All of the world’s great religions teach that suffering is a constant and major challenge to faith. The Buddha put it strikingly: human existence in the world is suffering. And faith should offer a way out of it.
For some, the way out begins with an explanation for why people suffer. But some explanations can make suffering even worse, and block from the start any hope of getting beyond it.
Consider this explanation: suffering is a necessary part of a sacred order according to which human misdeeds must be atoned for. The suffering is part of the atoning.
Supposedly, the harshness of this view can be offset by trusting that each person’s suffering is precisely and fairly proportioned to the actions which make it necessary. Experience, however, teaches otherwise.
Just as it calls into question the rightness of the belief that it is not only one’s own actions for which suffering atones. Sometimes the atoning has to be for others’ actions as well. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” (Ezekiel 18:2) But is this what a truly divine being would, or even could, decree?
Perhaps the single greatest difficulty with believing suffering to be the deserved punishment for wrongdoing is its assumptions about what or who is arranging things this way. For a major tradition in ancient Hinduism, the ordering principle is an implacable and impersonal system of unchangeable laws. For Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it is the unchangeable will of God.
These two ways of thinking may not be all that different. Many theistic believers talk of the laws of God as if they were something that bind God as much as they do everything else. As in the doctrine of Jesus’ atonement for the world’s sins: there is no room in it for grace and mercy. There is only a price to be paid for human wrongdoing that not even God can cancel.
The best response to suffering that faith has to offer is not one which focuses on the uses that the Sacred makes of it. It is one which focuses on the comfort that the presence of the Sacred brings to the coping with it.
Suffering is universal, unequally distributed, and incapable of being relieved by explanations. In the midst of it, what people most need is compassion, human and divine.