Why Does Suffering Exist, and How Does our Understanding of Suffering Translate into Our Culture?
The desire to avoid suffering is probably one of the most common of the common denominators that connect all of humanity. Most religions, philosophies, and healing practices offer theories that identify the causes and ways out of suffering. Even within one tradition, there can be a grab-bag of explanations that sometimes contradict each other. The truth is surely a complex mix, and we use what is most helpful at the time.
Some explanations comfort us but leave us unaccountable. Some challenge us to fight the forces of darkness but engender fear. Some make us wholly responsible, which is both empowering and guilt inducing and has a side effect of making compassion toward others optional. Then there’s the whole angle of suffering being good for us, leaving us to embrace it and learn from it, but risking that we will become proud of it.
This moving target science takes on even more dimensions when we start attempting to explain suffering in others around us. In our ever-attempt to avoid suffering, we so often give advice like a Trojan horse, wrapped as a gift of compassion, yet containing a seed of judgment that reassures us that we know better than to fall into the same trap. We find ways to explain the suffering of others that release us from our own fears and painful compassion.
Sometimes we just embrace ideas that have an unintended flip side. The idea that we get “blessings” for obedience sounds nice until that same logic suggests that when things are going wrong, those blessings have been withdrawn because of lack of obedience. This can cause people to judge themselves and others rather harshly.
The “Who Dun It” of Suffering
Here is how I catalog all these philosophies of suffering floating around.
GOD (Good News: Good will come of it. Bad News: You can pass the blame)
“God’s Test” – God is testing you to see if you’ll stay the course/remain faithful.
“Refiner’s Fire” – God is working on your ego, making you stronger, or teaching you lessons.
“Contrast” – We need bad stuff to clarify that we choose good. It’s set up that way.
“Permissive Will” – God allows bad things to happen to jolt us out of spiritual complacency.
SATAN (Good News: Righteous anger is energizing. Bad News: Fear is draining.)
“Opposition” – You’re probably on the right path if he’s fighting you so hard.
“Evil” – He’s just a trouble maker.
YOURSELF (Good News: You can change it. Bad News: Potentially less compassion for self, others.)
“Karma” – What goes around comes around energetically.
“Lack of Support of Nature” — You’re not living within the laws of nature.
“Negative Thinking” – Law of Attraction says you brought it on yourself.
“Lack of Wisdom” – Knowledge traditions claim to reduce subjective suffering.
“Unreleased Trauma” – You’re not dealing with your psychological issues.
“Victim Posturing” – You have a bad habit of bringing stuff on yourself.
“Attachment” – If you weren’t attached to it being otherwise, it wouldn’t bother you.
“God’s Punishment” – A tough-love God is teaching you a lesson for something you did.
“God withdrawing blessings” – You’re not living in God’s Will or doing good works.
“Natural Consequences” – Too many cookies, a diabetic makes.
OTHER PEOPLE (Good News: Simple compassion. Bad News: No silver lining or deep purpose to comfort us..)
“Generational Sin” – Grandpa ate too many cookies.
“Fall of Adam” – Some say he didn’t need to fall and we’re still paying for it.
“Other People’s Free Agency” – It wasn’t in God’s plan that you got mugged.
“Random Chaos” – Stuff just happens.
Questions for You
Because I’ve been a “spiritual gypsie”, spending time in many different religious groups, I’ve noticed how group philosophies of suffering can translate into cultures of compassion, judgment, fear, or pride around suffering.
- What are your observations of the Mormon culture with regard to suffering?
- Do you think the “persecution as evidence of rightness” thinking still effects Mormon culture today?
- Have you experienced the down-side of “blessings as a result of good behavior” philosophy? (People snub you when you’re having a hard time because you must not be doing enough good works if you’re not receiving blessings.)
- Or do you think the Mormon emphasis on service yields a mostly compassionate culture?
- Do you think the notion of being rewarded in Heaven for our suffering is just a way for people to comfort themselves and endure, or is it a reality? Should people seek out suffering in order to please God?
- Regardless of the cause, can suffering be good for us? Is the “reward” what we learn from the process? What are your experiences with this?
- Why do you think suffering happens?