Several years ago, I read a great book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner. I re-read that book in preparation for this sermon. I’ve attempted to write a sermon that is not a book report; however, my thoughts have been heavily influenced by those of Rabbi Kushner in his book. I highly recommend you read his book. It was too cumbersome to cite all the places where I summarize his thoughts, because the whole of this sermon is, in many ways, a summary of his book.
I didn’t take the time to address why bad things happen to good people in light of today’s Scripture. I could have done that. I could spend some time saying in bad times we can wrestle a blessing out of God in our searching for answers, but I didn’t want to take away from answering the question of why bad things happen to good people in order to tie it to this text. So, I’ll just focus my sermon on my best attempt to answer why bad things happen to good people.
There are 3 things that are strongly held beliefs in the Christian faith, as well as other faiths. We need to believe: God is good and just, God is all-powerful and we are good. These 3 beliefs are foundational to our faith in God, the world and ourselves. They usually stand up. In the every day, when all seems okay in our world, we can hold onto these 3 beliefs. However, when something bad happens to someone good, it is difficult to hold onto all 3 of these beliefs. Many of the things we say or think are our attempts to theologize the bad thing. We try to reconcile these beliefs with the bad thing, God and a good person.
If you think through your prayer list, most of our concerns are prayers for good people that are dealing with bad things. We have a child battling cancer, a baby with no immune system, adults who died too young, friends fighting cancer, a family that lost a baby, and a young healthy man who had a stroke just on our prayer list. We are all praying for other good people who have something bad that has happened to them.
Everyone we know we consider good people. Most of us don’t keep people we consider bad in our circle of friends and family. There are very few people in this world who we would consider getting their due when something bad happens to them. I can think of Hitler, Stalin and bin Laden as people who we would consider worthy of bad things having happened to them. But, most people in the world we think are good people and don’t deserve the bad things they endure. We have all questioned at one time or another, why bad things happen to good people.
We all pray for miracles when we’re praying for people who are sick. We hope God intervenes with miraculous healing. We count everyday miracles of healing through treatments and surgeries. We count the blessings of recovery and remission. But, too often there are not miracles like we hope. We want extraordinary healing without the treatments. They don’t happen as much as we’d hope; still, we know God is present comforting the sick and working through wise doctors and compassionate nurses with the miracle of modern medicine. But, recovery doesn’t answer the question why our good friends have to endure the illness in the first place.
I think Christians have an especially difficult time dealing with why bad things happen to good people and that problem begins with the cross. On the cross, we say the horrific, unjust, humiliating crucifixion of the Best Man who ever lived has salvific effect. We give meaning to the worst event in human history by theologizing it as something good God needed to do to appease His anger and wrath over sin. Then, we move on to stories about taking up our cross and think the bad things we endure are our sacrifice for salvation.
The cross adds to our 3 beliefs that we hold onto. We believe: God is good and just, the cross was good, God is all-powerful and we are good. I have to tell you, most pastors spend 3 – 4 years in seminary trying to make sense of these 4 beliefs and hold them in the tension they exist in, because a good, just, all-powerful God that used the cross to reconcile good people is a difficult thing to believe if we take time to reflect on it.
There are several ways we think to try to help us understand why bad things happen to good people. When we believe that God is good and all-powerful and we are good, we assume the bad thing came from God and it must be for a purpose. We question, if God is in control, why did He do this, because, if God didn’t do it, who did and who is in control?
We wonder if the bad thing is some kind of lesson. That is like saying bad things that happen to us are good. This belief about bad things only leaves us with questions about what we are supposed to learn and why everyone doesn’t suffer to learn lessons. When parents try to teach a child a lesson, there is no harm to the child in the lesson. A parent will tell the child what they should learn. There may be a punishment for not doing the right thing, but the punishment has a correlation to the bad behavior and the child is told why they are receiving a punishment. Can we honestly say that a young, healthy, faithful man having a stroke is a lesson or a punishment he deserves? And, if it is a lesson or punishment, why would God heal it if He caused it?
We may think that God has a purpose for our suffering or that He has some reason for making us suffer. I get angry when I hear people try to comfort others by saying it must be for a purpose or there is a lesson to be learned. My heart hurts for the person who is the recipient of such bad clichés. How can we not question God’s goodness if suffering is part of a grand design? How could we think He is good for causing us undeserved pain no matter how wonderful the ultimate result may be? Saying God has a purpose for suffering is like saying Adolf Hitler had good intentions in killing millions of Jews.
