TAPAS – SUFFERING
BY: SADHU SUNDAR SINGH
Excerpted from Wisdom of the Sadhu
Seeker: Sadhu-ji, you speak much about the blessings of the spiritual life, but why do so much pain and suffering exist in the world?
Sadhu: It is difficult to understand the mystery of pain and suffering in the world. Ultimately, the root of suffering is found in sin, in separation from God. Still, God uses suffering to call us into the peace of his presence. If God could not use pain and suffering for our good, then he would not allow such things to remain in the world. The grain of wheat must lie in the dark womb of the earth before it can be called forth into the open air by the light and the warmth of the sun. Then it grows into a healthy plant and bears fruit.
Rain and windstorms wreak destruction, but they also cleanse the land of pests and disease. In the same way, the wind of the Spirit shakes us with its power, but its force brings spiritual health and blessings. Just as an earthquake can cause sweet springs to erupt in the desert making the land lush and fruitful, suffering can disrupt our lives and expose in our hearts springs of life-giving water. Then refreshing streams of thankfulness and joy flow where before there was complaining and grumbling.
When a sweet branch is grafted onto a bitter tree, both feel the knife and both suffer. But only in this way can the bitter tree bear sweet fruit. God himself suffered pain in order to introduce good into our evil nature. In this we see God’s great love and in turn faithfully suffer the agonies of this world. We can then bear good fruit forever.
Seeker: So is suffering necessary for the spiritual life?
Sadhu: The divine order is established for our spiritual health and happiness. Remember that spiritual anguish and physical pain are not the same thing. Physical pain is the result of illness or injury, but spiritual anguish is the result of sin and separation from God. When we defy God and rebel against his divine order, spiritual anguish ensues. It is similar to the discomfort an Englishman experiences in tropical heat, or an Indian in the bitter cold. God does not prevent us from opposing him; instead he uses the resulting anguish to remind us that we are pilgrims and strangers in this world.
In the trenches dug during the First World War, flowers and fruit began to grow. Deep down the soil was richer and more fertile than on the surface. So it is when we suffer: the hidden riches of our soul come to light. Therefore, we must not despair when we see what appears to be a destructive process. This very process can set the hidden, unused powers of our soul to work.
The fruit inside the walnut is delightful, but the shell surrounding it is bitter. Suffering is unpleasant at first contact, but those who accept it for God’s sake find within it the delight of spiritual peace. We do not attain real victory by escaping pain, but rather by discovering the grace to change pain into ease, death into life, and evil into good.
The silkworm struggles within the imprisonment of its cocoon, but this very struggle gives strength to its wings. If we open the cocoon and prematurely free the imprisoned creature, it will not have the strength for its new life and it will die. So God’s children struggle in this world and in that struggle become strong and fit for the life that awaits them.
Our spiritual struggles in this world are a preparation for our eternal home. We can only really appreciate the blessings of comfort if we also experience the agony of affliction; the pleasure of sweetness, only when we taste the bitter; the value of the good, only when we encounter the evil; the worth of life, only when we pass through death. Misfortune and hardships in this life keep our spirits wakeful so that we do not abandon our true destiny and become comfortable in this fleeting world. When we have all reached a state of perfect spiritual health, suffering will end forever.
Seeker: Are you saying, then, that God deliberately inflicts suffering on us for our own good?
Sadhu: God has created everything in nature for a purpose, even if we cannot comprehend that purpose. Nearly every substance in nature that causes illness and death can also be used as healing medicine. We call them poisonous because we do not recognize their true qualities. In the same way, trials and afflictions can strengthen and deepen our spiritual lives if we make good use of them.
When we suffer, it may also benefit others in ways we can hardly imagine. By seeing our affliction and helping us, others may exercise their own spiritual gifts and grow toward perfection. God has no joy in our pain, but he sometimes uses pain and suffering as bitter medicines for the treatment of souls. If we turn against God and resist his help, then such trials become deadly poison to our souls.
