Frequently, people respond to suffering by putting all their efforts into material strategies to alleviate their difficulties. For example, in a power outage, they look for batteries, flashlights and other emergency supplies; in a health crisis, they go from doctor to doctor in search of a cure; or, in a financial crisis, they think of ways to save and earn more money. While material efforts are important, clearly, the reason God sends adversity is not to cause people to wait on long lines for scarce supplies, frequent doctors or worry over their finances.
Ignoring the underlying spiritual cause of our difficulties is an exercise in futility; we cannot override God’s purpose in sending us challenges. When we also focus on the spiritual, we give our material efforts much-needed potency.
Underlying all the reasons discussed below is one fundamental truth: The purpose of our challenges is to benefit us (Tractate Berachot 60b).
Do not think the reason for your suffering is that God abandoned you. Nothing could be further from the truth. During times of difficulty, God is with you in your pain. He is by your side holding your hand, strengthening and encouraging you. He knows that with His assistance, you will make it through and emerge even stronger and better off than before.
At times, the pain we feel due to suffering is overwhelming and intellectual reasons for difficulties do not resonate with us. In that case, we have to transcend our egos – the part of ourselves in pain – and connect with our souls, which are always at peace. For help doing this, see, “Surrendering to God: 3 steps to transcend your ego.”
5 Possible Reasons Why We Suffer:
1. To strengthen our faith and acceptance of God’s will. One of the core opportunities of life is to have faith in God. Difficulties serve to test and strengthen our belief that God guides our lives for our highest good, i.e., that everything will work out in the end for our benefit. Sometimes, later in life we realize how we benefited, or we will discover this in the Next World.
Ask yourself: How am I resisting my current challenge and thereby adding to my suffering? How can I be more accepting of the situation? If I knew for certain that everything would work out, how would I feel about this difficulty?
2. To help us grow and improve. Generally, we learn more from our failures and challenges than we do from our successes. Suffering teaches us important lessons, e.g., humility, empathy, patience and perseverance. Through suffering, we discover our hidden strengths and abilities we did not know we possessed.
Ask: How can I grow from this challenge? How can I use this difficulty to become a better person?
Suffering can also help us improve by reminding us to increase our repentance, prayer, and charity. A key High Holiday prayer states that by enhancing these three components we can annul a harsh decree. Use suffering as a catalyst to repent for misdeeds, pray with greater fervor and give charity more generously.
3. To help others. Our difficulties give others the opportunity to be kind, appreciate their blessings, and learn from our example. In Heaven, there are no needy or sick people. This world is the world of opportunity, the place where we can accomplish great good and earn the bliss of Heaven. Therefore, in this world, to provide opportunities to do acts of kindness there must be people who suffer and struggle.
Most of us do not suffer our entire lives. We take turns, so we get a chance to be both the giver and the recipient. Because of this, if you are suffering, allow others to help you (God gave them resources so that they can do so). Suffering in silence defeats the purpose.
When people see someone with significant difficulties, it reminds them that their own problems are not so bad, and to appreciate the blessings in their lives. If we accept our struggles with grace, we will be rewarded for serving as role models to others; we show them that one can still maintain faith and accomplish great things even amidst towering challenges.
Suffering also reminds us not to take our blessings for granted, to be thankful to God for what is going right in our lives; even with all our difficulties, in many ways, we are still fortunate.
Ask: Who can I ask for advice or help with my challenges? For which blessing in my life will I thank God? How can I use this blessing to help others?
4. To send us a spiritual wakeup call and to cleanse unrepentant sins. When we feel pain in our bodies, it is a sign something is not right and needs to be addressed. Similarly, when we experience the pain of suffering, it can be a message from our Father in Heaven that something is not right and needs to be addressed. Perhaps, in an area of our lives, we are acting unbecoming of one of His children, or our priorities need realignment and we are not fulfilling our potential.
Sin soils the soul. In addition to alerting us to make changes in our lives, suffering can also be used to cleanse the soul from unrepentant sin. To avoid this, we can cleanse ourselves through the purifying power of repentance.
When doing a self-accounting, perhaps we should focus first on correcting any lapses in interpersonal behavior. That was the area Joseph’s brothers turned to when they experienced suffering. The verse in Genesis states (42:21), “They said to each other, ‘It is true, we are guilty for our brother, because we saw his distress when he pleaded with us, and we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us.’”
When possible, seek guidance from a rabbi as to which area(s) to address. Sometimes, we are overly harsh with ourselves and blame ourselves for actions that were beyond our control or for which we have already repented. (Your rabbi may advise you that in your situation, it is best to skip this area and focus only on the other four reasons discussed here.)
Ask: Which life goals are truly important? How can I spend more time achieving them and less time on distractions? Am I engaging in sinful behavior? How can I use this difficulty as a wakeup call to change for the better?
5. To refine and elevate our souls. When we suffer, material distractions tend to lose their allure and we focus more on the spiritual. We also realize that only God can help us and we draw closer to Him, elevating our souls.
God purifies and brings close to Him those whom He deeply loves. If you are currently experiencing suffering, know that you are especially dear and precious to Him. You are among the spiritual elite of the world, God’s vanguard. By accepting your suffering and maintaining your faith in Him, you infuse creation with sanctity, thereby playing a key role in sustaining the world’s existence.
Whatever spiritual level we reach at the end of our lives is the level of bliss we will receive in Heaven and the way we will remain – forever. The temporary difficulties we experience in this world benefit us eternally by enhancing our spirituality.
Ask: How can I use this challenge to strengthen my connection to God and become a more spiritual person?
These five reasons provide an action plan on what to do when suffering strikes: Accept God’s will, look for ways to grow from the challenge, engage in repentance, prayer and acts of kindness, thank God for what is going right in your life, think about who you can ask for advice or help, and consider how this difficulty may be a wakeup call.
While doing all of the above as best you can and engaging in material efforts as well, draw strength from the knowledge that everything will work out in the end, either in this world or in the next. In addition, realize that through your suffering, you are helping others, enhancing the sanctity of the world and increasing your future eternal bliss.
Frequently, before engaging in soul searching, people wait for suffering to be intense and to exhaust all other options. As soon as the difficulties ease up they call off the search. In your life, begin the search early and often, using every difficulty as a stepping stone for growth. Never stop reaching for higher levels of spirituality. Never stop yearning for God.
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