As Lewis matured in his faith, his expectations changed along with his life experiences. Like many of us, he saw that life’s joys are so transient. He also observed that disappointments make pain unavoidable.
Earlier, Lewis reflected on why bad things happen to good people in his book The Problem Of Pain. The text provided fresh insight on the role of suffering in an imperfect and fallen world. Years would elapse, however, before Lewis himself would have his own Christian view of pain severely tested.
A JOY GIVEN AND TAKEN AWAY
In his early life, the tragic loss of his mother and other heartaches may have contributed to the reason Lewis became an atheist. Yet after he had embraced the Christian faith, his attitude seemed to be more accepting of suffering. Ironically, that acceptance would be severely tested after falling in love with a woman named Joy.
Lewis lived with his brother Warren in a modest home called “The Kilns.” Conscientious as he was, Lewis made it a habit to answer mail from the many readers who had been helped by his growing number of books. This is how he became acquainted with Joy Gresham, a Jewish woman who, through the influence of Lewis’ writings, converted from atheism to Christianity. Separated from an alcoholic and abusive husband, Joy came to England from the US with her two sons, David and Douglas, to meet the writer who had helped her so much. Initially, Lewis considered her only as an intellectual friend. But later, after she and her husband had divorced, Joy was in danger of being deported back to the US. So Lewis agreed to enter into a civil marriage with her. Tragically, not long after this arrangement, Joy was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. The relationship had grown into one of love, so they sought a formal Christian marriage. In those days, it was difficult for a divorced woman to be remarried by a priest of the Church of England. But they were able to persuade the Rev. Peter Bide, who performed the ceremony at her hospital bed.
Eventually, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis were given the good news of cancer remission, and they were finally able to take a welldeserved holiday trip. Lewis continued to earn academic achievements and the family enjoyed domestic happiness. But sadly, Joy’s bone cancer returned in 1960. In July of that same year, Joy Lewis died.
At this point, the man who had written and spoken with such conviction about the truth of Christianity was to have his faith tested unlike any other time in his life.
When he was a bachelor, Lewis’ academic world had been somewhat cloistered with scholarly colleagues and collegial friends at the Inklings Writers’ Group. But after Lewis married Joy, she became a central part of his life. Her painful exit troubled Lewis deeply and affected his expectations. He could accept the role of pain in the Christian life, but when it came to someone so dear to him, he struggled deeply.
A GRIEF OBSERVED
How did Lewis deal with his pain from the loss of Joy? His brother Warren had recorded his own thoughts and feelings in a journal for much of his life. But Jack hadn’t journaled as an adult, until the deep pain he felt couldn’t remain bottled up inside. So he took out a notebook and began to jot down his internal struggle. His frank and painful record would eventually be published as the book A Grief Observed. Lewis was concerned that he not undermine the faith of those who read it, so he released it under the pseudonym N. W. Clerk. But when he discovered that his friends were recommending the book to people who were also grieving, he made his authorship public.
What these journals show is that Lewis’ Gethsemane had been a roller coaster of fear, hope, and grief. He had prayed for Joy’s healing. And when her cancer went into remission, his hopes were buoyed. But when the cancer returned with a vengeance, his emotions swung from optimism to dread about his wife’s future health.
After Joy’s death, Lewis recorded in his journal his experience of a seemingly impenetrable barrier between him and God:
Where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. . . . 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.24
In that dark place of despair, the comfort of the Holy Spirit seemed terribly missing. The compassion and love of Christ was gone from his experience. Feeling exposed and in isolation, he cried out:
Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell if it is now doomed to crawl back—be sucked back— into it?25
Lewis found that the comfort he should feel from Christianity was lacking:
Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.26
As sadness gave way to anger, Lewis asked if God was really a “Cosmic Sadist.”27
Fortunately, after some time, Lewis experienced some lifting of his initial grief. He then resolved to set boundaries on how long he would continue his journal:
This is the fourth— and the last—empty [notebook] I can find in the house . . . . I resolve to let this limit my jottings. I will not start buying books for this purpose.28
Yet despite this, he still learned much on his journey. He wrote:
There is something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.29
Toward the end of A Grief Observed, we see that the barrier between God and Lewis had come to an end:
Turned to God, my mind no longer meets that locked door.30
In hindsight, he realized that his idea of God needed to be periodically broken down to make room for reality:
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.31
Lewis used the term iconoclast to describe God shattering a preconceived idea of Himself in the mind of the believer. God then replaces it with a more accurate picture of what He is really like. Terrible tragedies may shatter our view of God’s character and what we can expect from Him in this life.
Lewis’ improved understanding of God was not just limited to life on earth. His reality was rooted in the promise of a supernatural existence that transcends death. Christ’s resurrection was central to this understanding. In his book Miracles, Lewis eloquently expressed his view of the resurrection:
The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe. He is the “first fruits,” the “pioneer of life.” He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the king of death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the new creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has opened.32
It is this promise of a new creation that caused Lewis to view our present world as only a shadowland by comparison. Seeing the present as transient, he looked to a future in which God would introduce joyous radical change (1 Cor. 15:51-57; Rev. 21:1)—a future in which humans, heaven, and earth would be changed into something extraordinarily beautiful and eternal.
Although Lewis never found another true love like Joy, his Christian faith offered him stirrings of a world to come—one that would be an eternal and happy place. Lewis persevered in that faith until his death on November 22, 1963.