Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
Swallow up those more righteous than themselves? (Habakkuk, 1:13)
This is what the wicked are like–
always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. (Psalm 73: 12,13)
This may not be the most important question for Christians. But it sure is one of the most difficult. And we all face it many times in our lives.
It confronts us all everyday. Natural disasters entomb thousands of innocent men, women and children. Floods drown babies. Typhoons bury towns and hamlets under raging winds and torrents. Tornadoes sweep across the dark skies and smash churches and the people in them into the detritus of death. What did those babies and children do to deserve such a terrible and final end?
It isn’t always as impersonal as all of the above. Very few of us get caught in deadly tornadoes, earthquakes, or floods in the course of our lifetimes. We read about them in the newspapers, catch it on CNN, or maybe pick it off an Internet site. But it still is at arm’s length, far away, images and sound bites that perhaps catch us off guard and trigger a short sympathetic, wondering response, but then we move on with our lives. What happens on the flood plain of an impoverished village in Bangladesh as a monster monsoon sweeps people away is, after all, a long way away from Kansas, or California, or Georgia.
It becomes a very personal question when something bad happens to a good person, or people, close to us–a sudden shocking death in a car accident; a diagnosis of cancer or multiple sclerosis; a local church congregation blasted into rubble by a tornado while worshipping and praying on a Sunday morning.
Or–and I don’t want to trivialize the matter– it sometimes gets down to a series of personal mini-disasters: the computer crashed, the tire went flat, your child sassed you, your spouse won’t speak to you, a bill you forgot about suddenly appeared just as you wiped out your savings account with summer vacation expenses. And it all happened in the space of two or three hours after you got up early today to pray and read Scripture! Why me?
The classic “why me?” scenario of course occurs in the Book of Job of the Old Testament. All that we know about Job occurs in this ancient Book that bears his name. To say the Book is a simple tale of woe and faith is to diminish its grandeur. It is a magnificent story of woes and troubles that afflict Job, and his response of remaining faithful to God in spite of his afflictions.
“In the land of Uz,” the Book begins, “there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” (Job 1:1)
So far so good. In fact, perhaps because his life WAS so good was what attracted the attention of Satan. Job was the richest man in the East, the Bill Gates or Samuel Walton of his time. He had 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 female donkeys, and a large household, consisting of seven sons and three daughters. This is not the stuff, perhaps, to impress the denizens of Silicon Valley, but it was nonetheless enough to put Job in a high profile among the camel and donkey crowd of the Old Testament.
Then one day Satan and a few angels passed by God who was watching this pastoral scene of goodness and tranquility.
“What have you guys been up to?” asked God.
“Oh, just roaming about here and there. Why do you ask?”
Then God maybe bragged a bit, especially in view of such a disreputable lot.
“Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” (Job 1:8)
“That’s only because you give him everything,” Satan shot back.
“What’s your drift here Satan?”
“Break the connection between prosperity and faith and he’ll turn on you sure enough, whining and cursing you like them all,” Satan said contemptuously.
“Even Job,” sneered Satan
“Alright then,” God said, “everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” (Job 1:12)
Upright, prosperous, faithful Job had no idea this conversation had taken place. Soon, calamities overwhelmed him. His camels, oxen, and sheep were stolen by raiders, his servants killed. His children were crushed when a sudden desert wind rose and devastated the house where they were feasting and drinking.
“Why me Lord?” Job asked in anguish.
But then he prayed,
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
may the name of the LORD be praised.” (Job 1:21)
So, Job’s initial response was the same one we all have when faced with some apparently unmerited tragedy, a grave injustice, something inexplicable. He continued to praise God, for he was a Godly man.
A short while later, Satan cruised by God again.
“Have you seen my man Job, Satan?” God asked.
“Sure,” said Satan
“There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.” (Job 2:3)
“I think not God. Job, like all men, can’t tolerate pain in the flesh. Push him a bit and he’ll curse you ’till the day he dies.”
“All right then, you can hurt him, but you must spare his life,” God responded, confident in his servant Job.
So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head.
