These days I’m reading A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis. The book, first published under a pseudonym in 1961, records Lewis’s personal meditations following upon the death of his wife. Lewis himself passed away only two years later.
My initial reaction to the text is disappointment. It isn’t clear to me why it was published. To be fair, maybe the substance comes later. But the text reads like private diary entries. I suppose someone might say that Lewis thought it might help other people undergoing the grief of loss to know that they are not alone. Of course that means that the incentive for publication is that the book is not unusual. But this is usually a disincentive.
The text reads like a catalog of tweets before its time:
“On the rebound one passes into tears and pathos. Maudlin tears. I almost prefer the moments of agony. These are at least clean and honest. But the bath of self-pity, the wallow, the loathsome sticky-sweet pleasure of indulging it—that disgusts me.”
I have trouble enjoying this sort of thing. From a literary point of view, it comes across in bad taste, almost a kind of auto-exploitation or emotional exhibitionism—the stuff of social media.
Finite, fickle creatures we are, every one of us is entitled on some level to private lapses of groveling, unrefined and unedited. The Book of Common Prayer bids us take our husbands and wives, “to have and to hold” them, “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” and “to love and to cherish” them, until death do us part. This loving endurance and grit is the particular undertaking of folks bound in holy matrimony.
My poor wife has vowed to walk with me through my grief and confusion, not only through joy and more hopeful times, and through all my shameful if forgivable outbursts, not only those brief episodes of mundane glory. In the passing of his wife, Lewis had lost this covenantal companionship; he lost one he counted on in his weaker moments. So in a sense A Grief Observed is a display of his loss; it is unrequited intimacy.
But what, still, is the rationale for publicizing it? I fail to see it. Perhaps in a pre-Facebook age, the text would have enjoyed freshness distinct enough to vindicate it as a literary work.
From a theological point view, I’m afraid I’m equally lost. Consider this paragraph:
“Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruptions, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seems so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?”
The idea that ‘God is not there when we need him’ is, to be frank, seriously undeveloped, especially coming from Lewis, who certainly knows better. On one level, this feeling is not unusual for people going through severe personal difficulty. But I think the anatomy of it is something like this: the pain of loss issues into the frustration of wishing things were different, and that frustration turns into something like resentment or anger, or a demand for justice or at least a satisfying rationale. I sympathize; but objectively all this is wrongheaded. We mistakenly take the place of omniscient judge. No human belongs in that seat, so I think the process of grieving must involve slowly coming down from that usurped office. People say ‘you have to accept it’. The statement is easily misinterpreted. But I think at best it gets at the idea that we have to be humble. Reality is just not in our control, nor ultimately comprehensible to us. That is definitely unsettling; part of grieving is, I think, growing at least a little more accustomed to that, until we forget again.
But anyway, why do some people feel that God is not there for them when He is needed? There are two sides to it, I suggest. First, because suffering is confusing. Evil is, or began as, willful undoing of good order. So, we feel that the center of our reality is obscured. If that center is God, He then attracts the full attention of our disquiet. Simple enough.
Second, we feel that God isn’t there because, well, our relationship with Him was perhaps caught undeveloped; it wasn’t ready for this sort of thing. But that is on us, not on Him. In other words, we don’t tend to take our Christian growth and learning very seriously until we realize that we need it.
Suppose you have to compete in a competition, perhaps run a marathon. But you don’t train. Your diet is awful. In fact, you don’t really give it much thought. Then the day comes, and you are baffled that you have little endurance; your muscles are weak and inflexible; you can’t compete. Your body is sore and your performance lackluster. Same with suffering and God. Faith and knowledge have to grow stronger and deeper, all the time. This growth should be the regular ministry of the church and of childrearing and brotherly fellowship.
We all know suffering is coming. But we pretend it isn’t, hoping against hope that our days of comfort will be endless. But it just isn’t true. Mishap and misfortune are not the exception but the rule.
Surely the psalmist is speaking finally of Christ when he says that the righteous one “is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord. His heart is steady; he will not be afraid, until he looks in triumph on his adversaries” (Ps 112:7-8). But if we are baptized into his death, we are also united to him in his resurrection and in the imperishability of resurrection hope and inheritance (Rom 6:4ff; 1 Pet 1:3-7). We have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), who knew suffering and grief (Isa 53:3) but suffered for the hope that he had (Heb 12:2); so Paul can bid us suffer unto the glory of God (Rom 5:3) and in all things, even grief and sadness, rejoice (Rom 12:15).