Tuesday, October 19, 2010

FAQ Part 1: Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People?

This past Sunday, I began a sermon series called "Frequently Asked Questions".  The premise is that I'll take the most common questions that people have about God, Faith, etc., and respond to them.  I'm not attempting to definitively answer these questions, per se, but I am publicly interacting with them.  As a part of that exercise, I plan on posting the audio as soon as its available during the week that each sermon is delivered, and I'm also dusting off my blog and writing a post that interacts with each week's question.  So, without any further introduction, I give you my first question:

Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People?
It's a question I've been wrestling with a lot lately.  I could tell you the story of the 16-year-old girl that died when a tornado hit her High School a few years ago.  My father was the police chaplain and was also her preacher.  He identified her body, and then had to walk out to where her parents were waiting in the designated area behind caution tape, and inform them that their precious daughter was dead.  I could tell you about my wife's cousin who suffered from cystic fibrosis all of his life, and wasn't expected to live past age 6.  At age 38, he received a lung transplant that was supposed to give him at least another 10 years to spend with his wife and adopted son.  He developed an infection in his new lungs shortly after the transplant, and died less than a year later at age 39.  I could tell you about my friends from college Tony and Susan.  Tony was the best man at my wedding.  Susan stood in for my wife Dana at our wedding rehearsal.  Tony and I decided to go into youth ministry on the same day.  Susan and Dana developed the kind of special bond that often grows between those who walk a similar path.  About a month ago, Susan went in for an outpatient medical procedure.  Something went wrong, and by that evening the MRI showed no brain activity.  The next morning, my friend had to give the word to turn off the machines, because his wife was dead.  Then, he went home to their 3-year-old twins.  No matter who you are, and how strong your faith is, there are times when you look to the heavens and scream "Do you even know what you are doing???  Do you care???  Are you even there???"  Why do bad things happen to good people?

In order to Biblically engage with this question (as it is commonly asked), it seems to me that part of the question is itself questionable.  Bear with me, because I assure you I'm not trying to get God off the hook on a technicality, but I have to ask, "What 'good people'?"  Now before half of you give me the Mark Driscol/John Piper stamp of approval, and the other half slam your laptops closed in disgust, let me explain.  I do NOT mean that in the hyper-Calvinist sense of "we are all so evil and depraved that we only deserve for horrible things to happen to us in the first place, so its a miracle that good things ever happen."  I find such an explanation to be a theologically abhorrent cop-out.  I think that Scripture makes quite clear the value that God places on human beings, and that he deems all of his creation as "good" and "very good".  What I mean, is that followers of Jesus, who have accepted the grace of God, have essentially opted out of categorizing some people as better than others.  Paul appears to argue (Romans and Galatians immediately come to mind) that to do so is to invalidate the Gospel of Jesus, and that to continue to insist on putting people into categories (Jew, Greek, Slave, Free, Male, Female, Good, Bad, etc.) that somehow sort them in terms of value and worth is precisely to "fall from grace", as someone who claims not to need it.  To be Christian then, is to opt-out of the "US v/s THEM" system that deems some as "Good", deserving of blessings and protection from pain (because they've earned it), and some people as "Bad", rightly deserving all of the pain and suffering that might come their way.  

So, I think a re-framing of the question is in order.  The question isn't "Why do bad things happen to good people?" so much as it is "Why do bad things happen to God's people?"  Essentially, the question posed to God is, "If we are supposed to have this special relationship with you...if you are really a 'Father' to us, how can you allow these things to happen?"  I would argue that this is the most commonly asked question in the Biblical text, and much of Scripture is devoted to wrestling with precisely the issue at hand.  I hate to disappoint you but, even so, no definitive answer is given in the Bible.  The closest thing you get is found in the book of Job.

The book of Job is likely the oldest document in the Biblical text.  Moreover, despite the claims of fundamentalists that everything in the Bible must be interpreted literally, the majority of the book of Job is written in Hebrew poetry.  Many attempts at answering our question (even within the Biblical text) offer a solution that sounds a lot like Karma...Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  While the opening scene of Job is Theologically odd to say the least (with Satan walking into God's throne room and engaging God in a wager), it does make one thing very clear:  What happens to Job is in no way his fault.  In fact, the text describes Job's righteousness in such an over-the-top kind of way, you would think he was Jesus.  As the narrative progresses, everything Job loves is systematically taken away from him, and even his relationship with his wife is twisted in a way that only adds to the misery.  Job stands strong for the majority of the narrative...until his religious friends show up.  In the beginning they do something that is very wise, observing a tradition by which they are present with the one in mourning, but do not speak.  (We could actually learn a lot from them, because in these situations many of us say the dumbest, most insensitive things possible.)  Then, after several days of this, they ruin it by talking.  They explain to Job that BECAUSE (A) We all know that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people (a.k.a. "sinners"), and (B) Bad things are happening to Job, THEN (C) Job must be "bad people"/a sinner.  Job assures them that this isn't the case, but they will have none of it, as their logic is perfect in their own minds.  Finally, Job has enough and screams at the heavens, demanding that God would come down and explain himself.  In humor that often escapes us, the youngest member of Job's band of friends speaks up for the first time, and explains to Job what a silly request this is, because God just doesn't do this kind of thing...Which is immediately followed by God showing up to respond to Job's question.  God's poetic response is fascinating.  He begins by establishing who is God and who isn't.  He speaks of his knowledge, his power, and his role as Creator.  He essentially asks Job, "Who do you think you are?"  This is commonly assumed to be the essence of God's entire response to Job, as if God is just a colossal jerk who happens to be really powerful.  Such a reading doesn't do justice to God or to the beauty of the text.  As God's response continues, you begin to notice a subtle shift in the language.  He begins to use very parental language (both paternal and maternal) to refer to his relationship with things like rain, dew and frost.  He describes Himself as being greatly concerned with even baby birds who cry out in hunger.  He depicts himself as counting down the days until pregnant goats and deer give birth.  He begins to talk about lazy wild donkeys who he appears to love, though they don't produce anything of value like a domesticated donkey.  He describes an ostrich as ugly, mean and sort of stupid...but then appears to take delight in how fast it can run.  God essentially moves from asking "Who do you think you are?" to asking "Who do you think I am?"  Not once in His response does God offer an answer or explanations.  He appears to suggest that Job wouldn't understand, and it wouldn't be that helpful anyway.  However, God follows all of that up by essentially saying "But don't you, even for a second, think that I don't care and I'm not suffering with you.  I am intimately involved and deeply concerned with the most minute aspects of creation.  Do you really think I don't care about your pain?" As Jurgen Moltmann says, a God who was impassive to our suffering "would not be a God, but a monster", and "God's power is not expressed by the fact that he controls all things (the opposite of love), but in that he bears all things and suffers all things."

