A Painful Grace
"But as grace operates, it cannot (save through a miracle of that same grace) be other than painful." —Francois Fénelon
C. S. Lewis, in his chronicle, The Horse and His Boy, tells the story of a Calormene noblewoman, Aravis, and her conversion from arrogance and selfishness to humble and compassionate nobility.
The story begins with Aravis’ escape to Narnia and the North to avoid an arranged marriage to Ahoshta Tarkaan, a repulsive, elderly tyrant. To flee, she drugs a servant girl who was in league with her wicked stepmother.
“And what happened to the girl—the one you drugged?” Shasta, her companion (the “Boy”), asks when he hears her story.
“Doubtless she was beaten for sleeping late,” replies Aravis coldly. “But she was a tool and spy of my stepmother’s. I am very glad they should beat her.”
“I say, that was hardly fair,” Shasta responds in reaction to her indifference to human suffering.
Is it good to be glad that another human being suffers harm, even when they have harmed us? Should we be happy about it? No, because it’s always wrong to repay evil for evil: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing,” an Apostle reminds us, “because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9).
But this is merely the word. How do we come to know this? In Aravis’ case, Aslan himself must teach her that indifference to human suffering is wrong.
As Lewis tells the story, a great lion attacked Aravis outside the gates of Anvard and “jabbed at Aravis with its right paw. Shasta could see all the terrible claws extended. Aravis screamed and reeled in the saddle. The lion was tearing her shoulders.” Shasta was able to rescue her by driving away the beast, but Aravis’ wounds were deep and painful and required much time to heal.
Much later, when Aravis and Shasta reached Narnia, Aslan called the young princess to him: “Draw near, Aravis my daughter. See! My paws are velveted. You will not be torn this time.”
“This time, sir?” said Aravis.
“It was I who wounded you,” said Asian. “I am the only lion you met in all your journeyings. Do you know why I tore you?
”The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like.”
It’s always wrong to take pleasure in another person’s suffering, even when that person has wronged us deeply. Aslan does not argue his case; he simply shows Aravis that her gloating is wrong. Now she knows what her servant girl felt like, for she herself has felt great pain.
This is the mercy of God: In his love he allows us to experience profound suffering that we may grow in humility, tenderness and mercy. Our pain, however severe, is a means of grace: it is meant to make us kinder, more compassionate children.