A few years ago, a Jewish rabbi wrote a book entitled, "Why bad things happen to good people," which was widely reported in the news. I haven't actually read that book, but I'd like to take up this difficult subject today. The question of "Why bad things happen to good people" and other related questions on suffering have been around practically from the dawn of history. We are reminded of this basic cry of the human soul every time a natural disaster such as the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 and the Kobe earthquake in 1995 or man-made disasters such as the World Trade Center terrorist attack in 2001 takes many innocent lives. And since in the long history of humankind no one has come up with any simple answer, it should be readily apparent that there are no simple, pat answers to this and other such questions. That doesn't mean, however, that the Bible doesn't give us any answers at all. It is that this is just one area of life that must always contain an element of mystery about it.
What I would like to do today is to take a look at this question from the standpoint of the entire Bible to learn what we can about this difficult problem. The dilemma we have to somehow deal with is how to explain all of the unspeakable horrors we see and hear about on the TV news everyday and at the same time believe in an all powerful, loving God. In my studies on the history of science, I learned that it was this very question that was the chief stumbling block for Einstein. His studies of the universe had convinced him that a Creator God must exist, but he ended up denying the God of the Bible because no one gave him a reasonable answer to this question. In other words, Einstein ended up envisioning God as an impersonal, distant force that isn't involved in our lives in any personal way.
Why do good people so often suffer? And equally troubling, why do evil people often prosper? These questions pose the dilemma that either God is good and cannot do anything about these apparent injustices, in which case he is not all-powerful, or, on the other hand, he can control these things but chooses not to, which would thus seem to make the idea that "God is good" an outright lie. Likewise, if we believe that God is truly involved in the details of our lives, we are faced with the dilemma that the degree to which God is involved in the details of our lives for good would seem to require that it also be the degree to which he is involved in the details of our lives for evil.
Now in a message such as this, I would not be so presumptuous to suggest that I'm going to sort this problem all out for you into a neat little system that would enable you to discern the causes involved in each case of suffering. That is far beyond anyone's ability to understand. Likewise, as we turn to the Bible for answers, we must also recognize the complexity of Scripture. The Bible's formula for salvation is simple and easily understood. But the Bible as a whole is not simple. It takes a good bit of prayerful study to understand the whole, which is one reason the saints all through history have read and meditated on it daily.
I would, however, like us to get an overview of how the Scriptures handle this thorny problem of suffering and divine justice. To help us picture the debate on this issue, let's imagine a discussion going on between various biblical characters. The various books of the Bible were written down by some 40 different authors from different cultural settings over a time period of well over 1000 years. And that in itself is an amazing thing, when you consider the internal consistency and unity of these diverse books. But for the sake of the argument, let's imagine the main characters of these books all sitting around a table discussing this weighty issue. The discussion itself is, of course, chaired by Jesus himself, and around the table are Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and a range of other Old Testament characters. Also there are Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul and the other writers of New Testament. And they are all discussing this issue.
Before we go into the details of the debate, we first need to realize that this discussion takes place in a kind of "room", which is the cultural worldview of the ancient Near East. The worldview of that day was that the highest values of life, namely health, long life, social standing, numerous children and wealth, were achieved through service and worship of the various gods. The choices were clear to the ancients. If you wanted to have these things, then you had to obey the gods. For if you disobeyed the gods, you would have sickness, a short life, no children and be poor. It is this cultural context in which the biblical stories take place.
First of all, let's look at how Moses speaks about covenant faith in that cultural context. At many points, of course, Moses takes strong exception to what can be found in that "room" — namely, the worldview of the ancient world. Inspired by God, he challenges this concept of a myriad of gods and who they really are. He also strongly objects to the way people tried to relate to God through magical incantations instead of trusting and faithful obedience. This same mindset is prevalent even today in religious thought around the world - namely that we can manipulate God through rituals and prayers to give us what we want. With these and other matters in the cultural environment, Moses takes strong exception.
But when it comes to the question of the consequences of obedience or disobedience to God, Moses expresses himself almost identically to his ancient, Middle Eastern neighbors. All through the books of Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, where Moses' dealings with the people of Israel are recorded, we find Moses telling us that the consequences of obeying or disobeying the covenant are in terms of immediate, concrete blessings or curses we experience. By concrete we mean the physical things we experience with little or no delay. They are, of course, the "spiritual" blessings and curses of the covenant, but they are experienced in terms of health, fertility, longevity, national and personal peace and prosperity, etc. When we look at the rest of the Old Testament, it becomes immediately obvious that this viewpoint forms the foundation upon which most of Old Testament thought is based. In the context of this biblical roundtable, this concept forms what we might call "The Majority Report."
Over against this majority report, however, stands what we'll call "The Minority Report", which challenges this notion that if you are righteous, you'll automatically be blessed and if you do evil, you'll automatically suffer for it in this life. For instance, as the story of Joseph in Genesis unfolds, it becomes clear that there are many reasons why someone may suffer. As you'll recall, as a young man, Joseph was obnoxiously boastful of his dreams, causing his older brothers to be very jealous of him. This led to his being sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, where he languished in prison until some highly unusual circumstances led him to become the prime minister of Egypt, second only to the pharaoh in power. So, we see that suffering may be the result of our own brash and sinful ways, but that it may also be caused by other people's wicked choices. The reasons we suffer may indeed be complex — a combination of several reasons, often beyond our control.
