Given the Jewish people’s difficult history, Judaism’s responses to suffering are legion. One Talmudic view announces, “There is no death without sin and there is no suffering without iniquity.”* Would that the link between one’s iniquity and suffering were always so clear. To solve this problem, traditional Judaism also holds that although the righteous may suffer in this world, they will receive their just deserts in the world to come. Then there’s the view that when God is pleased with someone, God crushes him with suffering. So suffering has been seen as a sign of God’s love.*
Beyond efforts to explain suffering, Judaism holds in some very deep sense that God is with us when we suffer. “Fear not,” says the prophet Isaiah, “for I am with you. Be not frightened, for I am your God; I strengthen you and I help you . . .” (Isaiah 41:10). Those who share this kind of faith are never truly alone in their suffering. The words of the 23rd Psalm, read at most Jewish funerals, provide assurance of God’s presence through the travails of death and dark times. “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. . . . Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff — they comfort me” (Psalm 23: 1,4).
Judaism also sustains those who suffer through strong bonds of community. Visiting the sick and comforting those in mourning are religious obligations not just for clergy, but for all Jews. Indeed, the Jewish laws of mourning are geared to insure that the bereaved receive support throughout and remain engaged with the community. The daily requirement for those in mourning to recite kaddish¸ a prayer for the dead, with a group of 10 Jews helps assure this.
Finally, Judaism helps cope with suffering by sustaining hope. The story of the Exodus stands as the archetype for hope: suffering does not have the last word; slavery gives way to freedom; the darkest night begets great light. A people who endured the hardships of statelessness for two millennia, Jews now have a homeland — and its anthem is HaTikvah, The Hope.
Suffering is an immense and mysterious phenomenon. However rich and complex the legacy of our religious traditions, they are ultimately inadequate when it comes to explaining and understanding suffering. Given our common origins in biblical Israel, the Jewish and Christian traditions share ways of thinking about and dealing with suffering—some wise and some less so—but we also approach the topic in distinctive ways. Robert Gibbs captures this in a single sentence: “Christian theology can no more think about suffering in general without reference to Christ than Jewish thought can approach suffering by forgetting the specificity of Jewish suffering.”*
In general, much Christian thinking about suffering is refracted through the cross of Jesus Christ. By the time of the earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, composed ca. 70 C.E., the cross had already become a symbol of self-transcending love, a symbol of following the Way of Jesus: “Take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus’ death was a consequence of how he had lived and what he had taught: God’s reign of justice, mercy and peace—a stark contrast to the injustice of Roman rule. To live justly, act with mercy, and be a peacemaker is to open oneself to suffering.
The communities of his followers interpreted the crucifixion of Jesus by the power of the Roman Empire as a martyr’s death, which God vindicated by raising him from the dead: “The followers of Jesus did not believe in him because of the resurrection. They believed in the resurrection because they first believed in him and in the spiritual life he unleashed among them. This is, finally, what the resurrection proclamation is about. It is about the decision to believe in Jesus and to give oneself over to the Spirit to be discovered in his life.”*
Our mission in this world is to be Christ—to be his body broken for others, his blood outpoured for our world. This is our passion: being Christ in this world.
The Qur’an teaches patience and return to prayers in times of suffering. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) would return to prayer in sorrows and happiness. He was accustomed to saying that prayers were refreshing coolness for his eyes. The Qur’an says: “O ye who believe! seek help with patient perseverance and prayer; for Allah is with those who patiently persevere”(2:153). Zikr (remembering God) is another way to stay peaceful and refreshed. The Qur’an says: “And do thou [O reader!] Bring thy Lord to remembrance in thy [very] soul, with humility and in reverence, without loudness in words, in the mornings and evenings; and be not thou of those who are unheedful” (7:205). The Qur’an asks people to lighten their houses with Zikr to find peace: “[Lit is such a Light] in houses, which Allah hath permitted to be raised to honor; for the celebration, in them, of His name: In them is He glorified in the mornings and in the evenings, [again and again]”(24:36).
It is also the community’s responsibility to help and to stand with others in times of suffering. Who will not show mercy will not receive mercy is a well-known tradition in Islam. “God helps those who are in service of others” are repeated words in Muslim tradition. The Prophet used to say, “Clothe those who are naked; God will clothe you on the day of judgment. Provide shelter to those who do not have shelter; God will provide you shelter on the day of judgment when there will be no shelter.”