Dereliction on a Darkling Plain


Trench Warfare – WWI

“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. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 1960

C.S. Lewis believed the incarnation of Christ was missing chapter in the story of creation that, when put in a central position, “brings out new meanings from the whole of the rest” of history.[2]  In similar fashion, Christ’s cry of dereliction from the cross, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” arguably holds the central position in the pages of Lewis’s theodicy.  Lewis scholar Michael Ward notes that “of all the Biblical passages, the one which occurs most frequently in Lewis’s writings is Christ’s cry from the cross …. No other scriptural verse comes close to receiving a treatment in so many and various of Lewis’s works.”[3] It was his acceptance of Jesus as the “archetypal innocent sufferer, the true dying and rising god,”[4] foreshadowed by his beloved pagan myths that enabled him to “steal past a certain inhibition” and inability to “feel as [he] was told  … about the sufferings of Christ.”[5]  He was unable to connect with the doctrines of Christianity because he believed they were less true than the person of Christ Himself.  In Christ’s narrative, he found soteriological doctrines expressed in “language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.”  An important part of that “language more adequate” is Jesus’s expression of Divine abandonment on the cross.  The centrality of His innocent suffering is a theme that Lewis returned to repeatedly in his writings on the problem of evil, specifically The Problem of Pain, “The Five Sonnets”, The Last Battle, and A Grief Observed.  Christ’s cry of dereliction is the pivot point for Lewis’s attempt to answer the question of human pain.  It shines light backwards on the “lesser language” of theodicy, and forwards to the hope that our suffering will be redeemed one day.  When considered together, Lewis’s transpositions of this central feature into various literary contexts enables us to feel the warmth of that future “cosmic summer” of which our Lord’s resurrection is the first fruits.[6]

In his sermon, The Grand Miracle”, Lewis noted that the Christian spiritual principle of dying and rising again is “echoed” throughout the “natural world.”[7]  It was this correspondence and its capture in pagan myths that helped crystallize his own conversion to Christianity.  Most importantly, for Lewis, the Incarnation was best understood ‘not by conversion of the god-head into the flesh, but by the taking of (the) manhood into God.”[8]  God does this with our loves, pagan myths, philosophy, prophesy, history, and indeed all of Creation from an eschatological perspective.  Lewis pictured our Lord as a diver, resurfacing from the deepest, muddy depths, “holding in his hand the dripping thing he went down to get, … human nature … [and] associated with it, all nature, the new universe.”[9]  Part of that nature is our inability to sense God’s presence when suffering.  In Christ, he found the supreme example of surrender in the midst of such perceived abandonment.  When we imitate this “obstinate obedience” despite the forsakenness we feel, we truly share in His suffering.[10]  This concept is key to understanding Lewis’s theodicy.

(See here for an excellent depiction of his sermon, “The Grand Miracle”:  Parts One and Two.)

Another key feature of Lewis’s theodicy is his belief that human conscious thought should be divided into two modes:  Contemplation and Enjoyment.  In his essay, “Meditation in a Toolshed” he develops this idea with the analogy of standing in a dark toolshed with a beam of light streaming in from a small crack above the door.  In the Contemplation mode of conscious thought, the observer was “looking at the beam” with the knowledge he gained being “abstract, external, impersonal, [and] uninvolved.”[11]­ He was “seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.”[12]  As the observer steps into the light, “looking along the beam” this represents the Enjoyment mode of conscious thought which is “participant, inhabited, personal, [and] committed.”  Lewis would take this idea and apply it to many departments of life, insisting that all questions be considered from both perspectives.[13]  In like manner, we can apply it to Lewis’s approaches to suffering, beginning with his first foray into the field of theodicy, The Problem of Pain, an “at the beam” look at the problem of evil.

Finally, for Lewis, Christ gives us the supreme example of innocent suffering.  Nature is cruel (for reasons that Lewis attempts to answer in his works) and human nature can be murderous.  Lewis believed that Jesus’s unjust suffering sheds light on our own struggles with the same reality.  He did not shy away from the fact that there is a gratuitous nature to much of the suffering in this world that seems to go beyond any soul-building theodicy we may construct.  He believed that Christ’s cry of God-forsakenness from the cross expressed this truth most profoundly.  In his essay, “The Efficacy of Prayer” he wrote, “When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need.  There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore.”[14]  This lack of comfort for Christ in His innocent suffering was perhaps the greatest reason why Lewis was continually drawn back to His cry from the cross.

