God and Suffering
Why is the world such a terrible place? Anyone inclined to a belief in God must have asked themselves this question at one time or another. It points to a problem that prevents many souls from accepting there is a spiritual reality behind outer appearance. This can lead to discouragement and the attitude that there is really little need to try to make oneself a better person. Just eat, drink and be merry and so on. But if we could understand why the world is not as ideal as we might like it to be I think that would remove one of the main obstacles to belief. It would give meaning and purpose to our existence, and what is life without meaning and a higher purpose than the satisfaction of personal aims which, even if achieved, never brings lasting content?
I was once asked this question in the following form.
Q. Why is the world such a terrible place? Why did God, if he exists, not create it perfect? Doesn’t the fact that it’s so imperfect support the materialistic thesis that it arose in a random way rather than an ordered one? I once heard a famous naturalist talk about a worm that burrows into the eye of a child somewhere in Africa and how he couldn’t believe in a God in a world in which such things happened.
This is a reasonable question given our experience in the world but it can be answered. Here is the reply I gave at the time.
"Have you ever considered the possibility that maybe the world was created perfect, as in the story of the Garden of Eden, and that it is fallen human consciousness that has afflicted it? Traditional spiritual teachings say that when man fell he dragged nature down with him because his consciousness affects or, in this case, corrupts his environment. Incidentally this is why our current materialistic attitudes actually make our world more material and how altering our attitude to life is so important. But, setting this aside, the point is that Earth nowadays is a school so it is not intended to be perfect if by that you mean all good. There is choice and there is good and evil as a result of that. You might even consider that perhaps the Earth is perfect as an environment for the growing of consciousness as we are given the opportunity for a variety of experiences here. That’s not to say we can’t make it better or worse but to expect this world to be a paradise is to misunderstand its purpose.
Besides, is the world so terrible? There are bad things in it but that may be because the purpose of it is to provide choice so that we may grow. Therefore the possibility of distorting the light must exist. But the light, which is the basis to everything, is good. Bad things only exist as corruptions of good things. They have no intrinsic reality in themselves."
Let me now develop that brief overview of the problem of God and suffering, and see if the undeniable presence of the latter can be squared with the existence of the former. In fact the two are not at all contradictory as I hope to show.
I will begin by mentioning a television interview in 2015 with the actor Stephen Fry in which he referred to any God who might have created this world as ‘an evil and capricious monster’. This predictably stirred up all sorts of excitement with believers quick to damn him and fellow atheists eagerly cheering him on. But, setting aside the extravagant nature of his language, any fair-minded observer would have to concede that he had a point. How could a God that is good have created a world in which there is so much suffering? Not just the suffering inflicted by human beings on each other, which could reasonably be put down to the result of the gift of free will, but the suffering actually inherent in nature. The sicknesses of children is the usual example given in these cases, and it’s the one that was used here. Of course, to use this particular example does rather smack of emotional manipulation, but the point is made.
We should observe first of all that there is nothing new in the accusation. Why there is evil, why there is suffering, why there is so much imperfection in nature are all questions that have long been asked, and they are ones that anyone who posits a supernatural origin to this world must address. They can’t just be dismissed as unknowables whose purpose will become clearer later on. They must be acknowledged and an attempt made to explain them now even if the truth of the matter is that their full significance will probably only become clear after we have left this world. It is just a fact that we are not given all the answers in this life. Our capacity to respond to the truth that is in inscribed in our hearts is tested as that is the way we develop spiritually and become more identified with the spiritual soul and less with the separate self-centred mind/ego. Sometimes we do have to proceed on faith, much as the modern temperament may revolt against that, and we have to do so because attunement to the spiritual world requires an open channel. That doesn’t mean that we should suspend reason or intellect but nor must we close the mind to what is beyond it.
That is why I think we are better off taking the reality of God as a given and then trying to work out the meaning of suffering in this context rather than just using the fact of suffering as an excuse to dismiss God. This attitude may seem like a cheat but then suffering is not the only ingredient in the mix of this world. There is love, there is beauty, there is the mystery of life and consciousness themselves, and there is the testimony of practically all human beings from all cultures throughout history which cannot just be dismissed as superstitious ignorance. As a matter of fact, I believe that everyone knows in their hearts that there is a God but many of us, for a variety of reasons, deny this in our heads which is where most of us live most of the time. And that is why someone like Stephen Fry can seem to be so angry with God. Why be angry with a non-existent being? Does he suspect God might exist but doesn’t like the implications of this?
However that is speculation on my part. I have no insight into the reasons for his rejection of God. What I would say is that one common reason for this rejection is egotism and pride, and another is the dislike people have of being told what to do coupled with the feeling that they might be being judged if they go against the rules. Needless to say, that is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of the divine. There is truth and there is anti-truth but to obey truth means to fulfill our true nature and leads to the highest bliss. It is to conform to what is real. To go against truth is to go against reality and leads not to judgment, as in condemnation and punishment by a dictatorial overlord, but to the same inevitable consequences that follow the letting go of a stone in mid air. The stone will fall. Why rail against the laws of God if you don’t rail against the laws of gravity? What needs to be understood is that these laws are not coercive but lie at the very roots of our being and define what we truly and genuinely are. It is only the ego that rebels against them. In actual fact, to obey them is the only real freedom.
