My Neighbour Wants to Know Why Bad Things Happen to Good People
8/5/2019 4:20:42 AM
Aug 4, 2019
Rev. David Williams
Ten or twelve years ago I likely the most profound phone call in my pastoral career. A woman called the church out of the blue from NS. She lived in Guelph but was out east to stay with her mother-in-law who had just died of cancer. As the woman’s story unfolded, it turned out that she and her husband had lost twin girls through a late miscarriage. Then her husband had died. Now her mother-in-law had died. The woman was alienated from her own family and was very close to her in-laws, so this was like her own mother dying. Now, on top of it all, the woman herself had been diagnosed with breast cancer! It was a modern example of the suffering of Job! And this woman had called me because she was curious about Jesus. At one point in the conversation I asked her about God and suffering. Her answer was profoundly wise. She said, “I have ignored God my whole life. He doesn’t owe me anything.”
What a wise answer in the face of her own misery and suffering! What a counter-cultural answer too. Most of the people I hear talking about suffering ask why God allows it? “Why does a good God allow people to suffer? Why does God allow me to suffer?” In contrast to these questions, this woman recognized that she had not paid attention to God the way he deserves, and so God does not “owe” her anything, that on some level, she does not have grounds on which to charge God with anything when it comes to her own suffering.
This week we are finishing our series on “My neighbour wants to know.” Our final question is a good one, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”
The problem of bad things happening to good people is ancient. Some of the oldest material in the Bible is found in the book of Job, a book about a good man who suffers terribly! In that book, Job has some insensitive friends who think they are wise, but are not really. So this question is not a new one by any stretch of the imagination! Our text today, though, is not from Job, but from John. Please turn with me to John 9:1-9.
What It Says
As this passage continues, we see that the Pharisees interview the healed man and he testifies that it was Jesus who healed him. Because it was on the Sabbath that Jesus made the mud, the Pharisees don’t want to believe the man’s story! Some of them at least want to conclude that Jesus is a bad man, but the blind man’s testimony is persuasive. Finally, the blind man finds Jesus again, worships him and committed himself to Jesus.
But we want to zero in on the beginning of the passage that we read together. What do we see?
Jesus saw the blind man that everybody else ignored. [Frederick Dale Bruner, John, p. 561] Born blind, this man was likely a beggar. He sat beside the road day in and day out, hoping for some kind people to give him a few coins. There every day, the usual passersby no longer “saw” the man. But Jesus saw him. Just as Jesus touched the leper nobody else would touch, Jesus saw the blind beggar that nobody else would see.
The disciples assumed his suffering was a direct result of specific sin. Some may ask how the man’s sin could have cause blindness from birth, but Jews believed that sin affected children still in the womb. Esau and Jacob were said to have fought in the womb. If a pregnant woman who worshipped in a pagan temple, the sin of that worship was also attributed to the baby. [DA Carson, John, p. 362] But the mistake the disciples made was to draw a direct line between a specific act and specific suffering. As DA Carson puts it, “The disciples have not progressed beyond Job’s miserable comforters!”
Jesus corrects them, but offers a different perspective. Jesus does not describe the cause of the suffering but the purpose. [Bruner, p. 564] Jesus says that the man was born blind “so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Jesus points to the purpose of the suffering that actually redeemed the suffering. Had this man been born with sight, he may never have met Jesus. But, being born blind and then healed, he came to believe in Jesus and life’s testimony brought glory to God and likely brought others to faith as well. Not only that, the power of God was not just displayed in his lifetime, but has continued to be displayed through the testimony of John’s Gospel for 2,000 years! [Bruner, p. 565]
The witnesses to the healing were so amazed they could hardly believe it happened. The man’s neighbours, who had ignored him for year, or perhaps given him a few coins here and there, couldn’t believe it was the same man! I suspect one of the reasons was that, like the disciples, they had concluded this man’s blindness was the direct result of sin in his life or his parents’ and that he somehow “deserved” it. They then looked down on him and/or his family, thinking themselves superior. That he was healed challenged all these beliefs, whether they held them consciously or unconsciously!
Now, this text is not a full treatise on the problem of suffering or on why bad things happen to good people, but it is quite useful in challenging some of our pre-suppositions about the subject! Let’s make a few observations from the text before we build our answer further.
First, Jesus sees us in our suffering. When his neighbours no longer saw him, Jesus saw the blind man. He saw him and had compassion on him. Jesus sees all who suffer and has compassion for them. This is part of the powerful message of the Incarnation- God came to us, to be with us, to demonstrate his care and concern for us! Not only that, God chose to endure suffering himself in order to mend our relationship with him!
Second, while our sin often brings us suffering, our suffering is not always from our sin. In the big picture, all suffering is the result of the fallenness of our world, and that fallenness is our fault collectively because of sin. In the small picture, our sinful rebellion against God often leads to painful experiences. Gossip leads to lost friends. Dishonesty leads to mistrust. Affairs lead to broken marriages. There are often normal, foreseeable consequences to our sin. But, while it works in that direction, it doesn’t work in the other direction. Not everything we suffer, not every bad experience can be traced back to a specific sin of ours, or even of another person’s. Famine leading to hunger and starvation, birth defects, sickness, etc. Cannot be traced in a 1 to 1 way with our sin.
Third, God may choose to redeem our suffering for his glory. There are times when God uses our suffering to bring glory to his name, such as in healing the blind man. Perhaps God will intervene is a surprising, or even miraculous way! But it is God’s choice, not our right for him to intervene. And if he does, our response is to turn to him, worship him, commit ourselves to him and bear witness to what he has done in our lives!
But this is the exception, not the norm! There were many people in Judea suffering at the time of Christ and he did not alleviate all their suffering nor heal all their diseases and ailments, even though he healed many.
