Christian apologist, whose writings, lectures, and personal letters had done so much to increase faith in God—would face a crisis of faith in his own heart and mind. All of his eloquent arguments regarding the problem of pain had not adequately prepared him for his own trials. "Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God," he wrote in his personal journal regarding the commingling of thoughts and emotions he experienced after the death of Joy. These personal notes, his self-prescribed treatment for his grief, were later published as A Grief Observed. "The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about [God]. The conclusion I dread is not, 'So there's no God after all,' but, 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'" His faith in the existence of God may not have been completely shaken, but his view of the goodness of God—which he had so faithfully defended and eloquently articulated time and time again—seemed battered and bruised. In the depths of his anguish Lewis was tempted to view God as a "Cosmic Sadist" who had "choked every prayer and every hope" with "false diagnoses" and "strange remissions." He wrote, "Time after time when He seemed most gracious He was preparing the next torture."
Undoubtedly Lewis was stunned by his own thoughts and feelings after the death of Joy. He may have expected deep sadness and loneliness, but certainly not the anger at God, the loss of reasonable explanations, and the wavering of his faith. He came to understand, however reluctantly, how prophets of God—endowed with great spiritual insight into the purposes of God though they are—could still question God and cry out in agony, "O God, where art thou?" (D&C 121:1). Each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, experience the same sojourn from superficial knowledge to divine wisdom. At first we naively believe we have all the answers, only to have them seemingly shattered in grief and suffering that may seem beyond our ability to endure. Then when our faith is sorely tried we rediscover in our hearts and souls the truthfulness of those "answers" we previously held only in our heads. It is at this point that we may ultimately gain true understanding of the divine purposes of life and recognize that all the while we have been cradled in the merciful arms of God.
Over time, C. S. Lewis discovered that he, too, was facing his own "customized challenge"—a test of his faith. Did he really believe all those things he had written and spoken or were they just empty words? His personal feelings and musings, recorded in A Grief Observed, provide us with a unique glimpse of the workings of God in testing the faith of His children.
Where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?. . .
You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn't you then first discover how much you really trusted it?. . . Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief. . .
Bridge players tell me that there must be some money on the game, "or else people won't take it seriously." Apparently it's like that. Your bid—for God or no God, for a good God or the Cosmic Sadist, for eternal life or nonentity—will not be serious if nothing is staked on it. And you will never discover how serious it was until the stakes are raised horribly high; until you find that you are playing not for counters or for sixpences but for every penny you have in the world. Nothing less will shake a man—or at any rate a man like me—out of his verbal and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. . .
But of course one must take the "set to try us" the right way. God has not been trying an experiment upon my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn't. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.
As Lewis shows us, the test of adversity, often accompanied by the feeling of forsakenness, powerfully strips away all false faith and superficial spirituality.
After a long while of stumbling in the dark abyss of his personal grief, Lewis began to notice the light. "After much tribulation come the blessings," the Lord declared in this dispensation (D&C 58:4). Lewis, likewise, began to discern the blessings that can come only after tribulation. He knew in his head long before that suffering and pain were part of the plan whereby God perfects and spiritually reshapes man. Now, however, Lewis obtained an understanding greater than the "right answers" he had had a generation earlier. "You can't see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears," he wrote as he began his journey out of the darkness of doubt. "You can't in most things get what you want if you want it too desperately: anyway you can't get the best out of it. . . . And so perhaps with God. I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can't give it to you: you are like the drowning man who can't be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear."
Lewis's theology didn't change through his experience. What he had written two decades earlier in The Problem of Pain was just as profound as ever, but he had changed. From A Grief Observed, we see ourselves to some degree in Lewis's grieving experience. It is this personal attachment that we feel to him that makes his brutally honest observations and self- discovery so relevant to each of us. We learn, at least in our heads, what he learned in his heart—that knowing the right answers to the problem of pain may give insight and perspective, but not necessarily true understanding and comfort. Only God gives that.
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