Why do we suffer? There’s no better question to ask, because a search for the answer leads into the deepest mysteries of life, death, God, existence, body, soul, meaning, purposelessness—the whole shebang that philosophers ponder, mystics meditate on, scientists study, and preachers pontificate about.
Bill Long’s recently-published book, “A Hard-Fought Hope: Journeying with Job through Mystery,” examines suffering through a biblical lens, the book of Job. Yet Bill, a Salem resident and friend of mine, doesn’t take a traditional religious approach to understanding Job. He starts by laying out a legal complaint against God, Ruler of the Universe on behalf of Job, an individual.
The charges? Breach of contract, negligence, loss of consortium, intentional infliction of emotional distress. The prayed-for remedy? What we all want, relief. Since Bill is both an attorney and a religious scholar, his discussion of the book of Job is systematic and logical while also compassionate and devotional. Committed Jews and Christians who read “A Hard-Fought Hope” will find that Bill speaks their language.
I’m neither a Jew nor a Christian, yet I enjoyed learning about a perspective on suffering that was unfamiliar to me. I might have read the book of Job sometime in my life, but it hadn’t registered with me. So I appreciated how Bill breaks down Job’s response to God’s testing of his faith into well-defined “stages of grief,” so to speak, that comprise his book’s central chapters: “A Torrent of Emotions,” “The Grace of Job’s Anger,” “The Music of Job’s Grief,” “The Power of a Question,” “The Turning Point,” “Wisdom Seeking,” “Listening Differently,” “Living Differently.”
The problem I had with “A Hard-Fought Hope” didn’t have to do with Bill’s writing, which is highly readable, nor with the book’s subject of suffering, which is of intense interest to me—particularly when life doesn’t go the way I think it should (in other words, I’m interested almost all of the time). No, what gave me pause throughout my reading of the 160 pages was this: I couldn’t stop thinking, “Is all this dialogue in the book of Job between a suffering man and the God who makes him suffer anything more than literary fantasy?”
Lots of novelists have written about suffering. Why isn’t their message taken as seriously as the words in the Old Testament that Bill interprets for us? It must be because so many people consider that the book of Job really is a true description of how God sent suffering to a man, and how that man responded to the divine test. Otherwise, Job is just a fictional description of a guy with delusions that a unseen malevolent metaphysical force is out to get him: “He has torn me in his wrath, and hated me; he has gnashed his teeth at me; my adversary sharpens his eyes against me.” (16:9) “I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces.” (16:12)
Personally, I think the book of Job is fiction. There really isn’t a God who gnashes his teeth, seizes people by the neck, and breaks them in two. But many believers think there is, which to me is the most interesting question about Job in particular and the Bible in general: Why does the notion of an external, supernatural source of suffering hold so much appeal? A short possible answer: Because a God who gives suffering can take away suffering, which lifts the responsibility for eliminating suffering off of my shoulders and puts it in God’s hands.
Near the end of his book, Bill writes: “If only Job could have believed in a God who did not intervene in human life, that would have solved all his difficulties.” Yes, in a sense it would have. Job still would be afflicted by all that he was suffering from, but he wouldn’t have the significant added burden of suffering from a belief that the God he loved so much had singled him out for special nasty treatment.
I know lots of people who believe that many, if not most, of the things that happen to them are for a reason. This isn’t a peculiarly Christian/Jewish doctrine. Some think that angelic beings or spiritual guides are directing the course of their life. Others, an ascended (or descended) guru, master, avatar, yogi, or other entity with a power to alter events. I can’t say for sure that they are wrong. Still, almost all the evidence of both science and common sense points toward natural, universal, and impersonal causes of life’s happenings.
My bet is that the only cure for suffering is what we prescribe ourselves. This is the basic Buddhist perspective, echoed in a little book by Paramhansa Yogananda that I re-read recently: “The Science of Religion.” I don’t agree with everything Yogananda says, but I find persuasive his essential psychological premises: “Desire, or the increase of conditions of excitations of the mind, is the source of pain or misery….Every human being is seeking to attain Bliss by fulfilling desire, but he mistakenly stops at pleasure; so his desires never end, and he is swept away into the whirlpool of pain.”
This may sound rather New Agey. Still, when I consider Yogananda’s well-reasoned arguments, which are more sophisticated than my two sentence summary here, they resonate with me more persuasively than does the book of Job. For Yogananda, Buddhism, and Eastern philosophy in general (plus the mystic neo-Platonism of Plotinus) locate the source of suffering in the human psyche, not God’s will. This means that we should look inward to our own self for answers to why life is so painful, not outward to a being in the heavens.
Still, what do I really know about all this? Not much. What I’ve just said is only one of many options on this interesting and amusing “Why Do We Suffer?” quiz.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any answers at the end of the quiz. Just more questions. Maybe that is the best answer.