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Over a lifetime, I’ve met lots of people who wonder why G-d “lets us suffer.” Or why G-d lets perfectly innocent people, especially children, die from catastrophic illnesses. Or why G-d lets bad things happen to good people.
I think these people are asking the wrong questions, and they are looking for help to come from the wrong source. I’ve also heard the comment that G-d doesn’t give us more than we can handle, and I think this belief doesn’t frame people’s struggles in a way that helps and empowers them, or strengthens their relationship with G-d.
I was inspired to think over these kinds of issues in reading a piece this weekend written by the late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, where he discusses how Joseph was able to reconcile with his brothers, where instead he could have felt bitter and rejected by how they had treated him. Rabbi Sacks suggests that a factor for Joseph might have been his reframing his situation, realizing that G-d had a role that He wanted Joseph to play. I would also add from my own perspective that although many things happened to Joseph that he couldn’t control, he also had free will to make many constructive choices, which is the very special gift that we are all blessed with.
He also wrote about Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy. Frankl survived the concentration camps, and probably saved many lives through his own philosophy:
We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.*
The problem for many of us is that G-d wants us to know that we have free will, but we don’t pay attention to his message. Instead, when our lives are difficult, we prefer to blame someone or something for our circumstances. We find ourselves complaining, claiming victimhood, and we choose to be miserable instead of embracing our lives, just as they are. I certainly have found myself taking the “blame course.” I thought of some examples of victimhood in the last few days, and I want to share them with you.
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For some reason, I was reminded of two people with whom I was not well-acquainted, but who participated in two different Zen Centers where I was a member. One of them was suffering from a debilitating condition that caused her constant pain. The other person was devastated when he realized that the woman he loved didn’t return his love. Both of these people committed suicide. Now I realize that choosing to take one’s own life is a complicated decision. But in these circumstances, the people who committed suicide must have felt that they had no other option. They were overwhelmed by their situations and didn’t realize that they had other choices. And in their decisions, of course, they likely traumatized others. Also, Zen Buddhism has many positive beliefs, but a connection with G-d is not one of them. I suspect that the very thought of being empowered by free will as a gift from G-d didn’t enter their picture.
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The reason I am perplexed by the statement, “G-d doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” is that I am skeptical about whether some of our suffering and burdens are “given by G-d,” and that He decides just how much adversity we can handle. Life provides many challenges that I believe are part of being alive, and I think G-d can offer us consolation, strength, even encouragement to deal with our struggles, but ultimately, He counts on us to take care of our burdens as best we can. Part of our decisions have to do with how we frame our struggles, how we choose to understand them in our lives, and how we decide to act.
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Recently I came to realize that as a hospice volunteer who contacts people who are suffering from the loss of a loved one, my phone calls have taken on a whole new meaning. First, I don’t just call these folks; more and more I am connecting with them. They are confiding in me more often. They are sharing stories. We even laugh together (always initiated by them). And I realized that I am experiencing my time with them in a way that is new, intimate, and vibrant. Besides my own maturing, what has changed?
I think that the barrier I was erecting to protect my own psyche is slowly diminishing. Also, I’ve had a number of health challenges, and although my suffering is tiny compared to theirs, it has nurtured my ability to empathize with them.
So I have grown past the point of just making sure I say the right things, although I try to be fully present to each call and the words I choose. But I am less self-conscious. And as we talk, my gratitude for them in helping me through my own challenges only deepens the time we have together. Strangely enough, I am also learning more about dealing with my own struggles.
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So, when G-d is trying to remind me that I am empowered to look at my situations with fresh eyes, I try to pay close attention. I try not to interrupt his message to me. And I will continue to do my best to reframe my challenges as moments when I can learn and grow. My hope is that not only will my own life be more satisfying and peaceful, but I will continue to have peace and empathy to offer those around me.
If your views on these topics differ from mine, I hope you will share them. I’m still learning!
*from Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for MeaningPublished in Religion & Philosophy
I understand. Though I do have a question about your not believing that we are all sinners.
Have you ever known anyone who is not a sinner?
