Upsetting God

Sunday, October 14, 2007

When we think of blessings, most of us think of events, things and people that make us feel good. We think of “interventions” that come our way and bless us with good fortune or tidings like winning the lotto, a promotion, a bonus, an unexpected windfall of cash or other material gifts. We look at them as special because they are desirable and being the recipient of such bounty can be wonderful. And because of this, we have no problem seeing the hand of God bringing these to us as we profusely thank heaven for smiling down on us. God has answered our prayers.

But when we experience unpleasant things, we think otherwise. We are convinced that bad luck has befallen us, and some may even think that it came from the devil or some malevolent spirit to test us. In short, what we experience is not from God because the God we know would not do such things to us — unless, of course, we are being punished.

Watching the Emmy awards the other week, I was jolted by the acceptance speech of comedienne Kathy Griffin. To be honest, even if she was just being irreverent in “dissing” Jesus, I found what she said to be quite insightful, even if cynical, especially when she pointed out that it seems fashionable for celebrities to thank God for the awards they get, as if God did not have better things to do than bestow them on the denizens of Hollywood. She added that it is no wonder God does not seem to be in Darfur because Jesus is too busy showering awards on celebrities. Basically, she said that Jesus had nothing to do with her getting the award and thanked herself. It’s not surprising that her speech upset a lot of people.

But I saw no reason to get upset. In fact, I found it thought-provoking. Why? Because I cannot imagine God getting angry over something like that, when it seems He/She/It does not seem to get upset over so many other more serious things happening in the world. If God, who is all-mighty, powerful and omnipotent, was upset over Darfur, or Iraq, or 9-11, or the Abu Sayyaf, wouldn’t we know it by now?

By definition, you’d need an ego to get upset or affected by anything someone has said, and I really do not believe God has an ego. Therefore, He/She/It never feels sensitive and upset like we do, never feels personally attacked, never feels the need to protect or defend Him/Her/Itself from anyone or anything.

We, as humans, like to think that God is like us. But people usually get upset because they have egos, and ego can do only three things: attack, defend or promote itself. Our lives are ruled by our egos and we believe the temporal world is everything. Thus, a lot of us build up wealth and power to feel superior to others, and by doing so, we think we can buy security and safety, and perhaps eternity.

I know I will get negative reactions for this, but I find some of the Old Testament and Holy Text of many religions hard to fathom, especially when they describe an angry, vengeful God who gets upset and feels compelled to kill, maim or punish. It just does not fit with the simple understanding of the God I know. Only people with needy egos have temper tantrums.

The best three “starting truths” I have learned in my catechism have been my guiding light. And they are truths I accept with no hesitation: that God made all things, that God is everywhere, and that God is love.

But you may ask — and rightly so — if God is indeed love, and He is everywhere, then why is there suffering everywhere? Does suffering come from God? Why did God allow the 2005 tsunami to happen? Why do children die? Did God, who is the source of all, give my wife cancer four years ago? The subject of suffering is one of The Questions of All Time.

I have pondered over this many times and in the process I have had to change my conclusions about my concept of God quite often, especially what I believe He/She/It would or would not do.

During some dark moments, hints of the answers to why there is suffering have appeared to me fleetingly, but have not stayed long enough for me to proclaim it as universal truth. As hard as men throughout the ages have tried, I know God is difficult to fathom and the only thing I can say is, the answers I have discerned to this question are real to me (as of now), and there are two plausible ones. Here goes.

God allows suffering in the world, the loss of property, lives, limbs and loved ones because the temporal realm does not rate highly in God’s value system. And there lies the true message. If you’re looking for something lasting, the world is not the place to find it. Nor can you depend on it to ultimately save you because it is unstable. Unlike us, God does not feel a sense of ownership or attachment to anything, much less to the world because God does not have an ego.

That’s how I think the world was designed. We are not made to last. And our ego causes our suffering because it wants to believe the world is all there is.

When I don’t get enough comfort from the above reason, I turn to reason No. 2 since it seems to always make sense when something unpleasant happens and rocks me out of my shallowness and complacency.

The second reason God gives us challenges is because He wants us to become deeper and discover our strengths and weaknesses, our spiritual depths — things we usually wouldn’t bother with during “normal” times.

We turn introspective and forget our fixation with attacking, defending and promoting when faced with suffering. Especially when we find ourselves helpless, we realize that the security walls we’ve built up can’t hold back the tide. For what reason does God allow suffering then? Because God wants to break us, to take us out of our ego trance and force us to explore the depths of being human and to expand our understanding as much as possible. Otherwise, few of us would leave the temporal comfort zone of ego to discover the truth that we also have qualities that are God-like and eternal within us. And those parts of us are more interesting to God and are the terms by which He/ She/It wants the conversation, the relationship, to eventually proceed.

In many instances in my life, I’ve felt that the bad times have actually helped shape me into a better version of who I was. Joseph Campbell was right when he said, “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” Those instances have built my character, for one, and forced me into a deeper quest, and a greater curiosity and relationship with the divine, even if it was just to make sense of what was really happening.

In this light — and this may sound funny — shouldn’t we praise God as well when we get cancer, get into an accident or when we are beset by misfortune?

“I got sick. Praise the Lord.” Crazy as it sounds, I have done so many times.

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Special Announcement: Due to unavoidable circumstances, I am postponing the 37th run of the TCU workshop in Makati this month. The next run will most likely be early 2008. Sorry for the change of plans.