Why do bad things happen to good people?
(Question 3 of 8 in the Goodness of God series)
A Brief Word of Encouragement
Having talked about God’s goodness and how it compares to wish fulfillment, I feel it’s important to interject a word of encouragement and compassion. It’s easy for someone like me — who sees blessing after blessing from God in my life — to treat the topics of pain and suffering or good and evil essentially clinically. It’s my intention to seek after what’s true, but also to acknowledge that life can be truly and legitimately painful. If the curse of the Fall (which we discuss below) has resulted in anything, it’s that life is hard.
I would encourage anyone reading this to try to understand my words not as an attempt to invalidate your pain or to claim that life would or be easier if you just made better choices or had greater faith. Instead, I hope to put our lives and our suffering and our analysis of God’s character in their proper context. I’ve met people who, in my view, are suffering unimaginably but who exude joy and stand as neon signs that point to God’s goodness (as they love and trust Him even though they’re hurting). And I’ve met people who grumble and complain endlessly even though they have resources that rival whole regions of people in the majority world and have almost no practical experience of pain in any objective sense.
So much hinges on faith… on what you believe … on how you view God and yourself. My hope is that these posts will evoke clarity, perspective, and deeper worship of God, even though life is hard.
That said, you’d better sit down for this one… Because the first thing we need to tackle is a truth some people find very challenging … the fact that there are no “good” people. The Bible is extremely clear. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:10-26; c.f. Psalm 53:1-3). Even Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19).
That means you. And me. And your really sweet Aunt Betty. And the Pope. And the person who was viciously abused. And their abuser. And the child who dies of cancer. And their doctor. And the neighbor you really like who is ultra friendly and helpful and volunteers at the homeless shelter but doesn’t think much of Jesus. And your church’s most dedicated and saintly member. And the very authors of Scriptures themselves.
Wait a minute! What “cut”?!
Well, Jesus said it, “Only God is good.” The problem here is how we understand “goodness”. We think of goodness as “grading on a curve”. God does not.
God is infinite, perfect holiness. We are … um … somewhat less than that. When you assess “goodness,” you may be asking if a person is “better” (whatever that would mean) than Hitler or Stalin, or better than you are, or better than someone else you know that you don’t like very much and have a subconscious need to feel superior to. You may really be saying that they are “good enough for your standards,” unconsciously believing that God then becomes obligated to treat them to an eternal stay in heaven. You may even be implying that because you assess yourself and your friendly neighbor both to be “good” that you are free from any obligation to repent of sin or to be better than you are.
But I can assure you that God assesses our “goodness” in none of these ways. The only thing God compares us to is Himself. But if you think about it, He Himself is the only thing that it would make any sense for God (infinitely great) to compare anything else (by comparison, infinitely less great) to. He’s not using other people or the principles people dream up to measure you (or me). He measures us against Himself.
So, rather than grading on a curve, God’s exam is pass-fail. He asks, “Are you perfect as I am perfect?” (Matthew 5:48) Black or white. True or false. No third option. No progressive scale. No “almost” or “sort of”. There’s perfect, and then there’s everything else.
And you and I are most emphatically, “Everything else.”
Second, it’s a bad question. The basic presuppositions of the question put us back in the place from which we feel we have the right to assess God. Calling myself “good” fundamentally means that I consider myself to be the ground for deciding who and what is or is not good. It makes me the measuring rod. And I have deemed it to be unjust and unfair for things I don’t like to happen to me or anyone else I deem worthy. Bad stuff can happen all day to people I don’t like or don’t think worthy of goodness, but God better pony up for the folks I feel deserve it!
The very question puts me idolatrously at the center of the universe. It shifts the locus of measurement of all things from God to me. What matters are my judgments, my opinions and my incredibly subjective and uninformed view of the universe, including the person I believe is being wronged. Even if it wasn’t a radical overstep of authority, what makes us think that we have the wisdom or context to judge?!
So, back to our original question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Maybe a better way to word this question would be to ask why there is pain in the lives of people. Why do people suffer?
“bad things” suffering comes from our bad choices
Sometimes what we bemoan as unwarranted suffering is in fact a direct result of our bad choices. Many are poor who chose not to work or work wisely or work well. Many are injured who took unjustifiable risks. Many are unhealthy who shunned healthy choices and gym memberships all their lives. Many are relationally isolated because they have persistently engaged in activities and patterns of thinking which undermine their emotional development. Etc. Although we are easily tempted to overlook or underestimate our poor choices and consider ourselves victims, and (to a lesser degree) assess others the same way, God does not suffer from the same inability to accurately perceive our circumstances. “God is not mocked; we reap what we sow” (Galatians 6:7).
