WHY SUFFERING

THE AGE OLD QUESTION-WHY SUFFERING?

 

I invite you to spend time with me exploring what is perhaps the BIGGEST QUESTION in the study of religion: WHY SUFFERING? If there is a God, an all-powerful, benevolent God why does he allow pain, suffering both physical and mental; Accidents causing bodily injury with excruciating agony; Babies born deformed and other disabilities; suffering from nature against man and man against man. Probably the worst part is the cruelty of man toward man. No hold barred, can we make some sense of this and sort out whether this predicament is compatible with a Loving God. I contend it is. To demonstrate my position I’ll argue from both a logical viewpoint and also substantiate the positon with Biblical references. Because I’m a Christian I will be presenting several concepts from Christianity that can easily be followed by any person of another religious heritage quite easily. But we’ll supplement our search by presenting findings from science and rational thought. From my perspective, I contend that the God I believe in could not have structured our world any other way. But that’s my personal viewpoint. I hope this exercise will at least give you a new perspective to consider. At the outset I’m thinking this thesis may be harder for Christians to accept than atheists since many Christians have devised non-biblical ideas to make it easier for them to make God and suffering more compatible. From the outset I must say I don’t have all the answers and during the course of our discussion I’ll explain why. I also won’t, in this paper anyway, go into intricate detail on each point since at this juncture I don’t want to make a full book out of this study but will appreciate any questions or suggestions on what I may have left out. At times I think one of the reasons this life is so exciting is that we don’t have all the answers but little by little truths are being unraveled. St. Paul, the apostle of Jesus, put it this way saying we “look through a glass darkly” seeing life without all the intricate details. And Plato, about four hundred years before St Paul, used the illustrate of all humans being in a predicament like men chained in a cave. The fires flickering through the caverns produced shadows giving only glimpses of the true reality outside the cave.  No, we’ll never have all the answers while in human bodies with limited access to anything beyond the material. But at least we can present a rational explanation appealing to inquisitive minds.

And one more interjection before we get to the work ahead of us. The easy explanation for this thorny question is the one most of us Christians like to use. The Apostle Paul put it this way, from a purely pragmatic viewpoint.  He suggested, if we as Christians, put up with all the suffering of this life and, on top of that, made life more difficult for ourselves since Christianity is not always popular in all societies, we better be able to give a rational explanation of our position. Otherwise, he mused, “we would be the most pitied of all humans if there were no afterlife.” (1 Corinthians    )The simple explanation for why suffering is that an afterlife could sort out the details on why adversities were allowed and perhaps mete out rewards and punishments. And that may be true, I myself believe that, but that’s a separate study in itself.  I feel if we leave it at that, that there is an afterlife and I won’t worry about why there is suffering, we’re skirting the issue.   But by putting off a reasonable explanation for now, we are making one of the gravest mistakes of life! Saying “I won’t worry about the why’s now,” is not only “a cop out,” one missed completely the meaning of life! I found until I thought this quandary all the way through in detail, I had missed the whole big picture! I had missed one of the most crucially secrets of life.  My life has never been the same after I was willing to seek for answers, not worrying whether the answers confirmed what I already believed or whether they contradicted what I personally held to be true previously. So remember, if you are a spiritual person or religious believer keep an open mind. And if you’re an atheist or agnostic, please accept that I am the last person in the world that wants to believe in something that is totally irrational. Please, read on.

So here we go… Our question is this: Is the suffering in the world compatible with belief in a just, kind, and all powerful God (the one believed in by two thirds of the world’s population)? The issue of whether there is a God at all is a separate study. But to even consider that question, for many, this question must be answered first, so we proceed.  There is one idea that is at the center of this issue and is absolutely critical to our understanding here. This universe is built upon or exists with FREE WILL. Free will means rational beings have the ability to make choices. Actions are not totally influenced by instincts. For lower forms of life a good deal of actions are based on automatic responses. With humans we can choose to follow certain instincts or habits or we can choose to act differently. All forms of life must take in nutrients to continue living. We as humans have the natural biological necessity to eat but we can choose to go on a diet and not eat for periods of time. There is a difference between not eating due to one’s feeling sick and rationally or emotionally choosing not to eat. As a global civilization we inherently believe humankind has free will. All societies believe in some sort of punishment for offenses that hurt other members of the community. Punishment would be useless and meaningless if our actions were totally based on biology and the environment. The vast majority of our world believes in free will whether they be religious or atheistic.

