Why we need pain. A bad answer by C. S. Lewis.
If God is all good and all powerful, why is there so much pain and evil in the world? It’s a classic question, known as theodicy, or the justice of God. The problem starts with the insight that the Lord who loves righteousness is at the same time an awesome and terrible presence. God is not just good. He is terrifying. As Lewis puts it,
For it was the Jews who fully and unambiguously identified the awful Presence haunting black mountain tops and thunderclouds with “the righteous Lord” who “loveth righteousness.” (pp 13-14)
It’s a simple point that sometimes gets lost. We worship God not just because of his goodness, but because of his power, an experience that fills us with awe and dread. Why else is it death to see the face of God? (Exodus 33:20) *
God, goodness, and power
What we most want in the world, especially as children, is for goodness and power to be one. Many of us never grow up in this regard. A long line of psychological experiments demonstrates this (Lerner, 1980). When forced to choose, abused children generally blame themselves, rather than seeing their powerful parents as bad.
It is for this reason that Jesus Christ is so compelling, an all-powerful God who emptied or poured (ekenōsen) himself into a human vessel in order to experience human pain, and perhaps human pleasure as well. This is not how God’s identity with Jesus is usually explained, but I like to think that God allowed himself to become human partly so that he might understand us better, and partly so that we would not be so quick to identify power with goodness. “[His] strength made perfect in weakness” is how Paul put it, and that seems about right (2 Corinthians 12:9). Of course, there are many passages in the Bible where Christ identifies himself with God’s power, but what a wonderful idea that God would pour himself into human form in order to experience human weakness and pain.
Our happiness is not God’s goal
Our happiness is not God’s goal. His goal is to make us better people, worthier of loving God, and worthier of God’s love. This may require pain (p 42).
Love may cause pain to its object, but only on the supposition that that object needs alteration to become fully lovable. Now why do we men need so much alteration? The Christian answer—that we have used our free will to become very bad—is so well known that it hardly needs to be stated. (p 49)
How much pain and for what?
Let’s assume that pain often makes people better, more serious, more dedicated to the things that really matter in this world, including love of God, love of nature, love of family, and love of humanity.
I have seen great beauty of spirit in some who were great sufferers. (p 109)
But how much suffering is enough? I have viewed hundreds of hours of testimony by survivors of the Holocaust (Alford, 2009). I curate another blog on psychic trauma, including PTSD. And for most people, too much suffering is destructive: of faith, and even of love and goodness. The peculiar quality of PTSD is that it involves suffering that is endless.
Lewis states that people forget their pain relatively quickly once it is over.
Pain has no tendency, in its own right, to proliferate. When it is over, it is over, and the natural sequel is joy. (p 118)
It’s simply not true. The suffering of many Holocaust survivors lasts forever. Not only because they lost confidence in the basic goodness of the world, but because they frequently lost their entire families, as well as the towns they grew up in. All were obliterated. Having lived in fear and terror for years, it is often impossible to return to everyday life.
Many who suffer PTSD suffer for decades. Indeed, this is what post-traumatic stress disorder means: that the cause of suffering is removed, but the suffering never stops. Sometimes it does. Some find understanding families and good therapists, but most remain forever vigilant, forever unable to relax and enjoy the pleasures of this world.
My conclusion: pain makes some people better, in the sense of deeper and more profound. But too much pain can destroy a life forever. More precisely put, too much pain destroys the ability to experience pleasure in life. For most people have a remarkable capacity to endure.
The limits of God’s omnipotence
Why doesn’t God take some of the pain away? Lewis says he can’t. God could have created any world, or none. But he is constrained by logic, and evidently by consistency and non-intervention. If God is to grant us our freedom, then nature must be as it is (p 26).
Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself. (p 26)
Even so, even if free will means pain, suffering, and crimes against humanity, what good or necessity is served by malaria, typhus, or the black plague, which killed about half of all humans in Europe in the fourteenth century? If God is omnipotent, could there not be some limit on human pain, for there doesn’t seem to be, and Lewis is completely wrong to claim that when the pain stops it stops. Sometimes the ending is only the beginning. To watch your child die of a painful and debilitating glioma (a type of brain tumor) is not the end, but only the beginning of suffering.
If we take God’s omnipotence seriously, then God need not be constrained by the all or nothing logic of human freedom: give humans their freedom, and anything goes, for humans are sinners. I think the explanation of process theology, explored in a previous post, makes the most sense: God’s power is limited, and God learns and suffers with us. An advantage of this perspective is that it allows us to clearly separate power and goodness, which is the main reason the process perspective is so widely rejected (Roth).
Our happiness is not God’s goal. His goal is to make us better people, more able to love God, more worthy loving. About this Lewis seems right. The question is the contribution of pain to this process, about which I think Lewis lacks imagination, even as he experienced his share of pain, including the death of his beloved wife.
Another question is Lewis’ claim that God could not give men and women their freedom without opening them to a world of pain without limit. Why couldn’t He? At some point pain degrades the soul, something that the Greek tragedians understood (Nussbaum 2001, Alford 1992). It is against this tendency that civilization is erected as support against a nature (including perhaps our own nature) that was not made for the human being, and has not become more human.
* Actually, it’s a little more complicated, for elsewhere in the Bible people see God (Exodus 24:10-11). Much depends on how the Hebrew term panim (פָּנִים, Strongs, 6440) is translated, for it may be rendered as presence as well as face. In the New Testament, people saw God every day in the presence of Christ. Most just didn’t know what they were seeing. Perhaps they still don’t.
All page references with no date or author refer to C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. HarperCollins, 2008.
C. Fred Alford, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Greek Tragedy. Yale University Press, 1992.
C. Fred Alford, After the Holocaust. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Melvin Lerner, The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. Plenum Press, 1980.
Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
David Roth, Critique of Griffin, in Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, edited by Stephen T. Davis, 119-123. John Knox Press, 1981,