Reflections from C.S. Lewis: “A Grief Observed”

Snowy mountains with clouds

I recently finished C.S. Lewis’ brief work, “A Grief Observed.” Lewis originally published the book anonymously; it describes his heartache and confusion after the death of his wife, whom he had been married to for only 3 years.

Like in so many of his writings, Lewis is able to articulate the feelings that many of us have had and his insights are lucidly expressed. Below are three passages that bring up perhaps some of the most important concepts about illness and spirituality.

1.     Anger at God

“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.” – C.S. Lewis. A Grief Observed, pg 6

If a person were truly secular, when faced with illness or death there would be no anger at God or despising Him, for God does not exist in that man’s mind. Yet rather, illness prompts in many a deep resentment of God. Even the most nonspiritual or pluralistic man will become angry at a God who until now he largely denied existed—I saw this so very often with patients I treated. So too, the religious man, as Lewis notes of himself, is tempted with the idea that God is not good.

Where does this reaction come from?

Tim Keller’s short book, “A Prodigal God,” looks into this reaction somewhat. Keller dissects the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son to focus on the elder brother in the story. The elder brother isn’t the “rebellious” son, he’s the hardworking and moral one. And we each have something of the elder brother in us. As Keller writes:

Elder brothers believe that if they live a good life they should get a good life, that God owes them a smooth road if they try very hard to live up to standards….Elder brothers’ inability to handle suffering arises from the fact that their moral observance is results-oriented. The good life is lived not for delight in good deeds themselves, but as calculated ways to control their environment.

Our biggest threat in coming to resent God and to believe dreadful things about Him, as Lewis would say, is having a narrow, results-oriented relationship with God. This is something that is so natural for all of us across all world religions and even atheism itself, that it’s hard to break out of. When we work hard and are “good people,” we expect a good outcome in return.

Our anger at God reveals that we do indeed believe in Him, however weak. Yet it shows that our relationship has not been as firmly rooted in the Gospel as it could be. We must always be reorienting and reminding ourselves: we do good not to earn good (whether in this life or the next), but out of the joy in knowing that we are freely saved by God.


2.     Unanswerable Questions

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All non-sense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask—half our great theological and metaphysical problems—are like that.” — C.S. Lewis. A Grief Observed, pg 69

It’s certainly true that illness prompts in us a number of questions. It has for me, and Lewis’ book is filled with his questions. But how do we resolve them all? And can they be answered?

As Lewis notes in the quote above, it’s likely that one day many of his questions and doubts will be revealed to be nonsensical impossibilities—“some shattering and disarming simplicity is the real answer.” (pg 71)

Lewis comes to say, “Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked from under our feet. We shall see that there never was any problem.” (pg 71)

I am increasingly aware that my own questions arise from a faulty substrate; if I could see the true designs of this world, all would be simple.


3.     What is God Like

My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.” — C.S. Lewis. A Grief Observed, pg 66

The way I (and you) understand suffering is shaped by how we think the world ought to operate and what we assume God is like.

But as Lewis notes, God is the great iconoclast—he breaks our false images.

We are so used to the Biblical stories that we forget the shocking core of the narrative—God as Jesus coming to this world as a poor infant born to refugee parents and later tortured to death by the very humans he has come to save and to forgive.

The more I learn about Jesus, the more my cultural and Western-syncretic ideas of God are shattered and I see, as Paul said, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29). Somehow, suffering is tied right in to the core of the Christian life, right down to the Savior himself. That’s not a pleasant idea for someone who isn’t yet suffering, but the truth of it can transform those of us who are.