God's Indifference?

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Religion and Spirituality  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is part 1 of the summary of rabbi Harold S. Kushner's book"When Bad Things Happen to Good People".

Submitted: May 25, 2012

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Submitted: May 25, 2012



God's Indifference?

Why Do the Righteous Suffer?

Why do we need God? More than anything else we need Him to explain and be accountable for human suffering. This is the theme of this discourse. One of the ways in which people have tried to make sense of the human suffering in every generation has been by assuming that we deserve what we get, that somehow our misfortunes come as a punishment for our sins. It is tempting at one level to believe that bad things happen to people (especially other people) because God is a righteous judge who gives them exactly what they deserve. By believing that, we keep the world orderly and understandable. We give people the best possible reason for being good and for avoiding sin. And by believing that, we can maintain an image of God as all loving, all powerful, and totally in control. Given the reality of human nature, given the fact that none of us is perfect and each of us can, without too much difficulty, think of things he has done which he should not have done, we can always find grounds for justifying what happens to us. But how comforting, how religiously adequate, is such an answer?

The idea that God gives people what they deserve, that our misdeeds cause our misfortune, is a neat and attractive solution to the problem of evil at several levels, but it has a number of serious limitations. As we have seen, it teaches people to blame themselves. It creates guilt even when there is no basis for guilt. It makes people hate God, even if it makes them hate themselves. And most disturbing of all, it does not even fit the facts.

The problem with a line of reasoning like this one is that it is not really meant to help the sufferer or to explain his suffering. It is meant primarily to defend God, to use words and ideas to transform bad into good and pain into privilege.Such answers are thought up by people who believe very strongly that God is a loving parent who controls what happens to us, and on the basis of that belief adjust and interpret the facts to fit their assumption.It may be true that surgeons stick knives into people to help them, but not everyone who sticks a knife into somebody else is a surgeon.It may be true that sometimes we have to do painful things to people we love for their benefit, but not every painful thing that happens to us is beneficial.

Belief in a world to come where the innocent are compensated for their suffering can help people endure the unfairness of life in this world without losing faith. But it can also be an excuse for not being troubled or outraged by injustice around us, and not using our “God-given” intelligence to try to do something about it. The dictate of practical wisdom for people in our situation might be to remain mindful of the possibility that our lives continue in some form after death, perhaps in a form our imaginations cannot conceive of. But at the same time, since we cannot know for sure, we would be well advised to take this world as seriously as we can, in case it turns out to be the only one we will ever have, and to look for meaning and justice here.

Making Sense of Human Suffering

To solve the riddle of God’s meddling in human affairs, let us consider three statements:

a.God is all-powerful and causes everything that happens in the world.

b.God is just and fair, and stands for people getting what they deserve, so that the good prosper and the wicked are punished.

c.The suffering person is innocent.

When a person suffers, we cannot make sense of all three propositions together. We can affirm any two by denying the third. If God is both just and powerful, then the suffering person must be a sinner who deserves what is happening to him. If the person is innocent but God causes his suffering anyway, then God is not just. If the sufferer deserved better and God did not send his suffering, then God is not all powerful.

Forced to choose between a good God who is not totally powerful, and a powerful God who is not totally good, it is better to choose to believe in God’s goodness. This implies that God wants the righteous to live peaceful, happy lives, but sometimes even He cannot bring that about. It is too difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming their innocent victims.

Innocent people do suffer misfortunes in this life. Things happen to them far worse than they deserve – they lose their jobs, they get sick, their children suffer or make them suffer. But when it happens, it does not represent God punishing them for something they did wrong.

If we can bring ourselves to acknowledge that there are some things God does not control, many good things become possible. We will be able to turn to God for things He can do to help us, instead of holding on to unrealistic expectations of Him which will never come about.