Most all religions or philosophies believe in some form of free will though maybe only a few materialists do not. Christianity teaches that the Creator himself had a choice to either envision a race of robots or a race of rational, free will, autonomous beings. It really wasn’t much of a choice, though. Any human parents agree they would rather have children raised with free will as opposed to children unable to eventually live on their own, taking responsibility for their own lives. The main negative for God and such a decision is there is risk involved. The more autonomy given to children the more risk that they could hurt themselves or hurt each other. As a parent you are willing to take such a risk. That is the decision the Creator made. The same decision we as parents conscientiously make. As I remind you, I’m arguing from a rational view and a Christian view but the basic tenets are found in most all religions. The fact that most all philosophies also agree with the necessity of punishment indicates most tacitly accept free will as being perhaps inherent. The few religions that may not,  no doubt, is due to their founders feeling the concept of an all-powerful but loving God allowing suffering would be too difficult to explain. So they went in the contrary direction assuming all life is predetermined (Determinism). The difficulty with this reasoning is having to answer the question a whole new set of questions. One of the beauties of Christianity is Jesus’ concept of picturing God as our Father. This personification of God makes Him more real and is a concept the human mind can readily envision. Two thirds of our modern world (Christianity and Islam) see such an all-powerful caring God. Even Plato before Christ and Mohammed reasoned that somewhere there must be a spiritual world; there had to be a “Father” that was the epitome of a perfect human father we seek to replicate.

Unfortunately though 85% of the world believe in a God of some sort, His picture is skewed by diverse human experience and culture. Is God predominately angry, aloof, foreboding, selfish, and demanding of complete control and obedience? It is worthwhile for a person (especially a Christian or Islamic) to think for herself about what kind of father she envisions. What Jesus taught was God as the perfect, caring, loving, wise Father, the one we had while growing up or the one we wished we had. If that is true, then we automatically believe there must be a perfectly good reason why He allows adversity. And again, the one quality required to make sense of this scenario is the concept of Free Will. Humans who have this ability to think, decide, evaluate and act have that Free Will. Jesus’ picture of God for us to relate to is not a perfectionist Father, a domineering father but a father who wants his children to be excited to experience life and learn from that experience.  At the same time He protects them from undue suffering with personal guidance and advice. Our biological father knows we will make mistakes, accepts this, but expects the best for his children in the end.

THE SURVIVAL PRINCIPLE

The next concept required to make sense of pain and sorrow is one that everyone has experienced in life but one that science has verified and through countless experiments and observations. I caution that some Christians may want to resist this observation at first but will realize it’s not a threat to their faith but just another take on a concept they are very familiar with. This is the life principle found in every living organism. All living things have built within them (if you believe in God, you would say “built into them”) the resources necessary to do whatever they can to SURVIVE AT ALL COSTS. Without this principle at work, no living thing could survive. Think of it this way. Every living thing must have mechanisms for the species to survive beyond one generation. The simplest ameba, a virus, a one celled organism, a mouse, any animal, any plant has the mechanisms it needs to survive. That’s why we see a world teaming with millions of diverse organisms with diverse structures and instincts. Every living thing is simultaneously fighting for its survival. This concept is especially notable in humans too. This concept in itself explains part of the CONFLICT and adversity in our world, doesn’t it? Can you see that there must be conflict, there is no other way? If every living organism is bent on surviving and is fighting for its share of life resources there is bound to be conflict. The only other possibility is a world that is built in the fashion of a grand machine, a toy for its creator who winds it up and WATCHES IT PLAY out its expected routine over and over again. I can’t see any kind of creator or The Creator ever being satisfied with that kind of world. We all know little children get bored with their presents and toys usually within one day! Why do our kids play with the boxes the toys come in longer than the toys themselves? We enjoy unpredictability, invention, innovation, ingenuity. A believer in a higher power would say life was envisioned that way. While an unbeliever would say it‘s just fortunate life evolved that way with the Universe just happening to start out with a goal seeking survival mechanism built in by pure chance from somewhere or nowhere (that’s a discussion for another time, though).

Either way, the result is all material living existence has an inherent conflict mechanism built within. Each organism is determined to live, survive, flourish. With survival inherent in the universe, if we believe in a creator we must believe he expected conflict and suffering to be a possible result. The trait of inherent self-interest may be interpreted by some as selfishness but in reality this is a preservation mechanism that humans, like all living things must possess. Really it’s all a matter of semantics; for example, to believe that we are “special” as the Bible claims we are, some might interpret the word “special” as claiming humanity is inherently selfish whereas psychology has come to find and would prefer to use the term “a good self-esteem (realistic self-concept),” as opposed to the word “selfishness” as a necessary ingredient of a well-functioning person. That may be hard to accept, but it is the only logical conclusion. If we believe in an all knowing God, we must accept he knew in advance suffering would eventually be part of our world. In a moment we will discuss why such a God would decide this would be the best possible situation all things considered.  What Christianity teaches is that though conflict, suffering, pain can be expected, some of the effects can be prevented and mitigated. We’ll talk more about that later also.

