Slideshow image

Why do bad things happen to good people?

This is an age-old question.

Many people attempt to answer this conundrum with simplistic and inadequate answers. For instance, some argue that God is not good; otherwise, He would not allow bad things to happen. Others say He is not powerful enough to stop bad things from happening. 

But what if the issue is not so simple?

The Bible reveals that God is good, all-powerful (omnipotent), and cares deeply about humans and His creation— yet bad things still happen to good people.

How are we to understand this?

Job and ‘friends’

Have you ever read the biblical book of Job?

In it, we read of a good man with a wife, ten children, and great wealth.

In one day, all his children were killed in a catastrophic windstorm, and all his wealth was stripped away by raiders. Then he lost his health, suffering a mass of “painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head.” Finally, the advice of Job’s wife was “curse God and die” (Job 1-2).  

Then Job was visited by three friends (and later a fourth antagonist named Elihu) who engaged in lengthy discussions to discover why these calamities happened to Job (Job 3-37).

One thing that the reader knows, but Job and his friends do not, is that something bigger is happening behind the scenes (Job 1-2). 

Throughout this ordeal, Job refuses to disobey God or give up his trust and hope in Him (13:15):

“Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face.”  

Job argues with God— holding back nothing. He maintains that he has done nothing to deserve his intense suffering and repeatedly calls on God to explain what is happening.  

The arguments of Job’s ‘friends’

The arguments of Job’s friends are still popular today. I count them among the inadequate attempts to explain this problem.

One argument is if a person suffers, that must be the result of bad things that person has done; if a person experiences good, that’s the result of good things done. I suppose that this direct cause-and-effect relationship is sometimes true. For example, a person gets caught in a crime and is punished, or another person is generous to a needy person and is rewarded— but this is not always the case. Some people ‘get away with murder’ (figuratively and literally), while good people suffer for reasons unknown.

In Job 21, Job undermines this simplistic approach by stating that if it is an invariable divine formula that good is returned for good and evil for evil— why do good things happen to bad people? 

Elihu and the three friends think they know why Job is suffering and presume to speak for God— but they’re wrong. In this context, Bible scholar William LaSor writes:

“Nothing is more frustrating and restricting than to set up rules for God and then wonder why he does not follow them.”

Ultimately, the LORD answers, vindicates, and restores Job (Job 38-41).

Some things we can learn   

Although we may not have an answer to our question, here are five things you can learn from Job.

1. Your perspective of God can grow

God is God, and we are not.

Among other things, this means that God’s ways are often beyond our comprehension.

At the end of his ordeal, Job’s declaration to the LORD is:

I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. (42:1-2)

In this, Job acknowledged at least two things:

  • The Lord is intensely interested and involved in our lives— even in our suffering. So even though God was silent throughout Job’s “dark night,” He was always lovingly present.
  • God is greater in every way than we can ever imagine. Through his ordeal, Job learned things about God he would never have learned apart from the trial.

2. Your perspective of suffering can grow

In our modern western culture, suffering is frequently viewed as something to be avoided or fixed.  

We are uncomfortable, even confused, with texts such as James 1:2:

Count it all joy, my brothers [and sisters], when you meet trials of various kinds. 

On the matter of suffering, Ajith Fernando, a Sri Lankan Christian, writes: 

... one of the most serious theological blind spots in the western church is a defective understanding of suffering. There seems to be a lot of reflection on how to avoid suffering and on what to do when hurt. We have a lot of teaching about escape from and therapy for suffering, but there is inadequate teaching about the theology of suffering. Christians are not taught why they should expect suffering as followers of Christ and why suffering is so important for healthy growth as a Christian. So suffering is viewed only in a negative way.

The “good life,” comfort, convenience, and a painless life have become necessities that people view as basic rights. If they do not have these, they think something has gone wrong. So when something like inconvenience or pain comes, they do all they can to avoid or lessen it.  One of the results of this attitude is a severe restriction of spiritual growth, for God intends us to grow through trials.

Although Job did not understand his suffering in the moment, he trusted God and His purposes.

3. Your perspective of life can grow

Our culture has also trained us in a defective understanding of life. One aspect is that we see death as the end or termination of life.

Job makes this startling statement (19:26-27):

And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him with my own eyes— I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me! 

The promise of resurrection demonstrated in Jesus Christ should convince us that life continues beyond physical death. What happens ‘here and now’ is not measured against a life span of decades— it should be measured against a life span of unending millennia. In other words, death is not the end but a transition.

Beginning to acknowledge your actual life span helps to put present ordeals in a much different perspective.

4. Your perspective of self can grow

I tread softly and carefully here. I do not make light of suffering or reduce its pain. Neither do I encourage a morbid and unhealthy desire for suffering.   

Here’s what Paul writes about suffering (Romans 5:3-4):

we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope … 

This echoes Job’s development through his ordeal. The same can be true for you.

5. Your perspective of others can grow

One thing that I am learning from Job’s experience is not to be like his friends

Sometimes the cause of suffering is clear— more often, it isn’t. So I should neither presume to know what caused the suffering of another nor to speak for God— as Job’s friends did. 

My posture should be one of prayer, availability, and compassion.

In conclusion

We still have no answer to the opening question: Why do bad things happen to good people?

What we do have is a way in which we can grow in five areas— our understanding and experience of:

  • God and His ways;
  • Suffering and its fruit;
  • Life and its richness;
  • Self and our maturity; 
  • Others and their benefit.

What more do you have to add?

FORWARD TO the next post in this series

BACK TO Does God Change His Mind?        

Photo credit: Ilya Repin’s painting “Job and his friends” (1869) in the Public Domain.

Click "yes" to receive resource-rich newsletters.

Helpful resources provided to 'living theology' subscribers.


Want to follow Jesus more closely?

Get your FREE copy of "Listening Well to Matthew."