C.S. Lewis and Grief

Written by Drew on March 15th, 2006

In 1940 C.S. Lewis wrote a monumental apologetic on grief entitled The Problem of Pain. Citing the problem of evil as the major hangup during his days as an atheist, Lewis tackled this perplexity with his most profound gift: reason. Some of the arguments formed in this work continue to comfort those who deal with suffering from a logical point of view, most notably his criticism of Ockhamism, the notion that God’s actions are right just because it is God who performs them. Lewis was 40 years old at the time and confessed, “If any real theologian reads these pages he will very easily see that they are the work of a layman and an amateur” (p. 10).

But sixteen years later Lewis, by that time a confirmed bachelor, married American poet Joy Davidman. They were married only four years, until she died of cancer. It was then that he wrote a second book on grief, a journal of sorts entitled A Grief Observed. One may be shocked by some of the statements found in the early part of this work. Lewis calls God “a very absent help in trouble” and a “Cosmic Sadist” (pp. 5, 35). Some have even charged that Lewis gave up his apologetics during this period of grief.

First, it should be pointed out that Davidman’s death was not the first grief experience in Lewis’s life. He was a veteran of the First World War, a man who had seen his comrades perish in battle. In the preface to The Problem of Pain, he writes, “No one can say, ‘He jests at scars who never felt a wound,’ for I have never for one moment been in a state of mind to which even the imagination of serious pain was less than intolerable. If any man is safe from the danger of under-estimating this adversary, I am that man” (p. 10). True, the pain of losing a lover is especially acute, but it is foolish to think Lewis was stranger to grief until he was 62 years of age.

Furthermore, if A Grief Observed is read carefully, it becomes clear that Lewis has not given up his apologetics. The record of his grief was taken down, not for the benefit of philosophers, but for that of his fellows in sorrow. Nothing said in A Grief Observed negates the reason of The Problem of Pain. In a sense, what we’re reading are the works of two different men addressing two different situations.

Doubt does not spell retreat. Lewis, being acquainted with the Scriptures, probably felt comfortable writing A Grief Observed because of his familiarity with men like Job, Jeremiah, and Habbakkuk, who also questioned God in their darkest moments. These, like Lewis, ultimately came to put their trust in God, no matter what. At the close of Habbakkuk’s prophecy, when he fully expected devastation at the hands of the Chaldeans, he writes,

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the field yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places (3:17-19)

In exposing his emotional turmoil through writing, Lewis did nothing but follow the godly example of his predecessors in sorrow. His work still serves as a credible guide to the harmonization of God and grief.


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