Sometimes, we think the bad things are a test. We think of the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac. We say God already knows the outcome so it is safe for us to be tested so we know our strength and faithulness. We say God never gives us more burden than we can bear. The person going through the bad thing may not feel so privileged to be tested for God having seen some great spiritual strength in him or her.
We may try to spiritualize death saying death is salvation from something bad or worse. When a child dies, some say God needed another angel. We’re supposed to be happy for the death of a child, because he or she was chosen to be an angel? Somehow eternal life is better than the opportunity to grow to live to be an adult? We can say when a young child dies in America that God needed an angel, but we can’t say that when children in the Third World die of hunger and violence.
I got really angry while writing this sermon, because I hate how we try to theologize suffering. I think we do more harm than good. All of these try to hold on to the belief that God is almighty and so causes this suffer and so it must have a purpose. We have to believe that God is good and just and all-powerful and try to make sense of suffering. If we believe any of these things, we are trying to find good in God being the worst parent ever. I think we make God out to be the Divine Child Abuser with good intentions because we want to hang onto the beliefs that God is good and all-powerful.
Deep breath. Letting go of my anger over the things we say. Moving onto some answer.
I started out with the beliefs that God is good and just, God is all-powerful, and we are good. If God is not the Divine Child Abuser, we need to let go of something. I propose we give up the belief that God is not all-powerful, almighty. Because of this, I very seldom call God Almighty when I pray.
God is good. We are good, but God is not all-powerful. If we look to the book of Job, God tells Job how difficult His job is. Job asks God why all the bad stuff has happened to him. Job tells God, I am a good man. If you have found fault, tell me my transgression. God says to Job, Who are you to question me? God tells Job all of the difficult work He does. Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests that God tells Job that He has a hard time making order out of all the chaos and has a hard time holding back all the evil.
It is difficult to think that God is not Almighty. But, this gives us freedom to pray. If we think God makes us suffer, then we can’t turn to Him for help. If God has a reason or purpose or lesson to teach us, God won’t take it away or heal us from it. If God is not the cause of the suffering, we can turn to God for refuge, strength, and healing.
Psalm 121: 1 – 2 says, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and earth.” The Psalmist says his help, not his suffering, comes from the Lord. Instead of asking why bad things happen to good people, we should do as we often do. Ask God for help. If we have always held that God is good, powerful, wise, and foreknows all things, then it is hard to give up the belief in God’s almighty power. But, when we give it up, we can have God’s help.
But, this presents a problem. If God is not in control, who is? This is a modern problem. Past the Age of Reason, we have to assign everything a reason. We have made sense of everything. We think we are in control until we are not. Then, we question who is in control if we are not. If we can accept that we are not in control, then we believe God is in control. But, if God is in control, we need answers.
What if we have to believe in randomness?
What if we don’t automatically assume that the devil is in control if God is not?
What if the answer to why bad things happen to good people is randomness?
Rabbi Kushner says, “…we will simply have to learn to live with [randomness], sustained and comforted by the knowledge that the earthquake and the accident…the murder and the robbery are not the will of God, but represent that aspect of reality which stands independent of His will, and which angers and saddens God even as it angers and saddens us.
I think we need to go back to the cross. I said I have a bit of a problem with the way we talk about the cross. We say God sacrificed Jesus to save us from death which is the punishment for sin. We say Jesus’ suffering was good for us and He did it because it was God’s will. I’d like to propose a different theology of the cross.
I think Jesus was crucified because His way of life and teaching was a threat to the Roman kingdom. The Romans believed His talk of a coming kingdom was a threat to the Roman kingdom. So, Jesus was crucified. Here’s where we say it was for a reason – atonement for our sin – reconciliation to God.
Here’s my proposal. Jesus chose to suffer simply so He would know our suffering. The church often reads texts from the prophet Isaiah who prophesied of a Suffering Messiah. Isaiah prophesied the coming Messiah would suffer. It was not God’s will that Jesus suffer, but Jesus chose the suffering rather than saving Himself. I think God didn’t need the cross to give us grace. Jesus chose to endure the suffering so that when we prayed in our suffering He would understand what we are going through. God didn’t need to sacrifice His Son to offer us grace. He just chose to give it to us and the sign of that grace is the resurrection of His Son.
Now, we have a Messiah who has suffered, who knows what we go through when we suffer. He can share in our anger about the randomness of the world. He can cry with us when we cry, because He knows what it’s like to go through undue suffering. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we can trust that there will be resurrection in some manner, because we are a people of the resurrection.