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Sunday, September 04, 2005

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 4, 2005

Text: Luke 13:1-5

I know that many of you, like me, have been glued to the television this week, stunned by the destruction Katrina left behind on the southern gulf coast. The historic port city of New Orleans, a city known for its Cajun cuisine and jazz music, has been largely devastated. Hundreds of thousands of families are left homeless, with all of their possessions lost or destroyed.

Right away people begin to ask the question, “Why did this happen?” I understand that. I ask “why” too when bad things happen to me and the people I care about. So for today’s sermon, I want to address the age-old question of why do bad things happen to good people.

But in order to do that, the first thing we need to do is unravel the question itself. Notice the assumption that we are all a bunch of good people who never deserve to suffer anything. In most cases, when people endure hardship, they believe what they are going through is unfair. That they’ve done nothing to deserve unhappiness. So my first question for you is why do we assume that we should be immune from suffering?

The Bible teaches us that all men, all human beings, are sinful creatures who deserve nothing before God except His wrath and punishment. Every good thing we do receive in life, including life itself, is a gift from God, and one that we have done nothing to earn or deserve.

But even Christians who claim to understand all that, even we often expect God to take our earthly sufferings away if we pray hard enough. There is this idea that God should help us and not only that, but that God should help us immediately. Any delay at all is seen as a flaw on the part of God.

The problem of evil and suffering has vexed philosophers and theologians almost from the beginning of time. Many skeptics and unbelievers find this to be a hurdle they cannot get past. Some people will say something like this: I can imagine a God who is all good. And I can imagine a God who is all powerful. But I cannot imagine a God who is both all good and all powerful when there is so much suffering in this world. You see, people think that if God is willing to help us, but unable, then He is not all powerful. And if He is able to help us but unwilling, then He is not all good.

And I must confess that I simply don’t have a pat answer for you. It’s a paradox. We cannot explain things of this nature which God, in His Word, has not explained to us.

Liberal theology solves the problem by cutting God down to size and suggesting that is not really as clever or powerful as we thought. They preserve His goodness while denying His greatness. This theological approach appeared in the bestselling book from a few years back by Rabbi Harold Kushner entitled Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Rabbi Kushner’s idea of God is of a well-meaning deity who is as frustrated by human suffering as we are. God would like to do something about cancer, hurricanes and tsunamis, but He is simply unable to do so. Harold Kushner’s idea is that we shouldn’t blame God because the poor thing is doing the best He can under the circumstances.

As Christians, we stand by the Biblical witness which tells us that God is, in fact, almighty, that nothing is too difficult for Him. And He is, at the same time, perfectly good and loving. These two things are indeed both true. God is not a passive bystander or a helpless spectator. Nor is He a cruel and heartless tyrant. So why then does He allow bad things to happen?

The Bible is not always very helpful with the “why” questions. It’s great on who and what and sometimes even when and how. But God does not give us a lot of answers to why.

Parents know that when children reach 2 or 3 years of age, they begin to ask “why” about everything. It’s perfectly natural and means that they are curious to learn about the world around them and that’s a good thing. But sometimes children ask “why” about things that there is just no easy way to answer. So parents sometimes have to simplify things to a point their children can handle. And sometimes, every once in a while, the answer is just too complicated for the child to understand and the parent may just have to say, “Sweetie, trust me on this one.”

When it comes to the problem of human suffering and why God might allow it to take place, we have to allow room for mystery. You see, I think we are trying to put together a puzzle without having all the pieces. Only God has all the pieces. Or it's like we are trying to put together a mosaic without knowing the grand design. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a grand design behind it all, only that we don’t know what it is. It may just be beyond our ability to comprehend so our Heavenly Father says to us, in effect, “Sweetie, trust me.”

Corrie ten Boom tells the story of visiting someone in the hospital who was feeling very sorrowful because he was so sick he could hardly breathe. He wanted to die because he felt like his life had no meaning, that it was worthless. So Corrie reached into her bag and withdrew a piece of fabric that she had been embroidering. And she held it up for the man to see and she said, “Your life right now is like the back side of this embroidery. All you can see are the different colored threads all mixed up and knotted and tangled. It makes no sense. But when you turn it around, you can see that I am weaving a beautiful picture.”