All major religions have their own traditions and explanations as to why there is pain and agony in our world. Some have not been able to equate an all-powerful, caring God with the pain. These religions speak of God only in the sense of a force, an all pervading power or simply Karma. However, as we mentioned, two thirds of the world believe in the caring God. Next, I’ll want to turn to one explanation, the Christian Tradition, as a suggested possibility as to how and why such a God could allow affliction and agonizing death.  You’ll find when you examine the scriptural references they are clear and reasonable with few loose ends left to be tied up. There can never be perfect clarity because any human explanation can only will be put in human, material terms bound by time and space. A more accurate accounting would require understanding timelessness and a spatial approach unbounded by the physical and material. Unfortunately we are not thus equipped. So as Plato, mentioned earlier, used the illustration of humans like cave dwellers only able to see the shadows of reality, so is our circumstance. In fact, current Post- Modern Philosophy has much less of a problem with religious ideas since they have discovered that most of our problems with dialog between various interest groups is due to language. Based on each person’s individual life-experience, the same word has different connotations based on each person’s life experience. And when we discuss space and time, all of us have very limited experience with the full ramifications of such a reality. Please follow this explanation from Christian scripture, you’ll find even if you are a Christian the explanation may be a little different than you personally formulated it in the past.

The very first book of the Bible, in the first chapter, gives us the background we need. Here we find the story of Adam and Eve and herein we have provided three factors that explain the human predicament. First these humans were created (or evolved if your faith is in all-encompassing material particles, excuse my bias) with FREE WILL. The first couple had choices to make, choices that affected the rest of their lives. Next, from the beginning the Bible notes that humans without prior experience or an environment of evil were capable of evil. Note, these humans deemed “perfect” specimens, from human standards, were capable of evil because of the GIFT of CHOICE. Per scripture, the source of all evil or suffering is due to human choice and an environment of possible evil provided by the serpent in this particular account. And as hinted previously, all livings things, including this pair, have that inherent tendency for survival and personal self-interest and welfare (the serpent appealed to self-interest already built into humanity.)  The Bible is unequivocal in asserting that God does not cause evil or tempts one with evil. As stated, “When tempted let no one say, ‘God is tempting me.’’ For God cannot be tempted, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own desires, he is dragged away and enticed.” (James 1:12-4) Throughout the Bible there are instances when individuals assumed God was tempting or causing evil to fall on them, but James makes it clear this is not God’s doing but the consequence of “his own desires,” self-interest desires.

Another point is clear from the Bible account. Early on, mankind realized one of their major tasks in living in the material world was to “fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28). Humans realized that were required to “subdue nature.” All nature, as we know today, has a mind of its own so to speak. Nature has that survival mechanism built within. As we already deduced, life could not exist without this apparently “selfishly-survival” component. This Bible account records that ages ago the ancients realized suffering could be caused by nature and one of their human goals would always be to “subdue the earth,” “subdue nature.” We’re only beginning to understand that “subdue nature” requires living in harmony with nature. For instance, how much agony could be avoided if builders didn’t insist on building dwellings in known flood zones? Or how much distress could be circumvented by not building on the side of known volcanos? How much suffering could be avoided by making provisions for hurricane winds and the hazards of lightning fires?  Subduing nature gives the connotation of adversity being involved, doesn’t it? A listener back then would take this directive to mean mankind was intended to be busy working. Subduing anything is not an easy task. The implication being that humans would have hard work to do, but with a meaningful goal. Until the Earth and nature were subdued this portended difficulties ahead. Our ancestors evidently didn’t think there was a conflict between a loving God expecting his progeny to encounter difficulties in life, even in one of the first stories our ancestors learned and related to their children. To this day most parents expect their children to go through difficulties as part of growing up. Something here is hinting God’s intent was for those living to expect to have hardships and difficulties and that this would give that life meaning.

I know that seems simplistic, but the Bible is unequivocal in asserting the Christian perspective tells us the majority of suffering is caused by human desires and the negligence of protecting and subduing nature. Fortunately we are beginning to learn to protect against disease (e.g.  Heart disease) and sickness and other sources of natural suffering, but have not come very far with regard to the human capacity to sequester our “desires.” Furthermore, scripture tells us God expected this from the beginning of time. Sorrow, affliction, pain was anticipated as a consequence of free will and the teeming life force and diversity in nature. I quote here the Bible writer who understood clearly that “before the beginning of time” God foresaw the challenges humans would face and the plan needed to face it. “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” (1Timothy 1:10) However, provisions were put in place initially by God to make it easier to bear up under suffering and also guidance to avoid affliction.

