God Squad: Why does God allow suffering?

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God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday. ...

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Q. I cannot understand why God allows so much suffering in the world. A loving father wouldn't allow his children to suffer. Yet God does nothing to help His children. One needs only to consider the murder of innocent people at the hands of criminals. God does absolutely nothing to prevent such atrocities.

If someone were to stand idly by and watch another person being killed, such a person would be condemned for not trying to intervene and possibly save the victim. Well, God stands idly by, does nothing, and we're told not to blame Him. Why are we mere mortals held to a higher standard than God?

-- M., via email

A. Thanks for your contribution of the most frequent question I'm asked by readers and students. This is the answer: The reason God allows suffering in the world is that the alternative is worse.

Let's suppose God decided to suddenly end all suffering on earth right now. On first look, this seems terrific. No agony. No death. No failure. No struggle for justice or freedom. Nothing but elevator music and sunny days. And all of it accomplished by God alone with no help from us.

However, that's the problem with what you think you want God to do for us. I call it The Superman Problem. It's the problem of what happens to our free will and our moral fiber when God decides to fix everything. What happens is that we turn into moral couch potatoes.

We'd quickly learn that doing nothing is just fine with God because God, like Superman, would always swoop down in the nick of time, should anything go wrong, and set everything right. This would be possible for God, but it would be horrible for us.

Moral indolence would make us weak, passive creatures. This is what children want, but God wants us to grow up and worship God out of love, not need.

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We can't wait for Superman. We must learn to fly ourselves. We must find cures for diseases. We must stop aggressors. We must feed the hungry, clothe the naked and lift up those who sleep in the dust. This is why God has given us the free will and intelligence to end suffering, as well as the knowledge of God's presence and love to give us the courage and hope to fix our broken world.

If you're uncomfortable with me citing Superman as a source on theological matters, let me direct you to the 58th chapter of the Book of Isaiah, where the prophet speaks of God's disappointment that the people: " . . . ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God.

"Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge?" -- Verses 2-3 (King James Version).

The people have the arrogance to believe that their ritual acts ought to compel God to reward them with an easy life. This is a foolish conceit. God mocks them by asking what they've done to end suffering on earth besides their fasting: "Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?

"Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?

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"Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?" -- Verses 5-7 (King James Version)

God then gives the prophet the words of consolation that take some of the sting out of God's caustic comments on the hypocrisy of fasting while living a life of moral indifference. God waits for the day when we do not expect God to take away the sufferings that are a natural part of life.

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