Understanding and explaining suffering is a difficult task. Volumes have been written on the subject. It’s undeniably one of the major arguments used against the existence of God.
I was getting my hair done the other day and my stylist commented, “I so admire your passion for your faith, but may I ask you a personal question?”.
“Of course!” I answered, immediately praying for wisdom.
“Does it ever bother you or make you wonder about your faith when you see some of the things that God allows to happen to people?”.
“Well, yes, when I see others suffer, it definitely bothers me or even breaks my heart in two. But may I tell you a story about how I’ve come to understand God and suffering?”.
“Absolutely, I’d love to hear it!”. And so I began to tell her a story that rabbis have told for centuries.
Once there was a rabbi named Joshua Ben Levi who diligently studied the Scriptures. He could quote and argue them better than almost anyone. However, he knew he still lacked wisdom and understanding about the world, so he began to pray. He had heard legends of the prophet Elijah coming and visiting other scholars to help make sense of things, so he began to pray that he might be able to travel with Elijah throughout the world and hear his explanations.
God sent Elijah to him in answer to his prayers, but Elijah was reluctant to have the young rabbi accompany him on his journeys. Elijah sighed saying, “You will see strange and terrible things when you travel with me”. Rabbi Joshua quickly replied, “But I want to understand the ways of life on earth!”. Elijah conceded with one stipulation, “You must not ask questions about what you witness, you must keep your thoughts to yourself. If you speak to me about anything that you see, your journey will come to an end”. Rabbi Joshua agreed, overjoyed that his request was granted.
They walked all day and as night grew cold, they arrived upon a small cottage. They knocked on the door and a farmer and his wife welcomed them, warmly feeding them a simple meal of soup and bread. They even gave up their bed for Elijah and Joshua and slept outside in their barn. In the morning, they fed them a bountiful breakfast and bade them farewell. Just at the gate of their home, Elijah prayed, “May the cow in the barn die tomorrow”.
Rabbi Joshua found this so odd. “Those people were so kind to us, why would you pray for their cow to die?” Elijah gave Joshua a stern looking and said, “Remember what I told you. You must watch and listen. You may think what you wish, but don’t ask questions, or you may no longer travel with me”. So Rabbi Joshua remained silent and they traveled on.
In the late afternoon they reached the mansion of a wealthy landowner. They knocked on the door and a servant sent them out to the yard to sleep in a small shed with no dinner. So there they rested and noticed that the wall next to the shed was cracking. As they rose to leave Elijah prayed, “May this wall stand for generations to come!”. Instantly the wall straightened and the cracks disappeared.
Rabbi Joshua was about to protest that this inhospitable landowner should receive such a reward after treating them so rudely, but he remembered Elijah’s stipulations and said nothing.
The following day they arrived to a bustling town. They entered the town hall with the prosperous and wealthy citizens and one of the townspeople asked, “Who will feed these rabbis who have come to our town tonight?”. His neighbor replied, “Why should we feed them? Let them feed themselves!”. At this remark, all of the townspeople burst out laughing. Elijah nodded and began to walk out with Joshua following him. As they passed the town gate Elijah prayed, “May everyone in this town become a leader!”.
In his mind Rabbi Joshua was about to explode in disagreement with Elijah, but he bit his tongue. Rabbi Joshua’s thoughts raced within him as he continued to follow Elijah. Tired and hungry, they meandered on towards the next village. Upon arriving, one of the villagers greeted them saying, “Good evening travelers. You look tired and hungry. Our homes are small, but we always have room for anyone who needs a place to rest.”
In the morning all of the villagers came to bid them farewell, giving them a basket of food to take with them on their journey. Before they came to the main road, Elijah prayed, “May the people in this town only have one leader!”
Rabbi Joshua could not stand it one more minute. “This is too much! You must explain the meaning of your strange actions! The couple who gave us their home ended up with a dead cow. The rich and selfish landowner miraculously had his wall repaired. The rude townspeople were granted many leaders and these kind villagers were granted only one. What in the world is the meaning of all this!?”
Elijah set down his walking stick and looked Rabbi Joshua in the eye, “You have studied all the holy books. You say you wish for wisdom and understanding of life on earth. The first key to wisdom is to realize that all that you see is not what it seems.”
Elijah sat down and explained. “When we visited the farmer, it had been decreed in heaven that his wife was to die, so I prayed that God would spare this kind man the love of his life and take his cow instead. When we came to the wealthy landowner’s house, I knew that under his wall lay a giant treasure chest full of gold and diamonds. Because he is a selfish man, I prayed for the wall to remain secure, so that he will never reap the greatest reward from his land. Instead, his humble servant, who will inherit it after his death, will be the one to receive it. As for the townspeople, have you not heard the proverb, ‘A ship with too many captains will surely sink?’. In that town they will never find peace and harmony. There will be arguing and discontent among them, until they learn humility. As far as the last village, they will have one honest and wise ruler to guide and help them. In days to come, they will prosper and will have peace for many generations. These are the things, Rabbi Joshua, that cannot be learned from any book. Only by asking your heart to look beyond what you see, will you come nearer to the knowledge and understanding that you seek. Things are not always what they seem. Remember these words and learn from them what you can.”
Rabbi Joshua was left alone with his thoughts yet again, but began to understand the ways of the world were bigger than his eyes were able to perceive.
Unlike the prophet Elijah, Jesus accepted His followers’ questions about suffering. When Lazarus died his sister Mary demanded an explanation from Jesus as to why He allowed this tragedy to happen. Jesus answered her question with another one. “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”. In other words, “Martha this appears to be a tragedy, but through these circumstances you are going to see the goodness, kindness, compassion, and mercy of God in a way that you would never experience without walking through this!”. Jesus did not shame her nor become exasperated by her question. Instead, He reminded her that God was bigger than this circumstance.
“More than you can imagine,” she answered with a quake in her voice.
Sometimes we can’t explain what we see before us, sometimes we just have to believe.