LESSON TO BE LEARNED BY SUFFERING

And here’s the AMAZING PART! There is a lesson to be learned from the ever present threat of suffering. There is a lesson that every spiritual person at some point begins to grasp. In fact, this is one of the many conundrums spiritual wisdom teaches. THERE IS ALWAYS A GOOD SIDE TO WHATEVER BAD OCCURS! Christians are taught, though many don’t learn the lesson until later in life (sometimes never in this life) the lesson-LOOK FOR THE GOOD SIDE. Look for how sorrow, once you’ve lived through it, makes you a better person and assists you in controlling your selfish tendencies and begin to perceive more clearly the spiritual side of life. In rapid succession I’ll run through some of the testimonies of people who have gone through suffering and realized how it transformed their lives for the better. There are countless examples, testimonies from both famous and ordinary people like you and me. What happened to Ignatius of Loyola has happened millions of times. He tells us that when he was convalescing from an injury from the battlefield, through his pain and agony he was forced to contemplate life. He too asked, “Why Suffering” and what he could do to help those in desolation and poverty. He was moved to help the poor and in fact started a movement within the Catholic Church to help the poor called the Society of Jesus. To this day the “Jesuits” are noted for their concern for the poor and for education. The church commemorated the founder by referring to him as St. Ignatius.

Read for yourself the lesson Tim Tebow, the well-known football player learned. I happened to read his book recently. The difficulties he went through were not so momentous but yet ones most of us have lived through. He lost his job, actually three or four jobs. Unfortunately because he was well known this was plastered all over the sports news. How humiliating? He confided, “It was tough to live through some painful moments, But I’ll say in those places of doubt and even of darkness, I’ve realized that who I am has nothing to do with wins and losses, applause or negative criticism. It has to do with whose I am.” {SHAKEN, Waterbrook Publisher, NY, 2017)  Here too a good friend confided to me when first diagnosed with leukemia (now that’s earth shattering). “I realize this is one of the best things that ever happened to me. I have been living with no meaning in my life. I have let my life while I was in good health pass me by. I only now realize how thankful for my health I should have been. How much time I squandered taking my ideal circumstances for granted.” This realization and prayer for guidance has put him on the road to recovery. Similarly, I too can testify to what I personally learned. For my whole life before I had major trauma I was convinced I could always find a way to overcome my problems if I tried hard enough. Finally when faced with a dying heart (cardio-myopathy) I understood full well I needed help from outside myself, I admitted I could only do so much by myself. More than ever I have asked for and received assistance from a higher power. We all know friends and associations who can testify similarly. And since there are hundreds of books written on the subject of Adversity and its benefits, written from both a spiritual and secular testament, I direct you to these. There you will find thousands of accounts of how the willingness to confront difficulties can transform adversity from a handicap to an asset. It would be redundant of spend more time recounting them here.

Three different Bible writers discovered the same lesson from their personal experiences with the Master, Jesus. James, in his book, put it this way, “Consider it PURE JOY my brothers when you face trials of many kinds…” and adds “the testing quality [those trials] makes you complete.” (James 1:2-4) James talks to us of trials of MANY KINDS whether sickness, persecution, homelessness, hunger, poverty on and on. I know some who read this verse apply it only to those afflictions caused by persecution and being pilloried for one’s faith. That certainly is an example of suffering but note that James confirms life is filled with “trials of different kinds.” He and the apostles of Jesus faced all types of trials. St. Paul speaks of shipwrecks, poverty, beatings, loss of friends and loved ones. What they learned is that these trials made them better people. James speaks here of the “Testing of your faith.” He is hinting at the idea behind the “why” of testing and for what reason, testing. Think for a moment, the Bible frequently assures us that God already knows a person’s heart or disposition. He doesn’t need to do any testing to assay an individual’s true being and level of faith. He can predict a person’s disposition perfectly. Even we as humans without seeing a person’s inner workings can very often predict a person’s actions by what that person says or how he acts in inconsequential settings. Given that, how certain we can be God knows each of us in much finer detail and actually reads our thoughts. The point is this, God doesn’t need to do any testing, he already knows. Testing is primarily for OUR BENEFIT. Difficult situations we confront expose to ourselves who we are! Going through trials we expose ourselves to ourselves primarily but to others on a secondary basis. We learn from such experiences only if we choose to learn. We see ourselves for whom we really are, if we are willing to take note and admit to ourselves the good and the not so good within. How often have you learned about yourself from your perseverance, as James used the example? You’ve preserved through a sickness and didn’t give in. You stuck with a friend through her trials. You preserved to get an education. It wasn’t easy but you did it. These experiences build character and help you to see who you are and what you are capable of. You may not be as miserable of a human specimen as you think. In fact, you can actually feel good about yourself by taking note.