Joseph's experiences also show that even through evil circumstances, God works mysteriously behind the scenes to work out his own redeeming purposes. As Joseph said to his brothers many years later, "You plotted evil against me, but God turned it into good, in order to preserve the lives of many people who are alive today because of what happened." Thus, with passages such as this right in the midst of the covenant story - a story in which this clear cause and effect connection between sin and suffering and between obedience and blessing is laid out — we have this much more sophisticated understanding of suffering.
Against this "majority report", Job also speaks out, making his points count. Job simply refutes this simplistic notion that there is a direct connection between the kind of person you are and what happens to you in this life. Job's three friends come at him from the standpoint that his suffering must be due to something Job himself did. But Job cries out for them to look at the evidence — the many examples where obviously evil people have prospered and have not been punished — at least in this life anyway, while others such as himself have suffered severely while leading exemplary lives. So the book of Job rejects this direct link between one's character and one's circumstances in life.
Job raises the possibility of seeing suffering as redemptive, that is, serving some higher purpose rather than just a comfortable life on earth. Our physical lives are short compared to the eternity of heaven, and Job always keeps that perspective in mind. He stresses how important a belief in an afterlife is to enduring suffering in this life. Nevertheless, he doesn't shy away from making his complaints known to God. One message we get from the book of Job is that we can and should be honest with God about what we are really feeling, and not just mouth the pious platitudes others think we should be saying. We can speak to God as we are and not as others think we ought to be. We can speak to God in our suffering — even have feelings of anger towards God — for he understands.
Another point Job brings up is that of a mediator to plead before God on behalf of individual humans. Somehow, Job senses that he will be justified in the end, and he cries out his great statement of faith, "I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth." Though Job couldn't have understood what that really meant, it turned out to be a prophecy of the coming Redeemer, Jesus, who would stand in the gap between God and humanity, providing the way to salvation. Likewise, Job points out his discovery that his suffering did not mean that God had abandoned him. It was only his inability as a finite creature to ever fully comprehend his situation. He could see things only from the very limited perspective of his human life and thus was not able to see the whole picture of what was going on in the spiritual realm. All of these points Job raises add a great deal of force to the minority report at the roundtable discussion.
At this point, Isaiah enters the discussion. Isaiah 53 depicts God's servant as suffering innocently, not for his own sin but because of the sins of others. And actually, it is not simply because of their sins but for their sins that he suffers. The idea is plainly put forward that one could suffer redemptively on behalf of others. This again was a prophecy fulfilled completely in life of Jesus.
This principle was also lived out in the life of Jeremiah, another of the great prophets of the Old Testament. Jeremiah's message was based in the language of the book of Deuteronomy, which formed the basis for the majority report — namely that if you obey the covenant, then you will be blessed, but if you disobey the covenant, you will be cursed.
But what happens to Jeremiah himself? He complains, "God, every time I preach for you, they throw me in the dungeon!" And how does the book end? The poor man is dragged off to Egypt and never heard from again! It seems rather inconsistent. Jeremiah himself certainly was faithful to the covenant, but one could hardly consider him blessed in this life. But the very fact that we have this book in the Bible means that some people insisted, "Never mind what happened to him personally, for that man was right. He was a man of God. He spoke the truth. No matter that he died in obscurity, God was with him." And so we see that the life of Jeremiah adds to the experiences of Job to further add weight to the minority report.
The editors of the book of Psalms include a few poems that also speak for the minority report. For example, there is the problem of someone who has been chronically ill for many years. This is then often compounded by people believing that if you are sick, this means that you have been sinful in one way or another. Our responsive reading from Psalm 38 raises the issue of the plight of the chronically ill.
Then there is our Scripture reading Psalm 73. In this psalm, the psalmist looks around and says, "God, I have a problem. I'm the good guy. But my family is in poverty and we're often sick. God, where are you? And God, do you see the pagan down the street? That foul-mouthed, violent cheat! Look at the grand house he lives in and how healthy and beautiful his wife and kids are! And they're always putting us down! God, where are you? It just doesn't make sense!" Then, he goes into God's temple, and there, he sees the situation more clearly. He sees enough of what eventually happens to the wicked that he retains his faith. He sees how precarious life really is — even for the rich and arrogant. And he sees himself more clearly — how his own jealousy colored the way he had looked at life. He also gets insight into the journey beyond this life, as he affirms, "What else do I have in heaven but you? Since I have you, what else could I want on earth? My mind and my body may grow weak, but God is my strength; he is all I ever need." We too will not live life very long before we will also find ourselves in situations where we will have to either affirm or deny, "God, you are all I ever need." We'll have to get off the fence and make up our minds.
