Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does a good God allow suffering?
Harold Kushner asked these questions especially after his son was diagnosed with progeria—quickly advanced aging. He would look 70 when he was 8. Kushner’s son Aaron died when he was 14. The experience led Kushner to write a book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Notice that it wasn’t called “If,” but “When.”
These are tough questions. It’s a question I struggle with too. And I think that if there was a perfect answer we’d all know it.
So in the midst of our inquiring, here are three common responses for why a good God allows bad things to happen to good people. Then I’ll offer what I think are a few helps going forward.
Reason #1: Even though it seems bad now, it’s for your own good over the long haul.
I recently heard it put like this: If someone who knew nothing about medicine walked into the operating room and saw surgeons performing an operation, they might think it was a bunch of criminals torturing someone. But only someone who understood surgery would realize that they were trying to help the patient, not torment them. This is the analogy some people use to suggest God does painful things to us in the short term as a way of helping us over the long haul. Bad things happen yes, but it’s for our own good in the bigger picture, they say.
The tricky part with so much of this is that we can never fully know the mind of God. Quite often the answer is: Maybe. Discerning the mind of God is a prayerful, mysterious journey. But explanation #1 is often cold comfort to someone actually in the midst of tragedy.
Reason #2: God is testing us.
I think of the biblical figure of Job. God allows the testing. All is taken away including his kids. He is afflicted with illness. But in the end he remains faithful and gets much back from his former abundance. Hurrah.
In some situations, perhaps God does test us. Refining and cultivating us so we grow stronger. But this is a tricky area and much depends on where we are in our walk with God; we need to be careful. And this is a critical question: Does our being tested impinge on someone else’s experience of God’s love? Do we think that someone else’s pain is a part of our testing? If so, I think we might need to carefully re-think the situation.
Reason #3: We are being punished.
This strikes at the core of our human instinct. New Testament scholar William Barclay lost is daughter and son-in-law in a boating accident and a woman said to him that it was because God was punishing him for his “heretical teachings.” What un-grace!
Part of the scandal of the Christian message is that yin-yang, and ‘what goes around comes around’… is, when we live a forgived and forgiving life in Jesus, inaccurate. God breaks the you-got-it-coming mentality. Christianity says that yes we are all sinners, but God loves us anyway.
So what of it?
“All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming,” says Helen Keller. So here are a few thoughts to hopefully help in the “overcoming.”
1: The world is broken and life is difficult.
I think that much of the malaise of the world wasn’t intended by a loving God. We have this thing called freedom and responsibility (and sin). We live in a world with humans who make terrible decisions all the time—including us! We are responsible for ourselves. We live in the midst of beautifully designed but twisted carnage.
So where is God? He’s helping and rescuing and loving us despite the chaos in this blender of a world. What are God’s titles? Saviour! Helper! Healer! (Not: Punisher! Adversary! Pain-maker!) Kushner, whose son Aaron died from progeria, understood God like this: “The God I believe in does not send us the problem; He gives us the strength to cope with the problem.”
2: In faith, this life is not the end of the story.
C. S. Lewis said that heaven, “once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.” That’s how passionate he felt about the powerful horizon of hope. When you know the end of the story it colours your understanding of where you are in the middle of the book. Hear how it is said by the Apostle Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” In the arms of God, the tragedy of this life is never the closing of a door, but the opening of one.
3: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8: 28)
A good friend of mine had a close family member die. This passage helped them through. The tragedy wasn’t good; but he knew that good could come out of it. The problems of today make us work smarter for a tomorrow that is better and for a future we will not see. Bad things can rekindle in us a desire to work for a better world. Jean Vanier, who for years worked in communities with people with intellectual disabilities wrote that if each one of us begins a journey “of courage to forgive and be forgiven, we will no longer be governed by past hurts… we can rise up and become agents of a new land… [We are] simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time.”
4: Pain is often the place where God is most closely with us.
Think of Jesus on the cross. There he is, bleeding, open arms. If ever there was an example of a bad thing happening to a good person, there you go. I think that Jesus’ experience partly teaches us that pain is not necessarily the absence of God. Pain is often the place where God is most closely with us.