By the same token, you may not pass some of those little tests along the way. For example, when you blow your cool, totally losing it with a friend or even a sales clerk. This is an occasion to learn from. You realize an aspect of your life you might need to improve. Can you see there is no other way or, at least, very limited opportunity to “test” yourself, or learn about yourself without pain and suffering? I have to ask, is there really any other way? Living in a perfect world with no trials would never allow you to truly know your capabilities, your various qualities. The goal of all this effort, says James, is “so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4)  There you have it, in James estimation and based on his experience with Jesus. Suffering is necessary to help nurture us to a level of “maturity,” to be “complete” as humans. ADVERSITY IS NECESSARY TO BUILD CHARACTER AND VIRTUE. Having only pleasurable experiences day by day is not enough for complete training in becoming a child of God the Father. Not just human but “a son or daughter’ of God as scripture shares His intentions with us. Isn’t it true we admire any elder member of our community who has gone through diverse, difficult life experiences both good and bad?  She has learned from experience how to confront all the inconsistencies of life? All-encompassing wisdom would require learning from adversity, being refined as if going through a smelter’s fire to purify the precious metals within, AS Scripture uses the illustration. Ask now, “Could I be complete in all ways without the experience of having faced adversity?” I don’t think so. And isn’t it kind that the master of our Faith, Jesus, would warn first “you will weep and mourn… you will greave but your grief will turn to joy?” (John 16:20)

In my estimation, it is so unfortunate that more people have never been prepared for anguish and affliction by having had it explained to them what they are trying to accomplish by undergoing such ordeals. Can you also deduce that if we keep in mind why God allows suffering, during the time while suffering, it’s a little easier to cope with the pain knowing why it’s necessary? I know from experience I can handle the pain involved while healing from an ailment much more easily if I know the end result will improve my health. Knowing what God has in mind for us (expanding our capabilities and our outlook of standing before the Lord as a complete, finished product, refined in every way) assists us in maintaining the fortitude to bear up under distress. Who knows, you may actually be willing to volunteer for such a painful assignment? If only more people could open their eyes and see what is really being accomplished when they live through difficulties. They would begin to look at travail more as an inconvenience in the short run. If you are a parent, you have the task of helping your children understand life requires they go through years of schooling to emerge as a competent member of society able to comprehend and deal with all manner of life eventualities. You and your children would probably have rather foregone the years of going to school daily if you had a choice. “There’s got to be any easier way,” you used to say. No, there wasn‘t and no, there isn’t. I think it is so unfortunate that children are not taught in school and parents often don’t teach their children the simple profound message that misery and sorrow are building blocks for success in life. Tell them the truth! “My son, you will learn who you are and appreciate your uniqueness by going through sorrow. I wish I could do it for you but I can’t. You’ll never be a mature and fully functioning man without some agony in your life.”

Now listen to another writer’s life experience. Paul, an apostle of Jesus, lived through his share of adversity. He recounts with satisfaction his ordeal at 2 Corinthians 1:8-10 “The hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so we despaired even of life. Indeed in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.” There is an important lesson emphasized in his story. He attempted to make sense of it all, asking just as you and I are now asking, “Why?” Using the wisdom garnered from his trials he could say confidently, “But this happened (His own words) that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.”  Here, Paul proposes yet another reason why we must despair at times. The additional lesson is to learn to rely on God. Can you see there could never be a more indelible method of having this lessen impressed on us than by experiencing situations where you have no other place to turn? I’ve had this happen many times but perhaps the most enlightening was the time I found myself flat on my back on a hospital bed, unable to even move, unable to do anything for myself, taking a breath was an effort. Confessing to myself I said, “I finally get it, I can’t do anything, anything on my own any longer, I admit I need help!”  Within a few hours my confession was, “I know now, I can’t live anything longer, pretending I can do everything all on my own.” To this day whenever I meet adversity I automatically respond by saying, “I can’t do this alone, I need your help!” I’m learning the lesson Paul learned centuries ago. And perhaps there is no other way to learn it. There are times we must rely on God. We can’t do it on our own. Adversity is not really an enemy after all, is it?

Here is still another observation from Paul when he states (Romans 5:3-5), “But we REJOICE IN OUR SUFFERINGS because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.” Here the apostle tells us there is no other way through this progression but with adversity. To master perseverance one must confront troubles. Those troubles make us stronger and give us determination. A point comes, as we stick with it, where pain is not a detriment. Getting through to the end becomes our concern. Most all of us have, I hope, felt the exhilaration of reaching a worthy goal. Nothing quite compares to that feeling. There is no other way to get that particular joy without expending ourselves for a worthy goal. Anyone reaching the goal, whether its school graduation or finishing a difficult project, most always will say that the adversity was worth all the trouble. The apostle presumes anyone having the hope that he can conquer suffering “will not be disappointed.” No one confronting pain looks forward to it, many don’t even think they could endure, but somehow they do. Most everyone who has ever discussed his/her ordeals with me, testifies what they profoundly comprehended about life and especially what they discovered about themselves completely agreed with the apostle’s assessment.