Crushed by his misfortune, Job sank down among some ashes. He contemplated the death of his children, the destruction of his animals, the painful affliction of his body. He scraped his festering skin with a piece of broken pottery to break the boils that so tormented him. (Job 2:7-8)
Now, our spouses often will cut to the chase when they see a problem. Job’s wife was no different.
“Are you still holding on to your integrity?” she sneered. “Curse God and die!”
To which the still faithful Job replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10)
All of the above sets the stage for the next forty chapters in the book. These verses are some of the most powerful, provocative, questing, poetic literature in the world. Job bares his soul and anguish, regrets the day he was born, and wonders over and over how all this could happen to a righteous man.
All his life he did good. Now he was sinking into despair. Something was wrong here, for Job knew his God was just and good. What was happening to him was both unjust and evil. That is the central issue of the Book of Job, and, in fact, the question we address in this chapter. What was happening here and how do we deal with it?
Ever since Job was written, it has been the subject of intense scrutiny, for in Job’s experience we search for answers to the same questions. Jewish and Christian scholars, such as the Rabbi Harold Kushner and the Oxford don, C. S. Lewis, have given us books like Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People and The Problem of Pain. These take on the philosophical and theological problem of trying to reconcile belief in an omnipotent and loving God in a world where pain and suffering are daily experiences.
Like all of us, Job had friends. We may crave solitude and wish to be alone when pain, rejection, depression in whatever form comes our way. But when we do get down, our well-meaning friends tend to show up. Job’s friends were no different. They were shocked when they saw him.
“When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles,” the narrator writes, “that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him.”
Good Jewish friends that they were, “they began to weep aloud, and, following custom, “they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads.”
“Then,” perhaps unlike our friends who might be expected to excuse themselves after an hour or so and drive off, “they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” (Job 2:11-13)
Now, THAT’S what friends are for we might be thinking. Loving, loyal, quiet, non-judgmental, commiserating, just “being there” for us.
Job was beside himself. He wished he hadn’t even been born. Better to never have been given life by God than this terrible suffering.
“Why then did you bring me out of the womb?” he complained bitterly. “I wish I had died before any eye saw me. If only I had never come into being, or had been carried straight from the womb to the grave!” (Job 10:18,19)
Eli, Bil, and Zoph listened quietly and with sympathy to Job’s laments.
Why me? I have never wronged anyone. If I have, convict me by my actions God.
“Do not condemn me God,” Job continued, “but tell me what charges you have against me.” (Job 10:2,3) In his despair, Job lashed out at God. Again, a human reaction. What have I done to deserve this? Tell me so that I may correct my ways, my attitude, my lack of obedience or faith. But don’t leave me out here to suffer. Job got very personal with God.
Remember that this is one of the oldest books of the Old Testament. The great patriarchs and prophets, such as Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, for example, had a much more personal relationship to their God than we often seem to today. This is not to diminish the presence of the Holy Spirit in your lives, but these old fellows talked and conversed with God all the time, and God usually responded in clear, unmistakable prose. They negotiated with God. And, sometimes, like Job, they accused God directly of being unfair, unjust.
“Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands, while you smile on the schemes of the wicked?” Job asked almost sarcastically. (Job 10:3)
How often have we seen prosperity abound to those who seem so far from God? And those who fear and obey God running around in a decrepid 1980s sedan, a ratty, peeling “Jesus Saves” bumper sticker announcing their faithfulness to the Lord?
“Your hands shaped me and made me,” Job continued, remembering the God who made the world in Genesis. “Will you now turn and destroy me? You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit,” Job reminded God. (Job 10: 8,9,12)
Job recognizes his humanity, even as he questions God.
“If I am guilty–woe to me!”
“Even if I am innocent,” however he quickly adds, “I cannot lift my head, for I am full of shame and drowned in my affliction. If I hold my head high, you stalk me like a lion and again display your awesome power against me. You bring new witnesses against me and increase your anger toward me; your forces come against me wave upon wave.” (Job 10:15-17)
Let me die Job cries in despair. Better to “go to the place of no return, to the land of gloom and deep shadow, to the land of deepest night, of deep shadow and disorder, where even the light is like darkness.” (Job 10:21-22)
Not many of us get that close to a death wish to end all our problems. We may wish some ELSE is dead, but not us. We do, however, feel terrible affliction and pain, inflicted upon us by others, by ourselves, or, the hardest to explain, by circumstances. Here is a hint of what the Book of Job is all about. But, let’s wait a bit for an answer to Job’s dilemma.
