Why do bad things happen to good people?
Haven’t we all heard this question? And perhaps we have asked it ourselves.
We live in a hurting world in which innocent people are killed in random shootings, children and others who are defenseless are abused or neglected, natural disasters wipe out homes and property, disease and death seem to strike randomly. We avert one crisis only to face another. And when we see pain and injustice, we cry out to God—why is there so much pain and suffering? Why is there untimely death and grief and violence and destruction? We know God is good—how can He allow bad things to happen to His people? He is sovereign—why doesn’t He stop those things from happening?
We long for a world that is less broken, less full of trouble. That world, Jesus promised, is coming. But not yet. In the meantime, troubles small and large still cast long shadows on our days. And we long for Him to “do something.”
That longing is not new. In the book of Judges (6:13) when God called Gideon to deliver His people after years of oppression, Gideon’s first response was: “If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? In the Psalms, David cried out to God “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long will my enemy triumph? (13:1-2)
We can always pull out the “easy” answer: we live in a fallen world. Or we can quote Romans 8:38: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” And while these things are absolutely true, when we are facing the pain of grief or separation or loss, we want a definitive answer that addresses our immediate situation. Why did this
And the reality is, we may not be given an answer. When Job lost everything he owned, and his entire family was wiped out in one day for reasons he couldn’t understand, God never answered the “why” question for him. God’s only answer to Job was only to reveal Himself as sovereign. And we may not be given any more of an answer than Job received. So, we search for meaning in the crisis moments that seem to have no meaning, and we try to make sense of the senseless.
Perhaps within the question of “why” we also need to ask the question “what for?” What greater good might come from what has happened? What can be learned from it? What might His purpose be? What is suffering for?
The Bible teaches in no uncertain terms that we can expect suffering and trouble. And it shows us how to respond. Peter tells us “not to be surprised by the painful trial you are suffering as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). And then, he goes on to tell us what else we should do: rejoice! Yes. “Rejoice that we participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that we may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).
Similarly, James tells us to consider it pure joy whenever we face trials (1:2) because “the testing of our faith produces perseverance, making us mature and complete.”
Paul is another who tells us to rejoice in our suffering—because it produces perseverance, character, and hope—which does not disappoint us (Romans 5:3-4).
And Jesus himself has said, “In this world you will have trouble” but that’s not the last word. He also says, “take heart, for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
As Christians, we enter a lifelong process of becoming like Jesus. In the book of John (15:2) we read that we are attached to God like branches to a vine. Every branch that produces fruit is pruned so that it produces even more fruit. Pruning is not fun. But God can use our trials to test and refine our trust in Him. He can use the hard stuff to form us more into the image of His Son. So, we ask ourselves, do we want to be like Jesus? Are we willing to pay the price to be like Him? (He was certainly willing to pay the price to give us that chance.)
He is our ultimate example in responding to suffering. He was the perfect and almighty Son of God, and yet He faced more suffering than any of us will ever face. In the agony of Gethsemane, He prayed fervently that He would not have to face the cross (Luke 22:44), and yet He did not use His power to prevent facing it. And He doesn’t always use His power to prevent us facing our “Gethsemane.”
God has guaranteed that He will be with us and will protect us so that no harm will come to us. (e.g., Psalm 121:5-8). He has made us that promise. But the road to fulfilling that promise can lead through dark valleys. Dark valleys that can shape us and strengthen our own hearts and can also demonstrate to others that our faith is real.
Faith that is challenged is faith that is affirmed and proved to be real. God told His people in Deuteronomy 8:2 that they were being tested “to humble you…in order to know what was in your hearts, whether or not you would keep His commands.” (Also see Proverbs 17:3). If our lives were smooth and pain-free, would we have any need for faith? If our faith is never tested, will we ever totally trust Him? God’s goodness becomes visible to others through His people who live their faith no matter what. It tells others that we don’t have perfect lives, but we are certain God is with us and for us.
Sharing in His glory, perseverance, character, hope, overcoming the world, being mature in Christ, growing our trust, showing others we are real—the good “end results” of our suffering.
Even so, if we’re honest, we would probably all admit that we’ve had moments when we feel like the promises in the Bible were written for someone else. It can be tough to lean back into God’s arms in total trust when all we seem to experience is the ugliness that exists in this world. In moments of pain and suffering, we live in the tension of who we believe
God to be and who He appears
to be if we use our circumstances to define Him.
Think about Joseph (Genesis 37-50). He believed God was good and loving, yet circumstances seemed to indicate the opposite. One after another, the good things in Joseph’s life were stripped away. He lived for years with no visible evidence that God was working out things “for his good.” Yet Joseph held firmly to his faith in a loving God. His faith was rooted in what he knew to be true about God, not in the circumstances he could see. Similarly, in the harshness of our current events, we also often live in the tension of experiences that don’t always seem to match up with God’s promises. But like Joseph, we are held by a God whose faithfulness is greater than circumstances—a God who is greater than the fear and uncertainty.
