There are no easy answers in suffering

Today’s Pulse article is adapted from the December 10th, 2019 Pulse.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15)

As a preacher, I often quote from C.S. Lewis, because, well, that’s what evangelical preachers do. I must confess, however, that as quotable as he is, I have only actually finished two of his books, because I find his style difficult to read. One of those books is Mere Christianity, a classic and one of the first books I ever read as a Christian. The second is called A Grief Observed, and contains his journals and reflections after losing his wife, Joy Davidman, to cancer.

One of the amazing things about A Grief Observed is that it is the personal reflection on deep suffering written by the same man who wrote The Problem of Pain, one of the enduring Christian classics on suffering. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain in 1940, as a 42 year-old. That book contains the classic line that I quote often in sermons: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” But Lewis was 62 when his wife died, and 63 when A Grief Observed was published. A lot of suffering had occurred in those 20 years, most profoundly the death of his wife. As a result,  A Grief Observed does not provide the reader with neat and tidy answers and logical explanations the way The Problem of Pain did. Instead, it reveals how painfully unique everyone’s suffering is, and how difficult it can be to make sense of. Consider some of these quotes:

“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. 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.”

“What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good?’ Have they never even been to a dentist?”

“Aren’t all these notes the senseless writhings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it? Who still thinks there is some device which will make pain not to be pain? It doesn’t really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist’s chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on.”

Getting over it so soon?... To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another…At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.”

When I lay my questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’”

I find A Grief Observed to be a beautiful reminder that even the author of a classic book on suffering found his own advice insufficient when faced with deep personal tragedy. In the movie Shadowlands, based on the story of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman, Lewis says “Joy died from cancer. I have no answers anymore. Only the life I have lived.” We would be wise to realize that often, when someone is suffering, it is far better to refrain from trying to make sense of it, and instead to just listen to them and be willing to share their suffering with them.

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