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pain & progress

pain & progress

I still have the book-related guilt imparted during homeschooling. The older the book, the harder it is to leave behind. I have dreamt about picking books out of the garbage, dreamt of looting a bookstore in the apocalypse. I don't own many fine books, and this is just a dog-eared paperback from the late 60s, but it has the right look and feel, and so I bought it, and it stayed on my shelf.

(I did the dog-earing. Sorry. My bibliophilia leaves marks, and I'm not the highlighting type.) 

"We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven - a senile benevolence who, as they say, 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves,' and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, 'a good time was had by all.'"

It moved with me from my parent's house, 2 1/2 years ago. Naturally I read and enjoyed the Chronicles, as a kid, and I read (but don't remember) the Space Trilogy in my early 20s, but, I am by no means a fan of the Lewis who is pull-quoted on the internet, the Lewis who can be condensed to fit on a coffee mug. Whether or not you like it, reading his non-fiction is a commitment. 

"We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses - that He would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves: but once again, we are asking not for more Love, but for less."

So. This book sits on my shelf. I periodically think "I should read that", and maybe even make it as far as the second chapter. I get stalled by his page-long paragraphs. It goes back to the shelf.
And then I had some rather tremendous pain, which has - thank God! - receded to only the faint occasional twinge, which is just enough to remind me that had I gotten what I wanted, that pain might have been permanent. (We don't need to get into this, and it's not a plea for sympathy; I mention it only to point out that I did not have the capacity to understand this book prior to these events. If you do, then good for you, you should probably still read this.)

 "It is good for us to know love; and best for us to know the love of the best object, God. But to know it as a love in which we were primarily the wooers and God the wooed, in which we sought and He was found, in which His conformity to our needs, not ours to His, came first, would be to know it in a form false to the very nature of things. For we are only creatures: our rรดle must always be that of patient to agent, female to male, mirror to light, echo to voice. Our highest activity must be response, not initiative."

I didn't think to pick up this book during the time when the scab was fresh and being ripped open repeatedly, and I'm not sure it'd have meant anything if I did. Perhaps only from the other side of trial can we really see - even in a small portion - how God allowed and used suffering. Perhaps you are better able to function in pain than I was. At the time, it felt like I'd lost my capacity to think, and indeed, I don't remember much of a nearly 6-month chunk of my life. I did things, I went places, but the details are a blur.

 "A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom His words are addressed. We lack the first condition for understanding what He is talking about. And when men attempt to be Christians without this preliminary consciousness of sin, the result is almost bound to be a certain resentment against God as to one who is always making impossible demands and always inexplicably angry."

Lewis poses several ideas you are going to find uncomfortable at best, and shocking at worst.
That pain exists as God's megaphone, a device to get our attention and turn us to God. That "bad things happen to good people" precisely because in the good life (not that we shouldn't enjoy our vocations and the comforts God has blessed us with), we are so wont to forget dependence on God Himself. That suffering, self-imposed, is different from tribulation from God's hand.

"The real trouble is that 'kindness' is a quality fatally easy to attribute to ourselves on quite inadequate grounds. Everyone feels benevolent if nothing happens to be annoying him at the moment. Thus a man easily comes to console himself for all his other vices by a conviction that 'his heart's in the right place' and 'he wouldn't hurt a fly,' though in fact he has never made the slightest sacrifice for a fellow creature. We think we are kind when we are only happy: it is not so easy, on the same grounds, to imagine oneself temperate, chaste, or humble."

This isn't meant to put you in fear of God punishing you for being happy - no, in fact, Lewis veers what I would consider to be too far in the other direction, saying that most kinds of unhappiness (anything other than grief/repentance over your own sin, or unhappiness over someone else's pain leading to you helping them) are sin. 
We're going to have to disagree there, but granted, this was written prior to many medical discoveries about how the brain works, and how it might need additional help to "be happy". This is not solely a spiritual problem, and I think exalting happiness as the most desired state, this side of heaven, is a bit unhealthy. I wonder how much he was able to take his own advice on this, particularly since this was written in 1940, a good 20 years before his wife died, and I have yet to get to "A Grief Observed".

"The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe, or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home."

This book may not be enough to convince you of the needfulness of pain, particularly if you haven't had any great pain yourself. It may not be enough to convince you of the fairness of pain's existence, if you HAVE had great pain and haven't found relief or resolution. My sympathies are with you if you're still going through this. Not everyone comes out the other side of hurt, grief, loss. (I didn't think I was going to. The deliverance was unexpected, not looked for, and I don't know that there would have been any way to speed this process up.)

"A reaction - in itself wholesome - is now going on against purely private or domestic conceptions or morality, a re-awakening of the social conscience. We feel ourselves to be involved in an iniquitous social system and to share a corporate guilt. This is very true: but the enemy can exploit even truths to our deception. Beware lest you are making use of the idea of corporate guilt to distract your attention from those hum-drum, old-fashioned guilts of your own which have nothing to do with "the system" and which can be dealt with without waiting for the millennium. For corporate guilt perhaps cannot be, and certainly is not, felt with the same force as personal guilt. For most of us, as we now are, this conception is a mere excuse for evading the real issue. When we have really learned to know our individual corruption, then indeed we can go on to think of the corporate guilt and can hardly think of it too much. But we must learn to walk before we run."

I just watched North and South again (let's not talk about how many times I've seen this). It's on Netflix. If you like the aesthetics of the 19th century, or a really finely told romance, then check that out. But I decided to get the book on tape, and it's been kind of luxurious to be forced to sit through the development of an entire novel. One line stood out to me - a word proffered to a dying girl. "God is just, and our lots are well portioned out by Him, although none but He knows the bitterness of our souls." Yes. Your pain is between you and God. Perhaps you have friends to share this bitterness with, who will weep with you, perhaps you do not.

"And pain is not only immediately recognisable evil, but evil impossible to ignore. We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities; and anyone who has watched gluttons shovelling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating, will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." 

I have found that, as a remedy for my own hardened heart, it has been beneficial to have a circle of friends of varying ages, vocations, persuasions. You do not need to be a widow(er), an orphan, ill, starving, homeless, a refugee, in order to in part understand what these people are going through.  If you love someone, you feel their pain, and it very rightly should affect you in some measure. When you have friends who are facing loss or illness, struggling with sin, battling doubt or depression, it makes you re-think the stories you tell, the jokes you make, the policies you thought you supported. As it should. 

"A merciful man aims at his neighbour's good and so does 'God's will,', consciously co-operating with the simple good.' A cruel man oppresses his neighbour, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good - so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God's purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John."

Am I advocating walking around in a constant state of grief over current affairs? No. And yet it is heart-breaking. I believe we are to strive for a balance - to be aware of our natural tendencies towards one end of the spectrum (emotionalism versus hard-heartedness), and to pay attention to how we are wont to spiritualize and politicize that spectrum. Help where you can: it is no less important when you are rut-bound with pain. Trust God for your own needs, and faithfully pray for His mercy towards those you cannot help.

"[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 more than all."

[Editor's Note: This blog is a participant in #LewisWeek]

On C. S. Lewis and the Relentless God

On C. S. Lewis and the Relentless God

What Would Have Happened?

What Would Have Happened?