I lost count of the number of natural and man-made disasters that tormented our country in 2018. As of this writing, the latest was a magnitude 7.0 earthquake with an epicenter just north of Anchorage, Alaska. Significant structural and infrastructural damage ensued, but thankfully no lives were lost, this time. The same cannot be said of the wildfires in California or the floods in the Carolinas. I don’t know and don’t plan to count the number of church, school, concert and business shootings that occurred this past year. Not out of laziness to research, I simply don’t want to revisit them all.
I’m not going to speculate whether disasters are actually on the increase or just covered more thoroughly in our modern media age. In either case, they are out there, in force. Those of us blessed enough to dodge such tragedies tend to develop a callous from the constant barrage of images and stories thrown at us. We would prefer our isolation and ignorance. But for those who enjoy no such luxuries, reality delivers it’s lesson with unrivaled swiftness and efficiency. With no time to ponder beforehand, most are left in the aftermath to grapple with the physical and emotional toll.
Disaster isn’t limited to large-scale or widely-covered events however. Personal tragedy, though not as physically destructive, usually takes a much heavier emotional toll because it’s just that – personal. It feels more targeted. This isn’t a whole town indiscriminately wiped off the map by a hurricane (as tragic as that is). This is your dad diagnosed with cancer. This is your best friend killed in a head-on collision. This is you sister abandoned by her husband. You can’t turn off the TV when these occur. You too find yourself in the aftermath.
No matter which scenario befalls us, most of us will at some point ask some version of this question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” In isolation, apart from a current tragedy, the question is a philosophical musing. In the midst of tragedy, the question is an overflow of raw emotion. Usually it just comes out as “Why?!” If that’s where you are at the moment, this may feel too academic of a discussion. I empathize if you just want to click the red X in the corner; I’ve been there too. I make no claim that this discussion is a cure-all, but if we take the time to walk through some of the deeper ideas that emerge from this age-old question, then maybe it could help bring some perspective on the damage. So here are some thoughts to consider:
Who do we consider “good” people?
The immediate answer we usually hear is, “All people are inherently good.” We say “inherently” because the very existence of school shooters or others like them forces us to reconsider the universal claim that all people are good. So we concede and say that we’re all good by nature, leaving room for the outliers. So at what point does “good” slip down the scale to “bad”? What metric do we use to differentiate them? This is where we make our lists, starting with the easy ones: murder and rape. Then maybe abuse one step down, perhaps drug addicts and thieves. Surely we can call these bad, right? I’m sure your list may vary.
But what if your brother or aunt falls into one of the above categories? Those we love we tend not to put on our list, so instead we say things like “they’ve lost their way”, or “they’ve been dealt a bad hand”, or “they have issues to work out”, anything to avoid saying they are bad, thus keeping them on the inherently good side of the ledger. And what about the murderer or rapist who has reformed, who has admitted his or her guilt and genuinely changed their ways. Are they still bad, or can we take them off the list now? My point is this: It’s impossible to clearly determine who is good and who is bad based on our metrics, because we can’t even agree on the metrics. Deep down, we know we can’t make that call, because such judgment is based on a standard we can’t observe. So to avoid the argument, we simply label everyone as “good” (unless otherwise noted).
Jesus alludes to this fact in Mark 10.18. Someone asks him what is required to attain eternal life, and in doing so he addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher”. Jesus’ first response is this: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” The deeper reference here is Jesus confirming that he is in fact God, but in doing so he also makes a crucial point about our character. Aside from God, no one is good. Immediately this strikes at the heart of our assumptions and begins to reveal that standard of judgment we can’t observe. Paul delivers a more blunt statement in Romans 3.10-12 (quoting Psalms 14.1-3 and 53.1-3) where he says this: “None is righteous… no one does good.” This is just a small sample, but scripture is clear about our condition. So when disaster comes upon us, and we begin to plead our case, perhaps we should stop to consider that perhaps no one is good, at least by the eternal standard.
What do we consider “bad” things?
