The question in the title is a protest which expresses suspicion towards God. It is a barely concealed condemnation of God and His actions, the strange rebellion of a world that sees itself as morally superior to God. People forget Scripture’s words in the book of Job: Beware lest wrath entice you into scoffing (Job 36:18, RSV).
The confusion arises from the premise that it is normal for “good” people to have only good things happen to them, as a reward for their life as “good” people. When things seem to go in the opposite direction to these expectations, confusion and disappointment arise, followed by rebellion against God. In some cases, the situation is aggravated by the fact that while bad things happen to “good” people, good things happen to “bad” people. This is considered the last straw.
The question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is based on two premises: certain things that happen to people are bad, and these bad things happen to those who fall into the category of good people. These two premises induce or justify the following conclusion: God is unjust and “His” actions are reprimandable. Whoever can do such things to “good people” is not good. The idea becomes implicit: if I had been in Your place, God, I would have acted differently (I am better than You).
I am not in any way questioning the sincerity of these people, nor the weight of their suffering. I recall the words of a contemporary of the pastor, Charles Spurgeon, who wept on God’s shoulder and accused Him of injustice and indifference when he lost his wife: “I, who am evil, if I had seen a dog hit on the road and had power, I would have healed it and saved it from death. But You did not take into account my wife, who served You so faithfully. You despised our prayer and did not care for our tears…”
As shocking as the pastor’s words may sound, let us remember that Job and Jeremiah, in their complaints, expressed the same sentiments. Many millions of people have felt and suffered the same, but they hid what they felt in their souls.
Following the simplest logic, people are disturbed by the seemingly random actions of a God who claims to embody goodness and mercy that endures forever, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. It isn’t only those who consider themselves to be good that have high expectations of God, but those who have done evil, too. They expect to be forgiven by God, and not to be punished or suffer the consequences of the evil in their life. The sinner thinks about how they would forgive their child who has gone astray, and how they would not take into account the harm they had done, and wonders how God could do anything otherwise.
What is the God that they believe in like? Philosophers have said that the individual is what they think, but Jesus reminded us that a person is what they think of God.
Jesus Himself seems to strengthen such expectations when He said, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”. Even the worst people nurture a secret hope of benefiting from God’s goodness. There aren’t many people who can say, like the thief on the cross speaking to his fellow criminal next to Jesus: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong”. And even fewer follow up such acknowledgment and confession of sin, acceptance of its consequences, and recognition of righteousness, with the meaningful words: “Lord, [..] remember me.”
In all the cases and situations mentioned above, the central and decisive aspect is not the bad thing that happens to the “good” or “bad” individual, but the image that the individual has of God. What is the God that they believe in like? Philosophers such as Descartes have said that the individual is what they think, but Jesus reminded us that a person is what they think of God.
Job’s problem, for example, was not his suffering, but his very image of God: “Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face. Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment? Why must those who know him look in vain for such days?” A plethora of wicked people curse the world with their iniquities, immoral, unjust, and violent people do unhindered harm and cause unimaginable suffering: “But God drags away the mighty by his power; though they become established, they have no assurance of life. He may let them rest in a feeling of security, but his eyes are on their ways.”
Bad things and good people
How do we determine the harmfulness of certain events? In many cases that made me murmur and mumble against God, I ended up thanking Him and praising Him. How many times did I not say together with Asaf: “I was senseless and ignorant”? What was on Joseph’s mind on the long road to Egyptian slavery? What was Daniel thinking about in the lion’s den? What about his three friends in the fiery furnace? Did they view these difficult trials favourably? It is hard to say. However, in the end, each of them realized that they would not have chosen a different path other than the one God led them to.
So how do you know something is wrong? What are the criteria? “By their fruits you will know them,” said Jesus. Not by sensation, not by moment, nor by the opinion of the respective time or culture. On the spot, as soon as the “evil” has occurred, it is too early to say, because the true fruits will not be seen within the gates of time, but only beyond the threshold of eternity. Our hearts that hurry to label the things that happen to us as either good or bad are “deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”. There is someone who can, but that someone is not me, nor the world. It is God. I can only pray, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.”
What is a “good” man like? In response to the superficial use of the word ‘good’, Jesus asks the speaker: “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone”.
Our life is the result of all the things that happen to us, whether good or bad. But there is a place for the conversion of all things. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” Here, the things that happen to us lose their identity that we have given them. They are all committed by God to work for good. Who are those for whom God puts “all things” to work and commands them to work for good? They are “those who love Him”. They are “those called according to His purpose.”
