There is no one on Earth who is problem-free. Some of us have more than our fair share of pain and suffering. Yet, throughout the millennia of human existence, no one has really come up with a good answer to why people must suffer in this world. Why, especially, do seemingly decent, good people suffer? What happened to reward and punishment?
In order to deal with these questions, one must establish a few axioms upon which all further discussion is based: One, belief in G-d. Without a belief in G-d, there is no discussion, because life is simply unfair and unjust, and any suffering humans experience has no rhyme or reason. Two, belief in a world to come. Unless one believes that this world is not the be all end all of existence, he will end up back at number one, bemoaning the fact that life is just a cruel joke. Three, belief in the limitation of human intellect. Ok, here is where we humans must swallow our pride and acknowledge that we are spacio-temporal beings who cannot understand or know what we do not experience via our 5 senses. We have no knowledge of the future, despite multiple attempts at divining it in a variety of ridiculous ways. We are limited to the past and present, and to the impact of external stimuli on our own lives and environments. Borrowing a phrase from a much more talented writer than I: These truths I hold to be self-evident.
Now we can begin our discussion of why good people suffer in this world. Recognizing that G-d is just and omniscient, as well as unlimited by time or place or physical senses, it makes sense for us to attribute to G-d a much more accurate assessment of events and their impacts upon us and upon the world at large, not only for the here and now, but also for the future. That said, whatever happens to us has an impact not only on us, but also on those in our community, those in the country in which we live, those in the world around us, and those who perhaps are not even born yet. Every event, therefore, has multiple layers, like an onion (to use Shrek’s metaphor).
Let’s focus on the individuals who suffer rather than those upon whom the ripple effect of that suffering might eventually land. There are many reasons why a person might suffer. The suffering could be a punishment for wrongs committed. No one wants to admit this, but it’s possible that in G-d’s eyes, the person suffering deserves the suffering from a purely just perspective. On the other hand, the suffering could be a test from G-d. What is a test? It’s an opportunity to get closer to G-d by reaching out to Him in one’s suffering and acknowledging one’s need for G-d’s help. It’s also the opportunity to develop our strengths and character traits, such as empathy and determination. Tests teach us lessons in life. Those lessons might be to value what we have while we have it, or to appreciate the gifts that G-d has given us and never take anything for granted. Perhaps one might need to learn how to deal with others who are suffering in a similar sense. Another possible reason for suffering is to enable one to merit a greater reward in the world to come. All of us sin. All of us need to repent either in this world or the next. Sometimes G-d will cause suffering in this world so that a person can go to the next world clear of sin. There is also the possibility that one suffers instead of someone else. For example, G-d might want to destroy a community of people by plague because the community does not speak appropriately or show proper respect to others. Rather than destroy an entire community, G-d might make a deal with a certain soul, prior to his being born, that he will suffer individually for the sake of others. This concept is similar to what the Christians believe of Jesus. One person martyrs himself for the good of the many. Most likely, when a person suffers, it is for a combination of these reasons.
I believe G-d is good and that He wants only good for His creations. However, I see G-d as a parent figure in my life, and for that reason, I believe He sometimes teaches us the way a parent teaches a child. Imagine a parent with a three-year-old in a grocery store check out line. The three-year-old sees the candy bars lining the sides of the line and asks his parent to give her one. The parents says “no.” The child starts to whine and beg his parent for the candy, saying, “Don’t you love me? Why won’t you give me what I want?” The parent says, “You cannot have the candy because it isn’t good for you.” The child responds with a tantrum, screaming and crying that she wants the candy anyway. The parent still doesn’t cave to the desires of the child. When the child grows up and has kids of her own, she’ll understand why her parent refused to give her the candy she wanted. G-d knows what is best for us. After all, He created us, and therefore, knows us intimately. Sometimes we end up suffering for our own good. We certainly don’t see it that way, but He knows the outcome of our suffering and the benefits to the pain we experience.
Similarly, there are two ways to educate a child: Positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. G-d gives us so many gifts every day of our lives: Bodies that function, homes, clothing, food, life itself. Do we behave the way He wants us to? Maybe yes, maybe no. If not, He may have to employ negative reinforcement. For example, if one does not say “thank you” to G-d for being able to walk, perhaps G-d will cause that person to break his leg to teach him the value of being able to walk. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Water is taught by thirst.” We learn the value of things by their lack. G-d loves us and wants us to fulfill our potential in this world, much the same as a parent wants his/her child to fulfill his potential. To that end, G-d tries to teach us lessons. If a child is spending too much time on his/her phone and is not doing what he/she is supposed to be doing, the parent takes away the phone until the child learns to fulfill his/her responsibilities. The child also learns that the phone is a benefit, a perk, a privilege–not a right. Henceforth, the child will value the phone more because it is something he/she must earn rather than something he/she can have no matter what.
In my previous blogpost, I mentioned that asking why something bad happens to us is a waste of time. Asking for what purpose it has happened is much more sensible and productive, because we can’t really control what happens to us, but we can control how we react.