We realize it early in life. We are hungry; we become sick or disfigured; we lose our loved ones. We have pain—terrible pain, and it is not only physical pain but mental anguish. There is war, famine, and destruction by natural disaster: wind, water, fire, and earthquake.
Insecurity and Alienation
In the midst of all this, any security we might have is tenuous. Tomorrow might bring severe reversal of our current good fortune, and all the while we are in conflict with others. We are alienated from even our closest loved ones; love is imperfect and often turns into hurt or even hate. We are also alienated from others around us, many of whom wish to dominate or exploit us in some way. Every person we meet is a potential source of pain, exploitation, or even death.
In addition, we are alienated from ourselves—filled with weakness, self-doubt, and sometimes self-loathing. Even in our successes, we feel like failures, and we know we are never as good as we should be. We feel alienated from God as well, and even if we do not believe in God we may feel alienated from our idea of God.
Our lives are characterized by pain, fear, and insecurity and we know from the time we are children that, no matter well or how badly our lives turn out, in the end we do not survive. The closer we come to the natural time-limit on life, the more we realize how brief life is.
Life is Hard
Author Barbara Johnson sums it up for us: ‘Life is hard and then we die.’ She was not the first to notice this. Some told stories that longingly imagined a different reality. The early chapters of Genesis are such a story. Eden was a place without sickness, discord, or death–a place without pain or hard labor.
The story of the Garden of Eden addressed the questions of children (and adults) who asked ‘Why?’ Why is there pain? Why is there death? Why is it so difficult to make a living? Why do we kill and eat living animals? Why is childbirth so difficult? Why do people kill each other? Why are we alienated from God?
Another person who noticed the universal difficulties of life was Siddhartha Gautama. The story goes that he was a prince—sheltered by his father from observing such difficulties. But he went out from the palace and saw things he had not previously encountered: an old man, a diseased man, a corpse, and an ascetic. This changed Gautama’s life and he spent years dealing with these troubling issues.
Finally, he formulated a response, began teaching it to others, and became known as the Buddha. His response is called the Four Noble Truths, simplified here as:
- Life is suffering (dukkha)
- Suffering is caused by attachment
- Suffering can be overcome by eliminating attachment
- The way to eliminate attachment is through the eight-fold path
Something is Wrong
Most of us agree that something is wrong.
Gautama found a pro-active way of countering this wrongness. I admire Gautama. There are aspects of his teaching that I find useful in my own life, but I do not believe his answer is ultimately the best answer. This does not mean his teaching is false or dangerous, and it certainly is not demonic, but Gautama’s answer is not the ultimate answer to life’s issues.
The source of nearly all religion is in seeking how to deal with the various sources of pain, suffering, and alienation and correcting this wrongness. Many of them help to some degree, but none of them offer the ultimate answer to the suffering.
What is the Answer to Our Suffering?
Jesus is the ultimate answer. He is the answer to our pain, suffering and alienation. He begins by resolving our feelings of alienation from the Father and leading us to peace with ourselves and others. Then he tells us of the resurrection in which we will be free from ALL pain and suffering–even death!
Sometimes we refer to the wrongness of our alienation, pain, suffering, and death as the state of ‘sin’. But what is sin? We will discuss that next time.