While Job is arguing with God, he also has to deal with his friends.
Remember Eli, Bil, and Zoph have been quietly listening to their friend’s laments. Now they speak up. And their message, couched in poetry and powerful images, is nonetheless simple.
“You ask what you did to deserve all this?” they queried Job.
“Nothing, nothing at all,” Job cried out.
“Nonsense. You are paying the wages of some sin Job.”
“What?!” Job asks, not quite speechless, but pretty near it.
“Consider this our dear friend: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?
“Where were the upright ever destroyed?” (Job 4:7 )
In a nutshell, his friends said he must be guilty of SOME sin, otherwise God would not have punished him. Job rejects this, but is plunged into such pain and despair that he almost, but not quite, rejects God.
His friends persist.
“As I have observed,” one sniffed sanctimoniously, “those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it.” (Job 4:8)
Job defends himself, as we all do when affliction strikes. Perhaps we are not so insistent, eloquent, or, and let’s say it, as self-righteous as Job, but we do the same thing.
Job’s lists his good deeds. It reads like the fulfillment of basic Mosaic law.
“I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist him. The man who was dying blessed me; I made the widow’s heart sing. I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger. I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth.” (Job 30:12-7)
Not many of us could make such grand claims to doing good, helping the poor, rescuing the orphans, befriending the widow, comforting the dying, giving shelter to the strangers.
Not content with this list of virtuous acts, Job then really lays it on.
“I made a covenant with my eyes not (even) to look lustfully at a girl.” (Job 31:1)
Job knew his covenant with God well. Actually, Jimmy Carter (President, 1977-1981) knew his Scripture well also when he confessed that he had committed adultery, if only in his heart. Carter asked for forgiveness, and could expect it from his God. Job was considerably less contrite.
“I never did such a thing,” he sniffed. So why am I being persecuted?
“For what is man’s lot from God above, his heritage from the Almighty on high? Is it not ruin for the wicked, disaster for those who do wrong? Does he not see my ways and count my every step?” (Job 31:2-4) Clearly, for Job there was a direct relationship between failure to keep the Law and punishment, between failing God and disastrous consequences.
Surely, heap coals upon the wicked. They deserve it. Ok. But why ME?!
When we fail, we too expect “consequences,” as my son was told early in his life, in fact in Kindergarten. If we behave badly, there are consequences.
Not content with a simple declaration that he expected punishment for failure, Job steps to the fore and questions God directly.
What IS it that I have done to deserve this? His words ring like poetry and resonate with an eloquence not given to many of us, but in them we can surely see reflections of our own questions when something goes terribly wrong.
Typically, Job doesn’t just say, “what is it Lord that I have done? Where have I gone wrong? How do I make amends to get back into your good graces?” No, Job almost wears God out with his self-righteous lament! Think about it as you read it.
“I certainly wouldn’t be so bold or self-serving to speak to God in such a fashion!” you may think.
But, I bet you have sometimes THOUGHT the way Job spoke as you tallied up your virtues.
This long defense of his behavior comes in Job 31, verses 5-40. I have taken the liberty of editing it a bit.
“If I have walked in falsehood or my foot has hurried after deceit–let God weigh me in honest scales and he will know that I am blameless- if my steps have turned from the path, if my heart has been led by my eyes, or if my hands have been defiled, then may others eat what I have sown, and may my crops be uprooted.
“If my heart has been enticed by a woman, or if I have lurked at my neighbor’s door, then may my wife grind another man’s grain, and may other men sleep with her. For that would have been shameful, a sin to be judged.
“If I have denied justice to my menservants and maidservants when they had a grievance against me, what will I do when God confronts me? What will I answer when called to account?