In 1940, Lewis was invited to write on the problem of suffering.  In the preface to The Problem of Pain, he states that he “asked leave to be allowed to write it anonymously”, stating: “if I were to say what I really thought about pain, I should be forced to make statements of such apparent fortitude that they would become ridiculous if anyone knew who made them.”[15]  This is a startling admission, given the fact Lewis was no stranger to suffering.  At age nine, he lost his mother to cancer and he was a veteran of the trenches of World War I.  He had first-hand knowledge of “the hell where youth and laughter go” seeing many of his friends killed, even carrying within his body shrapnel from a mortar explosion.[16]  Yet, he preemptively professes that he only intended to grapple with the intellectual problem writing, “the far higher task of teaching fortitude and patience I was never fool enough to suppose myself qualified.”[17]  Still, as is hoped to be demonstrated, Lewis made numerous references to someone who did undertake this higher task – namely, Christ.

Lewis began the book with the following epigraph from George MacDonald: “The Son of God suffered unto death not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.” Contemplative and abstract as the arguments in this work may be, MacDonald’s words truly set the tone, as Lewis attempted to bring the cross to bear upon each aspect of his theodicy.  Lewis “knew, intellectually and imaginatively, that the Christ story gave death ‘a value’” and no theodicy would be complete without its presence.[18]  In his defense of God’s goodness in the face of human suffering, he repeatedly returned to the concept of the “intolerable compliment” God gives “of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense.”[19]  Free will is indeed part of that tragic compliment, for without it we would not suffer, but we would not know love, either.  Lewis argued that “God saw the crucifixion in the act of creating the first nebula” seeing that this world of free-will beings would be a “dance in which good, descending from [Him], is disturbed by evil arising from [these] creatures.”  The resulting conflict could only be “resolved by God’s own assumption of the suffering nature which evil produces.”[20]  

For Lewis, the mirage of self-sufficiency is the enemy of surrender and he argued accordingly that this mirage is something that suffering shatters.  Yet, in Christ, this submission has been “initiated for us, done on our behalf, [and] exemplified for our imitation.”[21]  Christ’s own suffering involved the removal of “not only all natural supports, but the presence of the very Father to whom [His] sacrifice [was] made.”[22]  And our Lord’s surrender does not waver “though God ‘forsakes’” Him.  This is the surrender that Lewis argued our suffering can produce on the deepest level.  This surrender enables us to dive deep into the “mud and slime” first traversed by Christ, so we can truly participate in His sufferings and rejoice one day “when His glory is revealed.”[23]  This is the price of free will that He was willing to pay, and this is the food we must partake in for it is the “only food that the universe grows,” indeed that any universe would grow, for its roots are to be found within the God-head itself.[24]  Our other option is to “starve eternally” in the prison of self that is hell.[25]  Still, Lewis ended this “at the beam” look at suffering with the beauty of such surrender, stating that each soul “has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling of the infinite contours of the Divine substance.”[26]  This is the glad surrender upon which heavenly law is built, where “self exists to be abdicated and, by the abdication, becomes … more truly self.”[27]

But, Lewis believed that “looking at” suffering through such propositional language as in The Problem of Pain, was inadequate when one was “looking along the beam” of suffering itself.  Indeed, at one point he recalled that in a conversation on Job’s suffering, his friend Charles Williams reminded him that “the weight of divine displeasure had been reserved for the ‘comforters,’ the self-appointed advocates on God’s side …. ‘the sort of people who wrote books on the Problem of Pain.’”[28]  Pain has the property of concentrating one’s world, narrowing it down and imprisoning one in the particulars of their suffering.  From within the acute concretions of sorrow, generalizations and abstractions cannot bring comfort.  Their thin and scanty substance only increases the sufferer’s awareness of grief’s solitude. Lewis knew that “the better way” to teach the “fortitude and patience” that was necessary was “by imitating the ‘language more adequate’” of our Lord’s passion, transposing His loneliness on the cross into more concrete contexts.[29]  This was the task Lewis undertook in the remaining works on suffering that we will consider.

One such venture “along the beam” of pain occurs in the final book of his seven Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle Walter Hooper notes that “if those who reread the Narnias often need to take a deep breath before they return” to this last one, “this may be because the first eleven chapters … are so extremely painful.”[30] Everything we have come to know, love, and depend on in the other six books is gradually taken from us.   Aslan himself doesn’t appear until the end.  This is precisely the despairing poiema Lewis meant to create and, according to Ward, to accomplish this he used the medieval understanding of how the planet Saturn as Infortuna Major influences the affairs of men and nature.  Ward writes that, “Lewis was impatient with clerical bromides about death being a small thing”, so under the guidance of the tutelary planet of misfortune, he took “his readers down to the very bottom rung of the ladder of sadness.”[31]