We can maintain our own self- respect and sense of goodness without having to feel that God has judged us and condemned us. We can be angry at what has happened to us, without feeling that we are angry at God. More than that, we can recognize our anger at life’s unfairness, our instinctive compassion at seeing people suffer, as coming from God who teaches us to be angry at injustice and to feel compassion for the afflicted. Instead of feeling that we are opposed to God, we can feel that our indignation is God’s anger at unfairness working through us, that when we cry out, we are still on God’s side, and He is still on ours.

Sometimes There is No Reason

Is there always a reason, or do some things just happen at random, for no cause? According to the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy, every system left to itself will change in such a way as to approach equilibrium. This means that the world is changing in the direction of more randomness. Think of a group of marbles in a jar, carefully arranged by size and colour.The more you shake the jar, the more the neat arrangement will give way to random distribution, until it will be only a coincidence to find one marble next to another of the same colour. This is what is happening to the world. One hurricane might veer off to sea, sparing the coastal cities, but it would be a mistake to see any evidence of pattern or purpose to that. Over the course of time, some hurricanes will blow harmlessly out to sea, while others will head into populated areas and cause devastation. The longer you keep track of such things, the less of a pattern you will find.

A system left to itself may evolve in the direction of randomness. On the other hand, our world may not be a system left to itself. There may be a creative impulse acting on it. Or it may be that the creative impulse finished its work of creating eons ago, and left the rest to us. Residual chaos, chance and mischance, things happening for no reason, will continue to be with us. In that case, we will simply have to learn to live with it, sustained and comforted by the knowledge that the earthquake and the accident, like the murder and the robbery, are not the “will of God”.

No Exception for Nice People

Laws of nature do not change. One of the things that make the world livable is the fact that the laws of nature are precise and reliable, and always work the same way. There is gravity: heavy objects always fall toward the earth, so a builder can build a house without having his materials float away. There is chemistry: mixing certain elements in certain proportions always yields the same result, so a doctor can prescribe medication and know what will happen. We can predict when the sun will rise and set on any given day. We can even predict when the moon will block the sun for certain areas, causing an eclipse. To the ancients, an eclipse was an unnatural event which they interpreted as God’s way of warning them. To us, it is a perfect natural event.

Our human bodies are miracles, not because they defy the laws of nature, but precisely because they obey them. Our digestive systems extract nutrients from food. Our skins help to regulate body temperature by perspiring. The pupils of our eyes expand and contract in response to light. Even when we get sick, our bodies have built-in defence mechanisms to fight the illness. All these wonderful things happen, usually without our being aware of them, in accordance with the most precise laws of nature. That, not the legendary splitting of the Red sea, is the real miracle.

But the unchanging character of these laws, which makes medicine and astronomy possible, also causes problems. Gravity makes objects fall. Sometimes they fall on people and hurt them. Sometimes gravity makes people fall off mountains and out of windows. Sometimes gravity makes people slip on ice or sink under water. We could not live without gravity, but that means we have to live with the dangers it causes.

Laws of nature treat everyone alike. They do not make exceptions for good people or for useful people. If a man enters a house where someone has a contagious disease, he runs the risk of catching that disease. It makes no difference why he is in the house. He may be a doctor or a burglar; disease germs cannot tell the difference. Laws of nature do not make exceptions for good people. A bullet has no conscience; neither does a malignant tumour or an automobile gone out of control. That is why good people get sick and get hurt as much as anyone. Laws of nature are blind, without values. They do not care who or what gets in the way. An earthquake is not an “act of God”. The “act of God”, or else, is the courage of people to rebuild their lives after the earthquake, and the rush of others to help them in whatever way they can.

We mistakenly think of pain as one of God’s ways of punishing us. Pain is nature’s way of telling us that we are overexerting ourselves, that some part of our body is not functioning as it was meant to, or is being asked to do more that bit was intended to do. We feel pain when we strain our muscles beyond what they can take. We feel pain to make us jerk our hand away from something hot before it burns seriously. We feel pain as a signal that something is wrong in that marvelously intricate machine, our body. Life would be dangerous if we could not feel pain.

