For those in chronic pain faith, although offering the potential for great comfort, solace and hope, can become a surprising and heartbreaking struggle, like chronic pain itself.
The question of why one is faced with such a constant state of distress can rapidly run right up against one’s faith. We learn that science can take us only so far; we have journeyed well beyond current boundaries of accessible medical understanding and solutions and have come to a place without answer. It is at this juncture that faith can feel as if it is failing or even absent entirely, leaving one forlorn and desolate. What then?
One Rabbi’s search for, in the face of mind-numbing tragedy, God’s “goodness, kindness and even existence” shines a strong light on the path, through the outer-lands of appalling adversity and its accompanying confusion, back to the solace, peace and strength of faith.
Harold Kushner‘s, powerful little book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People was written in the early 80’s after the death of his son at 14 from a painful, disfiguring and drawn-out degenerative disease.
It is the story of the process, the journey, of Kushner’s coming to terms with his own tremendous, incomprehensible loss and suffering, and addressing that of others. The insights he gleaned along the way offer others a buoy, an anchor, in times like his own which in other words are events that breach the moorings of our being. His words are a guiding light for those wrestling with their faith, struggling with God’s purpose, place and presence through the dark stormy waters of pain and suffering, making sense and bringing meaning to events that defy understanding.
Reflecting on his calling and purpose with the book he said, “I would write it to help other people …for all those who wanted to go on believing, but whose anger at (or loss of connection with) God made it hard for them to hold on to… and be comforted by their faith…and for those whose love for God led them to blame themselves, who somehow feel responsible for the tragedies that have befallen them. We are often taught that we are being punished for our sins, that people get what they deserve, and misdeeds cause misfortunes.”
This line of reasoning is meant to help others rationalize their God, not help the sufferer or explain the suffering during very real experiences/problems.
“Blaming the victim can help some so that evil doesn’t seem so irrational and threatening. It can help fortunate people feel their fortune is deserved, to not feel the responsibility for and guilt for others who have less and are suffering—this stance then leaves the misfortunate, the sick, the injured feeling doubly bad, suffering social condemnation on top of original misfortune. These maybe neat and tidy explanations for other’s lives, but for those others who have known tragedy and suffering they have serious limitations.
How then to explain the suffering of a child or entire communities who are desecrated at once by some natural disaster? For seemingly senseless tragedy involving innocents? Mass communication makes us all to aware that this belief system is deeply flawed.”
We, that have been witness to or have known great personal adversity, have many questions.
Kuschner uses the book of Job from the Bible, “perhaps the greatest, most profound discussion of good people suffering”, as a foundation for his search for answers and understanding. Job and his friends wrestle with their faith after Job, a good man, survives a devastating sequence of loses including his family and health, his home and all his worldly possessions.
Is it that God has his reasons; that there must be some greater purpose being served, that we simply cannot see the big picture? What kind of higher purpose could possible come of such tragic events? How could these be of any good? Is it really God’s plan that some must suffer and other’s prosper? Can suffering be educational, make us better people? Kushner states, “I have seen some people made noble and sensitive through suffering, but I have also seen many more people grow cynical and bitter”. Or does God punish us to bring out the good? But unlike the concerned parent who disciplines the child, God then offers no explanation, seemingly arbitrary and exceedingly cruel with no clear connection between fault and punishment? If God only gives us what we can handle does this then mean…. we’d be better off if we were weaker? IF God is testing us he must know by now that many of us fail the test. And what kind of sadistic God would devise these “tests”? And what about the sanctity of life?
And if God has some purpose, than of what right is it to pray for God to change anything, to make anything “better” (through prayer and by our own criteria)?
To grapple with these questions and come to peace with his faith and God, Kushner, reflecting on the Book of Job, is led to 3 conclusions:
a. God is all powerful and causes everything that happens in this world
b. God is just and fair, good people are rewarded and the wicked suffer
c. Job is a good person
He surmises that as long as Job is (and…as long as we are) healthy and prosperous all three sound fine. But when Job suffers (as when we ourselves do) we have a problem.
We know that in fact Job is good just as most of us are; we, like he, approach life doing the best we can and, one would hope, striving to live by the Golden Rule i.e. doing unto others as we would have done unto ourselves. So, given Kushner’s three take-aways from the story of Job, we are then forced to either have a God that is just and fair or an all powerful God who is not totally good as he allows those who are good, as in Job, to suffer extraordinary injury, pain and harm.
Pointless suffering, suffering as punishment, whether for a supposed known or unknown cause or purpose is hard to bear. And it is very hard to accept hypothetical solutions or purported reasonings without any understanding and clarity.
“If we have grown up, as Job and his friends did, believing in an all-wise, all-powerful, all-knowing God, it will be hard for us, as it was hard for them, to change our way of thinking about Him. But if we can bring ourselves to acknowledge that there are some things God doesn’t control, many good things are possible…”
God wants the righteous and just to prevail but he cannot be all things to all people, every where at once. God is limited in what He can do by the laws of nature and the power of human choice, free will.
But could man without God do it better?
Once we surrender to this idea…
We will be able to turn to God to help us with all of life- the good and the bad… We can maintain self-respect and a sense of our goodness without having to feel that God has judged and condemned us. We can be angry at our situation without then having to be angry at God. We can share the sense of injustice and too our compassion with God. After all it is God who teaches us to work towards bring peace and compassion to those that suffer unfairness and injustice. We will be on God’s side, as He is on our’s.
“I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted purpose. God does not cause our misfortunes, some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.
The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they, in any part, some grand design on God’s part. Because the tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes. We can turn to Him for help in overcoming it”
Kushner concludes with this call (to our faith and the strength and meaning we can find in life’s challenging events)…
“To forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a perfect world, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.”
There may be a sense of loss at coming to terms with this conclusion. In a way, it was comforting to believe in an all-wise, all-powerful God who guaranteed fair treatment and happy endings, who assured us that everything happened for a reason, even as life was easier for us when we could believe that our parents were wise enough to know what to do and strong enough to make everything turn our right. But it was comforting the way the religion of Job’s friends was comforting: it worked as long as we did not take the problems of innocent victims seriously as long as we ourselves had not experienced some devastating, tragic life event.
From that perspective, there ought to be a sense of relief in coming to the conclusion that God is not doing this to us. If God is a God of justice and not of power, then He can still be on our side when bad things happen to us….
Our misfortunes are none of His doing, and so we can turn to Him for help. Our question will not be Job’s question, “God, what are you doing this to me?” but rather, “God, see what is happening to me? Can you help me ?” We will turn to God, not to be judged or forgiven, not to be rewarded or punished, but to be strengthened and comforted.