In the Gospels, Jesus engages with the question as well.  In the sermon on the mount, he says:
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor  and hate your enemy.'  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-Matthew 5:43-48 TNIV
This is a fascinating text to me.  By way of definition of his Father's perfection, he points out that he causes the sun to shine and also gives life-giving rain to both the evil and the good--both the righteous and the unrighteous.  Then, he tells us to go do likewise.

In essence, the Bible offers no conclusive answer or explanation to the question that it wrestles with the most.  Instead, it describes a God who suffers with us, and it issues a call for those who would follow this God to embody a response rather than offer an explanation.  As the people of God, we are to bring light to darkness, hope to despair, and even life into death.  We are not to spend all of our energy and resources insulating ourselves from pain and suffering, but rather we are to be the ones who enter into the suffering of others and help them to bear it.  When those who are suffering cry out "Where is God?", our role is not to convince them with apologetics.  As agents of Hope, it is our calling to reflect and embody God into the space where he cannot be easily seen or heard. 


John Mark Hicks said...


Thanks for alerting me. I like the reframing--and glad you did not go the Piper way. :-) And even if we go the Piper way, there is still a distinction between innocent and deserved suffering within the biblical tradition (as per Job).

I, too, read the Yahweh speeches in Job as reflecting divine wisdom and care (rather than impotence, as some do--Kushner), and it lets Job sit in his role as cosmic witness to the endurance of faith in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

Thanks, John Mark

The Metzes said...

Good stuff man. I was looking into a bit of this discussion earlier this year and encountered the notion of God enduring suffering with us. I can't remember where I read it (figures - Volf is my best guess), but we're so accustomed to that idea we often overlook the fact that the concept of God's empathetic suffering was pretty much absent from theology before post-WWII studies. The Holocaust provided the context to further our understanding in this area (indeed, it still does) . . . I love to reference Job in discussions of suffering and tell everyone - that's as close as we get to an answer . . . and Job never gets an answer!

And let me just say . . . the Driscoll/Piper/MacDonald camp is really troubling. That's as nice as I can be ;-)

Keith Brenton said...

The best point of view I've ever encountered was at the funeral for the infant son of the two best friends my wife and I have.

Their minister explained that in speaking to them in preparation for baby William's funeral, they had asked him to express for them that they didn't know why God had taken him away from them ... but they also didn't know why He had given them each other, or their beautiful little daughter, or a wonderful family, or good friends and brothers and sisters in Christ to share in their joys and their pain.

Mike L. said...

I see two underlying questions: 1) Does God act in the world. 2) If so, why does he cause or allow bad things to particular people.

You've focused on the second, but I'm more interesting in the first question. I think that is a better question, and I think that is the question that the story of Job illustrates so beautifully.

I see Job as the first story anot just questioning God's actions, but the actual existence of God. I suspect the story of Job is a sarcastic mockery of theism (the kind of Pagan theism in Greek mythology). The story rejects the Greek concepts of Gods who can think, feel, and tinker with reality from the outside. Basically, I think, the author is showing how horrible it would be for a magic deity to tinker with human life. The story certainly does a great job of illustrating that point.

Jon Owen said...

Hey Adam, great stuff.

As a budding neo-Calvinist, I would say that your answer and the parts of Piper I have heard would be friends. Haven't heard all of his thoughts, and maybe you are thinking of something I haven't heard. I love his video on Youtube that refutes the prosperity gospel. His conclusion, which I think is God's testimony to Job, is that God is sufficient in all things. Same thing God spoke to Paul. I am with you wholeheartedly that the people of God become the embodiment of God's love in the midst of suffering. It is not either/or to look to sovereignty or grace as an anchor. We find our hope in both.

HOWEVER, what I do find despicable are perversions of theology that say that every bad thing that happens is demonic attack or due to a lack of faith from God's people. That thinking brings no comfort in suffering, and makes self the center and the problem.

stacyaok said...

thank you Brother Adam!
that last paragraph is beautiful truth.
thank you
thank you
thank you.