Three Spiritual Conundrums have been submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life on a similar theme. First, from a reader named Tom:
I understand the concept of free will and that we were all given the ability to make choices. So while murders, war, rape, etc. are horrible, they are the result of our own free will. My question is, how do we deal with random bad events/illness happening to good people. I recently read about a 24 year old Christian man who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that eventually took his life a year later. He left behind a wife and young daughter. It is hard for me to comprehend why this man couldn’t be saved or why he was stricken with this in the first place.
Then a reader named Grace wrote:
I just read your article “If God is Love, Why all the Pain and Suffering?”
I have asked myself those same questions and I appreciate your explanation. I understand what you are saying in those regards, but what about when people die not due to the sin of someone else? For example, a child (or adult) that passes because of Cancer? Or someone dies in a horrific car accident? What makes God decide that it is that persons time?
And Tom wrote more about his struggles with this issue:
I haven’t written in a while but have still been following your blog. I feel like I am losing my faith and I don’t know how to get it back. You already know I lost my parents and this past week a friend of mine passed. He was only 42 and died suddenly leaving behind a wife and three kids. I can’t reconcile how that could happen. It has made me question a lot more than I would like to admit. I have been going through a sort of existential dilemma filled with a lot of existential anxiety. How can one find the strength inside and in God to somehow see the good in these bad human experiences? Thanks.
Thanks, Tom and Grace, for opening up your hearts to ask these terrible, wrenching questions.
I wish I could say something simple to make it all better. I wish I could answer the question of why these tragedies happened to your friends and family. But the truth is, I can’t. These are questions that each of us must face within the depths of our own soul. And real answers come only with time and deep reflection.
It’s not that there aren’t any answers. It’s that satisfying answers come to us only through our own struggles with life, with God, and with our own mind and heart. These questions strike at the core of who we are as human beings. They touch the heart of our faith and our relationship with God.
I can’t tell you why particular people are maimed or killed in tragic circumstances. What I can do is offer some new perspectives that may help in the struggle for answers to these difficult and painful questions.
We’ll start by looking more closely at the experience of having our faith tested. It may not be easy reading, but these are not easy issues. If we’re going to find any real answers, we must dig deep. So please bear with me if some of what must be said temporarily adds to the pain. Like setting a dislocated shoulder or removing shrapnel from a wound, often we must endure further pain to get ourselves on a path toward spiritual and emotional healing.
If you can follow along on this journey with me, I’ll then offer some thoughts and ideas that may help as you struggle to understand why tragedies such as diseases, accidents, and natural disasters happen to innocent, undeserving people.
Dealing with these big questions is going to take some time. There are plenty of superficial, pat answers out there. Finding real answers requires changing our perspective on the universe and on human society. That will require us to traverse some territory that may at first seem unlikely or even impossible. All I ask is that you read and consider carefully what I have to say.
So let’s dig into it.
Life is a bed of roses . . . with lots of sharp, painful thorns
For all its beauty, our life here on earth is not designed to be easy. If you are facing existential anxiety, this may be a sign that you are working on the deep issues of life rather than just skating naively over its surface.
If the first thing we do when tragedy strikes is to quickly look for the good in it, we may be avoiding both the deep issues involved and the real test of our soul and our perspective on life that they represent.
We humans are a stubborn lot. We don’t easily give up our mistaken, materialistic, and narrow attitudes about life. If God didn’t allow us to be tested to within an inch of our endurance and faith, most of us would never let go of our desire to control our own life according to our own notions of what is good, true, and worth devoting our life to. Most of us would never turn our lives over to God’s guidance and God’s goals for our life.
To put it bluntly, if you’ve never had your faith tested to the point where you were in despair, and ready to give up, you have probably not faced the real issues of life, and you have probably not truly turned your life over to God’s will.
When we experience spiritual testing—or “temptation” in traditional language—it’s not just a matter of choosing good over evil. Yes, choices between right and wrong are important. But our deepest and most critical struggles involve more than that.
Real spiritual temptation shakes us to the foundations of our faith. Its very purpose is to break down our sense of control over our own life, and get us to the point where we are finally willing to see and accept our own weakness, fragility, and failure to be right. It pushes us harder and harder until we finally realize that we have been focusing on the wrong things, seeking the wrong pleasures, and pursuing the wrong goals in life.
In short, spiritual trials and temptations are specifically designed to smash our ego. They are designed to get us to the point where we are ready to stop trying to control our own life and everything around us, and instead give ourselves over to God’s leadership and guidance.
To get some idea of what real spiritual temptation is like, read the accounts of Jesus’ anguish as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane just before his crucifixion (Matthew 26:36–46, Mark 14:32–42, and Luke 22:39–46). His struggle was not about doing the right thing vs. doing the wrong thing. It was about letting go of his human will, which desired nothing more than to avoid the extreme pain and suffering that he knew was coming. It was about his struggle to turn his life—and his death—fully over to the inner divine will of God.
Some of us may mouth pious words about loving God above all, and turning our life over to God. But it’s amazing how we can still hold onto our own notions about how God should run the world, and what God ought to be doing for us.
So one of the reasons God allows tragedies to happen is that it is often the only way to shake us out of our spiritual lethargy, grind down our often rather narrow and unspiritual attitudes about life, and send us into the maelstrom of spiritual trial, temptation, and conflict. This, unfortunately, is the only way to dislodge us from a superficial, unspiritual life. It pushes us toward asking the deep questions and facing the deep issues. It moves us toward devoting our lives to more compassionate, more useful, and more spiritual goals.