This one’s a bit more straight-forward, since judging “things” is much easier than judging people. Death, injury, violence, abuse, neglect – We can mostly agree on a list of bad things. Why is there such agreement? I believe it’s due to the “law written on our hearts” as Paul describes in Romans 2.12-16, that built-in programming that helps you determine what is naturally good and bad, whether you believe in God or not. Though contemporary cultural morality increasingly blurs the line on particular issues, in general, all people have an innate sense of right and wrong.
The confusion comes when we equate bad things with bad results. The classic example of this is the story of Joseph. Sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, Joseph finds himself in Egypt but, as God would have it, eventually works his way into a position of power. Years later when his brothers come crawling back to him out of desperate need, they believe that Joseph would surely use this opportunity for payback. Instead, Joseph wisely chooses to look at the big picture, giving us one of the most famous quotes from Scripture: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50.20) Bad things clearly happened to Joseph, yet amazing results came out of it.
We see the same thing in nature. When a forest fire devastates a mountainside, what we don’t see is how the combustion of raw material infuses the soil with much-needed nutrients, bolstering the vegetation and enabling it to grow back even healthier. With the earthquake that struck near Anchorage, no lives were lost due in large part to improved building codes, lessons learned from previous destructive quakes. That bad things will find us is not in question. But God wants us to see bad things as he does, as opportunities to deepen our faith in him, living a life ruled by his guidance and not by our circumstances.
Why do good things happen to bad people?
For the moment let’s revisit our original premise of “bad people”. There are many in our society who, in our estimation, clearly don’t deserve the “good things” in life, yet for whatever seem to be showered with them. The rich get richer, the powerful continue to gain power, while little if any is shared with those who need or deserve it. But can we really say that we deserve those things, or that those things are actually “good”? If our conclusion is valid that no one is good, then consider what you would do with more money and power. Sure, you would be more generous than they are… for a while. But at what point does that money and power begin to control you? How long until you become like those you loathe? The power of the enemy is that he knows how to use your sin against you, slowly and and undetected. It’s the negative of the Joseph scenario: Satan will take what you meant for good and use it for evil. Of course this isn’t universally true. Many who trust in Christ rightly handle such worldly possessions. Those people, however, have reached that point because they realize how the “good things” can quickly become their downfall apart from the guidance of God’s Spirit.
Why is this important to our discussion? Because when asking the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, an underlying assumption is that, in a just world, bad things belong to bad people while good things belong to good people. This could be considered a Western form of karma, but the idea is unique to neither Eastern nor Western thought. This is an assumption we all tend to make. Jesus addresses this very attitude in his “love your enemy” discourse in Matthew 5, in the midst of which he observes, “For [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5.45) Theologians call this “common grace”, that universal goodness of God that permeates creation, producing the same effect on everyone despite their standing with him.
The reality of our world is this: All things happen to all people. No one is immune from bad things, and no one is exempt from good things. Your circumstance isn’t indicative of your morality or spiritual condition. Instead, look at your circumstance as an opportunity to learn about God (perhaps even for the first time), allowing him to take the bad things that come into your life and turn them around for your good and his glory.
Why do good things ever happen at all?
One last thought: If indeed none of us are good – or more accurately, we’re all “sinful” – and all the world has also been infected by sin, then why does anything good ever happen at all? Shouldn’t destruction, decay, and death characterize every facet of life? You may say, “Just watch the news”, to which I would have to give you some credit. But filter out the sensational and dig into the substantial. Don’t just look at the disasters, but at the lives that were saved in the midst of them. Don’t just look at the broken hearts, but at those who come alongside to comfort them. Why is there any hope in the midst of despair? Why is there any chance to rebuild from destruction?
In Paul’s speech to the Greeks in Lystra, he makes this observation: “[God] did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (Acts 14.17) Could it be that a remnant of God’s creative goodness still flows through this sin-ravaged world? And could it be that goodness remains, like breadcrumbs in the forest, to help lead us back to the Creator? In the fallout of bad things, search for the good things that trail behind, for it’s in the good things that God is trying to reach us.
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