Dr. John B. MacDonald
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Why do bad things happen to good people?

This is an age-old question.

Some argue that God is not good; others that He is not powerful enough. Perhaps He just doesn't care. Perhaps He hasn't got the ability to deal with the problem.

But what if the issue is not so simple?

The Bible reveals that God is good and he is omni-potent – 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 who had a wife, ten children, and great wealth.

In one day all his children were killed in a catastrophic wind storm, 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.” The advice of Job’s wife was “curse God and die” (Job 1-2).  

Job was visited by three friends (and later a fourth antagonist named Elihu) who proceeded to engage in long 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 going on 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.

Job maintains that he has done nothing to deserve his intense suffering, and he repeatedly calls on God to explain what is happening.  

The arguments of Job’s 'friends'

Their arguments are still popular today.

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.

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.”

In the end, 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're not.

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

At the end of his ordeal, Job’s declaration to the LORD is: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose 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 suffering. 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 ordeal.

2.  Your perspective of suffering can grow

In our modern western culture, suffering is viewed frequently 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 couldn't see or understand it at the time, God had purpose in his suffering.

3.  Your perspective of life can grow

Our culture has also trained us in a defective understanding of life.

One aspect of this is that we see death as the end 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 is to be measured against a life-span of unending millennia.

Beginning to acknowledge your real "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. In no way do we make light of suffering, or reduce its pain. Neither do we 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 learn 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 complete answer for the opening question.

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?

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Photo credit: Ilya Repin's painting "Job and his friends" (1869) in the Public Domain.

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