Yeah, I know what you mean, Hank. I didn’t find any argument compelling, before I came to faith. I don’t think that one can argue someone into faith. There is a consistent rationality to it, I have found, but you have to accept the premises on faith.
I understand why we like to think of babies as innocent. They sure don’t seem to have the capacity for rational thought. On the other hand, having raised four kids, I do recall that babies are the most selfish beings on the planet, aren’t they? Well, maybe toddlers are worse, though that might just be a result of their greater mobility.
Children are barbarians. (I got this line from Jonah Goldberg, who got it from someone else, I think.)
On the question of eternal damnation — how would you expect a just, merciful, and loving God to react to an unrepentant evildoer?
Gosh, Jerry, I don’t know. I don’t ask everyone I know about their sins. And frankly, their sins are between them and G-d. Unless they have done a terrible sin against me. The guy who guys 5 mph over the speedlimit, or tells a white lie when his wife asks him how he likes her new (awful) hairdo just doesn’t matter to me.
Well, you’re the one who doesn’t believe in original sin. You’ve had a lot of time on this planet to observe people. Have you ever seen anyone perfect? Are you? Is your husband?
I’ve never met anyone perfect. I know that I’m not.
What if you asked someone? Say you were talking to someone, and the issue came up, and the person told you that they’d never done anything wrong in their entire life. What would you think?
You’d probably think that they were lying, or self-deluded. Wouldn’t you?
It seems to me that it’s an important issue.
I’ve never known a single person who is perfect (as far as I know). But that doesn’t mean he or she is a sinner. The two are entirely different. I certainly am not even close to perfect: at times I eat too much; I do less exercise than I’d planned to do at the gym; I forget to complete an errand; I put the whites in with the colored clothes. (Oops–that’s a lie. My husband does the laundry, and does it pretty close to perfectly.)
I don’t think I want perfect people in my life. How boring! I appreciate people who are flawed (not sinful) because we recognize that we are in the same boat on this planet.
I don’t think a person alive (that I would be acquainted with) would say they never did anything wrong. But is that the same as making an unintentional error? When I write a post or comments with typos (and I seem to be doing more of that lately), is that a sin? Am I a sinful person because I didn’t proof my work more carefully?
To me sinfulness is serious business. But I’m not a sinner unless I’ve sinned.
I’m pretty sure everyone – every single person in the modern world – believes in things they cannot see. Radio signals? Network packets? Viruses? One’s opinion on some matter? Consciousness itself? Etc. Etc. ad nauseum. We are quite literally immersed in, and surrounded by, unseen things which we all accept as existent as a matter of course.
The fact that skeptics are reluctant to ascribe things to God is an artifact, in many cases, of their a priori assumptions about the nature of the universe (e.g. it is exclusively material and mechanistic) Their skepticism is not, on such a basis, inherently more rational.
Yes, we Catholics try to focus on pleasing God, but a little fear of hell is probably a good and moderating thing.
Since I mentioned it and for those who are curious, here is one definition of Purgatory in Judaism:
This is a terrific, thought-provoking thread, and I appreciate the thoughtful responses to my comment. I think we need more, not fewer, people of faith, and I’ll resist the temptation to engage in any kind of debate that would necessarily have me defending the side (i.e., of rational materialism) that I wish to see lose in the public arena. Best to all!
Thanks, Hank. High praise from you. And you did your part!
I too have found that statement that G-d doesn’t give you more than you can handle to be lacking. Obviously there are situations that break or cause the death of people. Think about the poor murder victims in Idaho. The saying is a variation from a New Testament verse, 1 Cor 10:13.
Now there are other translations that substitute “temptation” with “trial” which would be much closer to the folk saying. I’m not an expert in the original NT Greek to know which is more accurate. But if it’s “temptation” then one could understand the verse. Anyone strong in their faith should be able to withstand any temptation.
And even if the more accurate translation is trial, it still makes sense if you project the outcome of the situation into the next life. If you are given a trial beyond your earthly capacity, if you don’t give up hope and keep faith in G-d, then salvation will certainly solve the problem, or make it insignificant.
