Suffering: A Common Theme Across All Religions
World Cancer Day, which is observed worldwide on February 4th, gives us an opportunity to reflect upon the suffering that many individuals face when they or their loved ones are afflicted with serious illnesses like cancer. It is also a chance to reflect more broadly on the many forms of suffering, from which none of us are immune.
“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them,” said Epictetus, the ancient Greek philosopher.
The widely held view in the modern world is that pain is something to resist, to avoid, to medicate against. But all religions try to delve deeper and treat pain as a catalyst to help us grow and evolve and become more compassionate towards ourselves as well as others. They view suffering as a blessing in disguise.
One of the most difficult questions for religious teachers to answer is the reason for the terrible suffering in a world that was supposedly created lovingly, intelligently, and purposefully. After being hit by a terrible tragedy, it is difficult to accept explanations like “everything happens for a reason” and “it is all part of God’s plan.” We have a deep yearning for fairness and answers, and an equally deep aversion to pain. But all religious teachings help us develop attitudes to endure and even eventually benefit from our suffering. Most theological traditions suggest that suffering can be viewed as an opportunity for spiritual growth.
Suffering is a prominent theme in Christianity and is viewed as inevitable due to sins of humanity. However, Christians take solace in knowing that nobody suffers alone because Christ suffers with them and has sacrificed his life to atone for their sins. Judaism teaches that suffering is a way to come closer to God and encourages the followers to turn to prayers as a means of finding comfort. Both Islam and the Baha’i religions believe God to be just and merciful and see suffering as tests through which God judges people and rewards those who endure suffering with patience and unwavering faith.
Hindu philosophy is rooted in principles of Karma and causality, thus giving suffering some logical perspective. It helps people make peace with it, giving an opportunity to purge the past karmic account to preempt further suffering by being mindful of doing good deeds and seeking God’s forgiveness via prayers and rituals. According to Buddha, suffering is an inherent part of the human life cycle and arises due to our attachments and desires. Buddhism offers an eightfold path to transcend the sufferings and attain spiritual enlightenment to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. Sikhism and Confucianism see suffering as inevitable and as a means to learn and grow.
Taoism, which focuses on complementary opposites in the universe, sees suffering as an inevitable consequence of life. Suffering, therefore, can only cease if we learn to stay on the middle path and not allow ourselves to ever feel too high or too low in life. The idea is to be in the mud of suffering and yet remain the joyous lotus above.
All faiths guide their followers to make sense of pain and suffering, provide means to transcend it and help find the hidden factors that transform the caterpillar into the butterfly and the darkness into light. Suffering encourages us to be introspective, forces us to be humble and induces us to turn to a higher power. When we look back and reflect upon the moments of our past sufferings, we often find that those were the very catalysts we needed to become resilient and develop inner spiritual strength to become who we are today.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
— The New Testament (Romans 8:18), Christian text
We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
— The New Testament (Romans 5:3–5), Christian text
“And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient.”
— The Qur’an (2:155), Muslim text
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.
— Hebrew Bible (Job 1:20–22), Jewish text
“Faith is the refusal to let go until you have turned suffering into a blessing.”
— Jonathan Sacks, British Rabbi and author
“If we suffer it is the outcome of material things, and all the trials and troubles come from this world of illusion.”
— ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i leader
“As we suffer these misfortunes we must remember that the Prophets of God themselves were not immune from these things which men suffer. They knew sorrow, illness and pain too. They rose above these things through their spirits, and that is what we must try and do too, when afflicted.”
— Shogi Effendi, Baha’i leader
“There are many sufferings in birth, and many that come right after birth; and there are many that he encounters in childhood, inflicted by elemental factors and so forth. Covered over by the darkness of ignorance, a man’s heart becomes stupefied; he does not know, ‘Where have I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What am I made of? What bond is it that binds me? What is the cause, and what is not the cause? What is to be done, and what is not to be done?’”
— Vishnu Purana, Hindu text
“If I do an evil action, I must suffer for it; there is no power in this universe to stop or stay it.”
— Swami Vivekananda, Hindu monk
“Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it.”
— The Dhammapada, Buddhist text
“The ocean of suffering is immense, but if you turn around, you can see the land. The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy. When one tree in the garden is sick, you have to care for it. But don’t overlook all the healthy trees. Even while you have pain in your heart, you can enjoy the many wonders of life — the beautiful sunset, the smile of a child, the many flowers and trees. To suffer is not enough. Please don’t be imprisoned by your suffering.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and author
“Those who don’t know how to suffer are the worst off. There are times when the only correct thing we can do is to bear out troubles until a better day.”
― Ming-Dao Deng, Chinese author and philosopher
“Plan for the hard while it’s easy[…]
Who thinks things easy finds them hard
Sages therefore think everything hard
And thus find nothing hard.”
— The Tao Te Ching, Daoist text
“The benevolent man reaps the
benefit only after overcoming difficulties.”
— The Analects (6:22), Confucian text
“The noble man remains stable when in dire straits. The inferior man falls apart.”
— The Analects (15:2), Confucian text
Modern Psychology and Philosophy
“Two-thirds of all sorrow is homemade and, so far as the universe is concerned, unnecessary.”
— Island, novel by Aldous Huxley
Suffering is not necessarily the opposite of flourishing. Suffering entails the experience of the loss of something good. It is painful. A holistic approach to flourishing requires a way to deal with and to confront the suffering that we will inevitably experience […] It is possible, at least to some extent, to flourish amidst suffering.”
— Tyler J. VanderWeele, Ph.D., Director of the Harvard Human Flourishing Program