The fact is that there are real consequences to foolish and sinful choices. Even if we’re playing by the world’s rules, our actions can lead to disaster. It’s legal to trample the poor to get rich, or hate your sister, or be bitterly jealous of your neighbor. It’s legal to smoke pot if you’re in the right state or drink alcohol if you’re old enough. It’s legal to sleep with your boyfriend before marriage, or remain “unattached” and have dozens of sexual partners, or to marry someone of the same gender, or even to declare that you have no gender. Someday, you’ll be able to be married to a bunch of people, or your pet cat, or maybe both. That doesn’t mean there won’t be (possibly severe) consequences, even if you don’t realize you’re experiencing them.
What matters is that we live up to God’s law, not man’s. As Creator, God is the one with the owner’s manual for human life. You’d probably see through someone who jumps off a cliff and complains that they fell and broke their leg, or who jams a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into the DVD player, and then complains that it’s not working properly. But that’s exactly what many people are doing with their few short years of life. They defy the laws of God and the laws of nature every day in hundreds of multiplied thoughts, words and deeds. They blaspheme God, mock His word, and disregard His warnings about every aspect of life — start with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-21) and work your way out from there; or if you really want to be humbled, try the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). And then they blame God when “bad things” happen.
I fully realize that this category doesn’t cover every circumstance (which is why there are several more categories coming), but I would suggest that far more of the circumstances we call “trials” or “unjust suffering” come as consequences for our sinful choices than we’re typically willing to admit. Let’s at least start here, take God seriously, ask Him for wisdom, read the Bible, and do what it says … and see if that doesn’t start to make a serious difference in the way our lives work. It will absolutely make a difference in eternity.
Some suffering comes from the bad choices of others
Even if we were to live a perfectly sin-free life, always loving others, always acting with godly wisdom, always choosing God’s way over man’s, always following God’s law… Life still wouldn’t be easy. People might then be able to call us “good,” but “bad things” would still happen to us. Look at Jesus. He was all these things — the perfect Son of God walking among men — and they chased him his whole life, paid one of his friends to betray him, beat him viciously, mocked him openly, executed him, lied about his rising from the dead, and have been killing his followers for 2,000 years … because they (imperfectly) try to love people and show them the way to know God.
We aren’t good. But even if we were, the world isn’t.
Your brokenness and sinful choices don’t just affect you (no matter how hard you try), they affect others around you. Aunt Betty, your helpful neighbor, and all the other people we talked about above experience the same thing. And so do the choices of all the other people they’ve ever met, and the billions of people around the world today, and the billions more throughout history — creating waves of badness, and being hit by the waves of others. I’ve never met Barrack Obama or Martin Luther or Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler, but their lives and choices affect me profoundly. I’ve never met the obscure woman in the Philippines who gave up her little boy for adoption 12 years ago (whom my wife and I adopted), or the warlords in Algeria who keep food and clean water from the people prompting my church to start building wells or FMSC to start sending meals, or the Roman soldiers who burned Christians at the stake in Nero’s gardens and were so stricken by God that they came to Christ and became the Church in Rome to whom the Apostle Paul wrote the most concise theological treaty on God’s grace and Christ’s atoning sacrifice the world has ever known (read it). But every one of these people, and a billion more, has affected my life and yours. Everyone’s choices affect everyone else. And the sin-soaked nature of mankind makes most of those choices very, very imperfect, wreaking havoc across the face of history.
So, over and over again, people — whether down the street or around the world or a thousand years ago — make choices that create a debt you, in part, have to pay. Their choices damage you, and you’re left with a critical choice to forgive and move on or to nurture bitterness. James MacDonald is fond of asking, “Are you getting better, or getting bitter?” Will you play the victim? Or will you rest your inner life on the reality that all have sinned (The Apostle Paul) and that there, but for the grace of God, go all of us? (Paul Bradford)
One might ask, “Why are people’s choices so bad? Where did those evil tendencies come from?” These are very good questions. We’ll address them at one level below, and on another level in a future post. For now, the focus is on the willingness to admit that our sin really is so bad that it breaks not only our own lives, but the very nature of the world.
Some suffering comes from cosmic brokenness
In this world, it’s not just people and their choices that are messed up by sin, but the very fabric of the universe. When Adam and Eve, representing all of mankind through all of history, choose to defy God in the Garden of Eden, God cursed both them and the world (Genesis 3:14-21). This broke the very laws of physics in the universe. Death was introduced — it was never meant to be, but it is now in play for people (19b), for fallen angels (v15, c.f. Revelation 20:7-11), and for animals (v21). Work became hard (vv17b-19a). Relationships became dysfunctional (16b). Children became painful to bear and to rear (16a).
You might say, “So it was God’s fault everything’s broken [because He cursed the world]?!” Again, let’s table that question for a future post. I will tackle it!
You might also ask, “Wait a minute! What right do Adam and Eve have to represent me?! Maybe I would have chosen better or more wisely than they did?”
