One of the greatest and toughest problems for religion and philosophy is explaining the rationale of our suffering and the suffering of innocent people like children and those generally considered good. The answer lies in proper understanding of goodness and justice. I refer to explication of the problem by Meister Eckhart, one of the greatest mystics of history. His Book of Divine Comfort appears to me the best explication of the question from mystical perspective. His views parallel Sufi views. Eckhart says that we suffer because we invite it. To quote him: “if I am sad for passing things, not loving God with all my heart nor even giving him the love he might justly expect to meet in me, what wonder if God ordained that I should still suffer loss and pain.” Eckhart’s argument is simple and straight forward that if one is good and believes God to be good and in control there is absolutely no ground for getting sad and troubled. By definition there can be no good man who doesn’t want what God wants, “because it is not possible that God should not want anything but goodness, and just because of this, when God does want something, it must be not only for the good but for the best.” We have been taught to pray that God’s will be done. From this it follows that we have no ground for complaint for whatever happens by the will of God. Seneca when asked what comfort might be best for those in misery has expressed this Christian-Islamic insight thus: “It is for man to take everything that comes as if he had asked for it, nay, as if he had prayed for it.” Those who have truly surrendered or submitted to the will of Allah seek only to glorify, to please God. Their prayer is: ‘God! Grant us the will to will whatsoever You will.’ This is a corollary of the station of raza that Sufis seek. Eckhart has quoted a prayer from a non-Christian authority in this connection: “Lord, supreme Father and only Master of high heaven, I am ready for anything you will; only give me the will to want what you will.” One can quote dozens of Sufi sayings in this connection. Just one will suffice from Ba Yazid: “I only will not to will.” Hell is nothing but self will procured by sin which is a form of self-love. William Law has expressed this point succinctly. “See here the whole truth in short. All sin, death, damnation, and hell is nothing else but this kingdom of self, or the various operations of self-love, self esteem, and self seeking which separate the soul from God, and end in eternal death and hell.” Man must endure without resentment every accident that befalls him and live without appeal, without any need to be consoled, without impatient prayers (which are only petitions - real prayer is gratitude to existence,) for change of fortune and resolutely, heroically face the nothingness at the heart of every existent. There is no respect for the individual, his wishes, sighs and dreams. No remedy for the pains that flesh is heir to is there. Saints love God/world in all circumstances and find Him equally present in everything, pleasant or painful. They are nonjudgmental as Christ teaches. They have perfected the art of attention. They don’t wish to be spared.
Eckhart criticizes those who are astonished to see good man suffer and attribute it to obscure sins. To quote him again: “…if it were pain and misery and only these that the man felt, he would not be good or without sin; but if a person is good, his suffering doesn’t mean pain, unhappiness, or misery to him but rather a great delight and blessing. The Lord says: Blessed are they that suffer for God and righteousness.” He formulates a test to determine whether a given case of suffering is an expression of punishment or azab or test/trial of God. “If you wish to know rightly whether your suffering is yours or of God, you can tell in the following way. If you are suffering because of yourself, whatever the manner, that suffering hurts and is hard to bear. If you suffer for God’s sake and for God alone, that suffering doesn’t hurt and is not hard to bear, for God takes the burden of it… what one suffers through God and for God alone is made sweet and easy.”
Eckhart maintains that “sorrow comes from loving what I can’t have. If I am sad about my losses, that is a sure sign that I love external things and really enjoy my sorrow and dis-ease. If one is sad about any thing, the created entities that are not God, it means one is not pure in love, truly just and still has the devil, the self there (Eckhart, 1973: 46). The Buddha’s argument is exactly similar that sorrow comes from desire, from affection for things earthly, things transitory. God or the Void is loved by only those who are not, who have sold their souls and realized the truth of annata. Eckhart is worth quoting in this connection:
...sorrow comes of affection and love, for these are the beginning and the end of sorrow. Thus, if I am sad for passing things, not loving God with all my heart nor even giving him the love that he might justly expect to meet in me, what wonder if God ordained that I should still suffer loss and pain?
Things cannot comfort or satisfy a good man but, rather, anything other than God or alien to him will be painful. He will always say: Lord God, when you send me elsewhere than into your own presence, give me then another you; for you are my comfort and I want you only…(Eckhart, 1973: 48).
He is perfectly logical in his thesis that no evil befalls a just person or is not perceived so. To quote him: “Now I say that when external harm befalls a good or just person, and he is not excited by it and the peace in his remains undisturbed, then what I have been saying is verified: the just are not troubled by anything that befalls them. If, however, a man is troubled by some external harm, then truly it is only fair and just of God to have ordained that the harm befall the man who could believe himself just and yet be upset by so little a thing. And if it is just of God, then truly the man need not mind but he ought far more to rejoice than he does at his own life…” He maintains that “I further maintain that sorrow comes of loving what I cannot have. If I am sad about my own losses that is a sure sign that I love external things and really enjoy my sorrow and disease. What wonder, then, that I grow sad, loving my affliction and sorrow, if my heart seeks what it has lost and my mind attributes to things what belongs to God alone?” I turn toward the creature from which discomfort comes in course and turn away from him from whom joy and comfort naturally come. What wonder, then, that I am sad and grow sadder? Truly it is impossible either for God or the world that any person should ever find true comfort when he looks to a creature for it, but those who only love God in the creature and the creature only in God shall discover real, true, and apposite comfort on all sides.” If we ponder on these quotes we will never suffer again or complain about it . But the question is are we ready to acknowledge our creaturly status- in fact nothingness in the face of the Real, to truly submit or surrender to God –i.e., be Muslims or are we prepared to love him and to be just. Can we love God and Justice for one day alone to see for ourselves how sorrow loses its sting? Onus lies on us. We need to justify ourselves. God has no need to hire an advocate to justify His ways to men. His prophets are not His advocates. We are the guilty and we stand condemned and we judge ourselves and invite the pain that follows suffering. For saints suffering continues but it no longer pinches or drives them to despair. They welcome it as God’s kiss. God kisses hard out of great love. Are we capable of enjoying these kisses and discerning mercy in apparent torture? Can we once say inalillahi wa inna illahi rajiuon and mean it. If we are for God and not our own property and God is our home, origin and destiny then what ground is there for suffering. I have yet to meet a single person who could say and mean inna liilahi… when (s)he suffered personal loss - say of death in family or loss of money/respect/prestige.