For sixty years, successive generations have been helped by what C.S. Lewis wrote on the subject of pain and suffering. The sustained benefit is due in large measure to the fact that he brought to the “problem” a solid dose of Christian realism. This medicine may be more important now than ever. It is not uncommon to watch as television preachers inform their audiences that God “does not want you to be sick.” It is hard to imagine such an assertion proving to be an encouragement to the wheel-chair bound, long-term sufferer of multiple sclerosis. At best, such preachers are confused. The Bible makes a clear distinction between the now of our earthly pilgrimage and the then of our heavenly home. A day is coming when there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. But as any honest observer of the human condition will admit, that day has not arrived. While most of us are probably not facing “the heartbreaking routine of monotonous misery,” as Lewis puts it, few of us are untouched by trials of various kinds.
Although the trial may appear in the disguise of an enemy, in reality it may prove to be a friend. The biblical writer James encourages his readers when faced with trials to welcome them as friends rather than resenting them as intruders. Instead of running and hiding we are to face them in the awareness that they come to prove us and to improve us. Lewis does not argue that suffering is good in itself. Instead, he points to the redemptive, sanctifying effects of suffering.
Thirty-two years of pastoral ministry have brought me into direct contact with those whose experiences of pain and suffering have proved to be a severe mercy. I think of a nuclear physicist in our church in Scotland who attended out of deference to his wife and three young daughters. He listened to the sermons with an air of polite indifference; he accepted a copy of John Stott’s Basic Christianity but remained secure in his scientific shell. It was only when his fourth child, a son, died at eleven months that the megaphone sounded. Recognizing that his worldview was inadequate to deal with tragedy and loss, he found himself reaching beyond his shadow land to find himself caught up in the embrace of the God who is there. By this terrible necessity of tribulation God conquered his rebel will and brought him to the place of peace.
It is also true that God uses suffering to wean His children away from the plausible sources of false happiness. The Christian may grow drowsy in the sun but will not fall asleep in the fire or the flood. Each of us must recognize how easy it is to think little of God when all is well on the outside. But what a change occurs when, for example, the biopsy comes back positive. A sharp blast of anxiety comes to shatter any illusions of self-sufficiency. How kind of God to rouse us and to bring us to the place of dependence.
Our experience of pain, if sanctified, will create an awareness of the trials that others face and a tenderness in our dealings. When our pains and disappointments become the occasion for the softening of our hearts, we can anticipate the privilege of bearing with the infirmities of others. Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, our great High Priest, is “touched with the feelings of our infirmities,“ and He has left us an example that we should follow. It ought to concern us greatly when those of us who have been called to teach and to lead fail to display gentleness and compassion for the faint and the trembling. Although I have only dipped a toe in the sea of suffering, it is immediately apparent that God uses the lonely hours in the middle of the night to teach us lessons that we never learned in our bright and healthy hours. We rise to affirm Wiliam Cowper's observation that “behind a frowning providence, God hides a smiling face.”
I only begin to scratch the surface of this topic. I must leave the reader to ponder two things. First, consider how suffering and pain often prove to be God’s means of discipline and how in this discipline we find an evidence and seal of our adoption (see Heb. 12:5). Secondly, consider the corrective element in affliction as referenced by the psalmist (Ps. 119:67, 71).
Lewis helps us to realize that when the megaphone of pain sounds in our lives and in the lives of our unbelieving friends and neighbors we dare not respond with some form of superficial triumphalism or descend the abyss of pessimism. If those whose lives are marked by quiet desperation, who are painfully aware of their trials and sufferings are going to seek out the Christian for help, it will not be because we appear to live lives that are free from trials but because we are honest about our own sufferings and difficulties. We will not attempt an answer for every question since we know that God has His secrets (Deut. 29:29). We will affirm that even in the mystery of His purposes we know the security of His love, and we will seek to introduce others to our God who entered into our sorrows and our sufferings.