With Saturn’s guidance, Narnia was plunged into a chaos that leaves the reader feeling cold, blunted, and aged.  Futile and frustrated are words that best describe the heroes’ every attempt to regain order.  Echoes of Christ’s cry of dereliction can be heard when Tirian, the last of the kings of Narnia, was tied to a tree, awaiting his death sentence.  “Aslan! Aslan! Aslan! Come and help us now,” he cries, but only an icy silence answers his plea.   Yet, like our Lord, Tirian remained steadfast in his prayer, offering up himself to be killed if only Aslan would rescue Narnia from its evil enslavers.  It was at the moment of firmness in the face of forsakenness that an inexplicable strengthening arrived and Tirian sensed himself being lifted from the pit.  This change did not bring Aslan himself, but it did bring other worldly help in the form of Eustace and Jill.  This mirrors our own ever-present God that hides, but who often employs us as His “lower agents” to deliver comfort and aid to those that suffer.[32],[33] Here again is the central component of Lewis’s theodicy, this “obstinacy in belief” that holds fast when God seems farthest away.[34]

The remaining literary works that will be considered are decidedly more candid and rawIn his “Five Sonnets” and A Grief Observed, we find Lewis truly inhabiting his own cry of dereliction.  In the medium of poetry, Lewis decided to follow Dante in depicting the journey the sufferer must take in order to share in Christ’s suffering.  In “Five Sonnets,” Lewis returned to the theme of descent, Divine silence, and determined obedienceThe atmosphere is thick with the solitude of one’s journey “down to the frozen center, up the vast / Mountain of pain.” [35]  It is in this bleak land that the believer “can actually begin to tread in” Christ’s footsteps.[36]  “Fixed despair” is not for the believer, though the temptation to either bitterness or avoidance is great.  Instead, all that we have is asked of us, “to the last shred”, as we are stripped of all our natural desires, not to remain naked, but have them taken up “heaven-high” to our Lord, our “Morning Star” enthroned in heaven.  Only then can He give them back to us.  On the whole, these sonnets convey the depths of dereliction with only slight hints of the bliss to come as we share in Christ’s emptying in our own small, creaturely way.[37]  Indeed, as compared to our Lord, we are like the sonnets’ tiny bee, buzzing “against the window-pane” as we fight our lesser natural desires that keep us from being taken up into His resurrection.  Our joy will be in Him, our rescuer, who sets us free among the “quivering flowers”, where we drink to our little hearts’ desire, lowly creatures that we are as compared to Him.[38]

Lewis’s book, A Grief Observed chronicles his own experience of grief after his wife died.  Lewis experienced here in the fullest sense that principle of the Christian life he had clung to since his conversion, namely that one must “go down to go up,” must imitate Christ’s obedience when the stakes are highest in order to truly share in His resurrection.  The book is more of a lament than any of his previous works, yet one can detect the internal consistency of his well-trained mind even from within the cistern of sorrow.  One recalls Jeremiah’s experience in the well where “there was no water but only mud.”[39]  It is here that Lewis felt God’s abandonment most acutely, describing the feeling as “a door slammed” in his face with “a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside” followed by silence.[40]  “Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?”[41]  After such questioning, Lewis noted that a friend reminded him of Christ’s dereliction on the cross, yet, Lewis was unable to find comfort in this central feature of his own theodicy.  He was filled to the fullest with the loss of Joy, begging God to allow him to feel her presence and receiving only cold silence.  Lamenting the return of his bachelorhood he cried, “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 – to be sucked back – into it?”[42]  Notice the parallels to Christ’s cry of dereliction here.

As he began to fret losing his memory of her, his anger at God deepened.  He began to waiver in trusting God’s goodness as he struggled to imagine where Joy was.  Before, he would have been content to tell someone that their beloved was with God.  Now, he admitted the vacuity of such remarks.  “You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life or death to you.”[43]  He realized that thinking of Joy in a state other than the one he knew was not only impossible, but was bitterly painful.  For him, Joy had entered the same realm as God, “incomprehensible and unimaginable.”[44]  Some of his most painfully poignant realizations were that even in Heaven, things will never be as they were in those joyous days of their marriage, for “all things must pass away.”[45]

“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.”[46]

How could a good God abandon even his own Son?  Here, Lewis began to descend even further, questioning the pivot point of his theodicy itself, Christ’s cry of dereliction from the cross.  “But how if He were mistaken?” he asked.[47]  Calling into question his own arguments that God uses pain to perfect us, Lewis began to grieve over Joy’s suffering before her death.  “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’?  Have they never been to a dentist?”[48]  Then something important happened.  In these lowest of depths, Lewis began to see Christ and himself more clearly.  He realized that if given the opportunity to suffer in Joy’s place, he was not confident that he would have been able to.  He saw that his love for Joy was not as pure and selfless as he had thought.  Yet, looking across the way, in this miry pit, he saw the One who could and did actually go through with it.  “He replies to our babble,” Lewis wrote, “’You cannot and you dare not.  I could and dared.”[49]