Before moving on, we must dwell for a moment on the prize endurance offers. Paul says, “Perseverance begets character.” CHARACTER, we don’t hear much about that term these days. In days gone by character was especially prized. Our western civilization was built upon that foundation. The Bible lauds it and even the Greek heritage that gave us the impetus to search for knowledge and the concept of democracy highlighted character. To Aristotle, the Greek, virtue and character were the most prized of personal characteristics of a person. To be a person of character was the epitome of human growth then, but unfortunately pleasure has displaced character as the major goal in our society. And very interestingly our level of happiness has diminished generation by generation over time, studies have concluded. True self-esteem requires character. Character is the state of making a good habit so automatic it becomes second nature.  Character produces dignity, confidence and strength. That’s the type of person our Father foresaw for humankind and the epitome of humanity he wants for each of us to attain. Evidently there is no other way to attain that highest standard without inconvenience and trials. Take this little experiment for yourself, especially if you are one who wished you never had to have gone through your share of life difficulties. Look back at your youth, when you were a teenager maybe. Think of the times you inadvertently hurt a friend’s feelings, for example. Didn’t you learn something from the hurt you caused and the pain you felt? In most cases, don’t you feel you are less likely to make that same mistake again after you became more mature? In most cases we’d admit, “Yes, I have progressed somewhat. I learned from the difficulties I caused and felt.” We have been developing character and that provides the real self-esteem we are all looking for, I would contend.

We could go on about the correspondence between suffering and its value, but I’d like to include one more important testimony here. This one comes from St. Peter, revered by many as the Rock upon which the Christian Church was built.  He presents his insights into the drama of life this way at 1 Peter 1:6-7. “In this you GREATLY REJOICE, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kind of trials. These have come so that your faith-of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire- may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Peter is clear that life includes suffering and says suffering comes from “all kinds of trials.” These are to be looked at as personal “trials.” How we react belies who we are both to ourselves and to others who observe us. You’ve probably run the gamut of trials yourself: sickness, pain both mental and physical, hurt feelings, broken hearts, being cheated and mistreated. Haven’t you learned from all of them? Don’t you feel somewhat more mature and experienced in living as a result of them? Of course, and as St. Peter comments “You [should] greatly rejoice.” And as he so quickly reminds, “These have come so that your faith…may prove genuine.” You’re a better person, a fuller person, because of faith. You don’t believe in a life hereafter just because someone told you to believe. For all you knew when you started the journey of Christianity, that was “pie in the sky.” But you took the step, you endured, you persevered through trials, you proved that with God’s help you could confront and conquer a lot more than you originally thought possible. Now your faith is “genuine.” No one can accuse you of being gullible, you proved to yourself that your faith is based on experience. That faith is going to carry you through for as long as there is a you. Faith to confront future adversity, faith that you will reach seemingly unattainable heights. You now have the faith that you’re ready for any privileged assignments coming your way in the future. All because you did the unthinkable… you suffered.

SUMMARY

Now, here’s what we accomplished so far. We’ve seen, from a Christian standpoint suffering is NOT INCOMPATIBLE with there being an Almighty God who cares. We’ve seen that it’s REASONABLE, though not completely provable, that a “Father God” would allow adversity as any parent would for his/her children. We’ve seen that suffering is INVALUABLE. We personally gain capabilities, insights, PERSONAL GROWTH in addition to FAITH, CHARACTER and personal insights we could gain in NO OTHER WAY! Do we have all the answers? No, we stated at the onset it would be impossible to have all the answers. We’re not privy to the mental and metaphysical ability and haven’t experienced the necessary longevity to see the full picture, the final exposition of human existence. We have only an incomplete picture, but this needn’t discourage us. Historical narratives and experience from the field of science often start by revealing partial answers without total understanding, but in time there is more clarity. Certainly there is enough evidence for “why” to prevent millions from ever giving up but to continue persevering. And that’s all God is asking of us. How many times have you said to your children or your parents have said to you, “Wait till you grow up, it will all make sense then. Just trust me now; as you experience life it becomes clearer.”

My premise in assembling these ideas is to demonstrate we have enough of an answer to this age-old question of why pain and suffering to perceive a little clarity. My explanation has taken into account the biological reality, mental reality and the spiritual reality of our existence. Not a full picture, but enough of a picture to base a life on. Enough of an understanding to make informed decisions on. And as we will see, enough of a picture to have an optimistic outlook to live without resentment. I personally am a rather demanding person. I pride myself in not being gullible. I’ve never accepted ideas without first checking their accuracy and the logical reasoning behind them. Over the years I have had to reorganize and edit my views so they better coincide with the real world. The picture presented here satisfies my need for rigor, I hope yours too. You’ll note I have left out the usual religious terms used in a discussion on suffering, terms like “sin and salvation.” Not because they are unimportant but because I wanted to focus on one issue and one issue only for now. These other terms are relevant but part of another discussion. I hope your understanding of suffering is clearer as a result.