Scientists have determined that two of the most painful things human beings can experience are giving birth and passing a kidney stone. From a purely physical point of view, these two events both hurt equally, and hardly anything hurts more. But from a human point of view, the two are so different. The pain of passing a kidney stone is simply pointless suffering, the result of a natural malfunction somewhere in our body. But the pain of giving birth is creative pain. It is pain that has meaning, pain that gives life that leads to something. That is why the person who passes a kidney stone will usually say “ I would give anything not to have to go through that again,” but the woman who has given birth to a child, like the runner or mountain climber who has driven his body to reach a goal, can transcend her pain and contemplate repeating the experience.

Pain is the price we pay for being alive. Dead cells- our hair, our fingernails- cannot feel pain; they cannot feel anything. When we understand that, our question will change from, “why do we have to feel pain?” to “what do we do with our pain so that it becomes meaningful and not just pointless empty suffering? How can we turn all the painful experiences of our lives into birth pangs or into growing pains?” We may not ever understand why we suffer or be able to control the forces that control our suffering, but we can have a lot to say about what the suffering does to us, and what sort of people we become because of it. Pain makes some people bitter and envious. It makes others sensitive and conscious and compassionate. It is the result, not the cause, of pain that makes some experiences of pain meaningful and others empty and destructive.

Cells of which our bodies are made are constantly dying and being replaced. That makes it possible for us to grow bigger, and to grow new skin to replace scraped and bruised skin. When foreign presences invade our body, we mobilize our defences to fight them, and the mobilization often causes our body temperature to rise and make us feverish. For our bones to be flexible enough and light enough for us to be able to walk, they have to be fragile enough to break under severe strain. For a young man to be paralyzed because of a spinal cord injury in an accident which was not his fault is indescribably dangerous, but at least it follows laws of nature which make sense.

Living with the knowledge that we will die may be frightening and tragic, but knowing we will never die would be unbearable. We might wish for a longer life, or a happier one, but how could any of us endure a life that went on forever? For many of us, we will come to the point where death will be the only healer for the pain which our lives will have to come to contain. If people lived forever and never died, one of two things would have to happen. Either the world would become impossibly crowded, or else people would avoid having children to avoid crowding. Humanity would be depriving of that sense of a fresh start, that potential for something new under the sun, which the birth of a child represents. In a world where people lived forever, we would probably never have been born.

It is one thing to explain that mortality in general is good for people. It is something else to try to tell someone who has lost a parent, a wife, or a child, that death is good. We do not dare try to do that. It would be cruel and thoughtless. All we can say to someone at a time like that is that vulnerability to death is one of the given conditions of life. We cannot explain it anymore than we can explain life itself. We cannot control it, or sometimes even postpone it. All we can do is try to rise beyond the question “why did it happen?” and begin to ask the question “what do I do now that it has happened”.

The Pain of Human Consciousness

The “forbidden tree” in the mythology of monotheistic religions is in fact the

Tree of Knowledge ,of good and bad.Human beings live in a world of good and bad, and that makes our lives painful and complicated. Animals do not; their lives are much simpler, without the moral problems and moral decisions that we humans have toface. Categories of “good” or “bad do not really exist for animals. Like our almost-but-not-quite-human ancestors, animals eat from Tree of Life; they eat and drink, they run and they mate. But the Tree of Knowledge is off limits to them.

Animals are programmed. Built-in instincts tell them when to eat, when to sleep, and so on. They follow their instincts and have very few difficult decisions to make. Human beings, however, are unique in the world of living creatures. The “Image of God” in us permits us to say No to instinct on moral grounds. We can choose not to eat though we are hungry. We can refrain from sex even when our instincts are aroused, not because we are afraid of being punished, but because we understand the terms “good” and “bad” in a way that no other animal can. The whole story of being human is the story of rising above our animal nature, and learning to control our instincts.

In the story of creation, God inflicts “punishments” on Adam and Eve for having eaten the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. The ‘punishments” were the painful consequences of being human rather than being a mere animal. Everyone of them represents a way in which life is more painful and problematic for human beings than it is for animals.

