This piece was written for Quest for the Ultimate, a religion course. The assignment was to examine Kushner’s understanding and arguments to human suffering.
When faced with suffering, the initial reaction of people is typically the ask the question “Why me?” or “How could God do this to me?” To understand suffering, Kushner argues that we need to change our understanding of religion, of God, and of prayer. We struggle with theodicy and the justification of God when faced with suffering and evil in a world that he created out of love; if God is all knowing, all loving, and all powerful, how could He let the innocent to suffer?
According to Kushner, one way in which people make sense of the sufferings in their lives is by assuming responsibility, and seeing their misfortunes is God punishing them for their sins. We as humans cannot not understand or accept that which does not make sense to us, so by assuming responsibility for injustices in the world, we are able to continue to believe that God is righteous and would not give us that which we do not deserve; “by believing that, we keep the world orderly and understandable.” The fault in this way of thinking is that it teaches people to be self-deprecating, to blame themselves, and offers a quick fix for a big philosophical problem. Kushner says, “We would have to say that a righteous person was anyone who lives long and well, whether or not he was honest and charitable, and a wicked person was anyone who suffered, even if that person’s life was otherwise commendable.” He argues that there would inevitably be more moral problems if “nice people” were except from pain and suffering.
When we suffer, we have a tendency to look for meaning in it, and when we cannot find it, we say that it is all in God’s plan, or that it happens for a reason. In this way of thinking, we accept that we are all somehow weaved into an extravagant, ultimate plan that only God can see. Kushner explains that it is impossible to understand an all-loving God who would cause such tragedies, and cannot fathom condoning human suffering to promote a hypothetical greater plan.
The next reason that people have for understanding suffering is that it is God testing us, or teaching us a lesson. At this point, Kushner argues that the reasoning has completely separated from the suffering, and is meant primarily to defend God as all loving, righteous, and just. He uses the example of mentally disabled children created so that those around them will learn compassion and gratitude. He argues that someone else’s life should not be distorted “in order to enhance my spiritual sensitivity.” Kushner refers his readers to the Book of Genesis, in which God ordered Abraham to offer up his son to Him as a sacrifice; he addresses the end of the passage, which says, “It came to pass after all these matters that the Lord tested Abraham.” In this case, many people say that God knows how it will end, and knows that Abraham would pass the test with his faith intact. By these means, it is not for God, but for our sake that we suffer; this is to say that we are put to the test so that we will realize our strength. Kushner then refers his readers to The Talmud, which explains that “God sends such tests and afflictions only to people He knows are capable of handling them, so that they and others can learn the extent of their spiritual strength.” This logic is to say that we are never given more than we can handle, and that God allows our suffering because He knows we are strong enough for it. Kushner argues that he has seen, first hand, how suffering can either bring people closer to God, or devastate lives; he argues that God would not test us if He knew how many people “fail the test.”
When all else fails, people look to find explanation in the promise of renewal in an afterlife. Kushner says, “Some people try to explain suffering by believing that it comes to liberate us from a world of pain and lead us to a better place.” When we suffer, for example when we suffer the loss of a child, we try to comfort one another by promising each other that it is a time to rejoice rather than mourn, because they are in a better place without pain. In this way, we try to deny ourselves of grieving, and try to convince one another that what happened was not actually bad. Kushner says, “Our souls yearn for justice, because we so desperately want to believe that God will be fair to us, we fasten our hopes on the idea that life in this world is not the only reality.” Kushner believes that there is a part of ourselves, other than our physical beings, which we call our soul, that will never die; but again, it is a hypothetical solution to a very real philosophical problem.
Kushner argues that all of the typical reasons people have for suffering share the assumption that God is the cause and infliction of our suffering. The search for meaning in suffering may bring peace to some, but insanity to others searching for answers where there may be none. Suffering can be circumstantial, due to natural law, or unjust use of human freedom; for God to intervene would strip us of what makes us human. Rather than focus on the answer to suffering, Kushner urges us to focus on the response. He refers his readers to Psalm 12: 1-2 which says “I life mine eyes to the hills; from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, maker of Heaven and earth.” He addresses that the passage does not say, “My pain comes from the Lord,” rather is says, “My help comes from the Lord.” God does not cause our pain, nor can he stop it; what He can do is give us strength and courage, through prayer, to overcome our suffering and continue living. Kushner argues that we were never promised a life free from pain and disappointment, only that we would not be alone in our suffering.