To those of you not Christian, this may only be an interesting explanation, nothing more at this point. But this might help. I was exposed to the comment I’m about to make by arguably the most respected and renowned secular philosopher of all times, Immanuel Kant. He was the thinker that helped put science back on solid footing when philosophers first admitted that it was impossible to prove anything absolutely, beyond any doubt. So why put faith in science or anything else for that matter? He gave a very detailed stance and what appealed to me is this. In affect Kant argued (presented in my words) “Sure, we have absolutely no unassailable proof of anything in this world; faith is required for whatever you believe but if a positon is REASONABLE and makes sense logically there is an element of truth there and that positon is worthy of following through to see if it leads to uncorrectable contradictions or is to be deemed sound argumentation.” This has always been my own positon on questions of life and existence. And, in fact, that’s why I’m a Christian after all these many years of life experience. Christianity makes sense and social research has exonerated its stance over the years on all areas of science, psychology, sociology and physical science as they make their discoveries. Christianity has stood the test of time. My submission here on suffering does not include all answers any more than any area of science or philosophy can claim to have all the answers. But the Christian position is logical and leads to practical, useable conclusions.

PRACTICAL APPLICATION

Now, how can this knowledge be used constructively? And this is the benefit of Christianity; it provides a way of life that helps us live in a suffering world. It is true, other religions provide their own explanations and all of them have common elements with the Christian position. Though I have admitted repeatedly I don’t have all the answers, but for me, the Christian viewpoint is the most complete, optimistic and energizing. The end is not a Nirvana or state of Equipoise where all existence ends in an equilibrium. Confronting such an end may not be as satisfying as the Christian end with a living world of true justice, peace, endless discoveries. Sorry, I can only give a Christian outlook here since I have studied it thoroughly to detect any inconsistencies and have actually lived it for a lifetime to prove its practicality. I can say it really works. Of course, I’ve had to adjust my views over the years; life experience forces one to correct some of one’s original simplistic ideals along the way. For me the Christian worldview has become more complete, satisfying and durable over the years.

As mentioned and you’ll notice I don’t appeal to some of the usual Christian terms here. I don’t talk about, sin, punishment, salvation or perfection. Over the years men have misused these terms to control and scare. They are very important terms and presented in the Bible as facts of life, and an explanation of reality. But I feel in order to focus on one momentous idea, suffering, we’ve had to put off discussing other areas of practical living.

Quickly, though, let me present what is the BEST PART of what we’ve discovered so far. Yes, there is suffering and yes, there is a good reason it exists. But seekers of comfort and direction are not left in the lurch. Christianity offers all the tools needed to overcome difficulties. I’ll mention but three or four ways here.

The Christian way gives a set of simple principles for living to pattern a one’s life by. It is amazing that most every situation that could arise is covered in the three short chapters in the Bible called the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapter 5 through 7). So simple, so concise, everything you need to know about living through the happy times and the unsettling times. In fact, many of these principles are presented in other religions and other societies independently. This is a testimony to the universality of Jesus’ guidance. Given are thoughts on the most worthy goals of life and how to handle difficult situations that arise. By living accordingly, a good portion of the evils in the world are mitigated by the advice here. Potential evils, their effects and long term eventualities of adversity can be minimized. At least, I and millions of others can so testify. Yes, we suffer but not unbearably. A spiritual person acknowledges pain, suffering, and agony as unavoidable but serving a purpose. And there are ways to cope. The Bible itself contains hundreds of examples of real people throughout history who have conquered, overcome the most agonizing of possible events and yet kept their positive perspective through it all. Believers are thankful for the guidance allowing them to negotiate the mine fields of obstacles strewn throughout life’s journey.

Another way the Lord of believers mitigates agony is by providing assistance during times of sorrow. Religious writings call this help God’s Spirit and even science fiction writers approximate it by speaking of “The Force.” There is a source of power, energy and strength available to overcome travail and pain. Somehow, some way believers come through without the lasting effects of trauma. Jesus called the Spirit “The Helper.” The God Christians believe in may allow agony but offers comfort, superhuman endurance and determination along the way. Most everyone who agonizes over injustice prays and with faith the prayer of Ephesians 4:7 senses “The Peace of God, which transcending all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” during the hours of personal trials. The anecdotal studies I’ve done and the full research studies others have done, confirm this promise. Non-believers who have not had the privilege of experiencing this sensation may doubt but how can anyone contradict a person’s own testimony, one who has lived the experience, when the non-believer cannot speak from personal experience? I’ve observed and experienced that those who avail themselves of The Spirit are less inclined to feel the negative after effects of trauma.

Finally I’ve found that just understanding the Why of Suffering and the GOOD one can expect from such ordeals aids in making it so much easier to face and endure the pain. I’m sure all of us have experienced that when warned of a coming problem and instructed on what to expect and how to handle the discomfort, we find it so much easier to face. This calls to mind my personal experiences of going to foreign countries. I’ve been warned that most of the citizens in this country don’t speak English. But this is where you can always go to find someone who does. And these are the few word phrases you must know before you go. I’ve gone through this experience several times some with and some without the forewarnings and suggestions. The experiences with the foresight were much easier to handle. This is precisely why Jesus warned (John 16:20), “You will grieve but your grief will turn to joy.” Coupled with his instructions on how to live through pain, the travail is endurable. For example, scripture tells us the worst thing we can do when suffering is to feel sorry for ourselves. When not taken by surprise and when prepared, the plight is more endurable. In the above verse Jesus prefaced his comments on grief by saying, “You will weep and mourn while the world rejoices.” You will feel all alone, it will appear everyone else in the world is having a good time. But be assured mental pain can have worse consequences than any physical pain. Being right with God and right with self is sweet even in the midst of pain. Sages claim, through their examples, you can endure most anything with a personal sense of integrity and with divine strength.

