I’m reading Bart D. Ehrman’s book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer and about half way through it, I was struck with the absolute self-centeredness of that question. The author and the religions he criticizes don’t recognize that those who ask that question are one of the reasons we suffer. Believing in God won’t take away anyone’s suffering. Not believing in God won’t take away anyone’s suffering. Praying for something or praying in gratitude for what’s been received won’t take away suffering. In fact, nothing will completely eliminate suffering. But those of us who are blessed with abundance can do more than give thanks, and by that, we can decrease the suffering within ourselves and others.
Is Prayer a Let Down?
I don’t pray. I meditate. It brings a greater awareness of myself, makes me slow down and be more mindful, and by that, it makes me more mindful and aware of the world around me. I don’t pretend to understand “God.” How can I? For me, the Bible creates an almighty individual that is easy for human beings to “wrap their heads around.” From there, we can live a moral life. However, it’s been proven that one doesn’t have to believe in that God to do good. Many non-believers do incredible humanitarian work where they directly make a positive difference in the lives of those who are suffering. Maybe it’s this direct contact with suffering that makes a person stop believing in God, or maybe it’s the joy and gratitude of those who have been helped. As I see it, the humanitarian may be struck with the realization that he/she stopped the suffering by giving vaccinations or cooking rice; not through prayers to God.
So how does gratitude figure into the elimination of suffering? The Bible instructs us to give thanks to the Lord, and to obey the Lord. It continually reminds us that if we don’t, we will suffer. The problem that Ehrman points out is that even those who follow the rules often suffer. That’s an awful delusion. Ehrman also describes his own suffering because he feels guilt for his own good fortune. He showed his gratitude to God, through prayer, for years; only to feel the suffering of guilt because he was so lucky when others weren’t. At this point, I had to put the book down and roll my eyes. How selfish!
Take your good fortune and demonstrate your gratitude! No need to suffer because you say “grace” before every meal when you know others are starving. If that creates guilt, then volunteer at the food bank or a homeless shelter. If your good health is something you’re grateful for, then go volunteer at a hospice or nursing home and help those who suffer from diseases. There’s plenty of suffering in the Bible, and if you look to that book to find ways to eliminate it, there are plenty of parables to give positive examples. But many who do not believe in the God of the Bible do just as much, and many are likely happier than Ehrman when he realized his good fortune created suffering through guilt. Those are old, hard-wired religious notions that can be really difficult to overcome. I heard a pastor describe coming to church every Sunday as fire insurance. Simply believing and praying won’t save a person. Therefore, I don’t really worry about fire. I live in this space and time, and I am very, very lucky. If there is a God, then that God made me to be fortunate for a reason, and that reason is to do everything that I can to eliminate suffering in the space and time around me. That’s how I show my gratitude.
Ehrman, Bart D., God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer, HarperCollins, 2008.