God is Suffering

A close read of four biblical verses offers a powerful insight into one of the most challenging questions religion has to answer.

As a spiritual advice columnist, I am frequently asked why God allows suffering. My answer is simple: God doesn’t allow suffering, God is suffering.

To understand what I mean, consider four verses from the Hebrew Bible.

Now the earth was tohu va-vohu Genesis 1:2

Most English Bibles render this verse as: “The earth was empty and without form.” Sadly, this misses the far more dynamic truth of tohu va-vohu as “wild, chaotic, fluid, and unfixed.” Creation is in constant flux. Just beneath the seemingly ordered world you and I imagine is a seething and savage creativity that at times, and without warning, shatters our tidy existence with a ferocity we can scarcely comprehend.

This verse challenges us to set aside our desire for order and accept instead the truth that order—permanent order, as opposed to temporary calm—just isn’t in the nature of things. Life is wild. To insist otherwise is to take refuge in fantasy and stunt our maturation.

Everything is havel Ecclesiastes 1:2

Poorly translated as vanity, meaninglessness or futility, havel is another Hebrew word pointing to the profound wildness of things. Because they misunderstand havel, most Bibles leave us with a view of Ecclesiastes that is dystopian and nihilistic. In doing so, they rob us of one of the most wise and insightful books of the Bible.

Havel means impermanent, transient, without surety or certainty. Havel is associated with mist and morning dew: something that arises for a brief time and then dissipates. Havel tells us that the most profound law of nature is the law of entropy: everything dies. What is meaningless is our futile attempts to achieve permanence, stability, and immortality. What is meaningful is our efforts at awakening in, with, and as the ever fluid and ever changing happening of Y-H-V-H (see the next verse). When we do this, we don’t put an end to havel, but learn to live it with grace and gratitude, creating a world where people eat wisely, drink moderately, dress simply, love and befriend freely and work joyously (Kohelet 2:24; 4:8-12).

I form light and create darkness, I make peace and create woe — I Y-H-V-H do all these things. Isaiah 45:7

The divine name Y-H-V-H is derived from the Hebrew verb “to be” and is best translated as the gerund “happening.” Y-H-V-H is the happening of all reality: light and dark, good and evil. Y-H-V-H is all there is and there is nothing other than Y-H-V-H Deuteronomy 4:35. Y-H-V-H cannot be restricted to anything but must be understood as everything.

Most of us imagine an all-powerful and all-good God, but Isaiah’s understanding is far more profound: Y-H-V-H isn’t this or that, but this and that: not one thing but all things and everything. As Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the 18th-century Hasidic master, taught us in his song Dudeleh: “When it is good—it is You; When it is bad—also You.” The implications of this are made plain in our fourth verse.

Should we accept only good from God and not accept evil? Job 2:10

If Y-H-V-H is everything, then the truly faithful must be open to everything that happens — not as reward or punishment, but simply as what is. It isn’t that we have to like what is happening, but that we have to realize that all that happens comes from Y-H-V-H because all that is is Y-H-V-H.

When we realize that life is wild and chaotic, that nothing is permanent or certain, that Y-H-V-H is the Happening happening as all happening, good and bad, then we are free to put aside the question of why God allows suffering and and wrestle with a different and far more important question: What can I do to alleviate the suffering I see around me?

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