“If I have denied the desires of the poor or let the eyes of the widow grow weary, if I have kept my bread to myself, not sharing it with the fatherless- but from my youth I reared him as would a father, and from my birth I guided the widow- if I have seen anyone perishing for lack of clothing, or a needy man without a garment, and his heart did not bless me for warming him with the fleece from my sheep, if I have raised my hand against the fatherless, knowing that I had influence in court, then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint. For I dreaded destruction from God….
“If I have put my trust in gold or said to pure gold, `You are my security,’ if I have rejoiced over my great wealth, the fortune my hands had gained, if I have regarded the sun in its radiance or the moon moving in splendor, so that my heart was secretly enticed and my hand offered them a kiss of homage, then these also would be sins to be judged, for I would have been unfaithful to God on high.
“If I have rejoiced at my enemy’s misfortune or gloated over the trouble that came to him–I have not allowed my mouth to sin by invoking a curse against his life–if the men of my household have never said, `Who has not had his fill of Job’s meat?’–but no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler- -if I have concealed my sin as men do, by hiding my guilt in my heart because I so feared the crowd and so dreaded the contempt of the clans that I kept silent and would not go outside.
Sure of himself, Job calls in anguish for a just hearing.
“Oh, that I had someone to hear me! I sign now my defense–let the Almighty answer me; let my accuser put his indictment in writing.
Determined to have the last word, Job adds in a loud lament,
“If my land cries out against me and all its furrows are wet with tears, if I have devoured its yield without payment or broken the spirit of its tenants, then let briers come up instead of wheat and weeds instead of barley.”
We are in the middle of this great discourse and Job is finding no comfort. He relates all he has done–and we can all do this, either openly or secretly–and wonders why he has come to such a sorry state.
Unrelieved by his lament, Job remembers better days. He looks back, as we also are wont to do. “Ah, for the good old days.” This is especially true as we get older and witness the younger generation around us, hopelessly 1. Depraved, 2. Immoral, 3. Lazy, 4. Materialistic, 5. Narcissistic, or 6. Any combination of the above and more one can add.
“How I long for the months gone by, for the days when God watched over me, when his lamp shone upon my head and by his light I walked through darkness! Oh, for the days when I was in my prime, when God’s intimate friendship blessed my house, when the Almighty was still with me and my children were around me, when my path was drenched with cream and the rock poured out for me streams of olive oil.
“When I went to the gate of the city and took my seat in the public square, the young men saw me and stepped aside and the old men rose to their feet; the chief men refrained from speaking and covered their mouths with their hands; the voices of the nobles were hushed, and their tongues stuck to the roof of their mouths….
“Men listened to me expectantly, waiting in silence for my counsel. After I had spoken, they spoke no more; my words fell gently on their ears. They waited for me as for showers and drank in my words as the spring rain. When I smiled at them, they scarcely believed it; the light of my face was precious to them. I chose the way for them and sat as their chief; I dwelt as a king among his troops; I was like one who comforts mourners.” (Job 29:2-25)
Ah, the glory days. Some of us look back at the medals, the prizes, the honors, our sons and daughters, the hundreds of hours we gave as volunteers, the houses we built, the deer we hunted, the money we gave to good causes, the parties we had, our promotions, the money we made, it was all wonderful. “Men listened to me expectantly, waiting in silence for my counsel.” What a power trip!
And now? Job doesn’t leave one to doubt how far he has fallen.
“But now they mock me, men younger than I, whose fathers I would have disdained to put with my sheep dogs…
“… Their sons mock me in song; I have become a byword among them. They detest me and keep their distance; they do not hesitate to spit in my face.…Terrors overwhelm me; my dignity is driven away as by the wind, my safety vanishes like a cloud.
“And now my life ebbs away; days of suffering grip me. Night pierces my bones; my gnawing pains never rest….(God)… throws me into the mud, and I am reduced to dust and ashes.
“I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me. You turn on me ruthlessly; with the might of your hand you attack me. You snatch me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm. I know you will bring me down to death, to the place appointed for all the living. …
“The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me…I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls. My skin grows black and peels; my body burns with fever. My harp is tuned to mourning, and my flute to the sound of wailing.” (Job 30: 1-31–excerpts)
Job is at the bottom of a black pit of despair and loathing, by turns at himself, at his friends, and even aimed at God. Then, after thirty-seven chapters, God finally answers him on the 38th. It is one of the most powerful statements of majesty and power in the Bible. Whenever we get to wondering what powers God has, turn to Job 38 and read the next four chapters. It also contains the answer to the title of this chapter.