If a newborn child does not cry out and scream, then it must be slapped until it does. No one has joy in slapping a child – only the longing that it makes full use of its lungs and draws in life-giving air. So in perfect love, God may strike us with blows and stings of pain so that the breath of prayer flows freely through the lungs of our souls. This is the only way we can become strong and fit for eternal life.
Look at the pearl. A pearl is a product of pain and suffering. Tormented by some foreign matter against its soft flesh, the oyster responds by embracing the irritant and transforming it into an object of great beauty. The creation of the pearl not only provides relief to the oyster but is also a source of wonder and pleasure to many others. But beware! The unique luster of the pearl can be easily destroyed. Ink or oils can contaminate and destroy its beauty. Pearls laid in ancient tombs often decay with the corpse of their owners; the dust of the pearls is then mingled with the dust of the dead.
Spiritual life – like the pearl – grows out of pain and suffering. And even when the pain has been transformed into a thing of beauty, the lustre of our spiritual lives can easily become contaminated and decay. We must continually watch and pray and turn to the Master with thankful hearts.
Thousands of years of heat and pressure come to bear on black carbon before it is transformed into a precious diamond. Even then, diamonds do not dazzle unless they have first been cut. When cut and polished, then the rays of the sun make them shine with wonderful colors. Scientists may manufacture artificial diamonds in laboratories, but careful examination exposes their inferiority. Likewise, we cannot attain spiritual perfection without passing through pain and suffering. We must live continually in the presence of God; then our trials will transform us into heavenly jewels, cut and polished by the Master’s sure hand.
Seeker: Why do people laugh and ridicule those who choose the way of suffering?
Sadhu: Do not be surprised or distressed if others oppress and slander you. Light and darkness cannot exist together. People who are attached to their own desires and pleasures will always misunderstand and oppose the spiritually minded. Resisting any challenge to their own selfishness, they often become confrontational. Indeed, if you receive praise and compliments in this materialistic world, then beware that you have not abandoned the spiritual path altogether. Even if the unbelieving overcome their inclination to oppose you, this will only make it worse for you. Then they can begin to influence your spiritual life and hinder your progress.
Once there was a man who courageously confessed his faith and challenged people to abandon their selfish desires. Angered by the challenge of his life and words, his enemies took him and hung him upside-down from a tree. Even in this position, he had such peace of heart that he was not even conscious of the pain and disgrace. Turning to his tormentors, he said: “In this world, everything is upside-down and nothing is upright. You think you have turned me upside-down, but actually you have turned me rightside-up. I am like a transparency slide that casts its image correctly only when it is placed upside down in the projector. In your eyes I am upside-down, but in God’s, I am forever upright.”
Sometimes it is easier for the followers of God to die as martyrs than to daily give themselves as living sacrifices. We only experience physical death once, but if we faithfully follow God, we must die daily. The Master needs living martyrs who offer themselves for the sake of others. All those who are ready to give up their lives in faithfulness to God – be it in physical death or daily service to others – will live with God forever in the fullness of joy.
Seeker: But surely, if selfish people despise us, we can at least depend on other spiritually minded people to stand by us.
Sadhu: Do not count on it! In order to rescue us, the Master renounced everything and was himself renounced by everyone. When he entered Jerusalem the people cried out with one voice: “Lord! Lord!” But within three days, they were so offended by his challenges to their comfortable and selfish lives that they cried with the same voice: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” To put your hopes on the support of other people is to build your house on sand. Today they will praise you and build you up, but tomorrow they will cast you down so that no trace remains.
Do not feel sorry for yourself even if those who lead spiritual lives turn against you. If you faithfully follow the leading of God’s spirit, God and the hosts of the heavenly realm will stand by you. You should not get discouraged. The time will soon come when God will reward the unselfish love of the faithful.
Seeker: It often seems that those who are faithful to God and who seek the truth must suffer while others enjoy comfort and ease.
