Even if we acknowledge that the difficulties of this life are the only means by which we can become the best kind of people God gave us the potential to become (as I argued in a recent article) that still does not give us a lot of comfort as we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” What are we to make of these difficult situations from a more personal level? Even if suffering is necessary, when it is our turn we still ask, “Why me?”
This is absolutely the most natural and expected question that a person could ask when something horrible happens to them. Part of the reason it is impossible to answer most of the time (barring those occasions of self-inflicted suffering) is because, though it is the most natural of questions, it is also fundamentally the wrong question.
Consider the assumptions behind the question. First of all, the questioner is asking for a reason, a purpose, a motivation behind the suffering. That is the essence of the “why” part of the question. But they are not asking “why” in a generic sense. A person who asks “Why me?” is not asking “Why does suffering exist?” That would be a question with a generic, universal answer; they are looking for a specific, personal answer. The assumption behind the question is that there is a meaning to their suffering in particular and that meaning relates to them specifically. Perhaps it is justice for some previous moral infraction (i.e. in a Karmic system). Perhaps their suffering will make the rest of their life better than it would otherwise have been, like how the unpleasantness of a needle may cure them of a disease. Perhaps they are specifically being made to suffer for the betterment of humanity; a role very few people have sufficient nobility to accept, even if they were to be made aware of it.
But what if your specific situation isn’t about you? You didn’t do something wrong that deserved this particular circumstance. You are not paying for previous sins. You are not being made to suffer because of the sins of your parents. Some people misread Bible passages like Exodus 20:5 which seems to suggest that; a good commentary will explain why that is a misreading, and even Ezekiel 18 sets the record straight. Jesus also renounces this paradigm when speaking of the blind man by the pool waiting for healing (John 9:1-3).
Individuals suffer primarily because they are part of a system that includes, as one of its characteristics, various kinds of unpleasantness. That unpleasantness is relatively randomly distributed (as I previously discussed) so specific instances of suffering do not typically carry an individual custom-made purpose but rather suffering, as a whole, is purposeful.
Regardless of the assumed reason for suffering that may be behind the question, “why me?” there is also an assumed passivity on the part of the sufferer. The suffering and its effects are assumed to be beyond their control. If something bad happens because of past infractions, well, what’s done is done so there isn’t much I can do about it now. If it happened because of something bad that somebody else did then, again, there is absolutely nothing that I can do about that at this point. [This was the thinking of the Israelites in exile that Ezekiel 18 is meant to address.] If I am enduring this suffering so that some glorious state of future bliss can be enjoyed, then I just have to sit back and wait it out. In all of these cases there is a mindset that assumes I have no involvement in the process. The cause is out of my control because it is in the past, or the suffering is, itself, the cause of some inevitable and much better future; I do not need to do anything. The assumption seems to be that cosmic forces beyond my control are at work and I am merely a pawn in this game.
It is perfectly normal to bemoan one’s circumstances, indeed it would be odd if a person were not bothered by their own suffering. One needs to fully come to grips with the challenge they are facing before action can be taken, so asking, “why me?” is an unavoidable part of the process. But it is a process, not a bus stop. We must move past that question. It makes sense to start with asking, “why me?” but it is tragic if that is where we stop.
Contra such a passive attitude, we need to eventually ask, “What am I going to do about this?” Even if there is not a specific purpose to your specific suffering, there is a general purpose for suffering and that is to provide opportunities for heroism. If you had not fallen victim to this particular suffering you would eventually have to face some other form of suffering at some other time in your life. Given the general purpose for suffering you now have a specific opportunity because of the specific suffering you are experiencing. Will you walk through that open door before you and grow in your nobility? Do you have (or will your grow) enough honour to help those facing such difficulties? A passive approach to suffering asks “why me?” whereas an active approach to suffering asks, “what can I do?” God is hoping people will eventually ask the second question instead of getting stuck on the first.
Why did God do this?
