The Truth About Suffering
The modern attitude to suffering is that it is a great evil which should be eradicated as far as that is possible. Our whole moral system today is more or less based on the premise that what leads to personal happiness is good, as long as it doesn't harm anyone else, and what causes suffering is always wrong. But what if suffering is actually the whole reason for life in this world? What if the fact of suffering does not disprove the idea of God but actually proves it?
To make sense of this, on the face of it, unpleasant idea we have to understand what we are and why we are here. And what we are is not what we appear to be. The self as we know it is a false thing. It is not our true being or, if viewed as such, then at the very least it has lost its centre. Now if this is the case then what that self views as good or bad is not necessarily so. That is not to say that suffering is good and happiness is spiritually corrosive. But sometimes that might well be the case.
For the worldly self that we all identify with and look to fulfill really is a false self. It is something we have identified with but it is not us. Our true self is the soul which is a spiritual being, and the reality is that suffering is often necessary to make us aware of this. It is what is required to detach us from our false identification with the ego-self and realign us with the truth of our being. No suffering means spiritual stagnation though that is not to say that suffering should be sought. That would be the ego trying to manipulate its own overthrow for its own ends. But if suffering comes, and cannot be avoided, then it should be accepted and the lessons it brings learned. And there always are lessons to be learned even if it is the ability to endure without complaint and so grow in patience and humility. There is always the possibility of removing our concern from our worldly self and its fears and desires, and fixing our thoughts on something greater which is the true source of our being.
Naturally this only relates to personal suffering. The suffering of others is never something we should observe without compassion or idly stand by and watch, though even then we have to understand that it may be necessary. We have to develop the spiritual discernment that will enable us to appreciate what is suffering sent to teach the soul or teach us that we are the soul, and what is suffering caused by the wrong conditions that human beings have created on this planet ever since they lost their connection to the spiritual world.
So the soul, a spiritual being, is what we are and our task here is to remember our origins. The soul on its own level cannot suffer, certainly not as it can do in the material world where the conditions, specifically the sense of separation, exist to make that possible. This is the world of duality in which we are alone, cut off from the rest of life, and it is that which both helps us to grow and causes suffering. The two go together.
Hence, strange as it may seem, suffering is actually something for which we should be grateful to God. It takes a certain spiritual maturity to see this and, like all such doctrines, it can be misunderstood. Suffering is not good. It is an evil. We are right about that. But it is an evil out of which good may come. Very possibly in a world that hadn't fallen it would not have been necessary but this one did fall and so it is required even if, as I have been assured, all hardships now will be amply compensated for. This is not easy to understand. Can it be true? Can the pain of this world really be seen in a light that explains it, still more justifies it? I think it can. Is it really so hard to accept that suffering has a purpose and that one day it will be seen as no more than a bad dream when the day dawns. Of course, in order to accept that idea we have to come to terms with the fact that we are only half made in our current state. We are still being formed, and it may be that when the new man is finally formed his past travails will seem to him well worth it in the light of his present glory.
So the conclusion I draw is that the fact of suffering can be taken as proof of God's existence and of his purpose for us. When we identify ourselves exclusively with our material being then suffering makes no sense. But when we start to see ourselves as visitors to this world, come to experience the lessons it has to offer then we can see it in its true light. And this was surely what Jesus demonstrated by his life and death. He showed us that accepted suffering can be the way to redemption and self-transformation.
What this means is that suffering can only be understood in the context of religion. In fact both Buddhism and Christianity could be said to revolve around suffering but they have different attitudes to it. Buddhism arose specifically from the attempt to understand and, if possible, go beyond suffering. That was Gautama’s motive in leaving home and trying to understand life. The solution he found and taught was the cessation of desire. We suffer when we hold on to things so letting go of desire, in particular the attachment to it, brings freedom from pain. You might go further back and say that it's the sense of separation that brings about suffering. If we were one with life we would be complete and nothing could be added to us or taken away from us. So suffering at root is, or comes from, separation. This is the Buddhist position
That is all true but I want to look at suffering from a different, more Christian perspective here. I want to look at it in a practical sense as a purifier and true agent of spirituality.
Today, when all the wisdom teachings of the past are readily available, there are many people presenting themselves as spiritually mature or even enlightened on the basis of a certain amount, small or large, of knowledge and experience. But I must tell you that a person may have all the spiritual understanding in the world but there is no real wisdom without suffering. You may talk of love and profess an awakened heart because you have heard that this is how a spiritual person should be, but there is no possibility of real compassion without having known deep suffering. It is as the Masters have said. In pain alone you get true values. Pain is the gateway to eternal life because pain strips away falsehood and pretence. You can always tell a genuinely spiritual person by their face and expression. It is not constantly wreathed in smiles telling us what a loving, open, joyous person they are. It is marked by sorrow. I don't mean that they walk around looking miserable. That is self-pity. But they have been through the fires and that is etched into their face for it is suffering, and suffering alone, that cleanses the soul and stamps the heart with spiritual truth. Only pain patiently endured gives depth.
