Why do bad things
happen to good people?
Rev Alan Stewart led an evening exploring the difficult question 'Why do bad things happen to good people?'. Here is the talk that he gave...
Tonight is about exploring together how we might approach such a big question. So although I might do a lot of the talking, it’s really as much about learning from the collective wisdom within these walls. There will be moments to pause and reflect with or without other people (depending on what you prefer) and towards the end there will be an opportunity to share any of your own insights. We’ll then aim to finish by 9.15pm with some thoughts on how we might pray in the midst of suffering.
So... Why do bad things happen to good people?
It’s probably the biggest question of them all; it’s certainly a question I’ve asked and heard many times, not least from our younger people. It’s a question thrown up by the story of the Passion that some of us saw played out here just a few weeks ago [when First Light, A Passion Play for Hertford, was staged at St Andrew's]. How could such a good man be subjected to such a terrible death? The question, ‘Why do bad things happen?’, of course assumes that there is some meaning behind this existence; some higher power that controls bad and good things. It becomes even more of a question if we dare to believe in a higher power that is both all-loving and all-powerful. Surely, the rationale goes, if this God is both, wouldn’t he step in and bring an end to the suffering of the beloved? This is for many one of the greatest obstacles to faith.
Tonight we’ll be assuming that there is a higher loving power at work in the universe and we’ll be asking what Christianity specifically might have to say to the question ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’.
It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that that some of us here have personally witnessed or walked through great suffering.
Tonight is not about trying to excuse that or even let God off the hook – some suffering, I think, is indefensible and the only proper response is to scream the heavens blue. For others this question is destined to fail because it belongs to a mystery beyond the capabilities of our understanding. And that of course is absolutely true, we will not solve this; there are no definitive answers. Nevertheless it is still a real and pressing question and if we are to have any kind of relationship with our Maker, then we have to make some sense of this, create some scaffolding; a theology which will help us hold the tensions and find some meaning or comfort within it.
There is, I think, no right theology of suffering. There are probably a good many wrong ones but no single right one.
The question itself, ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ isn’t really tackled in the Old or New testaments. It’s actually a question that owes more, I think, to the eastern ideology of karma; this idea of cause and effect; whatever goes around comes around; we reap what we sow. Now we can proof text some of those ideas from scripture but for me there is a fundamental flaw in this way of thinking. The harsh truth is that a good life does not shield us from bad things; and God doesn’t make those kinds of guarantees; we are all subject to the same fragile life and the same sheer bad luck. What God does promise, however, is to be with us in it and we’ll come back to that.
Human freedom... a vale of soul-making... how God creates
I’d like to outline three possible approaches to this question, which together might help us form something of own response to our theology of suffering.
The first is the idea of human freedom; free will.
God did not create human beings like robots, pre-programmed to do exactly what we are intended to do. Instead he took the most enormous risk in giving us free will; freedom to make our own choices, to use our own power for good or for otherwise. This is essentially what makes us human. It is also if you think about it a pre-condition for love.
Love cannot be manufactured or programmed. Neither can it be demanded or bought. For love to be love it must always be freely given. No freedom - no love and, arguably, love is what all this is about.
The problem with freedom is that we can abuse it.
Emotionally, physically, economically.
And we all do.
So much of the world’s pain stems from the selfish and cruel choices human beings make.
You may ask, well why then doesn’t God intervene. If we had power to prevent our
own child being hurt, we would use it. Why then doesn’t God parachute in and do something?
Think about that for a moment – you might want to turn to a neighbour or just sit alone with this idea...
Is this idea of free will helpful? What are its weaknesses?
Does God ever intervene; override free will? If not why not? ...Pause for thought....
This idea might help us in thinking about human causes of suffering but, of course, it says nothing to the untold suffering caused by disease, for example, or natural disaster.
The question is where does God draw the line? If we expect God to curb someone else’s free will then we should also expect him to curb ours. And to step in every single time a human being makes a wrong choice, would that not be to defeat the purpose of life and indeed love? Maybe our second approach will help us think this through a little
Our second approach could be summed up in some words by the poet John Keats, who described the world as a vale of soul-making. What he seems to be saying is that only a world containing the possibility of suffering and hardship would allow us to truly grow and develop as people.
Think about that...
If there was no danger in the world, then there would be no such thing as courage.
If the world contained an abundance of everything, there would be no such thing as generosity or selflessness.
And if there were no challenges or setbacks in life, there would be no opportunities to develop perseverance and character because it is largely as we know our failures and setbacks and, yes, our sufferings, that make us who we are.
Let me share with you a story I heard many years ago...
A young child was watching a chrysalis and inside she could see the butterfly struggling to get free. Thinking she could help she found a scalpel and very carefully, very gently
opened the chrysalis to release the butterfly. Because the butterfly, however, had not had the experience of fighting and strengthening its wings, it did not have the strength to fly.
What seemed like a kindness was in fact a disservice.
All that we value about humanity would be unrecognisable without the chrysalis of hardship. We would lose whole layers of meaning and depth from our lives. If there were no hardships and challenges, or if God always intervened to sweep our difficulties aside or to cut us free, then human life would be of a totally different order, we would not become who we were created to be; we would never grow up.
This has even led some Christian writers to suggest that God’s world is good in a highly specific sense. It is good in the sense that it is fit for a very important purpose. It is the right sort of environment for soul-making – for giving people the opportunity to grow and develop and become.
There are undoubtedly some important insights within this but some suffering is so damned awful, so inexcusable, so crushing that it is very hard to see it as part of some Masterplan.