I may seem to have gone off the point a bit here but the active rejection of God is often founded on a psychological maladjustment, and it’s necessary to expose this if we are fully to answer the question of why there is suffering, and see why that question is posed in the first place. You might think that it is posed because there is suffering but, to return to the point made earlier, that is not a sufficient reason to reject the idea of a creator outright, given the many other extraordinary and unexplained characteristics of existence. There is suffering in life but that is by no means all life is or even anywhere near most of what life is. It is an aspect of life and must be seen in an overall context, one in which the positives considerably outweigh the negatives as I'm sure even dyed-in-the-wool atheists would agree. Still the question must be asked. Why is there suffering in life at all if this world is the creation of a perfect and loving God?
There are, in fact, several answers to that question, all of which tie in together to give a full and complete explanation for the imperfect state of our world. To begin with, it is worth considering whether, as some teachings aver, the platform of this world was not created by God, the Causeless Cause or Supreme Being, directly, but by high spiritual beings or angelic powers who were carrying out God's will but on their own level of understanding and ability which may have been far beyond anything we might conceive but was still not perfect. This is point one and may be regarded as academic, given it certainly does not explain, still less justify, suffering, but it is worth making.
Point two is more relevant. It introduces the human element. The world now is not as it was originally intended to be and at one time was. It may have been created perfect, or as perfect as it could be within the limitations mentioned above as well as those imposed by matter itself which inevitably tends to disorder and disintegration (because only spirit is really real and anything less will eventually revert to that), but it is now a fallen world, and it is so because of human beings whose disequilibrium has spread through or infected the whole of nature. Now, whether this is just the result of a necessary temporary focus on self and the separation from oneness that causes, as some believe, or whether it is because of something actually having gone wrong in the distant past, as the book of Genesis implies and the existence of free will makes possible, is perhaps of secondary importance. This world has fallen away from what it should have been and into corruption because of the activity of human beings. Because, in a certain sense, they (we) rebelled against the divine order. Of course, we are still doing that.
Taken together these two ideas could reconcile the apparent opposites of a benevolent Creator and the imperfections of this world. We have been expelled from Paradise and now must live in a world in which death and the opposites hold sway. Through our own choice we have rejected the perfection of oneness and sought out the separative life of the ego, and our internal psychological state is reflected in our external environment. However there is more. Let us now consider a question which atheists such as Stephen Fry do not appear to have contemplated. What is this world actually for?
There is an answer to that question and I will give it in a moment, first of all in words that the Masters used and then in my own words. But before I do I will ask another question which has a bearing on the answer to that one. What are we? What is a human being? Are we just the mind and body that are at the forefront of our immediate experience or are these just the outer parts, the sheaths, if you like, that cover what we truly are, being but the expression of that true self enabling it to experience the material realm? I would say that only a mind overly influenced by worldliness can reject the strong probability, supported by most traditional teachings as well as by our deepest intuitions, that we are spiritual beings or souls that are using the mind and body as vehicles. These are part of us but only the phenomenal part. However we identify with them because we are in the material octave, and that is the cause of our confusion. It is because those in the materialist camp cannot see beyond their materialism that they cannot understand that this world is not intended to be a perfect environment for the embodied self. It is meant to facilitate that self to transcend its limitations. It is not a holiday camp but a training ground.
So, to quote the Masters, Earth is a school. That is what it is for and we are here to learn. To learn what we truly are and to grow the spiritual seed that is within us through the various tests and experiences we undergo here. This material Earth is an arena for the development of consciousness, and we come here to learn and to grow. Growing can be painful, especially if the shell we surround ourselves with has to be broken open in order that we may expand out of our current limitations. But it is also liberating and it is what we want whether we know it in our conscious minds or not. As a Master said to me (and this applies to us all so his words are something to hold on to in times of trouble), "I can assure you that you wish this training to take place however difficult it may sometimes seem".
As a platform for growth this Earth must include scope for tests and trials as well as contain opposites, the tension between which can stimulate new growth and help us to avoid stagnation. And is it not the case that it is often only through a degree of suffering that we are jolted out of complacency and self-centredness, and more able to enter compassionately into the sufferings of others? Perhaps it is because Stephen Fry has suffered himself that he feels so strongly that suffering is something we should be concerned about and try to relieve. Of course, not all suffering can be regarded as potentially creative and an impetus to change but some is, and it should be clear that a life without a negative side to it is a life in which growth is much less likely to take place.
As for the suffering that may seem to have no creative purpose we can turn for explanation to the idea of karma. Certainly this requires a belief in the pre-existence of the soul, and so will not be acceptable to the materialistically inclined, but, if we are looking for something that reconciles the apparent contradictions of a benevolent God and an imperfect world, the law that we reap what we sow bridges that gap very well. So the imperfections we meet in this world are frequently the reflections of our own imperfections. That is not to say that the sufferings of the innocent can be blithely dismissed as their own fault. They may well be the result of previous actions but they may also be restrictions accepted by the soul in order for it to grow, or even sacrifices it has volunteered to make to help alleviate world karma or arouse compassion in others.
Let us conclude with a brief summing up.
The purpose of this world is not in and for itself but as a school in which consciousness may grow, moving from an unconscious state to a self-conscious one and then on to god-consciousness. That is why it must be an environment in which work, effort and potential for sacrifice are required. Without these there can be no spiritual growth. The world is not perfect in order that we may become so.