Personally I would not tell anyone “G-d will only give you problems you can handle.” I don’t think it’s manifestly true unless you both have the understanding of the next life.
I think I agree with you here. Throughout history many people have presented lots of different descriptions regarding God’s nature and how God interacts with human beings. But given the cognitive limitations of human beings, how would we go about determining which claims about God are accurate and which are inaccurate?
If someone says to you, “God spoke to me yesterday and told me to volunteer at the battered women’s shelter,” you might believe this because volunteering at a battered women’s shelter seems like something that God, a morally perfect being, would recommend to someone.
However, if someone says, “God told me to blow up a school bus full of children,” you would think that person is nuts, not someone who has received a message from God. Why? Because you think that blowing up a school bus full of children is immoral and you don’t think God would ever issue an immoral command.
I think that all human beings are sinners, if common human behaviors can fairly be called sins. For example, if being selfish is a sin, I dare say all human beings have sinned.
But that’s a separate question as to why a morally perfect being would respond to the sin of selfishness with torturing someone for eternity. I realize that not all Christians believe that God does this.
It’s one thing to believe in a God that is kind to people. It’s quite another to believe in a God that has the morals of a tin pot dictator.
I say choose your God carefully because that is who you will end up being like. If you choose an evil God to worship, you will end up being evil. If you choose a good God, you will end up doing good.
I’m not going to comment on why G-d allows suffering. I’ve got thoughts but I’ve not yet been able to crystalize them into a comprehensive thought. Leaving that aside, let me comment on free will which is another very tricky subject. How much is free will and how much is G-d’s Providence, which I’ll define here as G-d’s will to determine outcomes. Now there are Protestant denominations (Lutheran, Calvin) that originally believed in G-d’s total Providence, so much as to claim everything is pre-ordained. Then you had other Protestant denominations that believed in free will; Baptists, Armenians. Why the disparity?
Let’s look at Exodus story. While Moses is pleading to let his people go, Pharaoh hardens his heart several times. Then there is a key moment;
Ex 9:12. All of a sudden it was no longer a free choice but one imposed by G-d. The Bible has a number of places where G-d’s Providence shaped the events. Now think about this from the Egyptian soldier’s point of view. He is ordered to race after the escaping Israelites and when the waters are parted and then collapse, he goes to his death. Yes he had free will to obey Pharaoh’s orders, but at the root of what happened was G-d intruding to make a decision for Pharaoh, and the collapse of the parted waters was under G-d’s will.
So how much was free will and how much was G-d’s Providence? Even if we look at our personal lives we can’t disambiguate what was purely a decision from free will, what was Divine Providence, what was by the effects of free will of others, and what was effected by events of G-d’s will.
Over the centuries, the common notion of pure free will won out. Pre-destination would make us puppets of a Divine game. Plus I think the Enlightenment notion of deism has led to the common notion of G-d’s absence, making everything free will.
Now the Catholic position is actually not absolutist. It is both, free will and Divine Providence working together. Yes, we make decisions out of free will, especially decisions where our salvation is at issue, but there are decisions G-d may make for us to shape His Divine plan. I was always one who strongly supported the idea of free will but I could never resolve the deism that comes out of that. There was a big dispute in the 17th century between the Dominicans, who supported strong Divine Providence, and the Jesuits who supported strong free will. The Church came down on the undiscernible interaction between the two, and that only G-d from His standpoint knows. That altered my conception of the issue.
Yep, great post from Western Chauvinist as usual.
Add to the list of things we don`t see and can´t really even define and yet deal with constantly time and space. Really, spacetime, I should say. Bring me a bucket of spacetime and we´ll measure it for its spacetimeyness, maybe find out what colour it is …etc.
In any case, good post, Susan. thanks.
It gets interesting when the Hindus argue that there are hundreds of gods. How do we determine which unseen, unhead, untouched entities are real and which are unreal? That, I think, is the question that all of us grapple with.
Good example, Hartmann. Thanks.