Rev. Teri Peterson
Bad Things, Good People
Luke 18, Romans 8, etc
17 August 2014, Faith Questions 9
The question of why bad things happen to good people is probably as old as questions themselves. From the beginning of time, we have wondered about this problem. The psalms ring out with “how long, O Lord?” The answers usually end up making us sound like Job’s friends, who insist that everything happens for a reason and that God doesn’t give more than we can handle and that it’s a test…and at the end of the story, it’s revealed just how wrong they are. Those answers are more platitude than they are scriptural truth, and that seems to be the case with almost any answer we can come up with—it falls apart with just a few moments of reflection.
But what if we first consider the question itself—Why do bad things happen to good people? The very question implies that there are some people who deserve the bad things that happen to them, and some that do not. Who are the people who deserve what they get? We might protest that this isn’t what we mean when we ask this heart-wrenching question, but it is an assumption behind the words…an assumption that becomes more clear when we wonder “what did I do to deserve this?”
This implication, that some people deserve the bad things life sends their way, leads to 18 year old boys being shot in their streets, and left there for all to see, while others are protected from view or whisked out of town. Michael Brown must have done something to deserve it. It leads to a government official being able to ignore civilian casualties without any outcry at all, because those civilians are the wrong ethnicity and voted for the wrong political party. It leads to total silence when hundreds of girls are abducted from their school and held captive for months, with no end in sight. It leads to characterizing depression as cowardly, selfish, and lazy rather than deadly. It leads to girls being taught to dress carefully so as not to be asking for it.
Some people must deserve the bad things, right? Otherwise, why do we always ask “why do bad things happen to good people?”
In Luke 18, a young man approaches Jesus and asks the eternal question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers him with another question that pulls us up short: “why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
This is Jesus: why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
Maybe the question itself is flawed, and that’s why we have so much trouble answering it: bad things happen, period, and there are no people who are exempt from this world’s suffering. This is part of human reality, as Paul wrote to the Romans: “There is no one who is good, not even one. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” None of us can ever be good enough to earn a bubble of protection from the hurts and tragedies of life. Sometimes the bad things are forces of nature, sometimes they are the result of choices we make, or choices someone else makes. Sometimes they are the consequence of choices made generations ago, and sometimes it’s random chance or the vagaries of physics. Accidents happen, nature happens, being in the wrong place at the wrong time happens.
In my experience, when we ask this question, we usually mean something other than what these words actually say. There is a fancy theological word for what we’re trying to talk about: theodicy, which is the problem of why, if God is all good and all powerful, do bad things happen? If God is good and powerful, then why is there cancer? Why are there natural disasters? Why are people prone to violence? Why does the darkness so often seem to obscure the light?
And more to the point: where is God when bad things happen to me, or to people I love? Where is God when the plane goes missing, or the tornado sweeps through town, or the shots ring out in the hallway? Where is God when a loved one can’t remember who you are, or when your child is missing, or when the doctor says “why don’t you have a seat”?
So often we ask ourselves “what did I do to deserve this?” And yet the answer will always be the same: nothing. In Romans 8 we read “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.“
Nothing—no amount of suffering or hardship, no violence, no illness, no darkness, nothing—can separate us from the love of God. Notice that Paul doesn’t say that God’s love will keep us from experiencing hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword. Rather, when we experience those things, God is right there, within and among and around us, living it with us, and loving us through it. It is that love, never ending and always present, that makes it possible for us to say that all things work together for God’s good. Though we cannot see or understand, we know that God is at work, and will never leave us or forsake us. In the words of Psalm 121, “the Lord will keep your going out and your coming in.” Even when it seems all we have is silence and despair, when we’re just going through the motions, when we feel like God has vanished into thin air, even then every breath is God’s love. Even when we come to the end of our rope, still God is there. In the darkness, God whispers.
Nothing—in life or in death, in the present or in the future, in this world’s systems of injustice or in the world to come—nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That also means that nothing—not skin color, or geography, or cultural difference, not socio-economic status, or language, or political affiliation—should be a reason for denying love to another person. If every person is made in the image of God, is a beloved child of God, is a temple of the Holy Spirit, then it is also our job as the body of Christ to suffer with those who suffer, to weep with those who weep, to rejoice with those who rejoice. Mr. Rogers tells us to look for the helpers, and see God’s face in theirs. I would ask us also to look at the body crumpled in the street, and see Christ’s body there. See the tears of mothers, weeping for their children, and see the tears of the Spirit running down their face. Anytime we imply that someone got what was coming to them, anytime we forget that only God is good, and anytime we participate in a system that dehumanizes another child of God, we need to step back and repent. Nothing can separate us from the love of God—and there is only us, no them.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth that if one member of the body suffers, all suffer together with it. We are not God, so we cannot answer why God’s creation includes suffering, or why people insist on defacing the image of God in each other, or why tragedy strikes some and not others. The whole creation groans alongside us, longing for peace and justice. But we can know that we are not alone. There is not an answer, but there is an Answerer, who says I am with you always, even to the end of the age. And the Answerer calls out to us, reminding us to comfort one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to encourage each other, to be doers of the word, to be makers of peace. As we build up the body of Christ, we may just see the face of God, who truly is good, all the time.
May it be so.