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Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Problem of Pain: Why Does God Allow It?

By:   Christopher Gawley
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C. S. Lewis C. S. Lewis

In early September of last year, my seventy-seven-year-old beloved father was diagnosed with acute leukemia. Six weeks later he was dead.  I was particularly close with my father and while we did not always agree on everything, and, in some instances, on important things, Charlie Gawley was a loving father, helpmate and a friend who I will miss for the rest of my life.

Losing a parent – especially a good parent – is difficult because they are among the few who measure their success by your success, who love you without qualification and who spend more time worrying about your problems than you spend worrying about them yourself. My father was always a strong and robust man – his disease, by the end, reduced him into a 120-pound shell of his former self.

While I was able to arrange the Last Rites for my father in his last sentient moments in something that rivalled the death scene in Brideshead Revisited, and, while I cherish that I was there to say goodbye and be of help to my mother, I can say with some certainty that those three days were the most traumatic days of my life. I shudder every time I think of the things I saw, heard, smelled and touched as my father lay dying. Only those unfortunate enough to have heard the "death rattle" of a loved one will be able to understand. The agony of his last hours was mitigated, of course, by the fact that he died a son the Church… but it was still very difficult.

It was both timely and fitting that I ran across C.S. Lewis' little work, The Problem of Pain. I have read Lewis (Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity) and this book is, like everything else Lewis writes, very good. He may have not been a Catholic—indeed he was born a Protestant Ulsterman—but I find him to be something of a modern day Cardinal Newman (pre-conversion). He tried to navigate his own version of the via media and died at the relatively young age of sixty five. Perhaps he would have come to Newman's conclusion that the via media is fool's gold had he lived longer but he didn’t (although he frequently consulted with Monsignor Ronald Knox at the end of his life and regularly read a Catholic missal, among other Catholic devotions.

The Problem of Pain is, in my opinion, an inadequate title. The work is much more than merely a treatise on pain and suffering, although it surely is that too. It is an apologetic work of the first rank in the defense of God in the modern era. While the misery of my father's last days was awful, it did not shake my faith. I still believed and loved God during and after my father's suffering but I would be a liar if the terrible suffering of a fellow human being I loved did not tempt me to ask why. There is a difference between understanding the theory of redemptive suffering and profiting as a soul experiences it. Candidly, I may have thought I understood it but I struggled mightily to embrace it. Herein lies the reason that every Catholic ought to confront the problem of pain before it confronts them.

Lewis begins The Problem of Pain with two concepts that speak to the universality of God. First, he writes that all men experience what he describes as the "numinous." It is an awe that all men experience in encountering creation. It is not a fear per se but a dread. To seek God appears to be part of what it means to be a human being as much as any other. The "numinous" is the lived-out experience of that seeking – of that hole in our respective hearts. Something whispers into our souls telling us there something out there that transcends the material limitations of our universe.

Second, all men irrespective of place or time stand condemned in their moral failures as more than a mere contrivance or social convention. The moral law is an objective standard outside of us and not of our own making. These two realities – the intuitive and unarticulated grasp of the spiritual dimension and the objective aspect of the moral law – each speaks how God's reality and existence are pre-programmed in the human heart. In the darkness of man after the fall and without the benefit of revelation, it is no wonder that man took the longing for God in his heart in a variety of religious expressions – some of which are, in their human creation obscene but nonetheless conditioned man to receive the Gospel in some way.  

Lewis initially frames the issue at hand by admitting the obvious: there is pain on earth. It is everywhere and takes on special power for man as he not only experiences it but anticipates it. Ironically, however, the ubiquity of pain presents another problem for the non-believer: if there is so much pain on the earth, how is it that man anywhere (as opposed to everywhere) attributed this pain-filled creation to a loving God.   As such, the problem of pain is only a problem if our creator is good. If not, its problematic nature would never arise.

Lewis then introduces an objection based on pain in its full atheistic flavor: if God were good, he would want his creatures to be happy and therefore because his creatures are not happy, God either lacks goodness or power or both. This argument neglects a proper understanding of God's omnipotence: God has the power to do anything consistent with his nature but He does not possess the limitation encompassed by the law of non-contradiction – he cannot, for example, give the gift of free will and simultaneously not give it. But God's freedom exists in the fact that no other cause produces His acts and no external obstacles impede them.

