Job 1:6-22, Romans 8:18-28, 31-32, 35-39
Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
One of the most challenging questions of faith that people have is the question of suffering. This question comes in a variety of forms: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is God punishing me or my loved one? If God is good, why is there so much evil in the world? If God is all-powerful, why didn’t God prevent this terrible tragedy? How can we say God is loving if God lets such evil things happen in the world? These are all variations of the same basic faith questions about good, evil, suffering, and the nature of God. Wrestling with these questions and getting nowhere is a stumbling block to the faith of many who seek to be disciples of Jesus. It’s often very personal experiences that bring us to the center of this struggle. You cannot get very far in this life without experiencing for yourself or a loved one suffering that feels senseless, baffling, and so hurtful you cannot imagine how or why you should have to endure it. A loved one dies unexpectedly. A child faces an aggressive illness. A community experiences tragic acts of violence. A natural disaster devastates a nation. And we are left asking, “Why, God? Why do these things happen?”
In the wake of suffering, you’ll often hear people trying to make sense of their experiences and their faith by offering the best reasons they can come up with for what has happened. “It must have been the will of God.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “God is just testing your faith.” “It was just their time.” “God has a plan, and this is a part of God’s plan.” To people who are suffering and grieving, these explanations are for the most part incredibly unsatisfying, and sometimes downright horrifying. The idea that God’s plan was for a child to die, God’s will, or that a disaster occurred so that the rest of us could learn some lesson from it: there’s not much comfort to be had there, and frankly, these explanations make God seem pretty heartless. But we offer these ideas because we don’t know what else to say, how else to explain things. Why do these things happen? Why does God allow such suffering?
Answering these questions is the task of a field of theology called theodicy. Theodicy is made of two Greek words that mean God and justice, and in this case, we’re talking about how we justify God – how do we make the idea of an all-knowing and loving God fit with the sin, evil, and suffering we experience in the world? Everything from the quick responses we offer – “Everything happens for a reason” – to the deep theological treatises written on these issues over the centuries are theodicies: our attempt to understand how God and suffering work.
Even the biblical witness struggles with the question of God and suffering. Today we heard a passage from the book of Job. We don’t know who the author of the book of Job is, or exactly when it was written, but scholars think it may be from the 6th century BCE. The story has two parts – a frame, a beginning and ending of the book that are written in narrative form – and the center section, long chapters of poetry. In the frame, we find God in conversation with the “heavenly beings” of the “heavenly council.” This is pretty foreign to us, but basically the book of Job envisions God and a bunch of other angel-like beings that together look over what is happening on earth. Included in this heavenly council is the Satan. In the book of Job, Satan isn’t so much an evil figure as Satan is more like what we would call a “devil’s advocate,” someone who offers provocative challenges to claims another makes. God notes to Satan that there is a man named Job who is “blameless and upright,” fearing God and turning from evil. But Satan counters that of course Job is blameless and upright, because everything in Job’s life is going smoothly. He has blessings and family and possessions. But, Satan counters – what if you took all that away? What if Job was suffering? Surely then Job’s faith would fail. And so God says: Go ahead, Satan. Let’s see. You can do anything you want to him except kill him. And sure enough, soon, Job loses his property, and all of his children. At the close of our text for today though we read that even still, “in all this, Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.”
What follows, the poetry section of Job, is chapter after chapter of arguments between Job and his “friend,” visitors who come to tell him that surely he has done something wrong and is being punished, otherwise he wouldn’t be suffering. Job keeps insisting that he’s blameless, but they are sure that he needs to repent for wrongdoing. All the while, Job keeps insisting that he just wants to talk to God and ask, “Why?” Finally, God responds, first chastising Job’s friends for being pretty useless, and then answering Job by saying something like: I’m God and you are just a mere human. Who are you to question the way I, creator of the universe, work in the world? Job replies sheepishly saying something like, “I’m sorry; you’re right, thanks for answering me.” And then we’re back to the frame, and everything that was taken away from Job is restored. He gets new kids and gets his lands back, and they all live happily ever after! In the end, although Job is filled with beautiful poetry about the awesomeness of God, Job is, in my opinion at least, pretty unsatisfying if you’re looking for real answers about why we suffer. I don’t believe that we experience pain and suffering because God is making bets with the heavenly council on how much we can endure.
I do not believe that it is God’s will for us to suffer. I don’t believe that God causes our suffering. If we encountered a person who was intentionally planning to cause harm, suffering, tragedy in the lives of those around them, we would consider this person evil, or sick, or think that they needed to be imprisoned. How, then, could we believe that God, our creator and redeemer, would intend to cause us harm? It doesn’t compute with anything I’ve learned of God’s love, mercy and grace. So how can we make sense of suffering?
In his book Why? Making Sense of God’s Will, Adam Hamilton walks us through three key ideas that help us answer this question. First, he says, God has given humans “dominion” over earth. More simply, that means that God has made us responsible for what happens here. As we talked about last week, God’s way of working in the world is usually by sending people to do God’s work. So when we think about people who are hungry or in need of shelter or in need of comfort: God works through us to impact those problems.
