In a recent New York Times article author and philosophy professor Scott Hershovitz lays out the problem of why an all-powerful God would allow suffering to happen at all. He quotes his teenage son who says: “For real, God is pretend, and for pretend, God is real.” That is, we believe in God when it suits us, and excuse God when it doesn’t; such as when we see someone suffering. (“How to Pray to a God You Don’t Believe In” by Scott Hershovitz)
There is a name for this problem: Theodicy. Why does a good God allow good people, often innocent children to suffer? There are a variety of answers to this question. One answer is that God allows suffering so that we will grow in our response to it. Another answer is that suffering happens whenever there is an absence of good. And yet another is that we deserve the suffering we get either for past lives (the law of karma) or for something we are about to do.
But I’m not buying any of these answers. I like the answer that God isn’t real when it comes to suffering. Or, better put, God doesn’t really control suffering. Suffering happens; sometimes it’s avoidable, often it is not. I don’t think a God has anything to do with suffering. For me the question isn’t “why God lets us suffer” (which presupposes we believe in an all-powerful God). The question isn’t even “why do we suffer?” The question is “what are we going to do about suffering?”
How are we going to make the world a better place so there is less suffering? And if that suffering is completely beyond our control, will we do all we can to alleviate the pain and be with those who are suffering? The Buddha called this Meta Kindness: standing witness with those who are in pain so that they are not alone and offering the simple wish, often spoken silently, that they may be free from suffering.
When we are at the side of someone suffering, whether from loss or illness, sometimes the very best thing we can do is just to be there. No words required. Just by being there we are making a difference in their life. I don’t know whether that makes us god-like, but it certainly does make us fully human, and that may be holiness.
Yours always, Rev. John