This Sunday (March 19, 2023), I will preach the last sermon in a series on “Discussing Your Questions,” in which congregants have submitted their burning theological or biblical questions for the community to consider together. One of my congregants submitted the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It is a question that is top of mind for many in the church, perhaps especially during Lent, when we contemplate the suffering of Christ. This is my attempt at a 20-minute or less, non-technical response to the question.
The scripture for the Fourth Sunday in Lent is John 9:1-12 (NRSVUE):
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am he.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
This will be our last sermon in the series on Discussing Your Questions, and let me tell you, it’s going to be a heavy lift. Tonight’s question comes from Jennifer. She writes, “I always wrestle with why bad things happen to good people. My head knows why but my heart doesn’t.” Well, thank you, Jennifer, for this very difficult and very important question, and for the honesty with which you asked it. It just so happens that this question lands on the fourth Sunday of Lent, when our scripture is about the same question. Jesus sees a man blind from birth, and his disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Whose fault is it, that this person is suffering?
I think it’s true for many people that our hearts don’t want to accept many of the answers we’ve heard. So tonight, with fear and trembling, I am going to reflect on this most difficult of questions and invite you to do the same. What I share tonight is my current approach, and it might be as unfulfilling as other perspectives you’ve heard. But at least this will give us the opportunity to reflect together, growing more deeply in our faith and as a community.
Let us pray. God, in the midst of our questions and our doubts, in the midst of our fears and our worries, in the middle of this Lenten journey, you are here. We thank you for allowing us to wrestle with big questions, and we ask that you would be with us in the wrestling, until we have found a blessing. Amen.
Bad things happen to good people all the time, don’t they. Hurricanes destroy people’s homes. Covid and other illnesses take people’s lives. Climate change threatens the lives of creatures all over the world. Children die of cancer, of simple accidents, and of malnutrition. The world, as we know, is full of bad things happening to good people.
There are only a handful of positions that various theologians have offered in response to this situation. And two of them are quite popular.
Some people blame it on the powers of evil. Maybe Satan or other adversaries have done it, sowing seeds of discord among humanity and in the earth. We have, after all, the serpent, in the Garden of Eden, to blame. Or maybe, like the story of Job, when bad things happen to good people it is because of some cosmic bargain between God and Satan.
Another perspective is that bad things happen to good people because of the choices of human beings. This is the most popular option, especially among folks here in the South. Humans are to blame. They don’t care for the planet, and so climate change is hurting our world and its creatures. Humans get too close to bats, for instance, and other wild animals, trying to trap and sell them, and in so doing they contract diseases that then spread among us. Humans are selfish and fearful, such that although they could share their resources so that all are well-fed, they hoard their resources, leaving little to nothing for others. Humans are to blame.
These two perspectives are popular because we can see the truth in each of them.
Though we may not believe in a literal Satan and his demons, we can attest that there are power structures in this world that are beyond the actions of any one human, and that these systems of power do oppress, steal, kill, and destroy. The school to prison pipeline, an economic system wherein the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, unconscious racial and gender bias in hiring and compensation practices, sexism that runs rampant in the media, unjust laws on all the books – all of these are systems of power that we often can’t pin on any one person but that pervade our lives, and that do detriment to good people.
Likewise, we can attest to the bad choices of human beings. We know that we do things that hurt others. And it is quite easy to put the blame on ourselves and other human beings. Bad things happen to good people because we perpetrate injustices. We don’t regulate harmful chemicals until it’s too late and our children are already sick. We don’t legislate for gun control, even though we grieve for each life lost in what have become normal mass shootings. It is, in many ways, our fault.
And so we see the sense in pinning the blame on human beings, or on unjust or evil powers that be. But the question continues, and it nags, because – especially here in the church – we want to ask about God’s involvement in our lives, and in our world. The world that we actually have. After all, we believe that human beings and this creation, with all of the powers that pervade our world, come from God. We are here, and we are able to make the choices that we make, because God has created us and enabled us to make those choices. So – to what extent is it God’s fault, too?
Some theologians have offered that God had to allow evil and injustice to occur, because God had to give us freedom. Without freedom of the will, humankind would not really be human, but robots, so the argument goes. And so, when God created humankind, God had to give us freedom to choose life or death, good or evil, A or B, in any particular situation, and as it turns out, humans chose evil, and continue to choose injustice. And so bad things happen to good people because humans make bad choices, and because God allows those bad choices for the sake of our freedom.
