I think every person of faith has struggled with the issue of suffering. Why do we suffer? Why must we suffer? What good is served by suffering? If you are not currently suffering, if your life is going well and everything is coming up roses, it can seem very condescending to assure others that suffering is meaningful and being patient will be rewarded. It is even harder when your loved one is in pain, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. What parent can stand by at ease when a child is dying of cancer, or when an elderly parent is collapsing under the weight of age and ill health? It’s not easy to understand, and not easy to communicate to others why suffering takes place in this world.
As a Muslim, I see suffering as a necessary consequence of living in a world that exists according to certain physical laws, laws with which Allah created and sustains the universe. Driving a car off a cliff results in gravity pulling the vehicle inexorably towards the ground; a knife blade clumsily handled results in a cut; exposure to hazardous environmental chemicals results in disease. Because we are subject to the laws of gravity, the laws that govern our inability to breathe under water, the laws that cause our bodies to break down over time, we must undergo suffering as part of the natural processes of life.
We cannot stop the pain; our ability to transcend the pain is what makes us human and gives us the opportunity to earn grace and a high status in the world to come. So how we react to the pain, whether we shake our fist at Allah or submit to His will, determines whether the suffering was purifying or futile.
I have tried in different ways to explain this difficult concept to people. An atheist would simply snort in derision at the idea of a next life; a person who believes would struggle and try to understand. My words are often clumsy because my suffering is not someone else’s suffering and I cannot possibly know the depth of another person’s pain, but I do believe what I say so I hope my sincerity comes across.
Last night I was up late reading a novel when I came across a passage which explains the concept of free will and suffering in a very concise manner, and I wanted to share it with you here. The passage is from a book titled “Death of an Adept”, by Katherine Kurtz. The main character is talking to the love of his life, whose father is dying from a particularly painful strain of bone cancer that has spread throughout his body. She is amazed that he has held on so long, and dismayed that his pain cannot be sufficiently ameliorated. She asks the universal question: why? and her beloved, who happens to be a psychiatrist and a member of a secret order that fights evil, answers her thusly:
“You’re hardly the first to ask such questions, and you certainly won’t be the last. I pondered the problem long and hard myself when my own father passed away.”
“And what conclusions, if any, did you come to?”
To answer obliquely, Adam realized, would be tantamount to condescension. Nothing less than total honesty would do.
“Let me see if I can articulate this without sounding like a psychiatrist,” he said. “First of all, I’ve come to understand that suffering is not to be seen as Divine retribution for some past unatoned sin. On the contrary, it’s simply one of the dangers inherent in being the mortal creatures that we are. Human beings appear to be unique amid the whole of creation, for having both a spiritual and a physical aspect to their existence,” he went on. “As physical creatures, we’re subject to the same natural laws that govern the rest of material creation. Nothing stands still in the material word; everything is caught up in a complex pattern of cause and effect. If these overlapping patterns of change now and then give rise to some destructive natural event in our vicinity – say, and earthquake, or an accident, or the encroachment of some deadly disease – we’re compelled by our physical nature to suffer the consequences.”
“I understand that much,” Ximena said. “What I don’t understand is, if God is as loving and benevolent as Scripture claims, why doesn’t this God intervene and stop us from becoming victims of these natural disasters?”
“Because such intervention would violate the conditions that enable man to operate according to his own free will.”
“How does that follow?” she asked.
“A fair enough questions. One of the proofs that we have a spiritual, as well as a physical, side to our makeup is our ability to override natural instincts to control our own behavior. In other words, we are free to make conscious, evaluative choices regarding what we do and how we do it. In order for us to exercise that freedom of choice, however, the surrounding world in which we operate has got to be coherent and consistent. Do away with these governing principles, and you’re left with nothing but chaos – a chaos as devoid of meaning as it is of morality.”
“You’re saying that God can’t set aside His own law?” she asked.
“Of course He can,” Adam replied, “since, by definition, God is omnipotent. But He doesn’t; nor should He. If God were to suspend every process that might have destructive consequences, the effect would be to undo creation itself. A world governed by natural laws, therefore, is the only world possible. If, in the process, the physical body falls victim to the operation of those natural laws, that is the price we pay for spiritual immortality – the voluntary ability to seek and find union with God.”
“I suppose this is meant to give me comfort,” Ximena said miserably.
“It is,” he replied softly. “Because this much is also true: that when the physical body fails, God is on hand to guide the spirit home.”
She gazed at him fro a long moment, then said softly, “You really believe that, don’t you?”
“I know it,” he corrected.
As a Muslim, I might argue some details, but the gist of what Kurtz wrote is true; we live in a world ruled by natural laws, and we and our fellow human beings have free will. We can fall afoul of a natural disaster like a flood, or a disease such as cancer, or we can be victimized by someone to used his free will to choose to do evil. The agent of our suffering is less important than the way we respond to it. A person of faith acknowledges the pain and feels the suffering but also understands that this world is just a temporary abode, a test for us and a furnace whose annealing fire purifies us so we can enter the “real” world of Jannah, Paradise, where every pain will be forgotten and every ill will disappear.
Our tests are ugly and messy. We don’t get to walk through a wall of fire or wrestle with angels. A woman suffers a miscarriage; a family deals with the everyday challenges of raising an autistic child; a mother learns how to catheterize her child with spina bifida; a father of two girls dies in a drive-by; a man takes care of his elderly father whose senility makes him confused and impatient. These happenings are part and parcel of living in this world and as “Adam” stated above, they are a necessary consequence of living in a universe of natural laws. When you are tested, be sure that you do have the ability to transcend your test – not always in this world, because people don’t always recover from cancer, and shooting victims die, and children succumb to SIDS, and the drought doesn’t break or the flood continues to rage. But if you believe, truly believe, that there is something after this world, a beautiful place free of strife and striving, you can learn the patience of true tranquility and be able to bear the pain, not with indifference, not with an unrealistic happy go luck approach, but with the patience born of faith that says death is only a transition and every apparent wrong will be set right. Your pain is real, but the relief is real, and Allah is just and will never leave you lost if you are seeking Him.