Answering the Question
Now, let’s turn to answering the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I want to approach this from a couple directions, breaking down the question itself. We’re going to break it down into 3 parts: 1- why do bad things happen at all? 2 – Who are the good people? 3- why should bad things not happen to good people?
Remember, this series is in part preparing us to answer these questions from our friends and neighbours, so please follow along and imagine yourself bringing up these points with a non-believer, maybe even your “Reach One.”
Why do bad things happen at all? Bad things happen because we live in a fallen world. Because people have chosen to rebel against God, bad things happen in the world, we suffer, not only the consequences of our own choices, but also the consequences of the choices of others. Furthermore, because of our alienation from God, things such as sickness have entered the world. Genesis 3 says that even our relationship with nature has been affected by our rejection of God! So even things like natural disasters and the suffering they cause are linked to our sin! Why do bad things happen? Because we’ve chosen to make ourselves God instead of letting God be God and worshipping him with the whole of our being.
Who are the good people? Only God is good. When Jesus was approached by the rich young ruler, the young man addressed Jesus as “good teacher”. Jesus asked, “Why do you call me good? Only God is good!” And he makes an excellent point. When we speak of “bad” things happening to “good” people, what is our criteria for a person being “good”? Does it mean better than average? Does it mean being better than 50% of the population? Does it mean better than the really bad people, like Hitler, Stalin and Ted Bundy?
The Bible tells us that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standard. (Rom 3:23)
Some people may appear good, but nobody is holy, we have all sinned. Here’s the real crux of the question- who are the good people? What standard of goodness do we have to achieve to think we are beyond suffering? We like to think we set the standard, but in fact God sets it. And his standard is perfection- perfect holiness. And none of us achieve that standard! So the question really should be “Why do bad things happen to perfectly holy people?” But that then rules us all out! But worse than that, Scripture also says that the consequences of sin, what sin earns us, is death! Not only are we not good, but we have earned the death penalty!
Why should bad things not happen to good people? This actually reflects a “karma” sort of thinking. That bad things shouldn’t happen to good people (if there are good people) assumes that we should only receive what we deserve based on our actions. But if none of us are perfect, what do we expect to receive for our imperfections? As I mentioned, God says that what we deserve is annihilation. But we don’t get annihilation. We get to live our lives and have the possibility of coming to know Jesus, turning to God in repentance and spending eternity in blessed, intimate relationship with him. That’s not what we deserve at all! Matt 5:45 – Jesus says God makes it rain on the just and the unjust both. God’s blessings fall on everybody, not just the righteous. We all receive blessings from God, regardless of our goodness or status with him.
So, perhaps another way to approach the question is, “Why do bad things happen to God’s people?” Even God’s people still live in a fallen world. God’s people are not yet perfect and sometimes suffer the consequences of their own sin.
Sometimes God allows his people to suffer to draw them closer to him. Sometimes it is in times of trouble that we cling to God most tightly. And God, knowing our hearts, sometimes allows that suffering to last longer because he knows that when he brings relief we will stop clinging to him! So he allows us to struggle until we get to the point that we will continue to cling to him, to walk closely with him, after the suffering is gone!
Sometimes God allows his people to suffer to refine their character. When we undergo difficult times of affliction, when we endure suffering as God’s people, we often start to examine our lives and our hearts in new ways. We try to rule out any sin that may have caused our suffering. We look for things to repent of, to apologize for, etc. And sometimes we find them! Other times, we keep examining our hearts and cling to God, asking him, “Why?” And in those times, we are made more pliable in God’s hands, more responsive to what his Spirit has to say. And sometimes God uses these times to shine a light on part of our heart that otherwise we wouldn’t let him go near! God disciplines those he loves to refine them and sanctify them!
Seeing the Questioner
So far, all of these answers, all of our foundation for answering the question, have been pretty theoretical. They’ve been answering the “Why” question in the abstract. But sometimes people come to us with theoretical questions because they have personal experiences. I want to emphasize that the foundation I have laid is to answer “Why do bad things happen?” not “What do I say to someone when bad things happen?”
Let’s suppose your neighbour asks you “Why do bad things happen to good people?” How should you answer them? First, determine if they are asking theoretically or personally. If theoretically, we’ve laid a good foundation. If personally, take a different approach.
In the face of suffering, have compassion like Jesus did. See the person. Listen to them. Ask them their experience. Allow them to share their story before trying to answer their question. Commiserate with them. Think about that word: co-misser-ateà experience their misery with them! Remind them that Jesus sees people in their suffering.
Remember that Jesus, the only good person ever, also suffered. Remind the questioner that Jesus understands suffering, especially unjust suffering. He can identify with them in their need. As the opportunity arises, ask them gently if their circumstances could in any way be the natural, foreseeable consequences of their sin. Is there an area of brokenness in their life that is leading to this situation? Is there something they need to turn away from and turn back God? Is God trying to get their attention and shine light on a problem he would change in them through the power of the Holy Spirit?
Point to the hope available for redemption through Christ Jesus. If they are a non-Christian, point to the hope of salvation we have when we repent and turn to back to God, that Jesus can forgive our sins and restore us to a right relationship with God. If they are a Christian, point to the hope we have in the resurrection, that God will set all things right at the return of Jesus. He will wipe away every tear! Point to how God redeemed Jesus’ suffering, bringing salvation and glory through it. Yes, Jesus died on a cross cruelly and unjustly, but God has raised him up and will give him the name above all names so that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord! And that same resurrection power is at work in us and will redeem our suffering too.
The power that raised Christ from the dead is also at work in us. The power that redeemed Christ’s suffering and brought new life to us, is at work in us, and will ultimately redeem us and our suffering. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and glad because great is your reward in heaven!” [Matt 5:11-12a] Amen.
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