Reflect on this idea... does God ever intend or cause suffering?
The first approach focused on the suffering caused through human wrongdoing. The second on the character of suffering and on the complex and profound part it plays in human becoming. The third approach focuses on the way in which God creates.
Think about the workings of a clock. It’s an incredible piece of craftsmanship and engineering, made to operate in one pre-set, pre-determined way.
Creation however isn’t like a clock. God created the material world with the capacity to develop in its own way – so that it wouldn’t just be a rigid extension of himself. We do not live in a world where every aspect of existence, where every change and development in the natural order has been wholly pre-determined from the outset.
If the material world genuinely possesses some degree of potential, some capacity to develop in its own way, then it must also possess some potential to develop elements of disorder.
Evolution shouldn’t be a dirty word to Christians – it’s not asking the same questions that Genesis for example is trying to grapple with. Nor does it negate the need for a Creator. Evolution gives us some very helpful insights into how things evolve and mutate, and helps explain perhaps why diseases and other dysfunctions emerge.
Sickness and suffering are part of the cycle of life; from the insect to the mountain everything is subject to that process, even stars are born, they live and they die.
If there is to be new life, then the old must die - our planet cannot sustain us all. And we all die from something; so disease regrettably is necessary. That’s cold comfort I know when someone we love is taken far too early.
There is, as I said at the beginning, no comprehensive answer to this great big question.
But Christianity does believe that God is not passive in the face of all this suffering. These last few weeks we have been travelling through the last days of Jesus’ life and death; his Passion.
Christians believe that in Jesus God entered wholesale into the reality of being human. He shared all of our experience; the highs and the hell of being human. On the cross he took the full force of our cruelty and inhumanity, he absorbed all that our free will could throw at him. He hung in solidarity with all those who have and still suffer and finally he faced the agony of that great disorder, death.
So God understands from personal experience what suffering is. And he waits with us and walks with us and weeps with us in the midst of it. As one person wrote in the letters page of the Church Times recently, ‘In the image of God is suffering’.
But the Passion is not the end of the story of course; Christians believe in resurrection; this idea that God takes the broken pieces of life and crafts them into something called hope; that deep, certain knowledge that goodness is always stronger than evil, that light is stronger than darkness, that love is stronger even than death. In the end love wins.
God will make all things new; will heal even the most broken heart, will dry every eye red with weeping. That is a promise.
As professor Hans Kung says, ‘God’s kingdom is creation healed’.
And that kingdom comes, through us; the ways we use our freedom to alleviate the suffering of others, to bring healing with our words and our presence and our expertise and our choices.
Three ways of praying within suffering
I’m indebted to the vicar of St Martins in the Fields, Sam Wells, who offers three ways of praying within suffering – some of the St Andrew's and St Mary's folk have heard this.
He asks us to imagine a moment after church over coffee when we begin chatting to someone and just as we are about to break off the conversation, that person touches our arm and says, ‘Say a prayer for my dad will you, he’s not himself, the dementia’s getting worse, he’s disappearing before my eyes’. And at that moment you realise you are standing on holy ground, looking into the fear and heartbreak of your friend’s soul. And instinctively you say, ‘Of course, of course I’ll pray’.
But where do you start, how do we pray about such a slow burning tragedy? Sam suggests that usually we pray in one of two ways.
The first he calls the prayer of resurrection; ‘God fix this, override the rules of this world, step in and make possible the impossible. Reverse this disease’. After all resurrection isn’t this what our faith is built on?. Should we not expect the miraculous? Isn’t it a question of just having enough faith?
And a big part of us wants to pray like this but we’re afraid; afraid that we don’t have enough faith; afraid of our hopes getting trashed.
The second prayer he calls the prayer of Incarnation; ’God in Jesus you shared our pain and sorrow and sheer bad luck. Jesus you were broken and desolate and alone with no guarantees. Visit my friend now and sit with them, hold their hand and give them patience and hope to get them through the day and send companions to show you care’.
It’s a prayer I find myself praying often. It’s usually as far as my faith can stretch. I cannot bring myself to offer hope that may prove to be false. I trust that the simple knowledge that my friend is not alone might be enough. And in praying of course for companions I must be prepared myself to be part of that answer.
There is a third prayer, however, one Sam calls the prayer of transfiguration: ‘God in your son’s transfiguration we see a whole new reality within, beneath and beyond what we thought we understood. In their times of bewilderment and confusion show my friend and her father that they may find a deeper truth to their life than they ever knew, make firmer friends than they ever had, find reasons for living beyond what they ever imagined and be folded into your grace like never before. Peel back the beauty and strength of their true humanity, transform and transfigure from this chaos and pain something new, something good, something of life’.
There are I think few prayers as powerful as the prayer of transfiguration.
It’s not the prayer of fix this and take it off my desk nor be with me and share this struggle. It’s a prayer which asks God to take us up the mountain, upstairs even if just for a moment so that we can see beyond and know a deeper reality.
To end, a prayer of transfiguration for any of us going through tough times:
‘Make this trial and tragedy, this problem and pain a glimpse of your glory, a window into your world, where I can see you face, sense the mystery in all things, and walk with angels and saints. Bring me closer to you in this crisis than I have ever been in calmer times. Make this a moment of truth and when I cower in fear and feel alone, touch me and raise me and make me alive like never before...’
Images courtesy of Evgeni Dinev / Federico Stevanin / freedigitalphotos.net