The Problem of Pain (by CS Lewis)

I love CS Lewis’s fiction books, and I have also enjoyed some of his non-fiction works, particularly the autobiographical ones. Lewis did not claim to be a theologian, but had a clear analytical mind and an excellent way of presenting persuasive arguments; yet some of his books are (or seem to me) remarkably heavy-going.

Still, from time to time I re-read them - and recently picked up 'The Problem of Pain', which I last read almost seven years ago. It’s not a long book - just 145 pages in my Penguin paperback edition - but I didn’t find it any easier to read than I did in the past.

The first half of the book, after an introduction, deals with the theory of God’s omnipotence and goodness, contrasted with the fall of mankind and the evil inherent within humanity. It’s all standard theology, written with Lewis’s style which meant that almost everything made sense, but I had to read some of it three or four times to see what he was saying unless I was particularly wide awake. In this first part of the book he essentially argues that while God COULD have made a world free from pain, and could heal any - or all - pain at any point, it would logically go against God’s inherent nature to be so controlling.

The book then goes on to deal more specifically with human pain, and here I found myself not entirely agreeing with him in places. For instance, he argues that it’s vital to be submissive to God’s will (which I would agree with) but that if we’re doing God’s will in a way that we enjoy, we have no way of knowing what our motives are. He suggests, therefore, that we can only know for certain that we’re submitting to God if we are doing things that are unpleasant or painful, which we would prefer not to do. While I can see the logic behind the reasoning, this seems close to heretical, and ignores the idea that we are to live life in all its fullness, and that God wants us to enjoy him.

There’s a chapter, too, on animal pain; I found this very interesting although I’m not sure if I agree with it all. His chapters on heaven and hell are also somewhat speculative, but I did like his emphasis on separation from God in the latter, rather than eternal torment which seems to be a surprisingly common modernist viewpoint, still held by many Christians.

I reached the end of the book with a great deal to think about, yet I’m really not sure that Lewis actually answered the question about why pain is such a part of our lives. He gives examples of people brought to an awareness of their wickedness or frailty due to pain, which brought them closer to God; yet he also acknowledges that there are some whose pain - or that of their loved ones - turns them further away from God.

He doesn’t touch on the problem of pain in children, particularly those in developing countries, but nor does he present the practical point of view that, in many cases, physical pain is a warning system that keeps us safe from harming ourselves more seriously. The excellent book ‘The Gift of Pain’ by Paul Brand and Philip Yancey addresses this thoroughly.

Overall, I thought this worth reading, but a bit long-winded; and I had the sense that Lewis himself had a problem with the idea of pain, and was trying to convince himself as much as his readers.

First published in 1943, this has remained continually in print and can now be found in Kindle form as well as paperback.

Review copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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