People have been concerned with bad things from the beginning of time. Adam and Eve had the entire Garden of Eden, yet they seem to have been obsessed with the one tree they shouldn’t gaze upon. Cain only had himself to blame for God’s dislike of his sacrifice, yet he blamed Abel and eventually murdered him over the fallout. And Job, Job had a life of great blessing, until it was all taken away and no one actually knew why.
So, why do bad things happen? One prominent scholar believes this question is the only one that really matters1 and while I believe it is vitally important to our faith, I also think the questions, “who is God?” and “why did my Savior come to Earth?” are equally important.
While many people have sought to answer this question in a neat, convenient, easy-to-explain thought or whim, I truly believe that is naive. The answer to this question goes to the very heart of life in this world (a world God made for us). If we’re ever gonna figure out what it means to be human, we’re gonna have to answer this question properly.
To begin, let’s look at the classical argument used by God’s opponents because of evil and suffering. I first learned this years ago at Freed-Hardeman University under the tutelage of David Lipe and Ralph Gilmore. While the words and expressions may change slightly from generation to generation, it has always gone something like this:
If the God of the Bible is all-powerful (see Exodus 15:6) and all-loving (see First John 4:8), yet evil exists, then He can not be all-powerful or He could remove evil and suffering from our lives or He is not all-loving because He would remove them from our lives.
Opponents of scripture then conclude the God of the Bible is a rational improbability because Christians believe the Bible to be the very Word of God (see Second Timothy 3:16-17). It says God can not lie (see Titus 1:2), so Christians must be the most gullible people alive when they believe a well-layered and extensive lie that strikes the very foundation of their faith. Evil exists, therefore, God can not.
That argument has never been valid, yet it’s convinced thousand (if not millions) of people to turn from God.
People have always struggled with the existence of suffering (especially what we consider needless suffering). That needless suffering seems capriciously cruel when the Bible describes God as one who”knows the very hairs of our head” (see Matthew 10:30-31). One ancient philosopher named Epicurus was quoted by Lactantius in his Treatise On the Anger of God (316-303 B.C.) saying,
If He (God) is willing (to take away evil) and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils?
Today, we must consider several explanations as to why suffering happens. They may not be everything you’re hoping for, but they help answer the question, “why do bad things happen?” And I promise, they have nothing to do with God being untruthful, a liar, or simply someone who misleads us. In fact, they have very little to do with Him, mostly, bad things happen because of us and our relationship to His world and His Word.
As we begin, we start with the most difficult to swallow. Simply put, the Will of God has occasionally set aside an individual in this world to endure suffering for a Holy purpose. Of all the options we see, this will probably be the one we understand the clearest and hate the most. As we dissect the story of Job over the next few weeks, we will find divine purpose in his suffering.
Not trying to jump too far ahead, but here’s something to consider before we dig deep. Did the life of the ancient patriarch have eternal value to God beyond most common experiences? Did God have plans for him that rise above the ordinary? Was he going to be an example that stood the test of time? Was he going to be the everyman who faced suffering and evil so that we could understand it, embrace it, and live through it? Was Job the man to live our worse moments before us, so we could survive them when they intrude into our lives?
In the Gospels, the followers of Christ were still struggling with the purpose of God’s Will in the face of suffering. They asked Jesus in John 9:2, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They believed his situation was due to his nature or the nature of his parents. They didn’t understand that a higher purpose was at work that day before Jesus set them straight in 9:3, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.” They hadn’t learned anything from Job and they weren’t alone.
The only intrinsic evil in the world is sin. It’s a direct violation of God’s expectations. Simply put, it’s missing the mark He set for us. As a child I remember being taught about arrows and targets and the reality of sin. It was a simplistic idea, but it’s one that still holds up today.
God has a specific set of instructions and expectations for His Children. He always has. From sacrifices to sabbaths to Sunday mornings, He has never left us without direction. However He lets us know His wishes, we still ignore them. From the beginning, that willful disobedience has separated us from God (see Genesis 3 and Isaiah 59) and brought about terrible repercussions.
People suffer everyday because someone sinned. Sometimes, it’s their own sin to blame, but at times, that suffering is the collateral damage of another person’s action. It’s not easy to understand when there is no reasonable answer, but sometimes people are just sinful and pain comes from that sin. Those actions don’t make sense, but they are nothing more than a rejection of God’s Word, wishes, and commands.
This World Offers Choice
Because God made us with free will, our world had to face those consequences. Free will gives you the opportunity to make the wrong decision alongside of the right one. It allows sin, suffering, and evil to be present in a world made for imperfect people. We like the ability to choose, we just don’t want to face the consequences of the wrong choice.
My children often demonstrate this idea better than anything else I can imagine. They do something wrong, it could be anything, and then they’re caught. Whether they chose to hit their sibling or sass their parent, no one else made them do it, they simple chose to disobey. When they apologize for being caught, they expect to get off because they’re sorry. When I punish them they cry out saying it’s unfair because they already apologized. What they don’t yet realize is that choices always give birth to consequences, either good or bad.
Unfortunately, humanity hasn’t figured that out either because we are a bunch of spoiled, petulant children. We want the freedom to make up our own mind about morality, decency, and freedom without any consequence from our Creator. It just can’t work that way in the world God made. John Keats once called our world the “vale of soul-making” in an 1819 letter to his siblings.2 With that sentiment, he eloquently expressed God’s divine purpose for the planet earth. It is our temporary home, yet it comes with permanent complications. It’s the place our soul is refined for an eternity with Him or cast from His presence (see Psalm 66:10).
That’s why bad things happen to us, because this world is temporary, the home of sinful choices, and quite frankly, the proving ground God uses to teach, train, and inspire His creation. I’m not thankful evil exists, and by extension, suffering. But I am thankful God uses this world everyday to bring me closer to Him and eternity.
I know that we didn’t discuss natural calamities like sickness or storms, but I promise we will address those issues at a separate time in the near future.
1 Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), 10.
2 A copy of the letter written to his brother George Keats can be found by following this link.
All Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.