We live in a world of enormous beauty, and for some, this is enough to believe in a God who created it. But others ask that if a good God really exists, then why does He let us suffer? After all, what did an innocent child do to become seriously ill? Why do so many people still die of hunger? Where is God in all this?
Religion replies saying that whilst it may be a tough pill to swallow, this life was never meant to be one where we don’t face any hardship. Rather it teaches that the hardship we do face is necessary for us to achieve the purpose of our lives. That is, to progress in the knowledge and love of our Creator, and to constantly be improving our moral character.
In order to make progress in these two ideals, we need two things: 1) the free will to make our choices meaningful, and 2) tests to prove our worth.
So now let’s think about suffering. When you look at its different types, it turns out that all suffering is actually a by-product of these two essential elements we need to make life worth living.
First, free will. The misuse of freewill accounts for the vast majority of suffering in the world. Just take a look at all the wars in human history. Whilst many ask why didn’t God stop them, the real question is- why didn’t man stop them? Then take a look at world hunger, or poverty. We all know there is more than enough food in the world, and yet many still starve. There is more than enough money in the world, and yet we create inequalities and poverty. The sad reality is that many people abuse the blessing of free will- instead of helping people with it, they hurt them.
It’s obvious then that to remove the suffering caused by free will, you’d have to remove free will. But imagine life without it? Without the choice to choose between doing something good or doing something bad, our actions would be neither good nor bad- we would just be puppets on a string, going through whatever motions someone else has set out for us. Free will then, is definitely worth keeping. And if we want to get rid by the suffering caused by it, then the real solution is to start using it properly.
Now let’s look at suffering caused by things outside of our free will- like natural disasters, or congenital disease, or unavoidable illness; or in other words: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”. But religion doesn’t teach us that the suffering in our life depends on how good we are as people. Rather it teaches that how good we are as people, depends on how we deal with the suffering in our lives.
For example, when things don’t go our way, do we become bitter, angry, and resentful? Or do we remain patient and show compassion to those who hurt us? When we see the suffering of others, do we ignore it and walk away? Or do we have the strength to face/acknowledge it and do whatever we can to help them?
The fact is, is that without trials, morality would be all theory and no practise. We would never know where we actually stand. There would be no successes to be encouraged by, no mistakes to learn from. We would just be stuck at one level, with no hope of progress.
As the Sufi poet Rumi said: “If you are annoyed by every rub, how will your mirror ever be polished?”- Rumi
So we see that whatever suffering there is, it stems from free will and trying situations, both of which we need to be who we want to be. But that’s not all. Religion teaches that there is a life after death, where our suffering and personal circumstances are taken into account, and our efforts compensated beyond our wildest dreams. According to atheism however, suffering, like happiness, is entirely meaningless. It is simply the accidental by-product of an accidental universe.
So we see that far from being an argument against religion, religion is the only philosophy that helps to make sense of suffering. Either there is no God, and suffering is as arbitrary as our whole existence, or there is a God, and our short-lived suffering is actually a blessing in disguise. Religion teaches that suffering is not meaningless, but meaningful- and there is surely some solace in that.
And We will try you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives, and fruits; but give glad tidings to the patient,Who, when a misfortune overtakes them, say, ‘Surely, to Allah we belong and to Him shall we return.’ It is these on whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy, and it is these who are rightly guided. [The Holy Qur’an, 2:157- 158]