Let’s go over the possible answers and see which is best. First, I’ll start with the worst: people suffer because they did something wrong, they had it coming, God is punishing them. Karma’s a bitch. I can see only one possible instance where this is true, and it’s nothing more than a psychological observation. When we feel guilty, we probably did something wrong. I suppose we could call that suffering. Guilt is the natural indicator and God is the Author of it. That’s as far as we go here. To say that God punishes people through earthquakes, hurricanes, or other natural, social, or political events is morally wrong and bad theology. C’mon, really? Do you really think God, the most perfect being imaginable, kills people? God is much better (thank goodness).
|the Lisbon earthquake was seen by many as caused by God for the sins of city. Read Candide.|
Karma, from what I understand, is misunderstood by most people. Saying “Karma’s a bitch” to someone who “had it coming” is not the right way to think about it. Karma is not something you justify another man’s suffering with. Karma, rather, is completely in the control of each person. It is the culmination and aggregation of a person’s deeds. You do good, you become good, you progress in the next life. You do bad, you become bad, you regress in the next life. It’s like heaven and hell, but not as final. You cannot apply Karma to another person, another group, another culture.
Second, people suffer as a test, as a way to build character, as a way to learn something, as a way to overcome. Soul building. Job was tested by God and he came out stronger in faith and material possessions. Thus the saying: God never gives us anything we can’t handle. I get it. I understand that this might be comforting or even uplifting to someone suffering. It could help you overcome a particular hurdle. Perhaps it’s good to think of life itself as a giant test. Perhaps that motivates some people. Or not. What happens when several arbitrary, coincidental pointless things happen to you? How do you distinguish an accident from a cosmic test? People do break. Are you really gonna believe that God is picking on you? And when too much shit happens, and you find yourself on your knees, asking God why, why, why me – whence your faith then? What are you left with? Your faith is exposed, I think. Your faith did the harm more than the events themselves! You are left with a God similar to the one I described above: a God who uses nature to punish people, to teach them a lesson. I wouldn’t do this to my own son! Nor would God. You suffered more than you needed to. Rather than having a friend in God, who would guide you through this horrible thing; instead, you made God into the author of the horrible thing. Perhaps there’s a better way.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I do believe in a God that’s right here, right now, inside me and outside me; ever-present, all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing. I am not trying to turn God into a cold, careless, distant Creator. I simply believe that God does not play favorites; that he doesn’t arbitrarily mess with us, or worry about the small, daily events of our lives; that he lets the rain fall on sinners and saints (as Jesus taught). He’s eternal. We are not pawns in a game of chess; we are works of art within an unfolding work of art. I believe that God created a physical set of laws, which allows rocks to fall on human heads. And I believe that God created a moral law, which allows people to use their free will to hurt people. And I believe those two things – physical laws and free will – account for all the suffering in the word. God gives us the tools to overcome. In a way, he suffers with us (that’s what Jesus symbolizes). And I believe that God created an afterlife for those people who wrongly suffered on earth; for the people which God sheds a perpetual tear; the people Jesus referred to when he said “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” God’s gift of freedom was both a weakness and an act of love. That’s the God I want to worship. Theologically, I will have my cake and eat it too.
Okay, that’s enough for the religious answers to our question of suffering. But atheists and agnostics worry about suffering just as much as anyone. They simply take a more practical and political approach to the question. Which is excellent. So do I. For example, people suffer because of free will. That’s something all religious and nonreligious agree on. People simply make bad decisions sometimes. Second, people suffer because of a horrible upbringing. They were planted in bad soil. The biological and psychological effects of having bad parents, or an insufficient support structure, cannot be ignored. When a child is born addicted to meth, the odds are bad, through no fault of their own. Third, people suffer because of unjust laws, inept governments, and immoral systems of finance and control. This is big picture. This is the ultimate political and sociological answer to our question, requiring ultimate political and social solutions. This is our common worldly battle. We must save ourselves from the suffering of hunger, and poverty, and disease, and we must do it through social and political agencies. Some day, cancer will be defeated. Some day, people will have what they need to live. This should be the call of both secular and religious people worldwide. This is the kind of suffering that doesn’t need to happen.