Yet, the question remains, doesn’t it?
Christians often explain that suffering happens because it is supposed to teach you something. You keep suffering because there is a hidden lesson that you haven’t figured out. It will stop when you correct your ways, as suffering is God’s schoolhouse. I grew up with this idea in the church in which I was raised.
It’s a little twist on the old Deuteronomistic school, which biblical scholars will tell you comes mostly from Deuteronomy. Throughout this book, it is written that if you follow God’s commands, then all will go well with you: your crops will thrive, you’ll have plenty of children and your daughters will marry good, family-minded land owners — you know, all the things that would make a sixth-century-BCE-man very happy. It makes sense to think that if it is not going well with you, then you must have broken one of God’s laws, as suffering is God’s rod of correction.
This idea of a higher system rewarding the just isn’t only in Christianity. Found in all the major Indian religions, Karma is much the same idea, although nuanced. In a westernized misreading of, say, the Bhagavad Gita, they believe that the universe is disposed to mete out judgments on all the right people: the universe only brings back what you put out. Your life is terrible because you’ve treated people terribly. Whenever a well-intentioned-westerner claims Karma, though, it always sounds to me like they’re invoking it with a little too much schadenfreude.
Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in other’s misfortune. It permeates this understanding of suffering as schoolhouse, wherever it is found. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar display it when they almost enjoy berating Job. And schadenfreude is there when we tell someone that they need to change their life to avoid suffering. After all, what is more perversely pleasurable than sitting in judgement over someone when their suffering “is making me feel glad I’m not you” (as the Avenue Q song sings).
In fact, I must confess that I inordinately enjoy schadenfreude. Like most American Christians, I believe that God loves me more than just about everybody. So, when someone who has wronged me suffers misfortune somewhere down the line, I can’t help but privately smile, thinking that this is God getting them back for all the crap they’ve done to me. I’ve even had the temerity to invoke God’s eventual judgement on someone who has done me wrong, a la Celie’s curse in “The Color Purple” (see above).
The great problem with the schadenfreude-laden Deuteronomistic school is that it does not take into account reality. After all, Jesus said that the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Those who lie and deceive get wives. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Or as a favorite aphorism of mine says: some days you’re the statue and some days you’re the pigeon. Like rain, it seems God metes out suffering and pleasures without regard onto whom they fall.
Even more, it denies the fact that it seems God loves to make God’s favorite people suffer. When she was thrown from her horse, St Teresa of Avila looked up to heaven and wittily said, “If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!” And, God treats his friends very badly: the prophet Jeremiah was left for dead in a waterless cistern, and the first few chapters have us believe that Job was only tested because he was righteous. All the prophets suffered.
Even Saints were persecuted: by their families, by the state and, sadly, even by the Church. St. John of the Cross was held in a Carmelite prison for years. St. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. It’s almost a rule that the Church will crucify you, then canonize you a few hundred years later. Yes, it seems that God treats his friends the worst. This is why Jesus said in the Beatitudes that we should rejoice in suffering, after all, look at your company!
Let alone even mention that God — who did not brake any of God’s own laws — suffered in the crucifixion. So, what should Jesus have down differently if suffering is a punishment for wrongdoing? Or the Saints? Or the prophets? Or you, or me? That’s why this kind of thinking about suffering just doesn’t work.