The suffering of life doesn’t seem to pair with the goodness of God. I like to quote Anton Chekhov, the famous Russian short story writer, and a Christian. He says that there should be someone with a hammer at the head of every happy man, “reminding him with a knock that there are unhappy people, that however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws”. That someone is often God, especially if we have eyes to see the brokenness in people’s lives. There is nothing easy about pain and there’s nothing easy about its instruction, both before it begins and in the mix of its weight in our lives. How should we teach about suffering? C.S. Lewis is a good person to turn to, to both feel the hammer at your head and also find some instruction on how to unravel the difficulty of pain. His book The Problem of Pain (1940) and A Grief Observed (1961) are helpful guides to working through suffering theologically and emotionally. Here are several points worth considering, especially in the role of pastor.
How should we teach about suffering?
There are no easy answers
In A Grief Observed, Lewis’s book about the loss of his wife published posthumously, he doesn’t start off with a satisfying answer about where God is in times of struggle. The book is so raw that it was first published under a pseudonym (N.W. Clerk) in 1961 and then accredited formally to Lewis with a reprinting in 1963. “When you are happy,” he says, “so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.” We don’t always know why suffering occurs, and, as shepherds of the sheep, it is our responsibility to show compassion and patience at all times, especially the difficult ones. There are no easy answers and sometimes questioning God’s whereabouts is a very human response. It shows how desperately we are in need of his mercy and grace.
Remember what God is doing
The adage of having skin in the game is true. God is shaping us to fit into the narrow doors of eternity. This life–its punches and knockouts–are made beautiful in his time. Lewis talks through the death of his mother in Surprised by Joy. He says, “All settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared in my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security.” The losses we experience today are by design. God is creating in us a clean heart and renewing a right spirit within us (Ps 51:10). Pain is very much a tangle of justice and mercy. No matter how we understand suffering, we know the preparations for Hell. There are none. We just go on acting in rebellion. If we are to fall on mercy, we need to fall down. Sometimes that is painful and costly.
We need to trust God
Lewis calls pain, “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (The Problem of Pain). We must have ears to hear and the want to trust. If we don’t, we won’t work through the pain and see his plan through it. God knows our suffering and he promises we will experience it, especially as we get closer to Jesus. At the end of A Grief Observed, Lewis concludes, much like Job, that, “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down”.
It won’t go away
Pain is part of our lives as Christians. It won’t go away. In fact, Lewis calls it a gift that leads us to reconciliation. God is the dentist removing the decay and the surgeon fixing the heart. What is our response? That’s really the question: if pain won’t leave, will we see it as God’s tool to call us afresh to discipleship? If we are to die daily, we should realize that pain most certainly is involved. Even more than pain not going away, is the promise we have that God will neither leave us or forsake us.
The cross is reality
Paul tells us not to grieve as people without hope (I Thessalonians 4:13). Jesus has overcome everything–sin, death, the devil… everything. And he is coming back to claim us. Lewis puts it this way, “The crucifixion itself is the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events” (The Problem of Pain). It kills and heals us. I think the old hymns expressed this better than the music today. For example, William Cowper writes in 1772, “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins; and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.” And Robert Lowry, in 1876, pens, “Oh! precious is the flow that makes me white as snow. No other fount I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Christ’s suffering became our reward and he calls us to the same battle, not as a propitiation for our sin but rather an act of worship.
We will know why
Often the eternal reasons for suffering are masked. We want to know. If we’re honest, we think knowing why will help our pastoral response. We don’t need to dodge from questions or attempt to connect all the dots in a persons’ life. Our call is to faith, hope, and love. We theologically know that the Holy Spirit is our comforter, but we sometimes have trouble believing this is practice. The dark days may or may not go away, but our hope is placed beyond time and our faith is placed outside ourselves and our love is because he first loved us.
Paul says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Christ’s death is truth that our pain is not dismissed by a God who cannot feel. Psalm 23 begins at arm’s length as God leads, restores and guides. But as the shadow of death encroaches, the psalm shifts. It says, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
God is in the midst of our battles. He is guiding us as leaders. God may not fix the pain when the rope breaks and we fall into valleys as thick as thieves, but he will commune with us in our suffering and hope that it helps to fit and form us into dependent, holy people, knowing who we are and to whom we belong.