Thursday, February 14, 2013

Why does God permit suffering?

As part of a team of members who respond to questions from all over the world on behalf of the Ananda Worldwide Ministry, some questions get directed to me for a response. Today there came a classic question, "Why does God permit suffering." We are here in human form to discover the mysteries of our existence. Some who have gone before us have solved the riddles of life. Great souls such as Buddha, Krishna, and, in our time, Paramhansa Yogananda (author of the worldwide classic, "Autobiography of a Yogi"). 
When I first saw this question this afternoon, I thought, "Oh heavens, how am I supposed to say anything meaningful on so deep a question?" Often those who ask have suffered greatly: directly or through the loss of loved ones. There was no hint in the question that the person who wrote in to the website was especially or deeply hurt personally, but it is often the case when this question is asked.
So I penned below a response as best I could. Much more could be added but it is such a universal and important question, I thought to share the response with others:
RESPONSE (later "enhanced"):
Dear Friend,
You have asked the ages-old paradox that all compassionate and thoughtful people must ask: "Why does God (who is all Good), permit suffering?"
Is a parent negligent who permits his child to go to school where he may encounter bullies or simply other students who might harangue, insult or even fight with him? Is a parent negligent who permits his son to go to war, perhaps to return crippled for life, or to never return?
God is not the cause of suffering. Whatever else God is, we must do what we can to deal responsibly with our suffering, our grief, or the travails of others.  Why should we imagine, especially in our grief and pain, that we can understand the mind of God? This universe is vast and we are complex creatures. Let us not look afar to cast blame but be practical and do what we can to improve our or others' situation. 
A God's eye view of humanity reveals that we humans only think of God when we are in need. Left to our own, we prefer to revel in the the gifts and pleasures of His creation rather than to see these as but His gifts. Few receive His gifts with gratitude and love for the Giver. Fewer still can receive life's hardships as HIs gifts, given to purify our attachments or teach us valuable soul lessons. 
Instead, if we have too little, we want more; if we have much, we want more. We are never satisfied even when sated. We burn with disquietude, wondering all along "What's wrong with this picture?" "Who is to blame?" 99.9% of humanity is too busy chasing pleasure, happiness, security, recognition (or avoiding or getting over their opposites). 
Still, I must concede that those who suffer all too often and all too much are the innocent. But among life's many questions, can we ever really answer the questions that start with "Why?" Why was I born poor, rich, healthy, ill, luck or unfortunate? As suffering obviously happens and too often to those who do not deserve it, we cannot help but ask "Why" and wonder "Who is to blame."
Our instincts are well placed, however: someone indeed has to be blamed! For if there is not cosmic justice, no inexorable law of cause and effect, our universe, both outward (material) and inward (moral), will go up in flames of chaos, anger, violence and rebellion.
The questioner also asked whether, given the suffering in the world, "Why does He destroy the whole thing?"
Yes, God could dissolve this creation; some say, in fact, that he does every 4 billion years or so (like night and day cycles). But then it just continues later. Let us step back, however, towards the "big picture."
God is the novelist, the playwright, who sets into motion a grand drama whose purpose is to entertain and to play the divine romance of "hide 'n seek." He doesn't want us to suffer but if the show is to go on He can't simply make us puppets and pull all the strings. The show would be a sham. He is hoping his children will wake up and seek Him behind the curtain of maya but the show won't work unless he gives us both the freedom to choose, and at the same time, makes the drama of life real and enticing enough to make it unique and dramatic. As a result, He knows that it is difficult to "find Him."
We think of life in terms of our physical body. It lives a mere 80 years. Yet this universe has existed for untold billions of years and consists, we are told, of an estimated 200 billion galaxies. Maybe, therefore, we need to take a longer view. If there is no known center of the universe (and even if there were, what difference would it make to me), maybe the real center is, as Jesus said it is, "within you?"
Maybe as the great sages have averred and as thousands of lives have offered tangible proof or hints of, we have lived for many lives: indeed, many more lives than we can even imagine. We can't imagine 200 billion galaxies, so of course it would be extremely difficult to imagine thousands, even billions, of lives. It is taught that we have come up through the stages of evolution. Paramhansa Yogananda even said he could recall an incarnation as a diamond!
So could the cause for suffering, even for those who otherwise appear (in this lifetime) as innocent, be traced to a distant past? With so many lives, who can imagine we've been "saints" the whole time? "There but for the grace of God, go I!" Can you not imagine being a criminal? A murderer?
In the Old Testament Book of Job, Job was a righteous man. But Satan made a bet (imagine!) with God, that deprived of his health, family, wealth, and respect, he would denounce God.......just like so many people do when suffering. Job passed the test and remained faithful to God. This story, weird as it may seem, suggests to us that some of our tests may be permitted in order to test and purify our love for God. These reflect our relationship with God and are as much God's grace as His consolation and inner peace, or other many gifts of the Spirit, are.
Paramhansa Yogananda taught that "all conditions are neutral; it is our reaction to them that determines our happiness, our wisdom, and our peace of mind." Remaining in the God's eye view of this drama, we find ourselves increasingly untouched by what he called "the crash of breaking worlds."
I agree, however, that no explanation can satisfy the sense that it's bad deal for us. Paramhansa Yogananda said he used to "argue with God" that as He made this mess, he has to clean it up. But, to no avail. Yogananda said he knows why but nonetheless he also knows we suffer so. The deep compassion of the avatars for us impels them to return lifetime after lifetime, forgoing the bliss of union with God, to endure the "slings and arrows" of ignorance and persecution and troubles to uplift humanity and free disciples.
Suffering gives thoughtful people more than cause for anger or puzzlement; it also gives us an incentive to seek the answer to life's riddle. For we know perfectly well that life is a gift and the gift is good! But then there's pesky thing called suffering!
The real question isn't so much "Why does God permit suffering" but the more practical one: "What do I do about it?" We have the freedom and therefore we have the opportunity (and responsibility) to solve the riddle of life by our own efforts. When we unite those efforts and direct those questions to God (being willing to pay whatever price the great pearl of truth may cost us), then He responds.
Indeed, one of the great themes of Krishna's discourse in the Bhagavad Gita is that we must act in this world. In other words, we must take responsibility for the conditions in which we find ourselves. We don't need to know the "why." A soldier on the battlefield cannot focus on the reasons for the war or even the overall strategy for the battle. He must fight to defend himself and defeat the foe right in front of him.
No great scripture or teacher fails to counsel us to adhere to righteous action. Right attitude and action are like levers that trigger the divine response in the form and the power of grace. When we are uplifted and protected we know, in that state, that this power doesn't come from us. Yet, we had to initialize the relationship and the flow of energy toward superconsciousness (God-consciousness).
At first we read books, talk to people, go to teachers. But in time as our ardor blossoms into the flower of faithful devotion, He sends us a true guru: one who can help us achieve freedom from endless rounds of birth and death (and suffering).
Make each day an effort to know, love and serve God in the silence of your soul and in the hands of your daily service, guided by wisdom and compassion.
"God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son to redeem it." That son is, at first the guru, but in time it is the our very own soul, a child of God, for this is who and what we are. God knows that we suffer and wants to help us but most people are too busy with the playthings and troubles of this world to seek Him, not for making our mud puddle nicer, but for His love alone.
May the LIght of Truth and the Moon of Divine Love guide your footsteps to His bliss,
Nayaswami Hriman