It’s that last bit that I’m unsatisfied with, because the question only gets pushed back one step. The question then becomes, what is more important: the lives of countless creatures and human beings who have died in war, famine, from sickness, natural disasters, and so on; or the human freedom to choose one thing rather than another thing. What is more important? The lives and well-being of many, or a certain understanding of freedom that says we must have the power to choose A or B in any particular situation? I, for one, would be willing to give up the ability to choose something bad, in order to protect our earth and its creatures, our children, and ourselves. And if God is Love, if that is the preeminent name of God, then wouldn’t God choose life rather than what is sure to be death for many? I don’t see why this God, who is Love, would rather preserve humans’ ability to choose torture and rape, rather than to preserve the lives of those people who would suffer at their hands. One way to think of it is like this: if my child is playing in the yard and I can see that she is about to run into the street, and a large truck is also coming down the road, I would not let her make that choice. I would run after her and keep her from injury or death. I do not think her freedom to choose to stay in the yard (A) or run into the street (B) is more important than her life and well-being. I don’t think freedom to choose this or that in any situation is more important than our lives.
But, if you can stick with me for a few more minutes, I want to say something else that is perhaps unpopular here in the South. And that is, that I just don’t think human beings have that kind of freedom, anyway. I don’t think humans can always choose one thing or another thing. I tend to think that we choose what we choose because of who we are and who have been so far – because we were raised a certain way, and because of life experiences we’ve lived through, because we have particular hopes and dreams, and even because we have certain DNA. People make choices within a complex reality that is not always under our control. We sometimes choose the good, and we sometimes choose the bad, and if we had it to do over again without any change to our experiences or learning or context, then I think we would likely make the same choices again. We make choices because of who we are so far. Our choices make sense in the context of who we are and have been. And so I don’t think that randomness or arbitrariness to choose this or that in any circumstance is what true freedom is all about.
True freedom, to my mind, is leaving the house without having to lock the doors. Sending our children to school without worrying about their safety. True freedom means living in peace, loving the good, being in harmonious relationships with others. True freedom isn’t, for me, simply the ability to choose one thing or another thing. Rather, real freedom is living in a world where we always choose the good, the right, the true, the beautiful. And so we notice that real freedom is something that we can only have together. It’s not an individual right to decide to do whatever we want to do. Rather, freedom is what we enjoy when we are oriented toward and in harmony with God and others. That is true, real, genuine freedom.
And so when I hear those answers about blaming it on evil powers, or blaming it on humans, with Jennifer, I too think, well, I know what you’re trying to do there. I know you’re trying to get God off the hook by blaming evil itself or human beings, and I know that we do in fact make bad choices. But my heart doesn’t want to go along with these answers. My heart yearns for the true, genuine freedom that exists in the Beloved Community, not second-rate freedom that just lets people choose things willy-nilly. And my heart knows that the God who is Love would not choose second-rate freedom over the lives God created and sustains and guides and loves.
And so we are left with a very difficult option, a very hard answer to the question, “why do bad things happen to good people?” And that option is to blame God. Not to blame God for directly doing individual things that are sinful or evil. But to blame God for creating a world in which sin and evil occur.
Now, blaming God doesn’t have to feel like blaming in an angry way. In my experience, it doesn’t really feel like that, most of the time. Instead, like Job, it feels like making our case before God, asking questions, bringing before God our complaints and our laments. It feels like acknowledging that God is ultimately responsible for this creation. And somehow, that feels like trust, at the very same time.
In this way of answering the question, why do bad things happen to good people, we are simply acknowledging that God made the world this way. God made an imperfect world, with imperfect people. And so ultimately, although we are always responsible for our own choices and actions, when we think about the ultimate cause of bad things happening, we are led back to the Creator. Ultimately, the Creator has to take responsibility for creating us, for creating this world, for creating in the manner God does. I think it’s ok to acknowledge that God has created an imperfect world and imperfect people. And in that sense, it’s honest to acknowledge that God is ultimately responsible for bad things happening to good people. Again, not that God is directly doing everything that happens, but that God has made a world in which bad things do happen to people who don’t deserve it.
But why would God do that? Why would God make an imperfect world? Why would God make us so imperfectly that we torture people, that we rape people, that we enslave, and abuse, that we make and use guns that kill crowds at a time? Why would God make us this imperfectly?
And to that question, I don’t have a good answer. I can only imagine that God creates the world this way because God could do nothing else. I can only imagine that God created the world imperfectly because the activity of divine creation is a process.