I wish we all had a subscription to an invisible protection shield. We don’t. Chris Vais, a wonderful man and minister who died a short while ago of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, penned as his body was failing that “The way of suffering is the way of God, not because suffering is good (it isn’t) but because there is suffering in God’s world, and therefore in God’s heart… Suffering will cause pain and sorrow, but it will never ultimately defeat us. We disciples always have hope.”
In The Midst
Most people ask ‘Where is God?’ after a tragedy—an earthquake or bad diagnosis or death of a friend. But we also need to ask ‘Where is God?’ when we are in a good relationship, or helped, or healthy, or able to fall asleep with a smile.
God exists not only on this side of pain, but also in its tormented midst, and on the other side too.
I feel that without him, and the blessed hearts of friends around us, the load is simply too heavy to carry by ourselves.
Thank-you for this Matthew; it is thoughtful, insightful, and has blessed me!
Hi Mark, I’m glad you liked it. May God richly bless your day whatever you’re up to!
Thank you for this latest post… I know there are somedays where I am asking why I have been diagnosed with Chiari and suffer with pain all day everyday . Thank you also once again for remembering Chris Vais’s story. Even though it did bring a few tears to my eyes.
Hi Julie, thanks for the comment. I think it’s good for all of us to remember that ‘topics’ like this aren’t just ‘topics,’ but experiences that surround many people. It’s tough stuff. My prayers continue to be with you!
Good thoughts, Matthew. I remember R.C. Sproul’s answer to Kushner’s question, and that is that it was the wrong question, because there are no good people!
Hi Jeff, Yes I see where Sproul is coming from; but I wonder if he’s thinking about a different kind of thing altogether… perhaps total depravity! All of it as again a reminder of our dependence on God’s grace.
You know, I think I could make a pretty good case that the “American Calvinist” position of the Sproule’s of the world is one of the worst heresies to arise in the modern church. The Orthodox couldn’t care a fig about a Sproule, but a part of me would still like to see at least his theology politely eviscerated by a Kallistos Ware or Andrew Louth. I’m with Rob Bell on this one. God is a God of Love and Grace and while humanity is flawed, total depravity is not us. (Indeed, even Augustine of Hippo would disagree with that. Total depravity is Nothingness.)
I think Sproule was actually commenting on the Habs, Jeff. 😉
(I was in Mtl. the other day and mentioned the “game” the other night against that other team … “there was a game?” was his reply. Sadly, I had to laugh. You suiting up? I was thinking of offering my services.
Another vantage point from the story of Job is something we in the mainline tend to want to look away from but it is the topic of demon involvement in the universe or spiritual warfare.I realize in Job it raises as many questions as it answers (not least – Why did God allow Satan even to test Job) but it does remind us that some things that happen to us are not centred on us.We sometimes are just one of many players in the divine drama.
interesting and thought provoking. I recently wrote on the death of a good friend, faithful, generous, selfless….after years of fighting against cancer. It was unfair, but fair isn’t a part of life. What is, however, important in life is to cling to our faith in God in all those circumstances. Thanks for sharing.
Hi Ena, I agree! I like your use of the word ‘cling’… It suggests a dependence and real need.
As you know, Matthew, this is “the” question the “nones” ask about Christianity. Interestingly, it’s also the question even Thomas (Aquinas, that is) asked in the Summa. Number 2 on the list is Anselm’s substitutionary atonement thesis. Definitely time to rethink (aka jettison) that in favour of several other healthier options. For all the good the Reformers did, they seem to have been J-type lawyers who were certain that grace be damned, rules rule. The reductio ad absurdam of that is the wretched, possibly incestuous, Phelps “family” Westboro cult. In a way, they take total depravity readings to their logical conclusion, thus revealing the horrendous flaw in the argument and the “reading” of scripture, which is nothing short of an ideological interpretation, and an erroneous one at that.
It’s interesting — and surely not unrelated — that the biggest losers in the growth of Emergence Christianity are Evangelicals, not mainstream Christians. Many so-called “liberal” churches have certainly done little if any theological reflection in the past 50 years, but their instincts are right (re women, homosexuality, etc.). Sadly, they seem incapable of presenting cogent arguments. Sigh! Watcha gonna do??