Sadhu: In the bitter cold of winter the trees stand bare and seem to be dead. But in the spring, they burst forth into leaf and flower, and the first fruits begin to appear. So it was with the Master’s death and resurrection. So it is with all of us who faithfully bear the burden of suffering and death. Though we may seem crushed and dead, we will yet bear beautiful flowers and glorious fruits of eternal life.
Do not be jealous of those who lead a comfortable life. It is possible for sheep to wander away from the fold and find good grass along the edges of the jungle. However, they are actually in great danger, and in the end wild animals will tear them to pieces. By contrast, those who stay with the flock may appear feeble and the grass may be less green, but there they are safe under the shepherd’s watchful eye. It is the same with the followers of God; those living in comfort and success do not necessarily enjoy his blessing.
Whether we like it or not, we will encounter suffering and danger in our lives. If we do not bear the cross of the Master, we will have to bear the cross of the world – with all it’s earthly goods. Those who bear the Master’s cross know from experience that this cross bears them and takes them safely to their destiny. But the cross of this world actually drags us down and leads to destruction. Which cross have you taken up? Pause and consider.
The snake and the silkworm begin their lives with similar bodies. But as they grow, the snake remains a snake no matter how many times it sheds its skin, while the silkworm casts off its ugly form and emerges from its cocoon as a completely new creature, flying on the air with delicate wings. So the believer casts off this material body and enters into spiritual bliss, soaring forever in the heavenly realm while the sinner remains a sinner even after death.
The Master opened the gates of heaven for all who follow in faith. As soon as we follow in his footsteps, accepting in faith the way of suffering, we begin to experience unbounded joy. Only those who believe can understand and accept this joy. Heaven is closed to unbelief. God gives an enduring joy and deep happiness even in the midst of pain. This joy can uphold us in the midst of suffering and lead us through the open gate of heaven.
Seeker: You speak of the Master – God incarnate – suffering. How is such a thing possible?
Sadhu: The body and the spirit are distinct, yet they are so finely interwoven that the spirit is aware of even the slightest injury to the body. So the Creator is distinct from his creation, but wherever people experience pain and grief, God himself feels it.
A clean person cannot stand being in a filthy place even for a short time. Those who live in communion with God find it very unpleasant to live among ungodly people. Indeed, some abandon the world to live as hermits in the desert or in caves. If we, as sinful people, cannot stand the company of evil doers, what agony must the Master have known. When we speak of his suffering, we often mean the six hours of the crucifixion. But his whole life as the embodiment of holiness among the defiled must have been a trial. He took this on himself to rescue us from death. It is beyond our comprehension. Even the angels cannot comprehend it. It is an amazing thing that God, out of love, should become one of us that we might gain eternal life.
Once, as I traveled through the Himalayas, there was a great forest fire. Everyone was frantically trying to fight the fire, but I noticed a group of men standing and looking up into a tree that was about to go up in flames. When I asked them what they were looking at, they pointed up at a nest full of young birds. Above it, the mother bird was circling wildly in the air and calling out warnings to her young ones. There was nothing she or we could do, and soon the flames started climbing up the branches.
As the nest caught fire, we were all amazed to see how the mother bird reacted. Instead of flying away from the flames, she flew down and settled on the nest, covering her little ones with her wings. The next moment, she and her nestlings were burnt to ashes. None of us could believe our eyes. I turned to those standing by and said: “We have witnessed a truly marvelous thing. God created that bird with such love and devotion, that she gave her life trying to protect her young. If her small heart was so full of love, how unfathomable must be the love of her Creator. That is the love that brought him down from heaven to become man. That is the love that made him suffer a painful death for our sake.”
God, who himself suffered anguish in this world, is able to protect and rescue those who suffer now. He gives relief when the time is right. Nebuchadnezzar threw three young men into the furnace, but God was with them, and its raging fire could not harm them. God is with all those who have received new spiritual life. They pass through the fires of physical pain and affliction and dwell in the peace and safety of God’s presence.
SUFFERING [Sadhu Sundar Singh] 1