We went to #2 son’s work open house last night. I have been forbidden to mention where he works or what he does, and I am also not allowed to say that he looks cute in his uniform.
I thought I would report on C. S. Lewis’s book, The Problem of Pain. A few pithy quotes, you know, on an interesting topic. The trouble I have with Lewis is that once I start quoting, it’s hard for me to stop.
For example, Lewis points out that, philosophically, “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 assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.” And of course this is true. If life were merely nasty, brutish, and short, pain would present no philosophical problems at all. Life is horrible, and then you die. No philosophical problem there.
The problem, he says, is this: if God is good and loves us, then why does He allow pain? Free will is the classic answer to this, within the religious tradition of which I am a part. And Lewis agrees; much pain is caused by human sin, either directly in the form of war and oppression or indirectly through greed and complacence about others’ hardships.
But he also says that we don’t actually want contentment on any terms for those we love. If you tell me that you don’t care what your kids do as long as they’re happy — drugs, crime, prostitution, anorexia, as long as they’re happy — I am going to tell you that you are an unnatural parent. In fact, if you park your babies in front of the TV and let them eat candy all day, anything at all to keep them from crying, I’m going to know that you are a bad parent. That is indifference, not love. We don’t even feel that way about our dogs, Lewis says. We don’t housetrain earwigs or give them baths, he points out, not because we think the earwigs would enjoy having their natural tendencies thwarted less than our dogs do, but because we don’t care about them enough.
So some pain is the result of evil human choices. Some is good for us, either as a warning (like hot things being painful to touch) or as a good experience for our characters.
Lewis then talks about sin at some length, and very interestingly. If you are contemplating the theological issues surrounding sin this Lenten season, you might like to read this book, even if you aren’t thinking much about pain. He makes some interesting points about the political and linguistic aspects of our distaste for the very word “sin” that I’d love to discuss with others, though I’m guessing that the topic is not to the taste of most of my visitors here. He also has some pointed comments on selfishness that I plan to think about, though any discussion would just have to be my saying how right he is, if I am any indication.
But, back to pain, Lewis then touches briefly on natural causes of suffering, like tornadoes. We know that some of the current “natural disasters” are in fact the result of human greed and wrong behavior on an enormous scale. We were not content with the world as God prepared it for us, so we have altered it, and our choices have led to some unforeseen consequences. Some of the hardships resulting from those things also result from human wrong choices in everything from constructing buildings to the way that we respond to emergencies. But there are also potential hardships in any environment which presents the appearance of a settled nature. Do you remember the Bugs Bunny cartoons in which the cartoonist would appear as a hand drawing and erasing things, to Bugs’s fury? We wouldn’t really choose to live in a world like that.
“Even if all suffering were manmade,” says Lewis, “we should like to know the reason for the enormous permission to torture their fellows which God gives to the worst of men.” And here Lewis brings up a point that I have heard others make, with varying degrees of persuasiveness. We can, he says, see the wrong that comes from wrong behavior and from natural disasters. Then we can see the goodness that God allows to come of it: the opportunity to offer kindness and help to others, to show courage and nobility, to learn and improve through our own suffering or through our responses to the suffering of others.
Lewis is not, I think, saying that God allows evil in order to make a point. He has already suggested that, while God could ensure that things made to serve as weapons miraculously would become soft and harmless, or that evil thoughts could not take root in human minds, the consequences of such a system would be unacceptable even to us.
Lewis points out also that thinking of all the human suffering through time and space as though it were cumulative is an error. If you and I each have a toothache of magnitude 1x, he says, that doesn’t add up to 2x: no one is suffering 2x. He also reminds us that, if we believe in God (and if we don’t then there is no reason for us to think that pain is wrong, rather than just being the nature of life), then our time on earth is only a short part of our entire existence.
“The settled happiness and security which we all desire,” says Lewis, “God withholds from us by the very nature of the world, but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy… Our Father refreshes us on our journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”
Lewis writes a bit on animal and plant pain, too, and it is there that he jokes about mosquitoes, as Ozarque did in the comments: “a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could be very conveniently combined.”
I am off this morning to see the periodontist. My understanding is that there is nothing this guy can do for me that I can afford, so I am expecting to have an unpleasant and expensive morning for no benefit, but my dentist told me to go see him, so I am doing so. I will certainly notice my lack of novels during that jaunt. Having finished The Problem of Pain, I have moved on to God and the New Physics. After that I will head on up to the store for the day. It has been a long week.
6 thoughts on “The Problem of Pain”
Lewis can be amazing and eye-opening to read. A couple of summers ago, my husband and I both read the Chronicles of Narnia and thoroughly enjoyed the books. Mere Christianity is also good. I’m not familiar with the one you’ve been reading, but like that business about plenty of fun, joy and even ecstasy along the way.
Have a good day and a blessed weekend.
I have to see a periodontist soon. I am not looking forward to it, or the bill that will soon follow.
I am not persuaded by the arguments Lewis offers as excuses for God. But I am convinced that God’s ultimate plan for humankind somehow requires pain, or it would not have been allowed.
Good luck with your fancy dentist…
I believe reading your thoughts on pain has helped lead me to a conclusion over on my blog. I don’t think it’s anything new or novel, in fact, it’s a really, really old concept, I believe. But I still managed to get there on my own. (Although I’ve probably read it before without full understanding or appreciation.)
Having said all that, I still think there’s nothing wrong with taking a pill in order to get through the day or not traumatize your children. The pill does, in my experience, get in the way of the process, though, in the long run. But sometimes, it’s about surviving the moment, and not the process.
I think for people who lack a spiritual outlet, it’s all about surviving the moment. If a pill keeps them from shooting up the town hall, who am I to judge?
So sad, that.
I think Lewis wrote that book shortly after his wife died, which would lend itself to a sharper & more recent experience of pain & understanding of pain.
Yes, it has been a long week.
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