The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis reviewed by Mike Foster.
One of the prodigiously polymathic Lewis’ most popular non-fiction titles, The Problem of Pain deals with a subject no one wants to get to know too well.
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Written on commission for the popular Christian Challenge Series during the first months after Britain’s entry into World War II in 1939, it was first read to and later dedicated to the Inklings, the famous fraternal critical circle, including regular attendees J.R.R. Tolkien and Dr. Robert Havard, that met weekly in Lewis’ rooms in Magdalen College, Oxford. Havard, Lewis’ friend and physician, also provided an appendix, a doctor’s-eye view of pain’s effects. Favorably reviewed when published in October, 1940, it was immediately a bestseller, reprinted twice that year and ten more times by 1943.
The painful part of the problem is, of course, why does pain have to exist at all? A Catholic doctor friend once said, “What I don’t understand is why didn’t Jesus just go around healing everybody He could?”
Lewis deflects that question, stating that faith “creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good reassurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.”
The book begins with a reasoned argument for Christianity, a faith that begins with the cruelest of deaths. He confronts the human evil that, from Pontius Pilate to Dick Cheney to today’s raft of villains both here and abroad, has approved the calculated horror of torture.
“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.”
He extends his argument beyond humankind. George Sayer, in Jack, the finest Lewis biography, writes “the chapter on animal pain is delightful. In it, we see the Jack Lewis who loved and understood domestic animals. He regards the personality that tame animals seem to have as being largely a gift of man.”
Lewis puts it thus: “man was made to be the priest and even, in one sense, the Christ, of the animals—the mediator through whom they apprehend so much of the Divine splendour as their irrational nature allows…one of man’s functions [may be] to restore peace to the animal world.” Whimsically he adds: “if the worst came to the worst, a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined.”
In his afterword, Dr. Havard, famous as Perelandra’s “Humphrey,” summarizes his medical observations in a final sentence that captures the spirit of this unflinching but reassuring book:
“Pain provides an opportunity for heroism; the opportunity is seized with surprising frequency.”
Suffering can redeem, Lewis declares: “No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument: it may lead to a final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity a bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”
Pain’s benefaction is, for sufferers and spectators, “submission to the will of God, the compassion aroused, and the acts of mercy to which it leads.”
It disrupts the placid routine of everyday ease we crave, but nonetheless goodness prevails. “The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure and merriment He has scattered broadcast.”
These grace-filled whispers outshout pain’s megaphone.