In this situation, there can only be an affirmation, a hope, a trust, that God is with us, that God is in the struggle, that God’s intention for us is Love, wholeness, and harmony. And that we are still in the process of becoming. We hope and we trust that one day God will bring this creation to completion, to perfection. We hold out this vision of the Beloved Community, this hope for a day when all will embrace one another in love, when everyone will have a seat at the table, when all will truly be free.
This vision is our hope and our trust, that although it seems as though we are destined to repeat our mistakes, to keep on hurting people, to keep on making our children pay for our own insufficiencies and lack of courage, we hope and trust that the life and ministry of Jesus makes a difference. At least in our communal life. We hope and trust that God is with us and is making us new, and that one day God will bring to completion that which God started.
Now I know, this is a hard pill to swallow. It is easier to blame someone else. To blame the serpent. To blame the woman. To blame other human beings.
But as I have contemplated this question, I have come to believe that we are better off when we hold God responsible. One of my favorite theologians, not Schleiermacher this time, but H.R. Niebuhr, says it this way in Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (Westminster John Knox reprint of Harper, 1960):
“What is it that is responsible for [all] this…? We may call it the nature of things, we may call it fate, we may call it reality. But by whatever name we call it, this law of things, this reality, this way things are, is something with which we must reckon. We may not be able to give a name to it, calling it only the ‘void’ out of which everything comes and to which everything returns, though that is also a name. But it is there—the last shadowy and vague reality, the secret of existence by virtue of which things come into being, are what they are, and pass away. Against it there is no defense. This reality, this nature of things, abides when all else passes. It is the source of all things and the end of all. It surrounds our life as the great abyss into which all things plunge and as the great source whence they all come. What it is we do not know, save that it is and that it is the supreme reality with which we must reckon.
“Now a strange thing has happened in our history and in our personal life; our faith has been attached to that great void, to that enemy of all our causes, to that opponent of all our [idols]. The strange thing has happened, that we have been enabled to say of this reality, this last power in which we live and move and have our being, ‘Though it slay us, yet we will trust it.’ … And insofar as our faith, our reliance for meaning and worth, has been attached to this source and enemy of all our [little idols], we have been enabled to call this reality God” (122).
“This faith [Niebuhr continues,] opens the way to knowledge. It removes the taboos which surround our intellectual life, making some subjects too holy to be inquired into and some too dangerous for us to venture into. … But when one’s faith is attached to the One, all relative beings may be received at one’s hands for nurture and for understanding. Understanding is not automatically given with faith; faith makes possible and demands the labor of the intellect, that it may understand.” (125-6).
Now although Niebuhr was a bit more long-winded than Jesus, something like this is, in fact, how Jesus replied to that question about the blind man in our scripture for tonight. Who sinned, such that this man was born blind? Jesus was asked. And he replies, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” He was born this way so that God could complete before our eyes what God started.
Can we answer that way too? Can we hold God responsible for the creation God has made and is making, can we lament, can we grieve, can we complain and hold God accountable, while at the same time trusting that God is love and wisdom, that God is with us and is working for our good? Can we at one and the same time blame God the Creator and trust the God who is still creating? The God who is still speaking us into being?
That is what Job has done. What the psalmists have done. What the prophets have done. We cry out to God, we hold God responsible. But we also trust that the Beloved Community is God’s intention for us, and that God will see this vision through to the end.
Interesting. Your reference (well, Niebuhr’s) to “the ‘void’ out of which everything comes and to which everything returns” sounds a lot like Kemeticism. Also, what you said about God still creating us also reminds me of my recent post on my own blog about creation always happening. It’s interesting how many common ideas are present in different faiths.
Also, this strikes me as a unique argument to make to a Christian audience. I’d be curious to see how this plays out on Sunday.
This is beautiful!
A lot to contemplate. I have also heard the arguments listed & come to a similar conclusion.
G. K. Chesterton has a thoughtful (and hillarious) essay on Job & appears to reach a similar conclusion as here, emphasizing Job (and the proohets) crying out to God, complaining & hurt, & God basically responding, “YOU CANNOT UNDERSTAND.”
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” (Job 38)
Yet at the same time, we are strictly responsible for ourselves & our mistakes, what we can do something about, even if it is just “I’m sorry.” This is repentance.
Maybe in another post the focus could be on doing as much as you can, ( not just apology but as much good as you can) rather than wallowing in despair about things you can do nothing about. Sometimes you can do more than you think! History is full of such examples.