By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Why do bad things happen to good people? Folks like us have been asking that question since the beginning of time.
The ancient Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt for over 400 years. The early Christians were persecuted and martyred. Naturally, they wondered why they had to suffer so. The Jewish people of today are still hard-pressed to explain how a merciful God could allow six million of their brothers and sisters to be annihilated.
Why do bad things happen to good people? We ask that question all the time.
What could people possibly do to deserve a tidal wave or an earthquake, a hurricane or tornado? On September 11, 2001, we watched helplessly as two airliners slammed into the World Trade Center towers killing over 3,000 innocent victims, and we still ask, what did they do to deserve to die? Just this week, ten terrorist bombs went off Thursday morning in Madrid, killing 200 people and wounding 1,500 others. The same day, another U.S. soldier was killed and two were wounded by when a homemade bomb went off in Baquoba, Iraq, bringing the total death count of U.S. service men and women to 554.
Why do bad things happen to good people? We ask the question on a personal level. Why did God allow our baby to die, or be born with birth defects? Why did the drunk driver turn down our street that fateful day? Why was I born with this set of genes? These are serious questions, and they cry out for a reasonable explanation.
Jesus’ disciples had their own doubts about the injustice of it all. In the gospel lesson today we get a glimpse of two tragedies that had occurred in the city of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day.
The first was an atrocity of human violence. A group of Jews from Galilee had made their pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem to make their sacrifices to God when they were ambushed at the altar by a contingent of Pilate’s army. It was a bloody massacre that sent shock waves throughout the Jewish community. Innocent men had been killed in the very act of worship.
The Temple had been desecrated. What do you say when bad things like this happen to good people?
The other incident was a natural disaster. A watchtower had crumbled and fallen in Siloam killing eighteen innocent bystanders. Siloam was the area of Jerusalem where devout Jews came for cleansing and purification. It was the site of the pool of Siloam. Remember, in the Gospel of John, when Jesus healed the blind man, he told him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam? (Jn. 9:7)) Again, innocent people were killed for seemingly no apparent reason. What do you say when bad things like this happen?
Over the years there have been many attempts to answer the question. The ancient view was that God punished the wicked and rewarded the righteous, so that when misfortune occurred, you could be sure the victim had it coming to him. We still hold to this theory, consciously or not. A golfer hits a booming slice off the tee, but instead of going into the woods, the ball hits a tree and ricochets into the middle of the fairway. His buddy shrugs his shoulders and says, “You must be living right.”
In his book, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder weaves an intriguing tale of a small village in South America. The peasants get up every morning at the crack of dawn to go to work in the fields. But there is a great chasm between their village where they live and the fields where they toil, and to get to the fields they must cross a rickety suspension bridge. One day, without warning, the bridge snaps, and six peasants fall to their deaths. It’s a terrible tragedy.
The whole village is in shock. After the dead are buried and life resumes to normal, the village priest decides to make it his personal mission to determine why it was that these particular men and women died. He figured there had to be some logical explanation. And so, meticulously, he studies every aspect of their lives. He talks to their loved ones. He researches their past.
Finally, he reaches this conclusion: There is no rhyme or reason why these six people died. They were no better and no worse than any of the other villagers. Their death was a tragedy, but there is no explanation, other than the fact that they happened to be on the bridge when it fell.
When bad things happen, we look for a logical explanation. As often as not, there is none.
Another theory of why the innocent suffer is that, though unfortunate and undeserved, the suffering of a few can lead to the betterment of the whole. For example, the early Christians were persecuted, but through their faithful witness, others accepted Jesus as the Christ. The Holocaust was a nightmare of untold proportions, but it helped sway the United Nations to recognize the Jewish state of Israel. Racial segregation in this country denied generations of black people education and opportunity, but it finally gave way to the Civil Rights Act.
When bad things happen, we often look for a positive outcome, as if putting a positive spin on tragedy will, somehow, soften the blow. A funeral director told me years ago concerning the death of a child, “You know, God picks the most beautiful flowers for his heavenly bouquet.”
Somehow, I didn’t find that to be a very comforting thought. Still another explanation as to why bad things happen to good people is that life is a mystery, and although there are reasons why bad things happen as they do, those reasons are not always known to us. Again, I think it was Thornton Wilder who put forth the notion that our view of life is like looking at a tapestry from the back side. Seen from our perspective, life is a jumble of knots and threads and loose ends protruding in every direction. If we could only see the tapestry from the other side – from God’s perspective – then we’d see that it has perfect form and symmetry and balance. As the Apostle Paul said to the Corinthians:
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then face to face.
Now I know in part,
but then I will know fully,
even as I was also fully known.”
In his book, Praying for Jennifer, John Cobb puts forth yet another way of grappling with the question of why the innocent suffer. He says our problem is not in making sense of everyday life, but in comprehending the nature of God. Cobb says, as long as we conceive of God as some sort of celestial power broker sitting high in the heavens parceling out blessings here and inflicting punishments there, we’ll always be at a loss to explain why bad things happen to good people.