Second, we have the ability to choose good from evil. We have free will. Hamilton writes, “Have you ever wondered why, knowing that Adam and Eve would eat of the tree, God put the tree there to begin with? God could have left the tree out of the garden altogether, and Adam and Eve would never have disobeyed. But the tree represents the freedom that God gives human beings to choose God’s way or another way. God deemed the ability to choose to be an essential part of human existence. We instinctively know how important our freedom is to us. We are willing to fight and die for it. As children grow up, they yearn for it. We know that we want another to choose to love us, not be forced to love us. God’s decision to give human beings the ability to choose right from wrong is itself an expression of God’s love.”
And third, we find that we are drawn again and again to things that aren’t God’s will. Our freedom, our free will, is a gift from God. But when we misuse the gifts that God gives to us, our actions can lead to suffering. When we think about suffering, we have to remember that God gives us responsibility to take care of the earth and all that is in it, alongside God, that God gives us freedom, given out of love for us, and that often, we take God’s gift and instead misuse it, causing harm to ourselves and others.
Keeping these ideas in mind, we can think about the suffering that we experience. Some suffering we experience is from natural disaster, or widespread suffering like hunger and poverty. Science can help us understand the mechanics of why some disasters occur. Earthquakes happen when the earth’s plates move in certain ways. If they didn’t move, the earth would be too hot for us to live on. Monsoons that bring devastating flooding help regulate the temperature of the atmosphere, keeping it cool. Without these features, we could not live on planet earth, even though sometimes they cause devastation that overwhelms us. We might not that much of the suffering from natural disasters disproportionately impacts people who are poor. We have to ask ourselves: why are the most vulnerable people always living in such risky, disaster-vulnerable places? Here, we find opportunities as God’s workers in the world to help alleviate suffering. We have to ask ourselves about the privilege of wealth and how poverty places people at risk and what we can do about it.
Some suffering is caused by human decision – our decisions, and the decisions of others. Last week we talked about not expecting God to answers our prayers if that would result in taking away the free will of another person. That would be taking away God’s gift from someone else in order to make what we want come true. This same issue of free will comes into play when we talk about suffering. Hamilton writes, “What would it look like if God restricted our freedom so that … tragedies didn’t happen? What would your life look life if God made it impossible for you to ever do the wrong thing? As much as we might wish for this, so that human beings would not hurt one another, would we really like the results? … If we have no choices, and we only always do God’s will, we cease to be human and become puppets … Part of the risk God took in giving us freedom is that we might and probably will misuse that freedom to do the very things that would break God’s heart.” Sometimes we think that we want God to keep us, or keep others, from exercising their free will if their free will results in suffering for people we love. But I don’t believe that we really want to be puppets. Why would God create us and all that we know only to decide everything for us? What would be the point of our existence, or the point of relationship with God, if we weren’t learning and growing and living and choosing? Sometimes, the results of our choosing break our hearts, and break God’s heart too. But God won’t take the gift of decision from us, and even when it hurts, I’m thankful for that.
Some suffering we experience in the form of sickness, disease, cancer. God does not desire for us to be sick and suffering. I grieve, and I believe God grieves with us, when life is cut short from disease that we don’t yet understand how to heal, or when new diseases emerge in our ever changing world. Jesus was known as a healer. It was a priority of his ministry, healing people. And God gives us amazing abilities to heal and recover and be resilient through so many things. And God gives us brilliant minds, physicians and nurses and researchers who work so diligently to seek new paths for healing.
Suffering will always be a part of our human experience. In fact, Jesus repeatedly reminds the disciples that their choosing to follow God would undoubtedly result in more suffering in their lives, not less, because their unwavering commitment to God’s path and to speaking God’s truth would make them the enemies of many who were choosing paths other than God’s. When we choose discipleship, when we choose to throw in our lot with God, and with the vulnerable, with the poor, with those on the fringes, with those who have no one else to stand for them, when we choose to speak the truths that no one wants to hear, we will put ourselves in the path of suffering.
But we find that God is on that path with us. Jesus walks the path of suffering. Our forerunners in faith walked this path. In our reading from Romans, Paul says that nothing, not life, not death, or anything in between can separate us from God’s love. Nothing. Strengthened by that knowledge, I trust that God can take the broken pieces of our suffering, and draw forth new life. I believe that God can use us to alleviate suffering, if we are willing to serve God and one another with our whole hearts. And when we are mired in grief and pain, I believe that God is with us there, too, suffering with us, never, ever abandoning us. I don’t know that we can every fully understand the suffering of the world. I cling to the words of the old hymn, “We’ll Understand It Better By and By,” and long for the day when such things will be clearer to me. But in the meantime, I trust in what I do know: God created us, loves us unconditionally and eternally, and never forsakes us. “If God is for us, who is against us?” Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Hamilton, Adam, Why, 8.
 Major themes from this portion of the sermon are adapted from Hamilton’s chapter, “Why Do the Innocent Suffer,” Why, 1-29.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 13-14.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 16-17.
 Ibid., 22-23.