Why Is There Suffering?


At some point in our lives, we have (or will) experience pain and suffering; this causes us to wonder why suffering exists and why it is a common element in the human experience. This is more than just a philosophical discussion – it is an intensely personal question as the answer will help us navigate through the moments in which we and our loved ones suffer and when there are national and international tragedies. As a result of the universal need to understand suffering, many reasons/answers have been given including from, but not limited to, different religious groups, so it seems wise to explore some of the different “options” out there as we walk through a series on suffering at Faith Church

Why Ask Why?
Before digging into some of the answers given by different religious groups, it is good to recognize that there is an answer out there which would likely be viewed as “non-religious” in the sense that it derives from a view of the world that does not believe in a god. If there is no one or nothing out there besides what we see in this world, then the answer to why suffering exists is simply this: because that is the way the world is. People do bad things because of the free will they have to act. Disasters occur because that is just how the world has come to be. Essentially, suffering is basically our lot in life that people simply need to accept as their destiny. 

While internally consistent, this answer seems incongruent with our experience in which we sense that suffering is not how things should be. We cry at funerals and cry out in our pain. Even people who don’t believe in the existence of a god or even absolute moral standards say that  events like 9/11 and the murder of an innocent person are evil. The internal struggle we have to explain suffering points to a different and deeper answer. 

One Option: Bad “Karma”
Another possible answer is that suffering is due to bad “karma.” There are both formal and informal versions of this solution. The more formal version is found in various Eastern religions that view suffering we face in this world as a consequence of our actions in a past life, as they assume a cycle of reincarnation. While this would explain suffering, it does not seem to satisfy our sense that some suffering seems unjust (and the idea of reincarnation has its own logical problems I cannot go into in this post). Another form of this that need not assume a cycle of reincarnation is that the karma is not from a past life but from past actions in your life. In other words, when you do good things, good things happen in the future in this life but when you do bad things, bad things lie ahead in your future. This view is pretty popular, but it also seems a bit lackluster as some suffering is difficult and exceptionally insensitive to blame on a person’s past actions (for example, the suffering of a child) and there seem to be plenty of exceptions to the rule of people reaping what they sow. 

Another Proposal: Wrong Thinking
Another school of thought is that suffering is not a result of our bad actions, but rather bad thinking. For example, Buddhism teaches that suffering is really an illusion, and we can free ourselves from suffering when we detach ourselves from our desires. This idea is analogous to Christian Science or Hinduism, both of which view suffering as an illusion we need to get past by remembering that the universe is spiritual; thus evil is really faulty thinking. The fact that adherents to these systems still experience the evil and suffering seen in this world does seem to put their position into question. Moreover, I suspect many of us feel that suffering is much more than it is perceived — it, along with our world, is real. This approach actually points to the person who asks the question or is suffering by blaming them for something that could never be verified. These answers would tell them to stop asking questions and change their perspective — either denying that they are actually suffering or admitting they deserve it.

One More Approach: A Powerless Deity
Some have maintained that there is a good god who made and interacts with the universe, but this good god is not able to stop suffering; he is good, but not all powerful. The idea behind this is that an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful god can’t co-exist with the presence of evil. Thus, people see a god’s role in evil as coming alongside us and saying, “Yep, it stinks, wish it wasn’t that way.” Such a view might give us some moral support in suffering, but it really gives us no confidence that there is ultimate hope or meaning behind the suffering we see and suffering we bear.

The Christian Answer: A Broken World…Fixed Through a Broken Body
The Christian faith offers a different perspective that acknowledges the role humans (including ourselves) play in causing evil and suffering to exist when it was not part of the original design; acknowledging its reality but also offering both comfort and hope in the midst of it. The Christian faith teaches that God created a perfect (and real) world, but because of Satan’s lies, Adam and Eve made a wrong choice and sinned. As a result of this sin, humans and the world have been affected; we all experience evil and suffering – sometimes because of our own decisions,  the decisions of others, or sometimes because of defects found in the present systems of the world that have fallen under a curse. This suffering exists for a time, but God has a plan to end it, a plan at which the cross stands in the center (as Jesus himself suffers to defeat suffering) and culminates in the end of suffering at the return of Christ and the resurrection of our bodies. 

Thus, Christianity does not merely explain why there is suffering but also explains the cure for evil and suffering. God does not tell us we have to figure out how to stop and end suffering. Rather, He enters into suffering and tells us He has a plan and will take care of it. This answer is very different from other religions that may have a similar sort of perspective when it comes to suffering. For example, Judaism and Islam may have similar explanations (though with some differences). 

Our Response in Suffering
We don’t have to seek out suffering – it will find us. We do have to seek out a way to make sense of the suffering we see and experience. The Christian explanation is different from others, and I would argue it makes sense of the world in which we live and also gives true hope that we need not only in suffering, but also the hope we long for when suffering. May we choose the right mindset so that when suffering choses us, we will be ready.

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