Again, this is fundamentally the wrong question to ask, though it is a perfectly natural impulse. God providentially set up a system that includes various challenges and also included the potential for things to devolve to our present level of suffering and evil. But it is not as though he dictates, guides or micro-manages every single instance of suffering. It may seem like splitting hairs to say that God allows, or even indirectly “causes,” hardship and suffering in general but that he does not allow / cause specific instances. God created a world that included birds that defecate in random locations, but it would be misguided to complain that God caused that particular bird to defecate on my particular car. When somebody builds a sports stadium the intent is that people will fill the stands, but they do not have specific seats in mind for specific people. Similarly, God created a world within which the human body may occasionally break down, but God probably did not go out of his way to ensure that my wife was born with a faulty heart. He also probably did not go out of his way to place you in your difficult circumstances whatever they may be.
[I keep qualifying the above examples with the word “probably” because there are almost certainly exceptions to this rule – God may introduce suffering that would not have otherwise happened, or alleviate suffering that would have gone on for some time on its own – but I believe these exceptions are rare and they need to be. If God intervened regularly then the category of hardship would be practically eliminated and, therefore, so would the possibility of human flourishing. Exceptions are possible, so long as they do not become the new rule. It seems wisest to me to assume that God has not micro-managed your particular situation.]
Rather, the only question we have a hope of meaningfully answering is why God allows suffering in general, which I have tried to answer, at least in part. It would be presumptuous to think we could have a full and exhaustive answer, but surely we can seek some general insights; I believe we have access to them. To seek a Divine purpose for specific instances of suffering, or to ask why God did not prevent a specific instance of suffering, is the wrong question to ask.
While the general answer to why God created a world with hardship may be philosophically sound, it is often far from satisfying. It takes very little poking around the internet to find stories of people whose lives are in ruins because they run into problem after problem after problem. Atheists in particular love to bring up these stories and wallow in their horror. In some cases a person’s problems are self-inflicted so, in one sense, God can hardly be blamed. Even so, if the purpose of this life is to offer us the opportunity to become heroes, if we make a mess of things wouldn’t it be nice if God actually helped us out a bit and nudged us in the right direction? Why allow us to utterly destroy ourselves?
But there are others who suffer and suffer and suffer through no fault of their own. It may make sense to allow humanity to suffer in general, but surely that suffering should come in smaller doses. When we read about people who endure one hardship only to fall victim to a second hardship which is quickly followed up by yet another hardship until their families are torn apart, they become a shell of a person and they spend the rest of their lives just trying to pick up the pieces, asking “where is God?” is certainly an impulse that I feel. Let us suffer so we can grow – I get that – but why allow the suffering to pile higher and higher until there is no possibility of growth at all, just mere survival until we curl up and die? Would we not expect a loving God who wanted his creation to develop in their nobility to step in and make sure the challenges were accomplishing what they were supposed to? When they reach a point of simply destroying a person’s soul – indeed when the hardship surpasses anything that your average human could possibly grow from – why allow that? It hardly seems comforting to say that God mourns with us when the suffering is no longer productive.
I have no answers, only anecdotes of hope. Even if I cannot answer this question to my own satisfaction (much less anybody else’s satisfaction) I have one small consolation, which I will explore in greater depth momentarily; some people in those circumstances do manage to turn them around. Though many people may collapse under the weight, and nobody could possibly fault them for that, even in these horrors that stagger the imagination there are a handful of glorious instances of people who have conquered the horror; victory instead of defeat. For your consideration, here are a few examples.
One quote from the last article, “You might think she is lucky. I suppose there is some luck involved. But it also takes courage, self-knowledge, and strength of character to survive. Not all women – not all children – do.” This sounds a little bit like what I’ve been talking about all along.
There are plenty of stories like these. We may not know why God allows this magnitude of suffering – indeed we may never know in this lifetime – but I am glad that at least a few people have been able to crawl out from under such horror and rise to the occasion, often with God’s help. All is not lost.
I poked around a little bit on Google Scholar and I found a few articles with some interesting observations about the positive effects of suffering; specifically altruism. The idea seems to be that certain forms of character growth are regularly seen as a result of suffering and, in some cases, the magnitude of character growth is demonstrably higher among those who have suffered than among those who have not. I am by no means an expert in this field, so if this literature is misrepresentative of the current consensus then I welcome correction (with supporting evidence).
This very interesting article explores the relationship between suffering and altruism, and the relatively recently identified phenomenon of “altruism born of suffering” (ABS – no longer just a nice feature to have in your car!). The idea here is that the negative outcomes of suffering, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) tend to be the focus of a lot of attention, but those effects are far from the whole story.
