Good Questions: Why do bad things happen?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

The #1 question I get as a pastor is “Why do bad things happen?” We typically add “to good people,” although I’m not tickled when bad things happen to bad people. And who’s to say who’s bad and who’s good? – noting that we normally lump ourselves into the “good” batch, don’t we? We rarely ask “Why do good things happen?” Are they just expected? Deserved? Aren’t we just lucky dogs?

Once in a while, someone asks Why do bad things happen? as an intellectual question. But way more often, we ask in a dark place; it’s a gut question, more of a cry or a wail than a real question. I want us to think together, to sort through Why we grasp for bad answers to Why bad things happen, to settle into some wisdom on how God can be good if there’s suffering. Mind you, if the love of your life just died suddenly, if your life was just plunged into the abyss, any words of wisdom won’t be heard; they’ll have to wait for their time. In such moments, Why do bad things happen? yields to what Jesus excruciatingly sobbed in his most harrowing moment: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Maybe the simple fact that the Bible, long and convoluted as it can be, includes this yelp, this sorrowful cry, shows it’s a very good book, and that in that cry we peek through a window to the answers we are seeking.

Bad answers – well-intended actually, but just inadequate and out of kilter – swarm around us. God is in control. Everything happens for a reason. God has perfect timing. God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. Not one of these is in the Bible. They are all sincere lunges to make sense of things, and God, and to cling to a little comfort – but they don’t hold up, and they don’t really hold us up because they aren’t true enough; they may just quarantine us away from God when we need God the most. If someone murders your teenage son, if God really is in control or has perfect timing, we should honor the murderer for doing God’s bidding – or more likely, the parents quite rightly should never speak to God again, or forgive God.

When we asked What is God like? we explored the implications of our foundational truth: God is love. God didn’t make us as marionettes to manipulate so God’s will is always done. Love has its risks, even for God. Parental love doesn’t control, or cling to or try to concoct a protective bubble around our children. People often complain to me that they are disappointed in God for not protecting them or those they love. God never promised or offered this. We can’t be surprised if bad things happen to good people, because the very best, holiest people, the saints and Jesus himself, suffered terribly.

It’s important to reiterate what we named when asking What is God like? God isn’t the great heavenly smiter. If you suffer, God isn’t singling you out for punishment. You understandably might ask What did I do to deserve this? God’s arms are around you even as you ask. It’s not a spanking or a lashing.

A Good Question: in this moving scene from Steel Magnolias, who is more faithful? Annelle, with her pious certainty, or M’Lynn, hollering “Why?” Notice how Annelle, in defending herself, says “It just makes me feel better.” How many of our conventional little spiritual sayings are really us trying to feel better, without thinking of the harsh impact on the person we think we’re helping? A frequently used remark is “Everything happens for a reason,” which is actually true, as we’ll see in our next email.