It is a perfectly natural impulse to wish to avoid suffering, and it is certainly a mistake to seek it out with the idea of gaining spiritual kudos as certain ascetics used to do. But suffering that comes to us in the ordinary course of life, that is, in effect, God-given, that is unavoidable, we should use as an opportunity for self-transcendence. It comes to burn out the fires of ego. It is part of the sacrifice that makes holy, and it is only through such sacrifice that holiness is born in the individual. Only when forced to by pain can we truly begin to give up the self. This is the reality of living in a fallen world. Self has become corrupted and made itself into its own centre. Suffering is what de-centres the self, or does so if the ‘patient’ reacts to it correctly by offering it up to God and using it as an opportunity to go beyond him or her self. If you can you should even see it as a gift in that you are being given a chance to graduate to a higher spiritual state. You would not be given this gift if you were not thought equal to what it entails.
Now, none of this means that one should not respond to suffering in others or even that one may not pray for one’s own suffering to be alleviated. Suffering is not in any sense a good or desirable thing even if it can be used as a creative thing. The rule must surely be, especially where others are concerned, that one does all one can to relieve suffering, but if attempts to do this come to naught then one must accept the reality of the situation without rancour, resentment or resistance, and this is particularly so in cases where you are the one suffering. See it as a chance to go beyond your present state. Accept the will of God and submit to the experience, seeking to use it as a springboard to greater understanding, an understanding that comes from having lived something not just known about it.
As I have said this is a doctrine that can be misused and misunderstood. The fact that suffering is what I have called an agent of spiritual purification does not mean that all suffering in this world is sent by God and should just be left to run its course. Indeed, most of it comes from the fact that we live in a fallen, corrupted world in which human beings exploit each other and fail to live in harmony with the truth. This sort of suffering we should do all in our power to redress as well as always being aware of how we might be adding to it and how we can avoid doing that. But there is also spiritual suffering, frequently but certainly not always mental in focus, which we must learn to recognise. Thus we need to acquire discrimination as to what is suffering caused by man’s inhumanity to man and what is suffering that comes as part of treading the spiritual path. Complications can arise when the two become mixed, as they can do, and karmic suffering is another factor to take into account, suffering that may be the result of decisions that individuals or groups of individuals acting collectively have taken. But determining the meaning and probable inner causes of events that occur in life is all part of the process of developing spiritually. We cannot look at these matters in a simplistic way by saying that everything that comes about does so for a single reason. This is a complicated world and we must avoid the temptation to reduce serious spiritual questions to elementary formulae that can be expressed in a quick and easy catchphrase. Nevertheless for the spiritual aspirant it is wise to regard any suffering that enters into your life as having a purpose. That doesn't mean that you just lie down and submit to it. It may have come to enable you to develop the strength to fight it. But you must learn what you can overcome and what you must accept so a good rule would be that initially you seek to solve the problem it presents and if you can't do that then is the time for acceptance and submission to God's will, knowing that his will is always to our own long term advantage even if it does not seem like that from our current limited perspective.
It is a fact that the greatest saints appear to have known the greatest suffering and we also have the example of the suffering of Christ before us, showing us that this is indeed the way to eternal life. And how could it not be, given that the barrier to eternal life is the fallen self or ego whose roots have become so deeply planted in the soil of our being that we mistakenly regard it to be what we really are? But then, to put all this talk of suffering in perspective, we see what it leads to. The risen Christ who has found his identity in God and is thereby released from bondage in form which bondage is the cause of all suffering. So suffering is no more, gone, impossible. Its pain has been transformed into love. For note that form, as the expression of spirit, and its opposite pole in manifestation, remains. The risen Christ still has a body, but that now exists as the means to express goodness, truth and beauty. Its power to limit and to be hurt has gone. Now it exists only to reveal the glory of spirit and to manifest the perfection of love. And, believe it or not, it is suffering that has made this possible. That is not to justify suffering but to explain its presence because understanding it will diminish the ferocity of its sting.
I am not saying that the risen soul can no longer suffer. This is a deep mystery but I would say that such a soul can no longer suffer personally but can do so as part of the whole of creation. All is one and the higher the soul the more it is identified with the totality of life. Creation is still groaning to be fully born and perhaps until it is even God, in some sense, suffers but this is a suffering that in no way contradicts heavenly joy. It is the suffering of love.
I want to conclude this section with a brief consideration of the doctrine of the Fall since it is the Fall that is said to be the origin of suffering in this world, both human and animal, as well as the disruption in the natural world. The idea is that this world was created perfect but fell into imperfection because of an act of disobedience on the part of early man, prompted by a demonic interference.
At one time I thought that the Fall was all part of the general pattern of the evolution of consciousness and that, essentially, we had to know duality (the separation of subject and object) fully in order to transcend it consciously. Early man was unconsciously one with life. We had to fall into self-consciousness and know separation in order to rise to a fully conscious union. I still think that. It's quite obvious really.
But, at the same time, did we have to know duality to the extreme extent that we do? I rather doubt it. So now it's not the descent into duality that I think was the result of our disobedience (or spiritual mistake) but the absolute separation that we feel from God. I can envisage a process where we still learnt to be full individuals but without the degree of pain, suffering and fear of death that we have now. It would have been a kinder, gentler process, still fully effective but less of a long hard slog. Less scarred by suffering and death. Also, it's clear that Nature has been deeply corrupted by something more than just the results of the misuse of human free will. That is why the Gnostics could think (incorrectly) that matter was evil in itself and not the creation of the good God. The created world is good but it has been damaged right to the bottom by an anti-spiritual force and so have we.
So I do think that a fall was part of the plan of human unfoldment and the growth of souls to true spiritual consciousness but not the Fall as we actually experienced it which was the intended natural fall carried further and brought lower because of the demonic desire to corrupt God’s creation coupled with man’s misuse of free will.