Nothing in life is random. G-d sends suffering to accomplish a specific purpose. We must realize that there are reasons for our difficulties. By working to uncover the reasons, we will grow from and transcend our challenges.
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 G-d 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 G-d’s purpose in sending us challenges. When we also focus on the spiritual, we give our material efforts much-needed potency.
5 Possible Reasons Why We Suffer:
1. To strengthen our faith and acceptance of G-d’s will. Underlying all the reasons below is one fundamental truth: The purpose of our challenges is to benefit us (Tractate Berachot 60b). Difficulties serve as a training ground to strengthen our belief that G-d guides our lives for our highest good. Sometimes, later in life, we realize how we benefited, or we will discover the benefit in the Next World.
Ask: How am I resisting this challenge and thereby adding to my suffering? How can I be more accepting of this situation? If I knew for certain that everything would work out in the end, 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, by giving them the opportunity to be kind, appreciate their blessings, and learn from our example. In Heaven, there are no needy, sick or discouraged 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 (G-d 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’ll be rewarded for serving as role models to others, showing 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 appreciate what is going right in our lives and to be thankful to G-d. We can realize that even with all our difficulties, in many ways we are fortunate and there are still opportunities for us to help others…
Ask: For which blessing in my life will I thank G-d? 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.
Ask: Is there behavior that distances me from G-d? What is the first step to take to shed this harmful behavior? Which life goals are truly important? How can I spend more time achieving them and less time on distractions?
If you’re not quite sure where to start, speak to your rabbi for customized guidance.
5. To refine and elevate our souls. When we suffer, material distractions tend to lose their allure and we realize only G-d can help us. We then draw closer to Him, thereby elevating our souls.
In addition, suffering tests the depth of our loyalty to our Creator, by increasing the difficulty of having faith in Him and following His Torah; we may be tempted to violate Jewish law and behave improperly in an attempt to solve our problems. By overcoming this pull away from G-d, we strengthen our relationship with Him and increase our spirituality.
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 G-d and become a more spiritual person?
If you have addressed the first four reasons as best you can, and your suffering continues, then this fifth reason – to elevate your soul – is likely a major factor behind your difficulties. Realize, G-d purifies and brings close to Him those whom He deeply loves. You are especially dear and precious to Him. You are among the spiritual elite of the world, G-d’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.
These five reasons provide an action plan on what to do when suffering strikes:, Accept G-d’s will, look for ways to grow from the challenge, engage in repentance, prayer and acts of kindness, thank G-d for what is going right in your life, 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 through your suffering, you are helping others, elevating your soul for eternity and enhancing the sanctity of the entire world.
Do not think the reason for your suffering is that G-d abandoned you. Nothing could be further from the truth. During times of difficulty, G-d 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.
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 G-d.
For an elaboration on many of these concepts, please see the classic work, The Way of G-d (Derech Hashem) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, and the contemporary work, Making Sense of Suffering: A Jewish Approach by Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner.
Yaakov Weiland has an MSW from Fordham School of Social Service and lives in New York City. He has been published in The Jewish Press, Arutz-7 and Aish.com. To read his other articles, please visit yaakovweiland.blogspot.com.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.