Some people grow up with clear and specific dreams of what they want their lives to look like. Others have a general idea, but don’t really think through the specifics. Unless someone is an intentional non-conformist, most people don’t grow up with a dream of living an unconventional life. Yet nearly every person can point to at least one major event in their life that was out of the ordinary or unexpected, especially in their careers.
C.S. Lewis, a Christian apologist and writer, experienced a series of extraordinary events in both his personal and professional life. Lewis married later in life and experienced only a handful of years of married bliss before his wife Joy died from cancer.
After Joy’s death, Lewis kept a journal to process his grief and was encouraged to publish it anonymously to help others who were grieving. A Grief Observed was published in 1961 under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk. In 1963, after Lewis’s own death, friends handling his estate made the decision to publish the book in C.S. Lewis’s name.
Lewis’s life circumstances and the book that resulted are an excellent example of how God works in ways that are unexpected, both through our personal lives and in our vocation.
An Unconventional Book for Lewis
An emotionally-driven book, A Grief Observed was outside the box for Lewis who was known to be a rationally-driven thinker and writer. The first line of Chapter 1 leads with an expression of his feelings: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” The pattern that emerges, especially in the first half of the book, is the presentation of an emotion followed by intellectual contortions trying to make sense of it.
A Grief Observed is unique not only in its content but also in its format. Unlike Lewis’s Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed was not written as a work of apologetics for non-believers—it is just one man’s account of processing his grief.
An Unconventional Book for its Day
The emotional outpouring in A Grief Observed was even unconventional for its mid-twentieth century, British cultural context. While the British “stiff upper lip” might be a stereotype, C.S. Lewis’s son Douglas Gresham says it was true in his generation.
In the introduction to A Grief Observed, Gresham explains that, as a boy, he had a hard time knowing how to respond to Lewis’s expressions of grief:
The lesson I was most strongly taught throughout that time was that the most shameful thing that could happen to me would be to be reduced to tears in public. British boys don’t cry.
It was also uncommon for a devout Christian man to publish his inquiries into the goodness of God’s character. In his book, The Religious Crisis of the 1960s, Hugh McLeod explains the views in that day about publicly doubting your faith:
…the idea continued to be widely accepted that in a Christian country it was bad manners to air one’s religious doubts publicly, and that at the very least the convictions of what were assumed to be the believing majority should be treated with respect.
That Lewis published the book anonymously might also point to his reluctance to “own” this unconventional exploration of grief, doubt, and faith.
An Unconventional Book for the Field of Apologetics
Ultimately, the book’s style and content reveal, rather unintentionally, an unconventional approach to apologetics, and specifically, to the question of how a good, sovereign God could allow pain and suffering. Rather than a carefully crafted treatise for belief targeted at non-believers, it is the public, tearful journal of a renowned Christian apologist seeking to reconcile his reality with his faith and make the case to himself about the goodness of God. Because it’s not written as an apologetic argument, it can more subtly touch readers’ hearts without their heads getting in the way.
Over time, A Grief Observed has become viewed as a complementary book to Lewis’s A Problem of Pain. Some critics have gone further to argue that books like The Problem of Pain, which make a logical case for why a good God could allow suffering, are insufficient for understanding suffering without books like A Grief Observed, which express the doubts that pain generate.
What started as a personal diary has become standard reading for understanding the questions people ask in suffering.
Being Open to the Unconventional for God’s Glory
The unconventional aspects of A Grief Observed provide important takeaways about how God works in and through our lives and vocations—sometimes simultaneously, as in C.S. Lewis’s life. God can turn convention on its head and lead us in ways that challenge personal, professional, and cultural expectations for his greater good and glory and to draw people to himself.
How might God be leading you to be open to an unconventional path in your personal and professional life for his greater good and glory? How will you recognize his leading?
Because we live in a world of scarcity, we need the input and feedback from others. This is what economists call “the knowledge problem.” Lewis might never have published his journal without feedback from friends and a publisher’s insight into the market of ideas.
If you’re exploring a path or career move outside the norm, start by getting advice from trusted, godly friends and family who love you.
From a spiritual standpoint, God is all-knowing and trustworthy; however, his leading down unconventional paths may seem odd and uncomfortable to you:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Just as Lewis was open to unconventional paths in his life’s work, we too must be open to God’s leading as we seek to know him and make him known.