Christian Versus Buddhist Understanding of Suffering


            The world is characterized by suffering, both physical and mental. Different religions have a different understanding of the concept of human suffering. This paper seeks to compare and contrast Christian and Buddhist understanding of suffering. Both religions have a long historical interest in suffering. Whereas the two agree that suffering is part of human life, they hold different views regarding the cause and end of suffering. Christians believe that suffering is promised as a retribution for their selfish act when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden of Aden. On the other hand, Buddhist believe that suffering comes from human desires and cravings and that one can live a life free of suffering by achieving enlightenment through the Noble Eightfold path.

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Christian Understanding of Suffering

 Christians perceive suffering as normal. Suffering comes from the fact that the world is characterized by evil and corruption. The rebellion against God by Adam and Eve that resulted in the fall from grace for the entire human race also subjected the world to corruption and decay. The sinful nature of humans also increases suffering as people inflict pain and suffering on others through acts such as war, crime, and oppression. It is worth noting that God did not design the world to have suffering – He created it perfect. It was humans who fell into the devil’s temptation allowing him to turn them away from God (Lewis & Hill, 2019).

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When God created humans, He gave them free will so that they can choose between right and wrong. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they opened the door for evil to enter the world. Thus, the problem of suffering came as a result of human selfishness (Hall et al., 2018). Hall et al. explain that God is love and He desired to create people who would love Him. Since genuine love cannot exist unless it is freely given, God gave humans free will. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God they invited evil into the world. Thus, God is not evil nor did He create evil and suffering. Humanity brought suffering upon themselves when they selfishly allowed the devil to persuade them to disobey God.

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Because of the fall from grace, the world is now characterized by evil and suffering. The world is not in the state that God intended. One of the most persistent questions is why God allows humans to suffer if He truly loves them and is all-powerful. Lewis and Hill (2019) explain that suffering is a tool used by God to accomplish His purpose for human lives. Suffering is designed to build humans’ trust in God, but it requires the right response. Suffering compels humans to stop relying upon their resources and instead have faith in God’s resourcefulness. However, it is worth noting that suffering is not virtuous nor is it a mark of a person’s holiness. Hebrews 12:6 states that “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and He chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” Thus, people sometimes suffer because it is God’s way of disciplining them for their transgressions (Hall et al., 2018). Suffering is, therefore, promised for Christians. The Bible promises persecution and suffering for Christians due to their faith. In John 15:20, Jesus promises Christians that the world would treat them the same way it treated Him.

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Christians also believe that although suffering is promised for all humans, it is only temporary. God will eventually destroy evil and bring suffering to an end. For all believers, there is a new world coming where there will be no more suffering since God will make all things brand new. Revelation 21:4-5 states that “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new! …” However, while still on earth, Christians have an obligation to continue fighting evil and the corruption that renders the world full of suffering. God did not create the world with evil in mind. By following Christ’s teachings, Christians can alleviate suffering consequently making the world a comparably better place to live in (Lewis & Hill, 2019). Although suffering is not good, Christians can use it to accomplish good.

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Buddhist Understanding of Suffering

The Buddhist understanding of suffering is well-reflected in the “Four Noble Truths.” Notably, Buddhist define suffering as the tendency of human to cling or crave for impermanent objects or states which keep them caught up in an endless cycle comprising birth, suffering, and dying (Hall et al., 2018). The Four Noble Truths taught by Buddha include the truth of suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path that frees one from suffering.

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Regarding the first truth, “the truth of suffering” Buddhists believe that all humans experience frustrations, surprises, betrayals, et cetera, which cause suffering. Buddha describes three key types of suffering namely “the suffering of suffering,” “the suffering of change,” and “the suffering of conditioning.” The first type comprises painful experiences related to being physically human. These include experiences such as birth, sickness, aging, and dying. The second type of suffering is related to happiness or pleasure. When one something or experience that gives one happiness or pleasure change, the person experiences suffering since pain is in the opposite continuum of pleasure. The last type of suffering comes from the realization that suffering will always be present as long as one continues to live an unenlightened life (Hall et al., 2018). Thus, Buddhists believe that acknowledging that one will encounter challenges and difficulties in their day-to-day lives is the first noble truth. Within the suffering, there are two causes – that is, natural suffering such as sickness, and the second one is self-inflicted suffering which results from habitual reacting to situations and unnecessary regret and anxiety (Hopfe, & Woodward, 2009). Thus, similar to Christians, Buddhists believe that suffering is part of living.

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The second Noble Truth, “the cause of suffering,” explains that all types of suffering result not from circumstances of external events but rather how a person reacts or deals with the occurrences; that is, their perceptions and interpretations. Buddha’s teachings elucidate that suffering stems from a craving for life derived from three “poisons.” One, ignorance of the fact that everything is impermanent and interdependent. Two, desire/greed of objects and people who can help one avoid suffering. Three, aversion/anger to the things one craves for but cannot achieve (Hall et al., 2018). Thus, people can learn to look at each other’s experiences as they happen to be prepared for when they happen to them or the next. The third Noble Truth, “the end of suffering,” explains that people hold limiting ideas about themselves, others, and the world in general (Hopfe, & Woodward, 2009). Buddha teaches that people should learn to let go of the limiting ideas. Consequently, this results in one unlearning everything from their social conditioning and bring down all barriers all of the separations that cause suffering (Hall et al., 2018). Thus, the end of suffering comes when one achieves enlightenment.

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The fourth and last Noble Truth is “the path that frees humans from suffering.” Buddha explains that the mind causes people to live in a dualistic manner. However, if one is aware of and embraces their habits and illusions, they can abandon their expectations about how things should be and instead accepts them the way they are (Hopfe, & Woodward, 2009). Buddha teaches that people utilize mindfulness and meditation to examine their views so they can achieve an accurate perspective. The fourth Noble Truth entails the Eightfold path for leading one out of samsara to nirvana so that one attains complete freedom from desire and suffering (Hall et al., 2018). Thus, unlike Christians, Buddhists believe that one can live a life free of suffering.

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To sum up, both Christians and Buddhists believe that suffering is an instrumental component of human life. However, the two have a different understanding of the concept of suffering and its scope. Christian believes that suffering is the result of human selfishness exhibited when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden of Aden. On the other hand, Buddhists believe that suffering is caused by people’s craving for what they think they should have rather than accepting things as they are. Another difference in the understanding of suffering is the belief by Christians that suffering is promised and will always be part of humans as long as they are alive while Buddhists believe that one can live a life free of suffering by achieving enlightenment through the Eightfold path for leading one out of samsara to nirvana. Nonetheless, the two agree that the world is characterized by suffering.

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