Question: Death is the inevitable for all of us. How does God choose who suffers and who dies quickly? So many kind, wonderful, loving people suffer agonizing deaths, while others not so kind and wonderful don't suffer at all. Why must good people suffer? — G., Lynbrook, N.Y., via email@example.com
Answer: For people of faith, why the righteous suffer is the most difficult question of all. Atheists offer up the same question as "proof" against the existence of God.
Although I'm deeply troubled by suffering, I've never been as troubled by this question as many people are. In fact those who find this question a stumbling block to faith perplex me. The presumption is that God rewards the good we do and the faith we have with health, wealth and happiness — and in ways that prevent the righteous from ever suffering.
In my understanding of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, this was never God's promise. God promises us an accompanied life, a beloved life, a blessed life, and a hopeful life, but not a life unbuffeted by loss and sorrow. God is always with us through our sufferings to give us courage and hope.
After death, God promises to welcome our souls into a realm closer to God than anything we can know in this life. This promise does not include paying us off for our goodness. Virtue is not a bribe or an insurance policy against suffering.
When angry or despairing people come to me with this question, I ask them to show me their warranty. They ask, "What warranty?" I answer, "You know, the warranty God gave you when you were born that nothing bad would ever happen to you. Because if God never gave you such a warranty on your life, you have no reason to blame God for your suffering."
I was never given such a warranty yet I love the God who made me, and the God who is with me through my suffering, and the God who will someday kiss me on the lips and take my breath away. My God is a soul guard, not a body guard.
My idea of life is like this poem by Barbara Crooker: "For we are here not merely to bloom in the light, but rather, like trees, to be weathered: burned by heat, frozen by snow, and though our hearts have been broken, still, we put out new leaves in spring, begin again."
My faith in God's blessings is like this poem by Lucille Gripp Maharry: "Your blessings, Lord, are greater than the sum of our burdens. They calm our spirits through the darkest night, the deepest sorrow, the sweeping winds of change. Your blessings bring the light, the joy, the peace which passes all understanding."
Another vexing problem with asking why the righteous suffer is that it can lead us to blaming God for the evil in the world, and away from taking responsibility for the evil in the world caused by what we do and what we allow.
Mother Teresa wrote: "When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed." She then goes on to paraphrase the famous passage in Matthew (25:40): "Jesus made it very clear. Whatever you do for the least of my brethren, you do it for me. Give a glass of water, you give it to me. Receive a little child, you receive me."
The soaring and profoundly true point she makes is that goodness is not for our reward. Goodness is for others and for God. Our rewards are simply and profoundly contained completely in the goodness we do, not in the rewards we expect to receive.
In my tradition, Rabbi Ben Azzai taught thus truth with eloquent brevity: "The reward of a mitzvah (good deed) is the good deed and the punishment of a bad deed is the bad deed." The secular philosophy of Immanuel Kant taught the same truth about morality. It must be sufficient in and of itself. Virtue is not a bribe.
I urge you to meditate on the words of Mother Teresa: "The fruit of silence is prayer, the fruit of prayer is faith, the fruit of faith is love, the fruit of love is service, the fruit of service is peace." These fruits are enough for me. These fruits fuel my faith no matter what happens to me. These fruits are enough for me. I hope they will be enough for you.
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