Pain is evil but can have good consequences

Wesley A. Kort is Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University and author of Reading C. S. Lewis: A Commentary. In his chapter on The Problem of Pain, he writes:

Lewis turns from the primal error in human life [pride or self-possession] to the human experience of having to endure things we dislike. He implies that such experiences can counter our primal error and dethrone our deified selves. If we are to be humans as we are meant to be, this dethroning must always occur, and it will be neither easy nor pleasant. Indeed, the tradition refers to it as a kind of death. Pain, when viewed as part of a process, while still an evil, will also be or become meaningful and productive.

Lewis names some generally understandable benefits that can arise from setbacks. For example, they can deliver us from the illusion that we can count on events to accord with our wishes. Pain can even make us aware that our lives are not in our own hands and that we do not live in a world of our making and control. Pain arises from the fact that we do not live in conditions under which what we want to do or be and what we can or ought to do or be are the same thing. In fact to some degree they are contrary. Indeed, under present conditions, what we need and ought to be and do is often what we do not want or like. This point may obscure the fact that sometimes what we enjoy doing can be the same as what it is good for us to do. However, Lewis wants here to keep the other side in view, namely, that we are often required to do things that are good but that we do not want to do, the chief of them being, according to Lewis, acknowledging that God, and not we, is God. When we do acknowledge that God is God, however, we thereby are enabled to become ourselves. Lewis contends that this truth about life, which is basic to Christianity, is widely known even in pre- and non-Christian cultures. 

Lewis’ position, then, is that pain is evil but have good consequences. This allows him to argue that we should try to alleviate pain because it is evil. To put it differently, pain is, to a degree, both a consequence of human sin and a means by which the consequences of human sin can be altered or reversed. The continual need for humans to have their primal situation altered means that pain can never be entirely eliminated from life. Does this make efforts to improve human existence futile?  Lewis’s answer seems to be that some forms of pain are not needed for the changes that suffering can produce, and these forms are their causes can and should be addressed.

***

Lewis’s insistence on the necessity of pain should not overshadow the genuine and legitimate pleasures and joys of life. There is much pain in the world, but we should not make it a basis for describing our world and our places within it. Also, we should not aggravate the problem created by pain by taking it as an aggregate. Pain is always particular, and it is experienced under specific circumstances. Finally, it is necessary, while relating sin and pride, also to distinguish them; pain, when it has passed, should be forgotten, while sin, when passed, should be redressed.   

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