What is the “good” man like? In response to the superficial use of the word ‘good’, Jesus asks the speaker: “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone”. In other words, He is the only “good man”. He is, in fact, the only Man: “Here is the man!” said Pilate. We are not the “people” God created and desired, but human beings in a state of sin. Only one can be said to be the true Man: Jesus.
The key question about why bad things happen to good people
Therefore, the important question is not whether the things that happen to us are bad or good, or whether we, those to whom these things happen, are good or bad. The crucial question is: Is the God we worship good or bad? This is the criterion that divides things into good and bad and people into good and bad. All the things that happen to us are good when God is good and bad when the God we worship is bad—whether we express it this way or not.
Are our expectations of God realistic? Are we sure we have identified the real problem we are trying to solve? Chesterton put salt to the wound when, in Father Brown’s words, he said, “It isn’t that people cannot see the solution. It is that they cannot usually see the problem!”. Our real problem has nothing to do with what is happening to us, nor with our condition, but with what we believe about God. We do not have “problems”, only one Problem that underpins all others.
“All cheap and easy talk about a God of sovereign power who is in control of a world in which there is so much poverty, suffering, and injustice is obscene. All self-confident talk about a powerful church that has the mandate and the ability to change society with this or that conservative or liberal social/political agenda or with this or that evangelistic program is increasingly absurd in a disintegrating church that cannot solve its own problems, much less the problems of the world. The only gospel that makes sense and can help is the good news of a God who loves enough to suffer with and for a suffering humanity. And the only believable church is one that is willing to bear witness to such a God by its willingness to do the same thing.”
Only after we have identified the problem can we talk about a solution. I recently talked to a lady who had several grandchildren. I heard a story from her that made me tremble. There are people who have great problems with their conscience and with the wrongdoings they have committed. However, their problem is not really with what they did, but with their image of God. What they think of God is what tears some apart. How they think God will treat their sin is the problem. While such people cannot forgive themselves (I wish I could be with them and tell them what Jesus said about God, to tell them that the good Jesus is the image of the good God), there are others who do forgive themselves, such as the criminals from Nuremberg, who sang “Oh, Bethlehem” at the time of their hanging, saying goodbye to the world with the words, “See you on the New Earth.” The paths of these people went in different directions, depending on the image they had of God.
The answer we ignore
Could it be that the redemption you expect from God is actually at your fingertips? Usually, and almost naturally, we take as axiomatic the idea that our problem must be somewhere outside of us: “It wasn’t me, but the woman you put here with me,” said Adam. “It wasn’t me, the serpent deceived me,” Eve continued. It’s either the wife or the snake. For sure, the problem is outside of me. But what if my problem is actually me? In this case, I will not find any solution before identifying the real problem. God does not work with unreal or false values, but “In faithfulness he will bring forth justice!”
He will not do for you anything that you can do, but refuse to do for your salvation. He will not even answer a question you know the answer to, but He will help you use all the blessings of the knowledge and means He has already offered.
The Adventist church in Lilongwe, Malawi, was hit by a tragedy on December 28, 2013, during a divine service. Eight people were killed on the spot by lightning that struck the building and many others were injured. “Adventists and non-Adventists are in shock,” wrote editor Mark Kellner, quoting an Adventist world leader who was in the area. No doubt our mind goes to God and raises the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
The solution to the problem does lie outside of ourselves, while it may be closer than we think. We point an accusing finger in one direction, while all the other fingers point in our direction. If God can wonder: “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad ones?” then it is all the more necessary to ask ourselves: what else could we have done but did not do? We may even wonder what God does not need to ask: “What have I done wrong? Where could I have done things differently?” Only Jesus bore the pains and sufferings of others without bearing their guilt.
We are secretly bound, with or without our knowledge, to the things we mourn. The thread of their cause secretly seeps into our hearts and actions. The same blessed source of Chesterton’s wisdom says: “I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.” Martin Luther pointed out that it is futile to believe in the forgiveness of sins if you do not believe that you are forgiven. How right and true was the disciples’ question at their last supper with Jesus: “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?” In the end, even Judas asked the same question, a very good one, if I may add, which we should ask ourselves more often. As for God or the suspicion of the connection between Him and the evil that is happening, the Bible says, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil”. “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone”. Indeed, “He is good; His love endures forever”.