We will excerpt a few passages.
“Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said:
“Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone–while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy…?
“Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place….
“Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death? Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this….
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail, which I reserve for times of trouble, for days of war and battle…? Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm, to water a land where no man lives, a desert with no one in it, to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass…?
“Who endowed the heart with wisdom or gave understanding to the mind? (Job 38)
Then God hits Job squarely in the solar plexus “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!” (Job 40:2)
Faced with the majesty of God, what are we left with? We may cry out for justice, for some equation between sin and reward, for some way to understand our misfortune and travail.
Job, contrite and awed, answers God.
“I am unworthy–how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer–twice, but I will say no more.” (Job 40:4-5)
“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” (Job 42:3)
God was not through with Job yet.
“Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
“Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?
“Do you have an arm like God’s, and can your voice thunder like his?
“Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor, and clothe yourself in honor and majesty. Unleash the fury of your wrath, look at every proud man and bring him low, look at every proud man and humble him, crush the wicked where they stand. Bury them all in the dust together; shroud their faces in the grave. Then I myself will admit to you that your own right hand can save you. (Job 40: 6-14)
God has heard Job whine, lament, plead, beg, and list his virtues with great self-righteousness. He blasts Job down with his awesome might, and mystery.
“Then Job replied to the LORD:
“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.
“(You asked,) `Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.
“(You said,) `Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’
“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6)
As for Job’s three friends, God rebukes them as well.
“After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”
“So Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite did what the LORD told them; and the LORD accepted Job’s prayer. (Job 42:7-9)
And the story of Job ended happily ever after. Because we like happy endings, here it is.
“After Job had prayed for his friends, the LORD made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before.
“All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him over all the trouble the LORD had brought upon him, and each one gave him a piece of silver and a gold ring.
“The LORD blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys.
“And he also had seven sons and three daughters. The first daughter he named Jemimah, the second Keziah and the third Keren-Happuch. Nowhere in all the land were there found women as beautiful as Job’s daughters, and their father granted them an inheritance along with their brothers.
“After this, Job lived a hundred and forty years; he saw his children and their children to the fourth generation. And so he died, old and full of years. (Job 42: 10-17)
Job is a model of spiritual integrity—a person who held fast to his faith, without understanding the reason behind his suffering. He serves as a continuing witness to the possibility of authentic faith in God in the most troubling of circumstances.
The truth is friends, we can never wholly understand why our loving, omnipotent God allowed a righteous man like Job to suffer. Or why indeed there is pain and suffering in the world; why it sometimes seems that the righteous are afflicted, and the sinful prosper.
We do know, of course, the bookends to Job’s story. It begins with an agreement between God and Satan to test Job. And it ends with Job’s reward of plenty, of peace, of restoration.
We do know that evil exists in the world. We do know that it does not come from God, but from Satan.
In Paul Johnson’s My Quest for God, the author clearly frames the question for us: how can an omnipotent, entirely good God allow the existence of evil? It is a contradiction that we are unable to answer, and Johnson’s honest final say on the matter is:–“I really don’t know.”
But I think Johnson gave up too easily. We do know, but we can’t understand. God’s plan for us is simply not comprehensible in its entirety to human beings.
Fortunately, God has given us two tools to work with. One is faith. If we are faithful, God WILL provide. And, two, God gave us his son Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of His son on the Cross saved us from our sins, and opened the road to eternal life, no matter what happens to us on earth. And His son gave us a marvelous set of instructions so that we may put ourselves in the will of God, right here on earth.
The heart of those instructions follow in the next chapter.
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996 (1962)) and Harold Kushner, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Avon Books, 1981). See also Paul Johnson’s Chapter 3, “Why Evil Exists–and Why We Can Distinguish It from Good,” in The Quest for God: A Personal Pilgrimage (New York: Harper Collins, 1996) for an equally thoughtful rendition of the problem and its solution/s.