The purpose of our time here on earth is to grow and develop into angels. Struggling with random tragedies striking good people gets us moving on our spiritual journey toward angelhood.
But there’s still much more to the issue of tragedies striking good and innocent people than meets the eye.
Is it right for us to question God?
The very fact that we ask these sorts of questions—ones that call into question God’s love and God’s competence to run the world properly—shows that we are still holding onto the idea that we know better than God how the universe should be run.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that we shouldn’t ask these questions. Quite the contrary! These are excellent questions that we must ask if we want to make any real spiritual progress. The Old Testament prophets are constantly flinging tough questions at God!
But the fact that we’re asking these questions says more about us than it says about God.
Consider for a moment the possibility that God actually is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and all-wise as most religions say.
Of course, if that’s false, and God is either a bumbling idiot or a sadist who enjoys seeing us suffer, then we might as well throw in the towel because we’re screwed anyway. But considering how incredibly vast, intricate, and amazing this universe is, I find it hard to believe that the God who created it is somehow deficient.
If God actually is infinitely loving, wise, and powerful, this means:
- God loves each one of us more deeply than we are even capable of loving.
- God is a heckuva lot smarter than any of us, and knows exactly how to run the universe.
- God is perfectly willing and able to run this universe in the best way that it can be run.
In short, if God is the best of what the major religions say God is, then God is more loving, smarter, and better able to run this universe than you and I are. So if we look around and see how things are being run, and it’s not the way we think they should be run, that’s not because God has made some sort of mistake.
It means that if we ask why God allows these things to happen, or go even further and accuse God of being unloving, uncaring, unaware, inept, or even sadistic, then here is what we are really saying:
I don’t understand how God runs this universe.
The way God does things doesn’t make sense to me.
It’s fine . . . even good to question God. But if we’re going to believe in God at all, then we might as well admit that if we think God is doing something wrong, the problem is not with God. Instead, the problem is with us, and how we understand the universe and its purpose.
In short, it is not God’s perspective and God’s ways, but our perspective and our ways that must change.
Realizing that we don’t understand is where our spiritual life begins
The bad news is that this means we don’t understand what in the world is going on in this universe.
The good news is that not understanding is a very good place to start on our spiritual journey.
As long as we think we already understand everything, and think that we know better than God how things should be run, we’ll remain stuck in our confusion and distress. When things don’t work out the way we think they ought to, our spirit is constantly ripped apart by the tension between our idea of how things are supposed to work and the reality of what’s actually going on in the world.
It is only when we realize that we truly don’t understand what’s going on in the world that we can begin to search for the truth with our whole heart, mind, and soul.
It is only when we are ready to lay aside our ego and our own preconceived notions about what we think is good and right, and search for the truth coming from God, that we can start to find some satisfying answers to painful questions such as why God allows innocent people to suffer and die from seemingly random causes such as cancer, heart attacks, genetic diseases, car accidents, and natural disasters.
In short, it is only through deep, harrowing struggles with our own faith, our own ego, and the idea that we know what’s right and wrong, that we can find any real and satisfying answers to these ultimate questions of life.
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
In the same way, unless our current faith falls to the ground and dies, God cannot transform it into a new and growing faith. It is only when we reach the point where we are ready and willing to let go of everything we’ve held onto so dearly, and let God start something new in our life, that a new and more deeply rooted faith can grow and bear fruit in our lives.
Sometimes this may involve losing our faith entirely. For a time, we may have to believe that there is no God, no afterlife, nothing but this dark and unjust world. We may spend a chunk of our life adhering to the philosophy that “life sucks and then you die.”
And yet, God is still working on us. God sees that sometimes reaching a point of no faith is necessary in order to break down our old, faulty, and inadequate faith. After the death of that old faith, a new, deeper, and more solid one can arise.
As long as we are still alive and breathing on this earth, the end of our spiritual story has not yet been written.
When we have finally let go, and stopped trying to control our own life and everything around us, God can step in and start moving us forward again. When we experience God moving into our lives after we have given up, we can come to know and trust that there is a wiser, more loving, and more powerful being in the universe who is watching over us, who cares about us, and who is running this universe as it should be run.
Some thoughts and ideas that may help
Here are some thoughts and ideas to consider as you search for answers:
- God looks at everything from an eternal perspective.
- Violence, pain, and suffering exist in the universe because the universe was created for us.
- Evil is real, and its greatest desire is to tear down, destroy, and enslave the innocent.
- God could not destroy all evil without destroying us in the process.
- God allows evil only when it is necessary for our freedom and our salvation.
- From a spiritual perspective, physical death is good, not evil.
- We will never fully understand God’s actions.
- Whatever happens, we can choose to grow spiritually from the experience.
There are many more relevant ideas that we could explore. These are huge questions! But these should be enough to help you think in some new ways about these perennial questions.
In Part 2 of this article, we’ll take up the first two points. These are key ideas in understanding why there is so much violence, pain, and suffering in the world even for people who don’t deserve it, and even when no one else has sinned or done evil to bring it upon them.
In Part 3, we’ll take up points 3–6, which will put the question of seemingly random tragedy into a wider context, and connect it to the broader effects of human evil.
Finally, Part 4 will be a call to action—and to spiritual growth—in the midst of the tragedies of life.
This four-part article is a response to three spiritual conundrums submitted by readers. The remaining parts will post at three day intervals to allow time for reflection on each part.