Around the fireside over the weekend, several of us gathered to discuss one of the oldest questions in the book: why do bad things happen to good people? The immediate occasion for this discussion was the tragic death in Africa over Easter of almost-20-year-old Eva, which I wrote about last week.
Each of us know our own ‘Eva’s’, wonderful people to whom terrible things have happened: death, sickness, financial loss, relationship breakdown, and so on.
We have all asked ourselves, each other, and God, ‘Why??!’
And that’s okay. In fact, the question itself is literally the oldest in the Book. It’s the question Job asked of God in what many consider to be the oldest book in the Bible.
The fact that the Bible makes room for such a question is already comfort. And it’s not just Job who asks the question.
Joseph went through years of wondering what his suffering was all about. Psalm 105:19 says: The word of the Lord tested him. The writer of Psalm 79 asks in anguish, How long, Lord?! as he sees godless nations defiling the temple, killing the priests and razing Jerusalem. In Lamentations, Jeremiah grieves in hopelessness over the suffering of his people and the desecration of the holy city and temple (depicted here by Rembrandt). Habakkuk stands in righteous indignation on the ramparts of the city-chin out, hands on hips-waiting for a satisfactory answer from God about injustice in the world.
The anger, confusion and disorientation vented in God’s presence was typical of the Jews! It was not rebellion or disrespect. They understood that if you couldn’t vent your emotions before God, then to whom? Such dialogue with Allah is certainly not part of Islam! But God has included such records in His Word to say, ‘hey, it’s okay to be real with me!’
There are some basic facts about this world we have to accept. Firstly, this world is not as God intended it to be. He’s actually more upset about it than we are. It’s a fallen world.
(That’s not a biblical term, by the way. It’s better perhaps to talk of a ruptured world: of ruptured relationships-with God, with each other and with creation.)
Something’s fundamentally wrong with human nature. On the one hand, we catch occasional glimpses of the glory intended for us humans-through some heroic, selfless behaviour. Often however we are reminded of humanity’s depravity, as with the ‘monster of the Ardennes’ on trail right now, or the last time we lost our cool with a loved one. The paradox of humanity is this incongruous mixture of glory and shame, or dignity and depravity.
That’s where we have to start looking for answers as to why bad things happen. Its hard for optimistic humanists to explain the evil or alienation around us all; or for pessimistic nihilists to explain the beauty, the love, the creativity.
But the Bible gives a realistic, true-to-life explanation of this paradoxical mix of beauty and brokenness. Creation originally was very good-God said so himself. But when mankind sought independence, the Creator-creature relationship was ruptured, with huge consequences for our daily lives.
Creation itself groans under the weight of this rupture too, says Paul. It’s longing for liberation, for healing. Hans Küng describes the Kingdom as ‘creation healed’.
We’re still waiting for that. Meanwhile, in this still-ruptured world, accidents and tragedies happen.
Secondly, ever since Jesus came to save, heal, restore, reconcile all things ‘under heaven and earth’, there’s been a battle waging-a battle between two kingdoms. By choosing to follow Jesus we’ve enlisted in that battle. There is a real enemy opposing God, and his people; a personal adversary, the Hebrew word for which is Satan. He is the source of many, but not all, bad things.
And thirdly, there is an impersonal reality called Evil that influences systems and places, institutions and nations, and which is also the cause of suffering and injustice.
Many expect that when we become Christians, all our problems should disappear. But that’s not what Jesus promised. In fact he warned his disciples they would have to follow his example of suffering. Almost all of them died as martyrs. And many more have since!
Jesus simply didn’t promise us ‘health, wealth and prosperity’. Read Hebrews chapter eleven and see what those heroes of the faith endured-not due to lack of faith, but because of their faith!
Granted, not all suffering comes from ‘the adversary’. Sometimes we bring suffering on ourselves, taking foolish risks, or not taking proper precautions.
And on the other hand the Kingdom is breaking through in healing, in victory, in deliverance! And, yes, by his stripes we are healed!
Yet somehow sharing in the suffering of Jesus, Paul writes, is part of how God works out his purpose. We can’t fully understand that. Nevetheless Paul talks about becoming ‘co-heirs with Christ as we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory’ -Rom 8:17.
Job didn’t get a direct answer to his questions other than a greater relevation of God: ‘now my eyes have seen you…’ (42:5). Joseph came to to see God’s sovereignty and salvation plan in his suffering. Jeremiah remembered God’s unceasing and steadfast love and ‘therefore had hope’ (Lam. 3:21-23). And Habakkuk came to confess that ‘though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food…, yet will I rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.’
Till next week,
Till next week,