A question: why do bad things happen to good people

A reflection being delivered on 12 June at St Stephen’s…

12-6-11 St Stephen’s in Bryndwr
2 Cor 8:1-14 & Matt 5:38-48
Why do bad things happen to good people? Or, why do good things happen to bad people?  

This is the start of what I hope will be a series of sermons based on your questions and requests on themes or passages from scripture that intrigue and puzzle, or are simply of interest to my congregation.  The question why do bad things happen to good people?’ has been suggested to me.  It is an old old question – ‘why do we suffer?’ is the question behind it.  If God is good and God cares, why do bad things happen to faithful people?  It is an age-old question and to a degree the answer to it is always going to be elusive because all of our questions of God sooner or later are going to come up against a ceiling of sorts – the ceiling that is the limit of human understanding – the ceiling that is the mystery of God.  But there are some approaches to the question that I want to suggest we can take that might satisfy the person who asked it.  And whatever I have to say I am grateful that it has been asked – there is a place for all of our questions here and I want you to feel encouraged to ask them.

If I was naughty I would summarise my answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people with two simple words – ‘why not?’  I will try not to be naughty but by the end those two words might prove to be sufficient.

The ethical teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount offer us a useful platform for our enquiry.  In the context of teaching that we are to be about loving all people, including our enemies, Jesus states: ‘…your Father in heaven…makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.’  In other words God doesn’t make divisions in the bestowing of the blessings of life according to whether people have been good or bad.

These divisions are ours.  We are the ones who insist on making moral judgements.  We are the ones who label people, who dismiss people, and who either look up our noses or down our noses at people.  We are the ones who demarcate people according to standards we have set.

Thus when bad things happen to bad people we feel that that is justified – it is their fault – they have put themselves in the situation and that is their problem – they are simply paying the price for their badness.

And in the same way, when good things happen to good people we feel that that is justice – that is how the world should work… that is what is fair and right.

But we get mystified when life doesn’t always play that game on these terms – when something bad happens to someone we admire and who seems to be ‘one of us’, we begin to ask questions.  We look for excuses to justify their change in fortune – maybe so and so wasn’t as good as we thought.  Maybe something has caught up on them.

But I wonder if the problem is really ours in that we have been brought up to think that our good behaviour is to be rewarded and people’s bad behaviour deserves to be punished.  Maybe our values are too hard and narrow.

My son smokes cigarettes.  He has done for quite a few years now.  In some circles we walk in that news is treated with moral indignation.  Behind that indignation is a justifiable concern for his health, but some of the expressions of that concern are incredibly damning of him.  It is as if this one ‘bad’ thing is a determiner of the rest of his character.  In the consternation over his smoking what gets overlooked are what we believe to be the truly important things like his give-the-shirt-off-his-back generosity, his loyalty to friends, his sense of fun, and his principled work ethic.  Some behaviour that we might consider ill-advised does not make a person bad.  In his circle of friends smoking is not a reflection of your character – being loyal and looking out for a mate is a test of character.

Anne and I have been watching an absorbing and disturbing TV series on DVD called The Wire.  Based in Baltimore in the U.S., it follows the interactions between the police and the criminal element with all its rawness and ugliness.  It is not an easy watch and probably not to your taste!  One of the things that stands out in it is the mix up of good and bad.  The cops are good and bad – the criminals are bad and good.  Two of the characters we enjoy the most are from either side and while they are deeply flawed we find ourselves wishing the best for them… we like them and even admire them and we hope they will make it through.  We are able to forgive the worst parts of their actions because they have a code – they both have principles that guide them even if these wouldn’t fit our usual descriptions of good and bad.

Perhaps you may see that there is an initial problem in the premise of the question of why do bad things happen to good people.  It is wrong to assume that there can be a straight-forward separation between the good and bad in people in order for God to be able to bestow favour.  It is wrong of us to miss the good as we elevate or focus on the bad.  And it is wrong of us to presume that we are in some lofty place to make such judgements.

