“What is ‘I Don’t Know’?” That is the best Jeopardy answer I can give to the statement to the answer “Why bad stuff happens to good people.” Some feel this is a “cop-out,” or taking the easy way out. Frankly, I have heard a lot of easy-way-out answers to that question:
- “God’s ways are above our ways.” That is saying “I don’t know” while pretending to be theologically profound.
- “All things work together for good.” This is saying that bad stuff really isn’t bad. How is that so? Well, “I don’t know.” So this is still the “I don’t know” answer, with some bad hermeneutics thrown in.
- “You must be being punished for something.” Job’s friends are definitely with us today. Divine karma or generational bondage may be satisfying for those who are prone to finger-point, but that view doesn’t really stand up to Scripture.
Speaking of Scripture, what does the Bible say? The answer is complex. I had a professor who argued that the aphorisms of Proverbs (the righteous are blessed and the unrighteous are cursed) pretty much summed things up in the Bible, with the sole exception of the Book of Job. I was always a bit uncomfortable with that. First of all, if there was one exception why can’t there be two or three. Second, in fact, it seemed like there were many such exceptions in the Bible. Consider Jeremiah, for example, whose life no one would envy, despite leading an apparently godly life.
This is no attempt to work on an in-depth look at theodicy. But looking at it Biblically, in a fairly cursory manner, one could say that bad things happen to people because they are:
- Bad. Deuteronomy and Proverbs support the human instinct of justice… good happens to good people, and bad to bad— just as it ought to be.
- Good. I Peter, for example, and much of the Gospels supports the idea that those who do good, will suffer persecution and misery because the world is in opposition to them.
- Either or neither. Ecclesiastes and a number of the Psalms, for example, make it clear good things and bad things often occur with no apparent connection to whether the person deserves it.
So how should one respond to someone who has suffered? One could say:
“Bad things are happening to you because you are good, because you are bad, or regardless of any consideration of your moral status.”
Such vagueness may not seem satisfying, but it is fairly consistent with what Jesus said:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Jesus denies the “Bad things happen to bad people” explanation for the Galileans and those crushed by a tower, at least denying proportionality between their fate and their behavior. But then he implies that those who don’t repent for sins could be punished.
Elsewhere, Jesus heals a blind man who was blind from birth. He denies that his state was tied to personal sin, or generational punishment. Jesus said that it was so that God would be glorified by his healing. While that is an interesting answer, it does not really answer the question we are discussing. It doesn’t say why he, specifically, was blind while another had sight, for example.
It seems to me that one could sum up what Jesus said with the following:
“Bad things can happen for many reasons, but it is not beneficial to speculate as to issues of divine retribution or blessing. It is much wiser to meditate on your own situation, than the situation of others.”
So in pastoral counseling, the best answer to why bad things happen to a person is, or at least starts with, “I don’t know.” However, that should be followed by helping the person to look at his or her own situation and determine what, if anything, needs to change.
Why am I mentioning this in a Missions blog? Frankly, missionaries are commonly most among those guilty or perpetuating limited, doubtful answers as it pertains to suffering. A number of people have made the argument that the “Prosperity Gospel” in Africa (although perpetuated by its own marketers today) was first spread unwittingly by missionaries who expressed poorly and over-simplified view of theodicy, honor, and blessing, to new believers and pre-believers in the field.
Some doctrines don’t have to be fully delved into early on. We don’t necessarily have to have new believers who can describe the major views on atonement (all of the views appear to be incorrect to some extent anyway). But suffering has immediacy and importance. If this is left to be answered by sub-Christian platitudes, it is hardly surprising if it results in a sub-Biblical view of God or of faith.