The Meaning of Suffering

Many people reject religion based on the following rhetorical question:

if God is so good and all powerful why is there so much suffering?

The implication of this question is that if we have power to prevent pain we would if we are being good.

This, however, ignores the value of pain. Pain teaches us. It purifies us of our harmful behaviours. There is a health condition where people cannot feel pain. It is very rare and very dangerous, people with it usually die as children. Without pain we find it very hard to learn what harms us.

As a parent, I am happy that my child occasionally can and does feel pain; it prevents them getting injured or dying. Pain is how we are informed we are doing something wrong.

I can be a good parent allowing my children to feel pain so that they learn how to behave in ways that don’t harm them. I could intervene all the time, but then my children would never learn for themselves and that actually puts them at far greater risk.

God can be good and powerful if the suffering that He allows people to experience can lead them to becoming better people; if it causes them to lose their pride about their choice of actions and change.

Suffering has the meaning that pain is allowed to happen. It implies that pain happens without an intervention to prevent it. It implies consent to the pain.

If someone causes pain in someone else, then, legally speaking, if they suffer that pain, they have consented to it by their inaction. This can be interpreted as someone not demanding compensation for their losses.

The problem of the meaning of suffering in the world is therefore also a question about what consequences suffering has. To cause meaningless suffering is the worst injustice. It is injustice itself.

Christianity abandoned justice as a rational basis for beliefs when it embraced ideas of exclusive salvation and original sin, declaring that unbaptised babies are destined for an eternity of punishment.

Hinduism and Buddhism did so too by claiming that suffering in this life is punishment for a past life people know nothing about. This also allows gross injustice in this world with one cast oppressing another, by claiming their dominant status as a birth right.

In both these religions, the issue of suffering and the hierarchies it creates resulted in monasticism in which suffering somehow becomes elevated as a virtue.

Suffering without compensation, or causing others to suffer without reason, is the essence of injustice.

If there is any moral imperative, then it is that justice must be done. There must be consequences to our actions. This demand for justice is at the core of all religious rationale.

The virtue of belief is to believe in the good that can be achieved in your life and the good, therefore, that can be achieved in all existence. At the centre of that good is the need for justice to be done.

On the opposite side are those who assert that no one will be held to account for their lives and so teach, as a consequence, their dogma: “do whatever you like, just don’t get caught; If you have the power to get away with your crimes, then you will.”

If we see life as ending at death, then people can escape justice. Purpose and justice, therefore, can only exist if after death everyone experiences the consequences of their lives. This is Judgement Day, and the judge, then, that gives perfect consequence to every act, is necessarily omniscient and omnipotent. There are many names for that Judge, in English we know Him to be God.

Life is a test. We live and we learn through the pain and the joy. We cannot criticise the injustice of suffering in the world if we don’t recognise the lessons it has for us. Only our wilful blindness to those lessons makes us too proud to take them on and change ourselves.

We cannot claim there is any injustice when we punch a fist into solid rock and it hurts. If we choose, out of arrogance, to blame the one who makes the rock hard, we are wrong, we have no one else to blame but ourselves.