Their choice in the garden was whether to allow God to be God or to adopt Satan’s award winning approach to creaturehood… “I will decide for myself what is right and wrong, thank you very much! I don’t need you, God, to tell me what to do. You get off the throne, and I’ll climb right on up there and do things my way!” (Isaiah 14:13-14, my paraphrase). Unless you’re saying that in every choice you make every day that you have perfectly done what God would do and not done what God would forbid, then you and Adam and Eve would have gotten along swimmingly. I contend that either you or I could easily have tagged them out and made history’s most costly decision in their place!
In any case, whether it was them in the garden or you and me yesterday, the fact is that the world is now cursed and broken in direct consequence of our sin. Where God intended there to be quiet streams and lands flowing with milk and honey, there is in fact flood and famine, earthquake and tsunami. Where there would have been enough for everyone, now we live in a world of scarcity, where some live if palaces and others starve in gutters.
For example, did you know that the average American consumes $90/day, while 40% of the planet’s 7 billion people lives on less than $2/day? (read more)
A significant cross section of your suffering and the suffering of others comes not necessarily from the direct, sinful choice of a single human being (yourself or otherwise), but from the collective sin of human beings in general weighing upon creation. When a little town in Missouri is wiped out by a tornado, it’s not because your cousin Stella sent the tornado directly upon them. And it’s not because God is playing a sick game in which people get splattered on the pavement now and then. It’s because you and Stella and Adam and Eve and I all told God to get out of Dodge, and started raping and pillaging each other and the world around us. And now everything is massively broken … all the way down to the 2nd law of thermodynamics, the West Nile virus, and Missouri’s weather patterns.
Some suffering comes from our minds
Another great source of suffering is our imaginations. Attitude is everything. In life, you really have very little control over your circumstances — we were just talking about the laws of physics, viruses and weather patterns — but you have a ton of control over how you react to your circumstances. Some people cry foul against the universe and curse God when their lives hit even the slightest speed bump. Others (and almost everyone knows at least one person like this) seem to take punishing blow after punishing blow, and never lose their joy. They suffer, but they spend their real focus looking for what’s good and right and beautiful, trusting God in the midst of pain or sometimes simply just looking for ways to stay positive.
In other words, you don’t have to let painful difficult circumstances beat you down! You can choose joy even when it hurts. You could be positive, even when it’s easy to point to a circumstance that is anything but positive. Aside from a literal chemical imbalance, we all have that choice.
Similarly, we have the choice to wear ruts in our minds along the paths of negative thinking. Nurturing negative “Woe is me!” thoughts can take you to very dark, very difficult places. Some people so embrace their thoughts about how hard life is that even things that are good can be seen through dark lenses, and things that truly are difficult can be massively amplified in their power to drag us into despair and defeat.
This is, by no means, some kind of “think positive and all will be well” pep talk. It should go without saying that I understand some suffering to be very real. But wouldn’t it be better to let little things roll off our backs, to search for the positive even when we’re hurting, to embrace and cling to what we know to be true and right and beautiful, and keep a little distance in our hearts from what’s horrible and wrong? There is no escaping the brokenness of this world, but there is also no good reason to dwell on how broken it is. Instead, fix your eyes on things above! (Colossians 3:2) Rather than feeling like your world is bad (and possible judging God as bad by extension), get into Scripture and learn who God really is. Get someone who loves you too much to just soak in your pain with you, and ask them to shed perspective on your life from the outside. Some things might not be as bad as you think they are. And if you dwell on “the things of earth”, at least dwell on how much you have (vs what you don’t have), and on how amazing all those things are. For almost everyone, it would take a really long time to enumerate them. In fact, that’s exactly my recommendation… take time to enumerate them. If you perceive your life as painful and hard (and it may very well be), get out a notebook and write down all the good things you can think of. Start with little things — the sunrise, the flowers, the fact that you’re alive, a good friend, a family member, a point of good health, something that doesn’t hurt, etc. But remember that all of life breaks and fails, only God and people are eternal. Train yourself to fix your mind on those things.
A Spiritual Perspective
One reality of life in God’s created universe is its temporary nature. Christians know that as we journey through life, we do so as “aliens and strangers” traveling in a foreign land (1 Peter 2:11). We are not to settle here; not to make this world our home. Those who build their spiritual house on the foundation of this world, do so as one who builds his house on sand … and there is a frightening inevitability to the coming storm which will someday utterly lay waste to what we’ve built. But the one who builds her spiritual house on Christ endures forever (Matthew 7:24-27).
To this point, we have been talking about suffering originating from the created world and the sin of man (creatures in that world). But as sojourners in the land of this world, our concern should be chiefly with “things above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2). So is it with thinking through suffering and pain, the deepest, most significant sources of which come not from “flesh and blood,” but from rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and forces in the spiritual realms (Ephesians 6:12).
Up next, we will raise our eyes to the horizon of this world, to explore how we are, every day, impacted by those “spiritual realms.”