Sex and reproduction are natural and non-problematic for all animals except Man. Sex is so simple and straightforward for animals, and so painful for the rest of us (unless we are willing to behave like animals), because we have entered the world the world of good and evil.

But at the same time, precisely because we live in that world, sexual relationship can mean infinitely more to us than it can to an animal, or who sees sex only as an instinct to be satisfied. It can mean tenderness, sharing of affection, responsible commitment.Animals can mate and reproduce, but only human beings can know love, with all the pain that love sometimes involves.

Similarly, people have to work hard for their food, either growing it themselves or performing some service to earn money to buy it. The world provides food for animals, for those who hunt and for those who graze. A lion may have to stalk and kill an animal, and it may be very hard for him, but it cannot compare to the human experience of being fired from a job or having to decide to whether withhold important information when making a sale.Animals can depend on instinct to guide them in their search for food. Only humans in their work have to worry about choosing a career, keeping a job, getting along with the boss.

And finally, all living creatures are fated to die, but only human beings know it. Animals will instinctively protect themselves against threats to their life and well being, but only human beings live in the valley of the shadow of death, with the knowledge that they are mortal, even when no one is attacking them. This knowledge that we are going to die someday changes our lives in many ways. It moves us to try to cheat death by doing something that will outlive us – having children, writing books, having an impact on our friends and neighbors so that they will remember us fondly, knowing that our time is limited gives value to the things we do. It matters that we choose to read a book or visit a sick friend instead of going to the movies, precisely because we don’t have the time to do everything.

This, then, is what happened to Adam and Eve. They became human. They had to leave the Garden of Eden, where animals eat from the Tree of Life, the tree of basic life forces and instincts. They entered the world of the knowledge of good and evil, a more painful, more complicated world, where they would have to make difficult moral choices. Eating and working, having children and raising children would no longer be simple matters, as they are for lower animals. These first human beings were now self-conscious (after eating the forbidden fruit, they felt the need to put on clothes). They knew that they would not live forever. But most of all, they would have to spend their lives making choices. This is what it means to be human “in the image of God”. It means being free to make choices instead of doing whatever our instincts would tell us to do. It means knowing that some choices are good, and others are bad, and it is our job to know the difference.

God is not like a human parent who watches as his child takes the first shaky steps or struggles with an algebra assignment, and who says to himself, “If I intervene, I will spare my child a lot of pain, but how will he ever learn to do it for himself?”A human parent in that situation has the possibility (and the responsibility) to intervene if the child is on the verge of doing himself serious harm.But God has set Himself the limit that He will not intervene to take away our freedom, including our freedom to hurt ourselves and others around us. He has already let man evolve morally free, and there is no turning back the evolutionary clock.

Why, then, do bad things happen to good people? One reason is that our being human leaves us free to hurt each other, and God cannot stop us without taking away the freedom that makes us human. Human beings can cheat each other, rob each other, and God can only look down in pity and compassion at how little we have learned over the ages about how human beings should behave. This line of reasoning helps me understand that monstrous eruption of evil we speak of as the Holocaust, the death of millions of people at the hands of Adolf Hitler. The cornerstone of my religious outlook is the belief that human beings are free to choose the shape their life will take. Granted, some children are born with physical or mental capacities which limit their freedom of choice. Not everyone can choose to be an opera singer, a surgeon, or a professional athlete. Granted further that some parents mishandle their children badly, that accidental events , wars, illnesses, traumatize children so badly that they may not be able to do something they would otherwise be qualified for, and that some people are so addicted to habits that it is hard to speak for them as being free. But I will insist that every adult, no matter how unfortunate a childhood he had or how habit ridden he may be, is free to make choices about his life. If we are not free, if we are bound by circumstances, then we are no different from the animal who is bound by instinct .To say of any criminal that he did not choose to be bad but was a victim of his upbringing, is to make all morality, all discussion of right and wrong, impossible.

© Copyright 2019 Saleem Akhtar Malik. All rights reserved.

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