And look at the Apostle Paul. The Lord told him (Acts 9:16) how much he would suffer for the cause of Christ. And we know that Paul did indeed suffer greatly in his walk of faith…far beyond his ability to endure (2 Corinthians 1:8) He felt the sentence of death, so intense was the suffering. But then he concludes with this statement: But this happened that “we might not rely on ourselves but on God.” And in his worst moments, Paul never stopped spreading the message of hope and grace.
Later in that same letter (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) Paul asked God to take away a painful “thorn in the flesh.” This was not a casual request—he begged
God. But God said “no.” He said to Paul “My grace is sufficient…” And often God also says that to us. His power is revealed in us and through us when we are weak. We are not promised ease in this life, but we are promised His grace to carry us through. God is always able
to heal or protect, but God’s first priority is to heal and shape our soul.
So, sometimes God leads us on paths where we’d rather not go. But He always leads us on the best possible path for our good—no matter how painful or confusing or unfair it may seem at the time. We don’t always know why some people are stricken with calamity, but we can be certain that all that happens to us comes through the filter of His grace. Even in our darkest valley, God will never stop loving us or walking with us. And in His timing, He will offset the pain.
Paul reminds the Corinthians (and us) to not lose heart in their woes but to keep an eternal perspective. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Our troubles do not often seem “light and momentary.” But I read an article a while back that commented on the word “outweighs.” Visualize an image of an old-fashioned pan scale: two pans, one on either side of the needle. The weight of a purchase is determined by placing the purchase in one pan and offsetting it with weights on the other until they balance. Think of God doing the same with our troubles. In one “pan” he stacks our burdens and griefs and all the lousy things that happen in life. And we see the pan on that side of the scale plummet.
Now think of God’s response this way: does He remove the problems from the scale? No, He offsets them. He places an eternal weight of glory
on the other side. Endless joy; measureless peace; eternity with Him. Watch what happens when He places those things on the scale. The pan with the burdens is lifted up. The heavy becomes light when balanced against eternity on the other side of the scale.
That is our perspective in suffering. Will our problems pass or our pain cease? No guarantee that they will. But we have this assurance—it’s all momentary. Our suffering is for this life only. Our blessing is forever. If our troubles are “momentary,” can’t we endure any challenge for a moment? We can be ill or troubled or persecuted just for a moment. Focusing on eternity rather than the temporary things of life puts our suffering in a different light.
We may still ask, “where is God in our pain?” Why doesn’t He “do something?” He is. Perhaps just not the “something” we would have chosen. His ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9). Our limited human perspective does not allow us to grasp His bigger plan. But He sees the big picture—the completed picture. And we can be certain that His hand is at work in all our circumstances—even our pain and hardship and loss. His light shines in our darkest moments.
God is always good, even when we do not discern that goodness or even when we have not chosen the good. God has given us free will so that we can choose to love Him and live according to His plan. But that free will also opens the door for other choices and those choices help shape the world we live in. And yes, we mess up. We make poor choices. And so, our world is marred by the results of those poor choices. The consequences of our sin and poor choices cause hurt and suffering, but it doesn’t diminish God’s goodness. And we choose to believe that in the end, God will redeem all things and make all things right.
Yes, for now there is suffering, but even as we face the pain, we know for certain that God fully understands. He is right beside us. He is Immanuel, God with us, even in our pain. We have a High Priest (Jesus) that can sympathize with our suffering (Hebrews 4:15-16).
He entered our world and took on the same vulnerability as we have and has encountered all the forms of suffering that are common to all of us (and then some!) He felt the pain of human suffering to the greatest degree possible. None of us has endured as much as He did. And yet the day of His greatest suffering and pain we call Good Friday. Because His pain and suffering were for a greater good. And now His suffering is no longer the focal point of His story. And it doesn’t have to be in our story either.
God works within us and alongside us to change us and perhaps thereby to change the world around us. It doesn’t answer why evil exists or why the innocent suffer while evil seems to prosper, but it helps us to see that we have a God who is touched by our suffering because He’s been there—He willingly came so that He could experience it Himself. And He tells us that He is distressed when we are distressed (Isaiah 63:9).
But He is victorious over suffering. And His victory over suffering redeems our suffering. In His great love, He does not give us everything we want or promise us a life of ease. But He weaves the dark threads of pain into the bright threads of joy to create a beautiful tapestry of our lives.
So, the bottom line is this: we can’t always answer the “why” question in this lifetime. But we can believe that God is good and that He is Sovereign and that His ultimate purpose is for our good even when the path toward His good plan is rocky and His purpose is not clear to us.
The last chapter of our story has not yet been written. Suffering was not God’s original plan for us, and it is not His ultimate plan for us. After all the pain and suffering, we will have an eternal “happily ever after” when there will be no more pain or suffering and He will wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:4) His promise to walk with us until that day comes, encourages us not to let our troubles define our lives today.
And when we come to the end of our story, I believe we will find that all has come together for our good, and that He has led us on a path for His greatest glory, and that we could not have orchestrated a better path by making it easier or more pain-free. Until then, we never need to doubt that God loves us and that He will do what is best for us.
It’s OK to lament—to be sorrowful for the pain we see all around us, but we do not sorrow as those who have not hope. And until He wipes those tears away, we remember God’s past faithfulness. And we trust Him to work for our best even if He never answers the “why” question.
“Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is His faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).
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