Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Problem of No Pain

Faith is cold as ice —
Why are little ones born only to suffer
For the want of immunity
Or a bowl of rice?

-          Rush, Roll the Bones

The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis

…when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God most of all.

Lewis begins with a short preface, basically telling the reader how unqualified he is to write on this subject.  We will see.

He opens with the problem of pain – perhaps summarized in the snippet of Rush lyrics offered at the top of this post, but with more flavor.  It is man’s knowledge of pain that has allowed him to develop hundreds of ways of inflicting pain on his fellow man. 

Everything about pain points to the opposite of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit:

Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.

Yet this raises a real problem: if the universe is so bad, why on earth did man dream up this idea of a good Creator?  After all, the world of man at the time of this “invention” was far more painful and frightening than the world in which virtually all of us live in today – they dared not even venture into the nearby forest, let alone across a continent or across an ocean.  Are we to believe that men were not just fools, but completely foolish?

Certainly at all periods the pain and waste of human life was equally obvious. …It is mere nonsense to put pain among the discoveries of science.

Lewis identifies three strands or elements common to all developed religion, and in Christianity one more: the Numinous (mysterious, awe-inspiring); an acknowledgment of some kind of morality; the Numinous power is made guardian of the morality; the fourth, unique to Christianity: Jesus – at one with the “Something” which is the Numinous and the giver of the moral law.

[Christianity] creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for 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 ultimately reality is righteous and loving.

It is relatively easy to look at pain as the anomaly of life – in our time and in the developed world.  But the opposite is the reality: we certainly have the certainty of death – first, one by one, many of our loved ones; eventually, each one of us.  Take away the division of labor and even this mental exercise is enough to cause physical pain; this was the reality of pain for much of human history.

But could not God have made it otherwise?

If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished.  But the creatures are not happy.  Therefore God lacks either goodness, power, or both.

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem of pain.  For this, Lewis discusses God’s omnipotence – His power to do all. 

His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible.  You may attribute miracles to him, but not nonsense.

God cannot both give free will to His human creatures and not give free will to them at the same time.  As Lewis says: “...meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’.”

It remains true that all things are possible to God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. …nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.

The ‘laws of nature’ appear to present a strong argument against the goodness and / or the power of God.  Lewis will argue that not even Omnipotence could create free souls without at the same time creating a “relatively independent” nature.

The freedom of a creature means freedom to choose; the freedom to choose implies choices from which one can choose.  The fixed nature of matter, therefore, cannot make it always and everywhere agreeable to every creature.  A man travelling in one direction downhill means that when travelling in the other direction, another man is going uphill.

If fire comforts the body at a certain distance, it will destroy it when the distance is reduced.  Hence, even in a perfect world, the necessity for those danger signals which the pain-fibres in our nerves are apparently designed to transmit.

Wood can be used for a beam just as easily as it can be used to hit our neighbor on the head.  But why couldn’t God transform that wood into soft grass one moment before the blow struck the neighbor’s head?  In such a world, wrong action would be impossible; this would make a mockery of free will.

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.

We don’t want a Father in heaven; we want a grandfather in heaven: one who likes to see the young people having a good time and enjoying themselves.  But a Father has a greater responsibility: love.  And love requires correction. 


To really feel the joy in life
You must suffer through the pain

Until you struggle through the dark
You'll never know that you're alive

-          Dream Theater, Illumination Theory

There is more to this book, so no grand conclusion as of now.  I can only say something from personal experience and observation: life has had the most meaning when one offers or sees an example of another going through pain, when one is dealing with pain and is comforted by another, when one is comforting and aiding another in pain.

Does this mean we should rejoice in pain, or pray for more?  Hardly.  Pain will come, with or without our encouragement.  But Jesus came to alleviate pain, and Jesus is the archetype for human beings.  What useless creatures we would be if we had no struggles with which to deal.

In the developed world – certainly in the West – life is reasonably pain-free when compared to other places and times.  This drives people to invent ways to risk pain.  And those who take on such risks describe the experience as most meaningful. 

I cannot put such activities in the same category as the pain that comes naturally in life – it cannot fill the same void in the same way.  However, it does demonstrate the truth of much of what Lewis has written. 

It demonstrates, in a less-than-perfect way, that the problem of no pain is much greater than the problem of pain.


  1. Well said. The Bible says that momentary light affliction is producing and eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.

    No pain, no gain goes the saying. But for atheists, agnostics, or humanists that only applies to running a marathon or studying hard for a final.

    Apply that to God good intention for us, and they see that as cruelty.

    As a father and a son, I see that as love.

  2. Life always manifests itself into what appears to be antagonist forces, but everything that exists occurs as a cycle, like breathing. The Chinese developed a symbol to represent just that: Yin/Yang. There are no good or bad, but positive and negative forces, like in a battery, interacting with each other within everything, maintaining a balance. The way of life is to keep those forces stabled, in harmony. A disruption would be created (like a yawn, or cough) to put things back into an encompassed flowing cycle again. Every object casts a shadow. Notice that the shadow projects itself from the object, it’s one with it. Every proposition would have its opponents. Pleasure cannot be disconnected from pain. There wouldn’t be a God without its creation. Notice that the devil was also part of it...

  3. "Meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain. Meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure." - G.K. Chesterton

  4. Tolkien's take on this is that storytelling is an act of creation - and God is the master storyteller. The pain and folly that take place in the story, as a result of the characters' foolishness or outright evil, ultimately only add to the majesty of the work. Without it, the story as a whole would be poorer.

    I'm not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, it's a bit outrageous to think that real, deadly pain and suffering are allowed to happen in order to make a better plot. On the other hand, who would want to read a story where there is no conflict, no evil to struggle with? Who would want to take part in such a story?