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If God Is Good, Why Do Pain and Suffering Exist?

"Is God There?" Beach sceneThe question is an old and venerable one: If God is good, and God is all-knowing, and God is all-powerful, then why is there so much pain and suffering in the world?

If you believe (I don’t) that God knows about and causes everything that happens in the universe, then you have several options when confronted with apparently senseless suffering. You can blame the victim and assume that the suffering is a punishment for something she or he did in this life or in a past life. You can affirm the mysterious inscrutability of God’s ways, so that we cannot fathom divine wisdom and cannot view events from the larger, cosmic perspective. Or you can maintain that since everything happens is by the will of God, it must by definition be good.

When I tell people that the God I believe in does not cause everything that happens, so that I do not look for the hidden divine meaning of things that happen to me, they respond that I don’t really believe in God. They assume that only a God who knows all, causes all, and rewards and punishes us for our deeds is worthy of the name God.

The God I believe in permeates the universe as the ground of all being. God is beyond human conception, so all our images and metaphors for God are a reflection of our human glimpses of that which is unfathomable.   Unfathomable, but not undetectable, and definitely not irrelevant. How do I know that there is a God? I don’t. I can’t know what is beyond my ability to conceive. It’s a matter of faith. I have faith that there is more to reality than can be measured in a laboratory.

The metaphor that works best for me is imagining God as the air, surrounding each of us, inside and outside of us. The Hebrew word ru’ah means both spirit and wind. Not material air. Not even energy. An unimaginable force that underlies all things. The God I believe in possesses an infinite number of attributes at every moment, in every place. God is compassionate and judgmental, gentle and harsh, very near and very distant, forgiving and angry, a parent and a drill sergeant. What I experience of God depends on what I am open to. When I was closeted and hiding my sexual orientation, I could not experience the divine presence. I felt judged. When I came out to God and practiced sitting in God’s presence as my authentic self, after a few months, I could take in God’s compassion and loving support. God had not changed; I had.

When I talk to God (a Jewish practice of hitbodedut), I don’t believe that God literally hears me. Addressing God out loud, nevertheless, changes things. Things surface that I had not been able to express. I am reminded that I am not alone. And invariably, God’s view as I imagine it of me and my challenges is more compassionate than my own view. That is how prayer works for me as well: opening my heart to God is spiritually elevating even for someone who does not have any certainty that God hears my words.

My faith is an affirmation that all things are interconnected, that I cannot predict or control what befalls me, and that there is something greater than my mind and my heart on which I can rely. I can’t prove these things, but neither can I disprove them. What I can do is attend to my relationship with God like I do with family and friends, so that I am able to reach out to God when I am so inclined. When I ask, “What is the invitation in this?” I do not mean that God caused this to happen in order to invite my response. But asking that question at the most inspiring and most devastating times invites me to respond as if I am interconnected with all things, in a unity that I call God.


Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.

This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at http://firstdaypress.org/if-god-is-good-why-does-pain-and-suffering-exist.

Image: “Is God There?” by Gonzalo Saenz via Flickr.

Topics: Spirituality
Type: Essay