In actuality, however, only a relatively small percentage of those who have had traumatic experiences develop PTSD or other severe symptoms of trauma … Moreover, theory and research also has come to focus on resilience after trauma, and on posttraumatic growth (PTG). This literature also mentions empathy and altruism as potential growth outcomes. (emphasis mine)
In other words, the medical literature seems to suggest that most people who endure profound suffering, though they are obviously traumatized, exhibit responses that reveal that their trauma is not the entire picture. After the initial trauma, there can be “growth” as well as “empathy and altruism.” Or, put another way, they become better people because of their suffering; the kind of people they would not have been if they had never suffered. That personal growth did not occur without some effort on their part as I will touch on in a moment. The field is apparently a relatively new one, and results are not always consistent, but apparently the general finding is, “…the majority of individuals who have experienced stressful life events report positive changes…” Again, it is a mixed bag as the article explains. Without stealing their thunder, here are a few snippets of research they describe.
Among a sample of 100 Holocaust survivors, 82% reported that they had helped other prisoners in concentration camps. They reported sharing food and clothing and providing emotional support, a large majority describing their motive as altruistic.
High levels of altruism and prosocial behavior have also been documented at times of natural disasters. Some scholars have written about the emergence of an “altruistic community” in the aftermath of hurricanes, floods, or earthquakes, characterized by “higher than usual levels of solidarity, fellowship, and altruism”
In a correlational, cross-sectional study, undergraduate students in the United States were asked about their own past victimization and suffering. Those who reported that they had suffered from interpersonal violence, group-based violence, or a natural disaster reported significantly more feelings of empathy for, as well as personal responsibility to help victims of the Tsunami in South East Asia than a control group of students who reported no such suffering … They also volunteered to help more, by signing up to join a Tsunami relief group and collect money.
In general, they summarize, “… greater physical harm, material loss, and perceived life threat were associated with providing more tangible and informational support…” In other words, the relationship between hardship and heroism is generally a positive one; more hardship often leads to more heroism. Surprise, surprise! What ingredients tend to lead to these positive results? As the article describes (with a nice flow chart I might add) there are a number of factors but the biggest ones seem to be assistance received from others and one’s own personal initiative. As I have been describing all along, part of God’s purpose for suffering is for the heroism opportunities it affords the one who is suffering, but also for the heroism opportunities it affords those around them. This research suggests that if both opportunities are seized upon, then personal growth as a result of suffering is a much more frequent outcome.
The study is careful to note the limitations on their data, stating, “These findings are correlational, and we cannot exclude the possibility that they are expressions of personal characteristics, such as greater sensitivity to stressful events and greater dispositional empathy, rather than suffering leading to more caring.” In other words, the suffering itself may not be the sufficient cause of these examples of altruism; something about the person’s character may be involved. This goes back to my observations at the beginning of this article. Asking “why me?” implies a passive attitude whereas, “how am I going to respond?” demonstrates personal initiative. Suffering on its own cannot be expected to produce positive effects, the magic ingredient has always been the nobility of the human spirit.
In this article exploring some of the effects of torture on a person, it claims that, “Many have begun to recover from torture with the help of spiritual and religious practices, work, and altruistic activities that benefit their family and community.” In other words, while altruism may be an effect of some forms of suffering, altruism may be part of the road to recovery from other forms of suffering. Or, if you act like a hero then you become a hero. Once again, virtue is a result of life, not something that could be implanted in us without any effort on our part.
So when we ask, “Why me?” and “Why is God allowing this?” hopefully part of the answer is becoming more obvious. God almost certainly did not inflict this particular instance of suffering on you for reasons that require nothing of you. Rather, suffering in general exists so that you, and those around you, will have the opportunity to rise to the occasion, exhibit and develop altruism, and work toward post traumatic growth. In other words, so you have the chance to become a better person. A hero. That obviously does not explain every single instance of suffering, but it seems to be a plausible reason for most types of suffering. And research suggests the desired effect is often realized, even in cases of suffering so horrific that most of us cannot fathom it.
But those positive effects will only be realized if we move beyond the question, “why me?” and start asking, “what am I going to do about this?” Do you have such nobility?