According to Lewis, God's definition of goodness must include human pain because we were freely made to love God – that was his end in creating us. And therefore when we seek some other thing – something other than God – we will not be happy. Therefore because God loves us so much he continues to provide us correction to assist us in re-directing our energies and affections to that which will make us happy. Lewis uses a number of analogies: dog-master, father-son, husband-wife to demonstrate that it is indeed commonplace in those relationships which matter most to involve a similar kind of loving correction. But they all illustrate that those who wish for God to "leave us alone" are asking for God to love us less, not more.

Lewis moves on to what really causes pain: it is man, not God. The problem better stated is that man is mostly wicked and causes pain. He then points to some false beliefs that distract us from the reality and depth of our depravity. We suppose ourselves not much worse than others – but the reality is that we probably are and even so, we know that we liars and the "others" may not be so. Lewis also says we labor under the illusion that time cancels sin -- when in fact it exists as if we committed in eternity (perhaps Saint Peter's thrice denial echoes through eternity). He further states that we often take comfort in numbers as if our malediction is mitigated by the recognition that many people sin around us.

"We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are, as Newman said, rebels who must lay down our arms. The first answer, then, to the question of why our cure should be painful, is that to render back the will which we have so long claimed for our own, is in itself, wherever and however it is done, a grievous pain." Pain, according to Lewis, shatters the illusion of human divinity and that “all is well.” "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is a megaphone to rouse a deaf world." Pain is the device that teaches us our limitations -- our insufficiency in a cosmic sense.

Lewis finishes with Hell; it is a destination marked by privation: "[t]hey enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free."   In turn, heaven is the solution to the problem of pain.

Many good things can be said for The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis. I found nothing objectionable in the text and I found much so edifying. That said, I believe Lewis missed an opportunity to discuss the pain that really matters to this question: seemingly senseless pain. The pain that flows directly from our own sin and emptiness or from the cruelty of other human beings is easy enough to make sense of in the divine framework. But the questions of pain that serve as an obstacle to some are those that involve the senselessness of pain.

How about the other numberless instances in which suffering seems to fall from the sky without any seeming attributable sin? How about when a small child is racked with cancer and his parents watch him slowly die? People naturally recoil when we say that the little boy who died of cancer died because of sin. They find it a reprehensible idea and are more comfortable ignoring the why (other than the natural explanation for the particular sickness). We know, however, that death and sickness entered the world because of sin at the Fall. So technically speaking, the little boy did in fact die because of sin -- maybe not his own but he died because of somebody's sin.

We are creatures of the twentieth-first century -- and what's more, we in the United States live in a thoroughly Protestant worldview, which is another way to say that we live with an individualistic frame of reference. As such, it is easy to accept the wages of sin being exacted from the sinner -- but because we lack a collective vision (i.e., a Catholic corporate sensibility), we struggle with the idea that the wages of sin are sometimes exacted from our less culpable neighbor. The baptized are one body and, as such, if one part of the body sins, it is perfectly reasonable that another part of the body may suffer the consequences. There is a reason that public virtue is important and isn't only because of its pedagogical value -- public vice punishes more than the wicked (sometimes, it doesn't even punish the wicked in this life), public vice ricochets with invisible violence in our communities.

Ultimately, therefore, Lewis is right. Pain is man's fault inasmuch as man sins. If the secularist can understand the principle that polluting the atmosphere or groundwater -- even in seemingly infinitesimal ways -- can have unpredictable and far-reaching consequences, there is no reason why spiritual pollution would do any less damage. What makes life bearable and understandable is that God's love surmounts all -- that his justice and mercy will eventually vindicate all things in the fullness of time. The details and working out of that justice in this world, however, are sometimes inscrutable to man's finite mind but when we fail to understand something, all we can do -- all we should do -- is trust in the goodness of God. It is in perhaps these bewildering moments of suffering -- when we couple them with resignation to God's will -- that we come closest to the disciples that God intended us to be.[1]
Our Lady of Consolation, Pray for us.

[1] The author acknowledges Win Groseclose's helpful outline of this work by C.S Lewis, which may be found at


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Last modified on Thursday, February 12, 2015