His book, based on a true story, is about a group of four teenagers, all model students in school and members of their church youth group. They were out joy riding in the country one day – not misbehaving in any way – when the girl driving the car failed to negotiate a curve, and the car overturned. Three of the kids were thrown free and escaped with minor scrapes and bruises. The fourth, Jennifer, was critically injured. She was rushed to the hospital and put on life support.
Jennifer’s friends rallied around her and prayed that she might live. They solicited the help of their minister and the other members of their youth group and maintained a 24-hour vigil at the hospital. As they rotated shifts around the clock, taking turns praying for Jennifer, they talked about what had happened and tried to make sense of it all. “Why Jennifer, of all people?” they wondered.
After about a week, Jennifer awoke from the coma she was in and was taken off life support. Her friends rejoiced. Their prayers had been heard. Or so it seemed. But they soon got another bitter taste of reality when they learned that she was paralyzed from the neck down and would probably be a quadriplegic for the rest of her life.
As Cobb tells the story, the youth come together at the church to talk about their feelings and help each other make sense out of their experience. Painstakingly, they come to understand that God is not an omnipotent Godfather who holds the reigns over life, but an ever-present force – a gentle Spirit – who abides with us and seeks to comfort us in our suffering. They come to see that God neither causes bad things to happen, nor prevents bad things from happening. God does not interfere with the natural consequences of cause and effect. The rain falls on the just as well as the unjust. God stands with us, but God does not stand in the way.
Personally, I think Cobb is right. Our problem is that we’d like to have a world that is totally predictable and manageable and under control; one in which, if we abide by the rules, we can be assured of getting a fair shake: Just tell me what’s required and what I can expect in return.
This sort of wishful thinking is all well and good until we realize how it influences our concept of God: We want a God who plays by the rules – our rules. If we read our Bibles, say our prayers, go to church, pay our tithe, abstain from sin and do nice things for others, then we ought to be able to expect equal consideration from God. We ought to be able to expect God to protect us from danger, answer our questions, keep his end of the bargain.
The bottom line is this: We want a God on our terms, not one who demands total surrender to the sovereignty of his will. And that’s the essence of our sinfulness, that we conceive of God in our image, then hold God to our expectations.
Let’s go back to the gospel lesson for today. Why did Jesus not answer the question: “What about those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices?” I’ll tell you why – he didn’t answer the question because there is no answer. Instead, he addressed the underlying sinfulness betrayed by the question and said, “Unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way.”
Repent? Repent of what? Repent of your idolatry. Admit to yourself that the God you worship is largely the product of your own design, and not the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Remember the prophecy of Isaiah, who said, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ says Yahweh.”
Remember how God answered Job’s complaint by asking, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” And how Job repented and confessed, ” I know that you can do all things…I have uttered that which I did not understand.” (Job 38:4; 42:2-3)
Let go of that tired, old notion of a capricious God who conforms to your expectations and accept the fact that the God we seek to worship and serve is the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth who loved us so much that he sent his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to be wounded for our transgressions and die for our sins that, in the midst of our pain and suffering, we might have the assurance that God is with us, we are not alone; and that God’s grace will be sufficient for all of our needs.
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On Sunday evening, December 4, 1994, Rick and Suzie Harper and their nine-year-old daughter, Kelly, were trimming the Christmas tree in their home in Red Oak, Texas, just south of Dallas when Suzie began to have difficulty breathing. She was asthmatic, and she’d had attacks like this before. She used her inhaler, but it only got worse. Reluctantly, she asked Rick to drive her to the emergency room. She hated to be a bother. Midway between their house and the hospital she stopped breathing. Rick stopped to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, then took off again and raced as fast as he could for help. By the time they reached the hospital she had not been breathing for several minutes. The emergency personnel gave her a shot to relax her lungs and put her on oxygen, but it was too late. She was, for all practical purposes, brain dead.
Suzie’s mother, Ina, was a member of my congregation in Iowa Park. She called me from the hospital, and I rushed down to be with her. In the following days and weeks, we spent many hours rehashing the terrible ordeal of December 4, trying to make sense of what had happened. In the process, I tried to console her in her grief; as much as anything, she was the one who consoled me.
In time, Suzie died, and as we prepared for the funeral, Ina said something I’ll never forget. She said, “There’s nothing more we can do; Suzie’s in God’s hands. God lent her to us for forty-three years, and now, he’s taken her home. Life goes on. We can’t look back. God will be with us in the future just as he has in the past.”
What do you say when bad things happen to good people? I know of nothing better than the words of this great old hymn that goes,
“Be still, my soul,
the Lord is on Thy side.
the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to Thy God
to order and provide;
in every change
He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul,
thy best, thy heavenly friend
through thorny ways
leads to a joyful end.”
(Cokesbury Hymnal, p. 68)
Copyright 2004, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.