Added to that is a significant theological problem in the question with regards to our understanding of God’s favour.  In asking the question are we not implying that God’s grace is limited in some way?  Are we saying that God’s kindness, blessing, favour, mercy and love is to be limited only to those who have first done something to deserve it – like be good?

“If you are naughty then Father Christmas won’t be coming!”  How many of you were brought up on that one?  What is the question that Father Christmas asks the little children on his knee?  “Have you been good?”  The implication is that the gift will only be given if you are good, but just imagine how horrible Christmas would become if that were true.  On those criteria no one would ever get a present for no one is perfectly good – neither the children on Santa’s knee (who can never be perfect), or the parent who has just lost the plot by screaming at a screaming child, or the person playing Santa himself who might well have had a lustful thought as he saw down the top of the mother passing the child over to him.

Is God to be some kind of Father Christmas figure only bestowing gifts if we have measured up?  Are good things rewards for our good behaviour as if there is a divine ledger where all our deeds are listed?  Are bad things God’s judgements on our bad behaviour?  Can you hear again the chappie who popped up here at our church after the February earthquake and told us that God was punishing us for our sins?  We dismissed his bad theology then – shouldn’t we also dismiss the bad theology implicit in the question why do bad things happen to good people?

Maybe we have to dismiss the question altogether because it frames things in the wrong way.  It suggests that good and bad can be easily separated and it suggests that God only gives to the good – whoever they are.

But two questions remain.  One – why be good?  And two: why do bad things happen when God loves us?

In response to ‘why be good?’ the 2 Corinthians reading offers us some insight.  Paul is asking the Corinthians to help support the mission of the churches around them.  He doesn’t frame his request in terms of a judgement coming on them if they aren’t generous, but rather that they see their giving as a response to all that has been given to them.

Our Lord Jesus became poor so that we might be rich – he gave everything without counting the cost, thus you do the same.  We be good because God is good.  We be good because God calls us and enables us to live life in its fullness.

We could be bad, but in our gratitude for God’s generous love we want to live in God’s ways.  We don’t always get that right but we know that God’s goodness is not determined by us and our response, but by God and God’s love.

“Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions,” writes the Psalmist “[but] according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord.” [Psalm 25:7]  The measure of goodness is God not us.  We do good not because God is an ogre out to get us if we slip up, but because God is good.

And the second question is the real question… why do bad things happen when God loves us?   When I look at the promises of God they are not so much you will come to no harm but ‘I will be with you.’

We are mortal creatures – our bodies begin to deteriorate as soon as they are born – it is just a plain old fact that some bad things are going to happen to our bodies in the course of our lives.  Some of the shops in the centre city had high-pitched low sound alarms running outside on the street-front.  Anyone over the age of 20 couldn’t hear them – their hearing had already deteriorated to such a degree that the sound was impossible to hear.  But teenagers heard it and would move off to get away from it.  It was the simplest way of deterring gatherings of young people from blocking shop entrances.  These devices used the deterioration of our bodies for an advantage.

We are mortal and things go wrong.  Our bodies don’t resist diseases as much as we would wish.  Cars crash.  Earthquakes cause buildings to collapse.  Innocent people get caught up in other people’s bad choices.  Should we ask that God wraps us in cotton wool?

We have met some parents who have tried to shield their children from any calamity only to discover in time that their children haven’t got much of a backbone – they cannot handle pain or conflict or the everyday pressures of life.

Skinning our knees as children is part of living.  Allowing that to happen to our children is part of loving.  We can love our children and hold back from protecting them from every danger because we have to do this in order for them to be free.  Sometimes there is a cost to that, but like God we are committed to them – our ‘I will be with you’ is what we offer.  It is enough – not always enough to protect them from harm but enough to give them a road to walk on.  Can we allow God to do the same for us?

Why do bad things happen to good people?  Because bad things happen to all people.  Where is God when we suffer?  Not causing it because we have done something wrong (we can be certain about that!) but with us in our struggle – in faith we can say that!  And, in the end, that might be all that really matters.

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