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Why Does God Allow Illness and Suffering?

I work voluntarily with the sick, and some of them have serious illnesses. Quite understandably, many patients and their loved ones suffer considerable anxiety.  


It must be a huge shock suddenly to go from leading a normal life to your entire future being in doubt. If the patients and families I work with have religious beliefs it is common for them to be severely tested by illness, especially if, for example, the patient is young or has children.  


They all ask: “If there is a God, how could He allow such a thing to happen? How could He let my loved one suffer so much?” Many of them follow that question with this one: ”Maybe there isn’t a God after all—if there is a God, does He care, or is He vengeful and capricious?”


These heartfelt, important questions deserve answers.


The Baha’i writings offer many perspectives on the themes of tests, trials and suffering, especially about the tests from disease or illness, both physical and mental. Life can seem random and brutal when people suffer as a result of these things. Abdu’l-Baha gave us a useful explanation as to the reasons for tests:


The trials of man are of two kinds. (a) The consequences of his own actions. If a man eats too much, he ruins his digestion; if he takes poison he becomes ill or dies. If a person gambles he will lose his money; if he drinks too much he will lose his equilibrium. All these sufferings are caused by the man himself, it is quite clear therefore that certain sorrows are the result of our own deeds. – Abdu’l-BahaParis Talks, p. 49.


This explains some of our tests, for example, when bad lifestyle choices have an impact on health.  But he then goes on to talk about suffering endured through no fault of the person in question:


(b) Other sufferings there are, which come upon the Faithful of God. Consider the great sorrows endured by Christ and by His apostles!

Those who suffer most, attain to the greatest perfection.

Those who declare a wish to suffer much for Christ’s sake must prove their sincerity; those who proclaim their longing to make great sacrifices can only prove their truth by their deeds. Job proved the fidelity of his love for God by being faithful through his great adversity, as well as during the prosperity of his life. The apostles of Christ who steadfastly bore all their trials and sufferings—did they not prove their faithfulness? Was not their endurance the best proof? These griefs are now ended. – Ibid.


Interestingly, Abdu’l-Baha refers to the Old Testament story of Job, which will be familiar to many. Job was a good and righteous man whose faith was severely tested when he suddenly and brutally lost his family, his livelihood and his health—but refused to curse or blame God, and was rewarded in the end. So it seems that in one sense at least, suffering through illness can be part of our journey towards perfection in this earthly life which, to a Baha’i, is just the beginning of our eternal existence. Through it we can develop our faith in God. It may seem unfair that some, on the surface at least, seem to enjoy trouble-free and healthy lives while others get ill or have terrible accidents.   But later in that same passage Abdu’l-Baha gives us the following assurance:


Tests are benefits from God, for which we should thank Him. Grief and sorrow do not come to us by chance, they are sent to us by the Divine Mercy for our own perfecting. – Ibid.


So in a strange kind of way, we’re told to regard tests such as illness as a blessing, the very opposite of what they seem to be. We may think we’d struggle to attain to that sublime state of mind, but   Abdu’l-Baha tells us that God will help those who turn to him. He went on to say:


While a man is happy he may forget his God; but when grief comes and sorrows overwhelm him, then will he remember his Father who is in Heaven, and who is able to deliver him from his humiliations.  Men who suffer not, attain no perfection. The plant most pruned by the gardeners is that one which, when the summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and the most abundant fruit. The labourer cuts up the earth with his plough, and from that earth comes the rich and plentiful harvest. The more a man is chastened, the greater is the harvest of spiritual virtues shown forth by him. A soldier is no good General until he has been in the front of the fiercest battle and has received the deepest wounds. – Ibid.


In a letter to a woman whose husband was evidently unwell, Abdu’l-Baha assured her that although we may grieve over health challenges, in fact, there is no such thing as a perfect, untested life, and that all of us need tests in order to refine our characters and prepare for the next world. In reality, those of us who believe in God can seek consolation and peace in Him, knowing that in the end the physical limitations of this earthly life will pass:


Anybody can be happy in the state of comfort, ease, health, success, pleasure and joy; but if one will be happy and contented in the time of trouble, hardship and prevailing disease, it is the proof of nobility. Thanks be to God that that dear servant of God is extremely patient under the disastrous circumstances, and in the place of complaining gives thanks.

Verily I am pleased with both you and [your husband], and I ask God that you may find pleasure and ease in another world—for this earthly world is narrow, dark and frightful, rest cannot be imagined and happiness really is non-existent, everyone is captured in the net of sorrow, and is day and night enslaved by the chain of calamity; there is no one who is at all free or at rest from grief and affliction. Still, as the believers of God are turning to the limitless world, they do not become very depressed and sad by disastrous calamities—there is something to console them; but the others in no way have anything to comfort them at the time of calamity. Whenever a calamity and a hardship occurs, they become sad and disappointed, and hopeless of the bounty and the mercy of the Glorious Lord. – Abdu’l-BahaBaha’i World Faith, p. 363.


So in reality, although some people may seem to be blessed with happy and healthy lives, in fact no one in this earthly life is free from sorrow and calamity. Does that mean that we should passively submit to illness and take no action? Absolutely not. We have been given this life in order to prepare ourselves for the next, and so need to make the most of it. The Baha’i teachings advise us to seek the help of medical professionals, and also to pray for healing:


There are two ways of healing sickness, material means and spiritual means. The first is by the treatment of physicians; the second consisteth in prayers offered by the spiritual ones to God and in turning to Him. Both means should be used and practised. – Abdu’l-BahaSelections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 151.


The Baha’i Writings contain many beautiful healing prayers. If we pray and ask God to heal us or a loved one, will that prayer be answered? Not always. Abdu’l-Baha explained why:


The prayers which were revealed to ask for healing apply both to physical and spiritual healing. Recite them, then, to heal both the soul and the body. If healing is right for the patient, it will certainly be granted; but for some ailing persons, healing would only be the cause of other ills, and therefore wisdom doth not permit an affirmative answer to the prayer. – Ibid., pp. 161-162.


Finally, returning to the idea of grief and sorrow being, in reality, a blessing, this is nothing new.  Rumi, the thirteenth century mystical poet put it like this:


I  saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out,  

“It tastes sweet, does it not?”

“You have caught me,” grief answered,

“and you have ruined my business.”  

“How can I sell sorrow, when you know it’s a blessing?”

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