Why do bad things happen to good people? This question comes to mind so often in life … when you see stories on the news of people committing hateful and violent acts against one another, when you learn your co-worker’s spouse walked away from the marriage and 3 children, when you find out your best friend’s 13 year old son has a spinal tumor. For me, the question springs from my innate and fervent desire that things in life be fair. And when bad things happen to good people it is just not fair!
I distinctly recall many occasions from my childhood when I was extremely upset and telling my mother about something that had happened that wasn’t fair. And I was seriously outraged … I really believed it was a fundamental given right that things in life SHOULD BE FAIR.
Obviously as I got older, I learned that things are in fact, not fair. I have spent many years coming to terms with this reality. The difficulty of accepting this is proportionate to the degree of unfairness life doled out to me. In 2003 my son Jackson died … he was 3 months old. The cause was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) which basically means, “We can find no reason or explanation for why your seemingly healthy child is dead.” Of all the unfair things in life that can happen, this situation is pretty high up on the list. And I certainly struggled for a very long time with all the normal questions of “Why me?” and “What did I do to deserve this?” and “Why would God do this to me?”
One of my first moments of enlightenment on the journey to acceptance was when I read the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner. The author of this book lost his son to a disease called Progeria (rapid aging).
In the first chapter the author examines the various theories people have come up with to try and make sense of suffering. The first one is that God gives people what they deserve, that “our misdeeds cause our misfortune.” The problem with this theory is that it “creates guilt even where there is no basis for guilt. It makes people hate God … and most disturbing of all, it does not even fit the facts.” I agree with the author wholeheartedly. No one deserves to lose a child. No one deserves to watch their mother die slowly and agonizingly from cancer. There is nothing anyone could possibly do to deserve these traumas.
Another theory of suffering is that God has His reasons for making this happen, and we are not in a position to understand those reasons. I bet many of you have heard this very sentiment stated over and over by well-meaning individuals: “Everything in life happens for a reason” or “God has a plan and even though we don’t understand it, there must be a reason.” While it may be comforting (and convenient) for them to think that God has a plan for every single thing that happens, it is upsetting to those of us who have had undeserved pain inflicted upon us in the name of some unknown yet “divine master plan.”
Here’s another closely-related theory, that God causes suffering because it is educational, it cures our faults. The problem with this theory is, “it isn’t really meant to help the sufferer or to explain his suffering. It is meant primarily to defend God, to … transform bad into good and pain into privilege.”
The words of wisdom I heard most often from friends and family members was, “God never gives us more than we can handle.” Unfortunately, this is simply not true. There are many people who crack under the strain of suffering and lose all hope for the future.
The one thing all of these theories have in common is they all “assume that God is the cause of our suffering and they try to understand why God would want us to suffer.” The author spends the rest of the book seeking an alternate explanation for suffering other than God causing it.
Mr. Kushner ultimately decides that when bad things happen to good people, it is not because God intended it or planned it. He says bad things happen (to good and bad people) because we live on earth, and earth is not a perfect place. It is not the Garden of Eden. It is a place where both good and evil exist, and therefore where both good and evil occur. And, the author says, God does not control every single thing that happens on earth. God does not sit up in Heaven picking and choosing whose mother will get cancer or whose baby will die of SIDS. These things happen because the world after sin is not within God’s complete control. After Adam and Eve sinned, the world became a place of chaos. And it is chaos that is partially responsible for suffering.
The other reason for suffering is free will. God does not control every act of every person on the earth. In fact, He can’t because we have free will. And much of the suffering that occurs in this world is caused by men/women who choose to commit evil. I realize this is not the case for my baby’s death but this point is made to support the point that God, in fact, is not in complete control of what happens on earth. He can’t be, because of sin and chaos and free will.
When I first read this theory of how God is not in complete control after all, I was very disconcerted. I mean I had always actually believed those cliches about God having a reason for everything and never giving me more than I could handle. It was only after I lost my baby that I couldn’t believe that anymore. And the author says this is exactly right, it is only those who have not suffered a great tragedy who can easily believe those things. Once you have to face tremendous suffering, those explanations just don’t make sense anymore.
The good news is, if you are able to accept the fact that God is not controlling every aspect of your life, then you don’t have to be mad at Him anymore for taking your baby (or your husband or your sister) away from you. He didn’t. And so we can turn to Him for help. The author says, “If we can bring ourselves to acknowledge that there are some things God does not control, many good things become possible.” Those good things are that we are able to turn to God for help, we can be angry at what has happened to us without feeling that we are angry at God, and we can maintain our belief that God is our ally in every situation.
The last point the author makes in the book that really changed my perspective on suffering and loss is that regardless of why you think bad things happen to good people, a critical element to healing and surviving loss is to find a way to redeem the pain. “Pain makes some people bitter and envious. It makes others sensitive and compassionate. It is the result, not the cause, of pain that makes some experiences of pain meaningful and others empty and destructive.”
To redeem pain, we must move beyond the question of “Why did this happen?” and find an answer to the question “What can I do now that it has happened?” Some people find an answer by going out into the community and helping others through church or volunteer activities. Some people commit themselves to being a better parent to surviving or subsequent children, to being a more loving and understanding spouse, to being a more compassionate friend. There are as many ways to respond to pain as there are people who suffer it. Everyone has to find his/her own way. The critical factor is to choose a path that results not in bitterness and hopelessness but in healing and hope and love.
Bad things do happen. They have probably happened to you or someone you love. My prayer for you is that whatever challenge you are facing, you will move beyond the natural stages of denial, guilt, resentment and anger, and that you will find healing and hope and happiness. Happiness is attainable … it is the bright light shining from beyond the depths of despair and confusion. Reach for it and work for it and you will attain it.