Friday, November 13, 2009

Why We Suffer: Introducting Job and How We Respond to Suffering

I've been meaning to read, analyze, and ponder the issue of justice in the book of Job but only until I've read it at least twice in its entirety. Until then I've been reading Rabbi Harold Kushner's When Bad Thins Happen to Good People as an introduction to the theme of God's role in our lives when disaster strikes. In the Book of Job, the protagonist, Job, faces all sorts of horrors and yet remains a righteous man. Job the innocent cries out to God, and God enters in all his glory. God does not give a reason for Job's woes yet only responds by displaying his power over creation. How then do we deal with life's troubles when we're comforted by half-baked unreasonable answers? If we were to lose someone close to us is "it's all a part of God's Plan" a reasonable enough answer? Does that really brings us any comfort whatsoever? Can we find any love ringing from such a cold and distant response?

In chapter one, "Why do the Righteous Suffer?", Kushner introduces five main responses (or excuses, for the truly cynical) given by those who attempt to explain why good people suffer in order to make since of life. I will briefly touch on each response and expand on it later in the series.
  • We deserve it
  • God has his reasons
  • Educational
  • Test of Faith and Spiritual Strength
  • Liberate us from our mortal coil

We deserve it
Let's face it, we are sinful people and if we fail (even once) to please God in any way we could pay for it, eventually. But why good people? Of course we believe that bad people deserve what's coming to them, except we call it justice. Yet, if good people are trying as hard as humanly possible to follow God's will then we can't be punished for our fallibility, can we? Would it be Just to punish the good in the same manner as the bad? I don't punish my toddlers for using bad words that I myself accidentally let slip out (and believe me my son has been building a very colorful vocabulary). If people are truly trying to be as good as humanly possible then God's standards are too high for mortals, God is unjust (gasp!), or maybe God is not punishing us for our sins (gasp again!). If God is not punishing the good, what then is causing bad things to happen to good people (including faithful Christians)?

God has his reasons
"God works in mysterious ways" is the most common response I hear when it comes to events we can not explain. There is a reason but we live finite lives with limited brain power so we could never understand God's intricate tapestry. But when something disastrous as the loss of a child is used by God to further his will, this reeks of injustice. Why would God cut a new life just to further his will? Is it right for you to suffer to further the will of a God who sprinkles suffering on the good and the bad? Why can't we accept that these things just happen instead of tying every single event to God? If a hurricane wipes out a "sinful city" some may call it Justice. But if an earthquake were to take out the Vatican, what then? How can a loving creator God justify destruction of life as Good? Sure we can always look back after the horrendous event and say that people were brought together because of destruction, but this lacks compassion and love. The ends do not justify the means, even if we can not comprehend the end game.

Compared to the monotheistic, sittin' on a cloud God, us mere mortals have no greater intellect than a turnip. So a third response is that these bad things happen to good people to teach us something important about life. God gives a couple a baby with down syndrome to teach them and others to be kinder and more compassionate to people born with disabilities. But what about the kid? He's done absolutely nothing wrong (he never had a chance to sin) and already he will experience his life on earth in pain and torment. Kushner states that both the Educational response and the response on God's mysterious Will both have a bright side: the good will go to heaven in the afterlife, so it's all good. The sad fact is that we don't know that there is a heaven we just hope there is one and our energy is better spent in attempting to build a heaven on Earth instead of focusing on the one that might not be there after we pass on. And like the response on God's mysterious Will, this response also sounds downright monstrous.

Test of Faith and Spiritual Strength
Abraham is probably the most quoted Bible character when it comes to the topic of testing our Faith. Abraham having to sacrifice (God wanted a human sacrifice) his only son was a major test of faith. But what about Isaac? How is being sacrificed to a God his father speaks to a test of Isaac's faith? Poor Isaac didn't even know he was being sacrificed until the last minute. There is a Jewish Midrash that puts a twist on the story with Isaac running off to join his brother Ishmael after his crazy father tried to turn him into barbecue.

We use this response because 1) we believe God is in total control and 2) we believe he knows what's best for us. Yet the last thing ANYONE wants to hear after the loss of a child or news of terminal illness is that their faith is being tested. Again, it is simply monstrous that our pain and suffering is simply a way to test our allegiance. Rest assured that if I tried to "test" my family's allegiance in anyway similar to that of God in the Bible I would end up in prison or in the loony bin.

Liberate us from our Mortal Coil
The fifth reason is that if we're good anyway there's no reason to complain over earthly suffering when Heaven awaits us in the afterlife. As I stated earlier, anything that happens to bad people is justified by the belief that the good will get their reward after death. But the sad fact is that we don't know that there is an afterlife, we hope. Kushner calls this wishful thinking, and can you blame him? We want a reward, a reason for our suffering. Suffering in vain is too depressing to be an option so we have Heaven and Hell. Those who didn't learn from their suffering, did not pass their faith test, or those who questioned God's Master Plan will be sent into the hellfire. Everyone else will go to a lovely place and live forever with their loved ones. Sounds nice and reassuring, doesn't it? So why then do we cry at the loss of a child to a terminal disease, or mourn those who were killed in a terrorist attack? I believe it is because even though we may try to comfort ourselves with the notion of Heaven we are still human, with human emotions and we fear that death may be it.

Kushner brings up the most challenging, yet truthful common theme that underlies all of these responses to human suffering: "they all assume that God is the cause of our suffering, and they try to understand why God would want us to suffer, " (Kushner, pg. 29). This is not an attack on God but an honest questioning that millions, if not billions of people echo throughout history, "why?" If God is in total control why would he want us to suffer? Maybe we are just asking the wrong question. Instead of asking why do good people (or anyone) suffer, maybe we should be asking ourselves what do we do now that we have suffered? Where do we go? Suffering is a part of being human, instead of looking for a reason or someone to blame, maybe we should look forward with a new understanding of our humanity and see if there is something we can do to alleviate someone else's pain.


captron52 said...

I really love this post my friend! You have echoed many of my own thoughts. I too am amazed at how many times "religious" people respond with "It is Gods will" whenever I ask a question with no "right" answer. I also think Now why and how could a loving God allow the things going on here on earth to continue if He has the power to stop it all? And how co ehe takes a young life or causes a young child to be born aflicted by ne thing or the other because of the sins of their fathers? That sure doesnt set right with my thinking either. And i agree tht we as humans had rather place blame on something than to lok really hard and see what we can do to make right any wrongs.And one question I have for those "selected" few who claim to have had God talk to them and give them directions as to what they should do with their life(as in getting money sent to them from people who are desperately trying to "buy" their way into a mythical place called Heaven) is this--If God does speak to a few why doesnt he just come out to all of us give us the real truth of things and then allow us to make the changes necessary to make this life one that is filled with love and hope instead of so much misery? Would that make "HIM" a lesser God by coming out inot the open? Maybe the Wizard of Oz was right after all. I hope you have a wonderful weekend and keep up the good work!

Don said...

The question of suffering is what eventually led one of my favorite historical authors to agnosticism (Bart Ehrman). It is certainly a legitimate question to ask. One which I will continue to seek answers for.

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