Philosophers much older and wiser than I have wrestled with the thorny question of life's meaning, and risen from the mat covered with scratches and welts, but still without answers. The questions regarding life's meaning plague mankind at times. During times of prosperity and success, culture and man's conscious is understandably silent on the issue. There is no reason to struggle with the weighty matters of my purpose on this planet when my bank account is filled, and my family is healthy, and I can generally attain those things I want in my pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But often, society's prosperity gives birth to trouble. The economic prosperity of the 60's and 70's brought an increase in pollution, and families unexpectedly had to adjust to polluted groundwater, smog, and a general increase in pollution diseases.
These changed in our lives do not always come from our own actions. September 11, 2001 brought national suffering because one clan of people was jealous of our country's success and prosperity. The terrorist tribes of the Middle East believe that they can only rise to power by destroying the economic success which this country enjoys. The suffering introduced to our shores, and our friends by the hands of others is a catalyst for deep soul searching. Just why is mankind on this planet?
If it is to build great societies and monuments to self, we have achieved these goals numerous times. If the purpose of life is to amass great wealth, then the happiest and most peaceful people should be those with the largest bank accounts. But time after time, wealthy individuals pass from this life in miserable loneliness, regretting the time they spent building their own kingdom and wishing they had spent their time and fortunes on someone other than themselves. There are no u-hauls traveling in a funeral procession on the way to the cemetery.
Into this pool, writers have plunged in attempts to identify the meaning of life. Like a scuba diver swimming through a murky swamp, the answers are not clear as the difficult issue of suffering continues to wrap itself around life, and our attempts to find meaning in our existence. However, before attempting to identify the meaning of suffering, the meaning of life must be addressed. If the meaning of life is to eat, drink, and be merry, then suffering has no purpose. It is a speed bump to be endured on the way to better times. If there is a dimension to life beyond what we see, touch, and feel, then suffering may be the Divine's way of putting us in touch with that dimension in order to ultimately benefit our time on this world, and motivate us to turn our attention away from narcissistic pursuits.
The "Why" of Life
As a Jew, Rabbi Harold Kushner's heritage is filled with the problem of suffering. Throughout modern and ancient history, the Jewish race has been pursued with the purpose of extinction no less than 3 times, not including the current undeclared war against them. From Pharaoh's Egypt to the Nazi concentration camps, the Jewish people have reason to become entangled in the thorny issue of unjust suffering. If God's purpose for our life is to live a happy, comfortable and thereby fulfilled life, as a group the Jews have reason to doubt the existence of any God. But the Jewish people have a deeper understanding of the purpose of their lives. Live is not lived only on this island planet in the center of the cosmos. There is a Creator of the cosmos who desires a relationship with his creation. There is a God who guides our lives, not with the purpose of pleasure, but fulfillment. And this purpose can include suffering and trouble in order to teach us more important lessons than happiness and prosperity.
Rabbi Kushner wrote from personal experience after experiencing the death of his 14-year-old son. During this time, questions such as "Why do we have to suffer? Why do Bad things happen? Why Me?" consumed his life. These questions surface during difficult times, and are meant to challenge our faith. It is what happens in our heart and mind during these times that give meaning to the suffering. We turn to the same God who allowed the events to tumble into our lives to find comfort when se come to the end of our own resources. Admitting that life is beyond the measure of our own abilities is one of the first reasons for difficulty and suffering.
If God's purpose for life was narcissistic pleasure, then when He allowed suffering to enter our life, He would be no better than an untrustable tyrant. If God's purpose for us was to eat, drink and be merry, then allowing, or even purposing trouble into our life would be for no other reason than his sadistic pleasure. Like the characters in Shakespeare's King Lear, Glouchester experiences suffering and expresses a pessimistic view of man's place in the universe.
As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods:
They kill up for their sport. (Act IV, I, 36-37)
Is it the divine's sport to make man suffer? If our belief regarding life is filled with accepting only good, and prosperity from the Divine's hands, then the problem of suffering is a problem, because it distorts our presupposition of God. Macbeth response to difficulties in life continued to support a common view that God is created for our purposes. Shakespeare declares:
life] is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Act V, v, 26-28)
Is God here for our purposes? Did we create him on our image, and then demand that he give us what we expect out of life. To believe this modern distortion of divinity is to accept Macbeth's declaration, because life will not follow the path we choose. Life will be filled with triumph, and tragedy. The purpose of which is to teach us more about the Meaning of life, and to change us into his image.
The "Why" of Suffering
Dr. James Dobson speaks to the purpose of suffering in his book "When God Doesn't Make Sense. Bad things do happen to people, both religious and non-religious. The Christian bible has much to say about suffering, but more importantly is what the bible says about where God is in the midst of the suffering and confusion. Kushner and Dobson agree that God doesn't pour difficulty into a person's life, and then step back to see what happens. The Divine is a creator of comfort in the midst of sorrow, a provider of grace and support when a person's own strength is gone. As Dobson says, it's virtually guaranteed that every Christian will, at one time or another in their life, experience a tragedy that is powerful enough to rock their faith to its core. It is in that time when we need to be assured of what exactly it is that we believe about God, His love, and His promises. God promises to be with us in the midst of pain, not to insulate our lives so that we are never touched by the same.
In the interaction between God and man, a purpose in suffering begins to take form. If man is the end of himself, then suffering has no meaning other than to punish him. But because there is a Divine influence to life, God has a purpose for our lives, and gives our life an ultimate meaning outside our ourselves. Suffering is one of the paths toward understanding him, his purpose, and our need for him. At the end of suffering, a person comes face-to-face with the limits of their own abilities. Pain is the path to blessing, not because pain brings some intrinsic good on its own. Pain is the path to blessing because it is meant to lead us to the One who is larger, more loving than ourselves who wants to bring blessing into our lives when we turn to Him.
Job in the Christian bible was a good and righteous man. He keeps the rules of his faith, and prayed regularly for his children who did not have the same depth of faith. Job's life had been blessed with health, wealth, property, children, and livestock. And according to the book, in one day all of his possessions and family were taken from him. Then, a few days later, he lost his health, and was left scraping his sores with broken pieces of pottery. At no time during Job's ordeal does God say to him that his is displeased with Job's life. The difficulty that comes to his door is not divine retribution for evil behavior. Job has 3 friends that attempt to convince him that his misfortune is the result of his own doing, but that is not the purpose of his suffering, of the message of the book.