Social Issues, Theology

Two theologies of suffering


Harold Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, is a beloved classic for people of all religious backgrounds. For those who haven’t read it — or read it a long time ago and need a refresher, since the book is nearly 40 years old — Kushner asserts that God wants to prevent suffering from happening, but is actually incapable of stopping it — implying that perhaps God is not all-powerful.

I find it interesting that Kushner, a rabbi, comes to this conclusion, while Christians (who share the Hebrew Scriptures) claim the exact opposite: God can do whatever he wants, but often does not intervene to prevent suffering, for reasons we are not meant to understand from this side of heaven.

There are times when I find Kushner’s theology more comforting: that God would stop pain and suffering, but for some reason can’t, as opposed to an all-powerful being who could stop it, but chooses not to.

Again and again, I am struck by the contrast of how suffering plays out in both religions: Jews don’t typically offer concrete reasons for it other than “shit happens,” while Christians embrace suffering by embracing the cross; clinging a God who set aside divine privileges to suffer an agonizing death, and is said to continually suffer alongside us in our daily lives. We don’t have to reach for God in our pain; he reaches down to us, and uses pain for redemptive purposes.

For Christians, that’s the comfort: God suffers with us. You don’t have to experience the dark wilderness alone. And yet, some people ask what purpose that ultimately serves. God suffers with you, so what? How does that make the pain any less excruciating? You still have to experience it no matter what.

I see their point. And I have no answer for it.

I understand the value of following Christ even if there are no easy answers for the pains of the present. I am drawn to a faith that asserts real power is found in weakness; that the world’s social order does not determine worth or virtue, and even when evil is allowed to persist, it will not have the final say.

A friend of mine told me recently about an abusive ex boyfriend who has started stalking her. Afraid for her safety, she filed a police report. She’s also looking into a private home security system. “But,” she said, “Even if something happens to me — even if he kills me — he doesn’t win in the end.”

I suppose that’s the most critical difference when it comes to the way suffering is framed in Christianity and Judaism. Jews are focused on this present life; Christians look forward to the next one, in heaven. I really struggle to do that. I struggle with the notion that justice can only happen in a realm I can’t see, much less prove, and even if lost loved ones get redeemed there, I still have to suffer through the emptiness of that loss for the rest of my life.

Which is all the more reason, I think, to work hard toward bringing God’s kingdom to earth: a process that Judaism calls Tikkun Olam.

Photo by Alex Ivashenko on Unsplash


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