Perhaps the most powerful voice for the minority report is "Qohelet", the philosopher who writes Ecclesiastes. He flatly denies that there is any kind of direct connection between who we are and what happens to us. He says we can no more tell what God thinks of us by what happens to us in daily life than we can read tealeaves. Of course we are in the hands of God, he says, but whether God loves us or hates us, who can tell? How would we really know if God loves us? We surely can't tell by what happens to us. How would we know if God hates us? We can't tell that either. So the writer of Ecclesiastes abandons all connection between the kind of persons we are and what happens to us in this life. Nevertheless, he concludes with these words, "So remember your Creator while you are still young. ... Have reverence for God, and obey his commands, because this is all that we were created for. God is going to judge everything we do, whether good of bad, even things done in secret."
Thus, the minority report cries out for the New Testament, and indeed forms a kind of bridge into the New Testament. So now, Jesus takes over the discussion, in effect siding with the minority report. In Luke 13, someone poses the question to Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices to God. Jesus answered them, "Because those Galileans were killed in that way, do you think it proves that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No indeed! And I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did. What about those eighteen people in Siloam who were killed when the tower fell on them? Do you suppose this proves that they were worse than all the other people living in Jerusalem? No Indeed! And I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did."
Later, his disciples asked about a man blind from birth, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" And again, Jesus said "Neither!" Jesus teaches them that you can't process these kinds of events in terms of who sins so that such and such happens. He tells us that we must see these things in the larger context of the purposes of God and his glory in this world.
Even more striking is Jesus' call to discipleship, when he says, "If any of you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, carry your cross and follow me." Jesus bore the cross and suffered, and if we're to follow him, how do we suppose that we will avoid all suffering? Mark makes this issue a major point of his gospel. He centers his account of Jesus on the cross and says that you cannot understand God or Jesus if you try to avoid the suffering involved in the cross. It is only at the cross that you can truly understand Jesus. Thus, all approaches to Christian discipleship that somehow attempt to deny suffering or go around it end up missing the mark. They avoid taking suffering into account as a part of our experience in this life within the will of God.
The apostles, the first in the grand gathering to have experienced the fullness of God's revelation through the astounding life, death and resurrection of Jesus, now enter the discussion. In answer to the author of Ecclesiastes and his assertion that we can't really know whether God loves us by what happens to us, they respond with a "Yes, but". For they stake their claim in the cross of Jesus. How do we know God loves us? Not by whether we are blessed in the sense of avoiding suffering. Likewise, it's not because we have been fortunate enough not to experience natural disasters demolishing our property or war ravaging our families. How do we know God loves us? Because God met our deepest need in delivering us from sin and its bondage. How do we know God loves us? The apostles always take us back to the cross. "This is what love is: it is not that we loved God, but that he loved us and send his Son to be the means by which our sins are forgiven" (I John 4:10). "There is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:39).
So the biblical roundtable on suffering and divine justice leaves us with a somewhat unsettling conclusion. In some ways, the "majority report" seems more just from the standpoint of our human understanding. If you do good, you will be blessed, and if you do evil you will be punished. "You reap what you sow'" — another biblical phrase. And certainly, in many aspects of life, we know this to be true. That is the very basis for our system of laws and government. One is rewarded for hard work, and if you are caught breaking laws and harming others, you will be punished. So clearly, the winning out of the minority report over the majority report in the biblical roundtable is no call to live for oneself as though what happens to us is not related to how we live life. No, we are called to do good and to lead righteous lives. We may not receive rewards for the good we do in this life, and indeed, we may even suffer for it, but we will have rewards in heaven. Now, I don't pretend to know what that all really means, but I do know that it is a comfort to have that promise.
No, the answers to the problems of suffering and evil are not simple. The main problem with the simplistic majority report was that its formula was limited to blessings and curses in this life, which has been shown to be patently false. And yet when viewed from the standpoint of eternal life in heaven — that is, when our "rewards in heaven" or lack thereof are entered into the equation — then I think we could say it is an accurate formula.
At any rate, the minority report concludes with the apostles saying that God isn't just with us, as Job eventually discovered, but that he is also for us. He cares for us even as we suffer, and he will, in his own good time, work in and through our sufferings for his purposes. He will lead us to that day when we will know that God is just and that our faith has not been in vain. That's the good news of the gospel. And it's no end run around the problem of evil. There will always be some mystery involved in life, but we can still go on in the confidence that God will be with us. And, as we give our lives and minds to follow him, he will accomplish his purposes in us, even in our suffering. So we will do well to stake our faith in the cross and know that God is for us, that God loves us, and that Jesus died and rose again for us.
I'd like to close with a well-known poem called, "Footprints". "One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the LORD. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand; one belonged to him, and the other to the LORD. When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that this happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the LORD about it. 'LORD, you said that once I decided to follow you, you'd walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don't understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.' The LORD replied, 'My precious child, I love you and would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.'"
As we walk through life, we too may go through periods of suffering — perhaps seemingly more than we can bear. But let us remember that God is with us all the way, and that in the end, our faith will not have been in vain.