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10 quotes from C. S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed.”
Wisdom and grace for the long, winding valley of grief.
Perhaps the most affecting example of C. S. Lewis’s writing comes in the form of his most personal work, that is, A Grief Observed. The words which populate the pages of A Grief Observed were originally penned pseudonymously and painfully, with Lewis scribbling these thoughts down in a handful of notebooks in the aftermath of the death of his beloved wife, Joy Davidman. After his own passing in 1963, the “N. W. Clerk” pen name was dropped and the book republished under Lewis’s own name. Many have speculated as to why Lewis would’ve wanted to distance himself from A Grief Observed; however, the visceral confessions and observations he makes throughout supply the answer. This book might be an “easy read” but only in terms of its length. There isn’t anything “easy” about digesting another’s sorrow, especially as raw and as painfully put as Lewis expresses it. This is no academic theology of suffering. This is a sufferer’s heart and soul poured out on parchment. But even through such gut-wrenching grief, there is mercy to be had. Here are ten quotes from Lewis’s A Grief Observed which, I think, offer wisdom and grace for that long, winding valley of suffering and sorrow we are, at times, compelled to navigate.
1: Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture. (30)
2: Will there come a time when I no longer ask why the world is like a mean street, because I shall take the squalor as normal? Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nausea? (36)
3: 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 interruption, 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. (6)
We’re starting off with a veritable jab-cross-uppercut of quotes from Lewis which reveal the depths of the anguish he felt during those days after his dear wife passed. God was, seemingly, nowhere to be found. Or, as Lewis imagines it, if he was to be found, he’d promptly slam the door in your face. This is one of the nastiest parts of suffering: the seeming godlessness of it all. This, of course, isn’t the truth, but it certainly feels that way in the moment. The reality is that “God with us” is with us “through fire and through water” (Ps. 69:12; Isa. 43:1–3). But, even still, that doesn’t mean you won’t get burned.
4: Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. (9–10)
The most painful part of pain and suffering is, perhaps, its tangled web of confusion and frustration. Grief, like a fog, descends and overtakes one’s faculties, becoming the only thing seen and known and felt. Suffering sets up shop in the deepest parts of you, ruining and running all of your thoughts. Not only are you consumed with what was lost, but that’s all you can seem to ponder. Every thought is driven by sorrow and about the fact that you are sorrowful.
5: For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ Round and round. Everything repeats . . . The same leg is cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again. (56–57)
6: Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape. (60)
Here Lewis describes what grief feels like in ways that are graphically affecting. It was like a knife being driven into him over and over again. Loss for Lewis — for any sufferer for that matter — wasn’t once-felt but was a gulch he was bidden to traverse. As he says, it’s “like a long valley,” with each new curve affording him new vistas of despair and disappointment. Fortunately, though, that valley isn’t without a Shepherd (Ps. 23:4).
7: 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. (25)
This, I think, is one of the harder things for some folks to understand. We are quick to provide reasons and explanations, all biblically sourced, of course, that are meant to comfort and assuage the sufferer’s suffering. But, speaking from experience, sometimes Romans 8:28 feels less than real, less than relevant compare to the present sorrow. In fact, I’d say one of the biggest lessons we should learn from Job’s “friends” is that the one thing they got right was sitting with him in silence because “they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13). The part where they screwed up is when they opened up their mouths.
8: God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down. (52)
This is what God does through suffering: he knocks down our houses of self-security and self-reliance. Whatever we’ve come to rely on that’s not God is often whittled away through seasons of sorrow and grief. Maybe not whittled; more like whacked down.
9: You never know ho much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. (22)
One of the things that suffering and sorrow can do is reveal what you truly believe. It’s easy to say you have a theology about such-and-such spiritual truth or doctrine, but it’s not really yours until that tenet it put to the test, so to speak. This is most especially truth for any theology of suffering one might ascribe.
10: I need Christ, not something that resembles Him. (65)
Against the prima facie evidence which suggests that God isn’t good we have the objective revelation of the Christ of God, the Word become flesh. God’s own Son has become our Brother, born for adversity (Prov. 17:17; 18:24), incarnate for the express purpose of enduring “the suffering of death” on behalf of “the offspring of Abraham” (Heb. 2:9, 16). Instead of platitudes and tactics and principles, the hope of the gospel for sinners and sufferers is the sinewy assurance that there’s a Person with you in the midst of the storm. He’s hard to see, sometimes, for all the tears. But there’s no grief for which his grace isn’t sufficient. There’s no suffering with which he is unfamiliar. In it all, through it all, “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God” (Heb. 4:14—5:2), who endears himself to us in weakness and sorrow and loss precisely because he himself weakness and sorrow and loss for us, for you.
Grace and peace, my friends.
C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperOne, 2015).