GETTING BACK TO THE HARD PART

“I know what you say is all well and good,” you may be thinking. “But what about the little babies and the poor innocents forced to face inhuman conditions?” At the very beginning we asserted why suffering is necessary.  Free will is one of the culprits.  Our inherent physical survival mechanisms mandate suffering.  But couldn’t God do more to help?  Couldn’t God give everyone a choice; do you want to be born as an animal with instincts and robotic responses or would you rather have free will and a mind to analyze events, to contemplate beauty, to invent and write your own story? In fact, pretend you’re given the choice, if you were an animal would you rather roam the wilds or have everything taken care of for you while you lived in a zoo all day, it’s up to you. First of all, wouldn’t you have to have experienced free will first even to make an informed choice? But let’s ask the question of people anyway. Maybe you’d find one in a million preferring to say they’d rather be that animal. Of those suffering now, ask the question when they have a moment without their pain and again you’d find few wanting to live in the wilds happy to live under the laws of survival of the fittest. But really if you think about it, it would be very difficult to orchestrate a world where you have the choice as to what kind of life you’d want. Again, God in his wisdom and foresight, knows everyone under better conditions would be ecstatic with free will and unlimited choices.

But babies don’t get a choice, do they? When they cry it’s almost as if they are crying out for justice. That’s a reason, Immanuel Kant, the secular philosopher, confided there must be an all-powerful, caring God who only could rectify this type of agony. Justice demands it. And universally, humans understand what justice means. I’ve got a small point to interject here. The Bible teaches God wants all to live happily in a realm of harmony, beauty and happiness. Living through our present world, we would never take it for granted such a world since we have lived through a contrasting world of evil. If that were true, ask the formerly suffering person now at some future point, “Was the suffering worth it?”  I’d not just be asking about their surroundings in a harmonious world, I’d be asking them about how they feel about themselves. What did that suffering back then do for you? Are you a better person today for what you endured? You know the answers they’d give.

So we are inferring that as humans, we aren’t qualified to fully answer the question of suffering. And a person with even a modicum of faith would ask our question differently. Yes, faith is the wild card here. Free of the restraints of our disadvantaged vantage point in our universe, faith gives us more avenues to explore. I can mention my journey here. I started out when young as a nobody, knowing nothing. Being shy and not knowing where to turn, I read a passage in the Bible (Matthew 6:33 to be exact) promising if I sought first God’s Kingdom, everything I would ever need would be given me. Truthfully when I first read it I took it to say I’d get “everything I’d ever want.” I had no better life option at the time (and no mentor, which I wish to this day I had. It might have made things easier for me.) So I chose that path.   I  followed that path one year, then two, only to find along the way the promises were indeed coming true.  I had my share of troubles, as I was warned, but I found I seemed to land on my feet whenever I fell.  Near death experiences and I, I came away unscathed.  No different than millions of others like me.  I, emphatically, have received everything I needed for a satisfying life. I actually received much more, most everything I ever wanted (spiritual wisdom guides you to want only so much).  So when asked to believe that human suffering will make perfect sense in the end, how can I doubt that?  Everything that scripture promised has come true.  Taking “the leap of faith,” and seeing how the world opens up with possibilities and satisfying peace of mind make it so much easier to accept the why’s of life.  Very interestingly, the ultra-poor in third world countries (with far more suffering and far less material accoutrements than we in the industrial world have) reported through surveys that their level of life happiness on average is higher than our average level of happiness in the U.S. or other developed countries. How can that be? That statistic alone should make us pause to admit we know very little about suffering and how to overcome. For most individuals who have gone down a spiritual path, this question of why God allows suffering is not such a big deal. A Spiritual Life allows those experiencing the effects of trauma to trust in God’s mercy and kindness. They have come to know that God is a good and merciful friend as Jesus assures rhetorically, “How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?” (Matthew 7:11) We spent this time talking of the negatives of life but what do you think?  Really, aren’t there far more good things in life than the negatives?  I think so.

Once we realize Adversity in this Life is a rational expectation, that adversity is an absolute necessity and it has so many benefits, we can calmly accept this reality and live in reality. Jesus had this in mind when he counsels us, “In the world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33)   Don’t be obsessed with your troubles but be confident you, too, will overcome them.

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Institute For Mere Christianity

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