Why Do We Suffer?

If there is a God, and he is all-powerful and all-loving, then why do we suffer?  Or as the Greek philosopher Epicurus said:  If God is willing to prevent evil but not able to, then he is not a very powerful God.  If he is able to prevent evil and not willing, then he is mean.  If he is both able and willing, then why is there so much evil and so much suffering.

Why do we suffer?

Renowned Biblical Scholar Bart Ehrman writes that one of the reasons he went from being a devout Christian to an agnostic was the practice of saying grace at dinner.  He began to feel that every time he sat down at his abundant American table and thanked God for his good fortune, it implied that he was somehow more deserving or worthy than the millions of starving humans around the world.  He could not stomach that God would find him deserving of such bounty and let others suffer such horrors.  He knew deep down that he was just as undeserving of his good fortune as a starving child in Africa is undeserving of his bad fortune.  He felt that by thanking God for his good fortune, he was admitting that others did not receive God’s good fortune, others then must receive God’s punishment.  That was the break down.  He could not believe in a God who gave him food and let children in other parts of the world die of starvation.  As a Biblical scholar, he explored the entire Bible in search of an answer for how this kind of suffering can occur, and he found all the answers in the Good Book very unsatisfying.  (Check out God’s Problem by Bart Ehrman for a full account).

If suffering is a form of punishment for sins, then most of us Americans should be starving while kids in Africa get our food.  If suffering is a form of redemptive practice—we need to suffer in order to need God and grow more holy—then how can we explain all the senseless suffering of children, or the Holocaust, where babies were literally pulled from their mothers arms and thrown into the fire.  If suffering comes because we have “free will,” as many modern thinkers propose, and therefore we are free to make mistakes which cause suffering and leads others to suffer, then how can we explain natural disasters.  Good people get swept away in hurricanes.

Or is suffering caused by the forces of evil battling the forces of good, as many Christian fundamentalists believe?  Therefore we just need to wait until the second coming for all our problems to be solved?  This is perhaps the least satisfying answer to our modern ears—it means life is almost completely out of our control—but this is the position most commonly espoused by Jesus and the New Testament.

Buddhism, in contrast, bases its entire system around the problem of suffering and the process for eliminating it.  The Buddha’s first sermon laid out the four noble truths, which in a very practical manner started with truth number one:  suffering.  There is suffering.  Everybody, from rich to poor, suffers.  Everybody faces sickness, old age, and eventually death.  The Buddha argues that this suffering is caused by (noble truth two) craving, or desire—wanting things to be different than they are.  We can eliminate this suffering (noble truth three) by eliminating craving or desire.  Give up wanting things to be different.  Give up wanting more good stuff and wanting the bad stuff to go away.

I still remember the very day I encountered these four noble truths because they resonated so strongly with me.  That said, I still struggle with how these truths of suffering come to terms with such horrors as genocide, the AIDS crisis, and starvation.  How can we tell a sick child to give up his craving for food?  Karma is used a lot in Buddhism to explain suffering.  We create our own suffering by building up karma from pervious actions, even actions from previous lives.  It makes perfect sense in many ways, but my stomach turns when karma is even mentioned in the context of the holocaust or the Aids crisis.

The final truth might be that much suffering is a mystery.  We all have examples of suffering that turned out to be life changing (a rejection or lay-off that led to a better opportunity, a battle with cancer that was transformative), but there’s also much suffering that is completely meaningless (famine).  Reading Ehrman’s book, God’s Problem, was very challenging for me because I really wanted some sort of clear explanation of why, if there is a God, He lets such horrible things happen to innocent people, especially children and innocent.

I had to give up and die to the idea that all my questions would be answered.

Why do you think we suffer?

Read more about the problem of suffering:  Suffering Revisited and The Question that Could Change Your Life.