Why do bad things happen to good people?
by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston
(Christ as the Man of Sorrows about 1470 Unidentified artist, Alsatian,)
A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday in Lent, February 28, 2016
By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: Exodus 3:1-15; Luke 13:1-9
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do men and women we respect suffer disaster? Why do people we love get cancer? Why do floodwaters sweep away homes and lives? Why do gunmen shoot down the innocent and unsuspecting? Why do tornadoes strike without warning? Why do swindlers defraud and cheat? Why are spouses unfaithful? Why are children ungrateful? Why do drunk drivers speed through red lights? Why do bullies batter young lives to the brink of suicide? Why does depression darken the souls of so many? Why does addiction shatter the lives of others? Why do bad things happen to good people?
Now, I’ll bet I can guess what many of you are thinking. Right now you’re shifting uncomfortably in your pews, asking yourselves, “Good grief, does that guy ever lighten up!? Are we going to have to sit through yet another solemn, serious sermon from that solemn, serious young man?”
Well if that’s what you’re thinking–and I’m sure at least a few of you are–let me take this moment to beg you just to stay with me. The Word of God speaks great good news to us today. But it chooses to speak that good news in and through the painful realities of human life. Our Scripture this morning does not flinch in the face of suffering. It does not shrink from sorrow. It does not try to dodge or deny or explain away disaster. Rather our lessons today carry us right to the heart of human suffering–both the suffering of those people who have been bruised and battered by fate and the suffering of those people who weep for them and with them. So gird up your loins, Trinity. For this morning, we will follow God’s Word into what must be the oldest and most difficult question ever uttered by human lips: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” And there in the dark depths of that question we will wait with eager longing for a glimmer of God’s light.
But first, we must have the courage to face the darkness. It’s there in each of our readings this morning. Suffering is the thread that ties together the passages we’ve heard from the Bible today.
It’s there in the bitter pain of the enslaved people of Israel. How many times must they have asked themselves, during the four hundred years of their bondage in Egypt, “Why? Why must we suffer here? Why are we oppressed by our taskmasters? Why are we condemned to misery as slaves in a strange land?”
The problem is there in the shocking deaths of eighteen people in the collapse of the Tower at Siloam. Their sorrow was sudden and startling. It did not build slowly, accruing over countless generations. Rather it struck in an instant. But still the question must have arisen, “Why? Why must we die this way? Why must we be crushed in a senseless, unforeseen disaster? Why are we doomed to disappear in an instant beneath a pile of bricks and rubble?”
And the problem is there in the brutal killings of the Galileans in the Temple. Pontius Pilate, as a pagan Roman, had no qualms about desecrating the sacred precincts in Jerusalem. Not only did he slaughter a company of Galileans for crimes unknown to us–he did it in the most sacrilegious way imaginable, mingling their human blood, with the blood of the animals they were offering to Almighty God. Though they knew that their demise had been decreed by a petty tyrant, and while they probably knew why Pilate had resolved to destroy them, nevertheless those murdered Galileans must have wondered, “Why? Why must we go down to death in such shame–such disgrace? Why is this happening to us? Why are damned to die a death of desecration?”
The pain in each situation is clear. But the reason behind that pain is downright perplexing. Why did those terrible things happen? Why do terrible things still happen? Why do bad things happen to good people?
The simplest answer, and the one most often deployed in ancient times, is to deny the question altogether. The argument goes like this: A good God rules the universe. That good God is just and holy, and he cannot abide injustice and unholiness. He punishes the evil and rewards the good, and he does so through human agents and through the natural world. Therefore, anyone who suffers must not really be good. They must have done something wrong, even if it was something secret. They must have done something to deserve the fate that they have been made to bear. Bad things don’t happen to good people–bad things happen to bad people.
That was a popular view in Jesus’ time. Truth be told, it remains a popular view today. We want the world to make sense. We want an explanation of evil that satisfies our desire for logic and clarity. Most of all, we want to find a way to shield ourselves from pain and suffering. If we can be certain that tragedy and sorrow come only as a result of God’s judgment against sin, then it follows that I can avoid tragedy and sorrow simply by refraining from sinning. If only I am good, good things will happen to me.
And yet the trouble, beloved, is that Jesus flatly denies this explanation. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you.” “Do you think that the eighteen crushed by the Tower of Siloam were worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.” Do you think that because the children of Israel languished in slavery for four hundred years, God was somehow punishing them for their transgressions? Surely not!
Suffering is not the sign of God’s wrath against certain sinners. Rather, it is the result of being a vulnerable human being in a fallen world. The truth is, we are broken, breakable creatures living in a broken, breakable world. Scripture refuses to give us the clear-cut, easy answer we long for to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Indeed, the Bible is not interested with answering that question at all. It simply throws us back, again and again, on the fact of our frailty, the truth of our transitory nature, and the reality of our wretchedness. As our collect this morning puts it, “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” In the face of our repeated, wondering, “Why?”, Scripture responds only with the undeniable reality of our brokenness.
But it does not leave us there alone. Hear again the words of God as he speaks to Moses out of the burning bush: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings…”
God knows the suffering of his people. God hears the cry of the oppressed. God sees the misery and sorrow and heartbreak of human beings. And God acts in the midst of tragedy.
“Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”
That is the assurance Scripture gives us. Not that the bad things of this life will make sense, or that the universe will resolve itself neatly according to our desires, or that we will be able to understand and explain the problem of evil in our lives or in the lives of others. But the Word of God reminds us again and again that the God we serve will never leave us or abandon us in our suffering. The God we worship will never separate himself from us because of our sorrow. The God who calls us each by name has also come down into the muck and mire and brokenness of our condition.
For the assurance of God’s presence does not end with our passage from Exodus. But even as we hear Jesus’ stern call to repentance we are reminded that he is, himself, God’s great answer to human suffering. God’s reply to the problem of evil was not a rational argument but an invitation to relationship. God’s response to human pain and loss was to walk among us as one who felt pain and loss. God’s solution to human sin and brokenness was to be broken upon the cross.
Beloved, each and every one of us here will be made to suffer senselessly at some time in our life. It may not be under the heavy-hand of an oppressive demagogue. For you it may simply mean enduring the petty tyrannies of a workplace tyrant. It may not mean suffering the long legacy of slavery. But for you it may mean bearing a family legacy of dysfunction or addiction–of depression or alcoholism. It may not mean the sudden ending of your life in a terrible tragedy. But for you it may mean the slow unraveling of your life, or the burden of living a life that seems to have lost all meaning and purpose. It may mean a diagnosis you didn’t deserve and didn’t expect. It may mean the end of a relationship, or the beginning of financial trouble. It may be large or small, brief or lingering, life-threatening or soul-deadening. The only certainty, in the midst of life’s changes and chances, is that life in a fallen world always includes suffering.
So when tragedy comes, cling to the Cross! When sorrow surprises you, set your eyes upon the Crucified! When bad things happen, hold onto the nail-pierced feet of Jesus! When your life falls apart, fall into his outstretched arms! For the Cross of Christ is God’s great answer to the problem of evil. The Cross of Christ is God’s defiant response to our ruination. The Cross of Christ is God’s assurance that nothing we suffer will ever separate us from him.
For “who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”