In our suffering in this life, in this world so badly corroded by sin, we are looking at the underneath of a magnificent tapestry. Only when we reach the other side, will it all make sense to us. Christian faith means trusting that God is good and kind and loving and the He is still in charge of the universe, even when the circumstances make it appear to be otherwise. Knowing that God will show mercy to His children and that, as He promised in His Word, He is working all things together for our good.

As Joseph told his brothers in the book of Genesis after they’d sold him into slavery and he eventually became the second in command of all of Egypt, second only to Pharoah himself, Joseph said, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” While Joseph was suffering and waiting in an Egyptian prison cell, do you think he fully understood that in the future, God would use him to prepare an empire for a great famine thus saving thousands and thousands of lives from starvation? No, of course not. He didn’t know how everything was going to work out but he trusted God. And that’s the point.

Was this hurricane a sign of God’s wrath? After all, New Orleans does have a pretty decadent reputation. We must not think that because this happened there and not here that we are better than the people that live there or they are worse than us. I’m sure that some of the people who died as a result of this hurricane were atheists. But some of them were Christians. Some of them were godless. And some of them were Godly. But the wind and the rain cannot tell the difference.

In Luke 13, Jesus talked about a tower in Siloam that fell and killed a bunch of people. And He asked His disciples, “Do you think those people were worse sinners than all the rest and that is why this terrible tragedy happened to them?” And He says, “I tell you no, but unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish.”

The assumption that many people have, at least underneath, even if they don’t think this is what they think, many people assume that if something really lousy happens to you, it must be because of something you did wrong, that God is singling you out to punish you. Did God destroy New Orleans because it was a more wicked city than all the others?

Jesus doesn’t allow us to think that way. He puts that hot potato right back in our hands. All sinners deserve to die, He says, and more so, they deserve to go to hell. And it’s not our place to sit in the seat of judgment and determine who did what. Jesus tells us to be more concerned about our own status before God, to repent of our sins, lest we likewise perish. C.S. Lewis once wrote that pain is God’s megaphone. Sometimes disaster can serve as a call to repentance.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Well, the only truly good person I know about is Jesus Christ. And some very bad things did happen to Him, as you know. He was betrayed by one of His own disciples and abandoned by all of His friends right when He needed them most. He was arrested and tried for crimes He did not commit. He was savagely tortured by wicked men. No one showed Him any mercy. They pulled His beard. They spat in His face. They removed all of His clothes and nailed Him to a wooden cross for all the world to see. He was mocked by just about everyone. Even the thief dying next to Him taunted Him. Bad things happened to that good man. And even His Heavenly Father cursed Him, spat on Him, so to speak, and turned His back on Him.

Why did those bad things happen to that good man? Because He loves you and He loves me. God placed all the guilt of all the sinners who have ever lived and ever will live upon the head of His one eternal Son. And Jesus died, not because of anything He’d ever done to deserve it, but in order to serve a sentence that would be rightfully ours.

You see, Jesus paid a debt He didn’t owe, because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay. And so the next question after why do bad things happen to good people is why do good things happen to bad people? Why is God merciful and gracious to sinners? Because Jesus died for you. Why does God absolve us of our sins? Because Jesus died for you.

While there is no simple way for me to make sense out of hurricane Katrina, I can tell you this. One innocent man suffered to satisfy the wrath of God for us all and maybe one of the good things that will come out of this terrible disaster is that it will draw aimless people to the Almighty Creator who loves them so very much. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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2 comments:

Bob Waters said...

Well said.

I'm reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) story about Luther's answer to the question of why God allowed the innocent to suffer. "I don't know," he replied, and pointed to the crucifix on the wall of his study. "But there He is. Why don't you ask Him?"

And as Bunnie asked quite cogently recently, "*What* 'good people/'"

Noah Bawdy said...

Perhaps the people were involved in a bet between Stan and God like Job was.

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