Lewis had now lived through that central pivot point of his theodicy.  “Something quite unexpected has happened,” he wrote.  He noticed that his heart was “lighter than it [had] been for many weeks.”[50]  A lifting up, perhaps?  Indeed, it would seem so, for what Lewis recorded next are some of the most beautiful passages of his lament.  His sorrow had been lifted and the barrier he had felt to not only Joy’s, but God’s presence was gone.  Reflecting on this, he wrote, “The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs.”[51]  In our passions of grief, he surmised, our capacity to truly receive help is destroyed.  We must plunge the depths of the lonely wells of grief, past the thin arguments, past our false images of ourselves, and past the realization of our own weaknesses as creaturely beings whether or not our suffering is a result of some specific sin.  Only then can we understand the dereliction that Christ not only felt, but felt in our place as the archetypal innocent sufferer.  Only then, in our obstinate obedience, can He pull us up, back out of the water, holding us in His hand like the diver with his prized pearl.

Being thus lifted up, Lewis began to praise, sounding like the rest of the psalm from which our Lord’s cry of dereliction comes:  “Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it.  Praise in due order; of Him as the giver, of her as the gift … by praising I can still, in some degree, enjoy her and already, in some degree, enjoy Him.”

“He lifted me out of the slimy pit, / out of the mud and mire; / he set my feet on a rock /and gave me a firm place to stand. / He put a new song in my mouth, / a hymn of praise to our God.”[52]

Lewis ended A Grief Observed with the best summation of any theodicy we may ever construct.  Echoing Job, he wrote, “When I lay these questions before God I get no answer.”  But it was not like the locked door from before.  “It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze,” he wrote.  Lewis learned that there are questions we ask that are truly unanswerable.  “My idea of God …. Has to be shattered time after time.”  There are some things we can only experience from “along the beam.”  Perhaps suffering teaches us this more than anything else in life.  It forces us out of our thinner abstractions and lesser languages and into the concrete awareness of our sin and our need.  But, we can rest assured that we have a God that can “empathize with our weaknesses” and who has gone before us into the depths.[53] He is there and He remains our “ever-present help in trouble.”[54]


[1] Psalm 40:2-3, NIV.

[2] C.S. Lewis, “The Grand Miracle”, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, (New York: Inspirational Press), 443.

[3] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 204.

[4] Michael Ward, “On Suffering”, The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, ed. Robert McSwain and Michael Ward, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2010), 207.

[5] C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Other Stories, (Orlando: Harvest, 1974), 37.

[6] Lewis, “The Grand Miracle”, 359.

[7] Ibid., 355.

[8] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, (New York:  Harcourt, 1986), 16.

[9] Lewis, “The Grand Miracle”, 35.

[10] 1 Peter 4:13, NIV.

[11] Ward, Planet Narnia, 17.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] C.S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer”, The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, (Boston: Mariner Books, 2012), 10.

[15] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (San Francisco:  HarperCollins, 2001), XI.

[16] Ward, “On Suffering”, 203.

[17] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, XII.

[18] Ward, “On Suffering”, 207.

[19] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 33.

[20] Ibid., 80

[21] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 102.

[22] Ibid.

[23] 1 Peter 4:13, NIV.

[24] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 47.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 152.

[27] Ibid., 157.

[28] C.S. Lewis, Image and Imagination, ed. Walter Hooper, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2013), 122.

[29] Ward, “On Suffering”, 211.

[30] Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works, (New York:  HarperCollins, 1996), 443.

[31] Ward, Planet Narnia, 198.

[32] Isaiah 45:15, “Truly you are a God who has been hiding himself, the God and Savior of Israel.”, NIV.

[33] Ward, “On Suffering”, 205/

[34] Ibid.

[35] C.S. Lewis, Poems, ed. Walter Hooper, (New York: Harcourt, 1992), 126.

[36] Ward, “On Suffering”, 211-212.

[37] Philippians 2, NIV.

[38] Lewis, Poems, 127.

[39] Jeremiah 38:6, NIV.

[40] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, (New York: HarperOne, 1994), 6.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 19, Note the parallels to Christ’s cry of dereliction.

[43] Ibid., 22.

[44] Ibid., 24.

[45] 2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

[46] Lewis, A Grief Observed, 25.

[47] Ibid., 30.

[48] Ibid., 43.

[49] Ibid., 44.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., 46.

[52] Psalm 40:2-3, NIV.

[53] Hebrews 4:15, NIV.

[54] Psalm 46:1, NIV.

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