Based on Psalm 111
The night was cool and clear. A beautiful evening for being outside, enjoying the fresh air. I’d been cooped up for long enough and so I decided, on this evening, to take a bike ride. Living on top of a hill in downtown Macon at the time, there were plenty of places to get a good urban bike ride in, especially around Mercer’s campus.
I was biking around, enjoying myself thoroughly. It was a great night. Nothing could go wrong. Life was looking good. Life was great.
Only the next thing I knew, I was flying over the handle bars. Reflexively, I put out my left arm to catch myself as my head went straight for the concrete sidewalk in front of me. My hand hit the sidewalk and I collapsed, all my weight going onto my arm.
The next day, I went to church to preach. I got through the service but nearly collapsed from the pain I was in. Dana rushed me to the ER where they determined I had broken my elbow. To help with the pain, they gave me morphine. It was then we discovered something new about me, something neither of us knew. Morphine, and pain meds in general, turn me into a paranoid jerk.
All I really remember from being on the morphine is hearing Dana’s voice saying to someone, in almost a pleading fashion, “he’s really a nice guy. He’s a pastor.”
I’d broken my elbow and ended up in bed, paranoid, feeling angry, because of the meds. While laying there, recovering, I wondered to myself:
Why do bad things happen to good people?
That’s the question our scripture raised for me as I processed it this week. It declares the goodness of God in a variety of ways, running through a list of how the people have known God to be good. There is no bad in God, there is no error in God’s ways for everything God does is for the benefit of God’s people, according to this Psalm. Whether we’re talking about God’s works or God’s precepts, whether focusing on God’s faithfulness to covenant obligations or God’s abundant provision, according to this Psalm, which echoes much of the witness of scripture, God is nothing but good.
This Psalm could be summed up by that old call and response of the church. God is good, all the time! And all the time, God is good!
It’s a gorgeous Psalm, worthy of our hearing this morning, worthy of our study, worthy of our emulation. But if God is good all the time, especially to those with whom he has covenant, in other words, us, why do bad things happen to good people?
If God is in control over everything; in other words, if God is sovereign, how can a good God allow bad things to happen to good people? If we have applied ourselves to studying God’s ways, that we may gain wisdom, as this Psalm commands; if we are drawing close to God, shouldn’t that mean we experience less bad in our lives and more good? For if God is good, the closer we get, the less bad we should experience, right?
But we know that’s not the case. Bad things happen to good people, with great regularity. And so, while this Psalm is beautiful and we believe that it’s true, we also are left wondering still,
Why do bad things happen to good people?
That’s the question the Psalm raises, for if God is good all the time, we have to find a way to explain why bad things still happen, especially to the people of God.
One explanation came from a church lady, wanting to be helpful to a grieving mom. While vacuuming one day, the mother’s child had wandered outside, falling in their pool and drowning. After the funeral, as family and friends greeting this grieving mother, racked with guilt over a tragedy that could have happened to any of us, the church lady said, “Well, God is loving and sometimes causes bad things to happen to teach us lessons. I’m sure you’ll find that lesson.”
That’s a cruel comment and I don’t think any of us could imagine saying something of that nature. But it belies an underlying assumption and the answer to our question, one I’m sure you’ve heard many times before.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Because God is teaching us a lesson.
Another common explanation comes when we say that God is in control.
For example, refugees of the Syrian conflict are by and large good people whose homeland has become so desolate and destroyed that they must leave. Can you imagine if war had so destroyed Eastman, decimating not only our homes but our businesses and our churches, creating unsafe and unsanitary conditions, that we had to pack up what we could fit in our cars and drive somewhere else in search of safety and security? That’s what these refugees are doing: good people to whom a bad thing happened. And we can explain that as God pursuing justice through God-caused warfare that seeks justice for Syria. Like the cow caught up in the tornado, this has caused a bad thing, the refugee crisis, to happen to good people, the Syrians and eastern Iraqis.
So why do bad things happen to good people? Because God is in control.
Sometimes, though, we hear a different explanation altogether: everything happens for a reason. What we infer, what that means when we say “everything happens for a reason,” is this: God’s ways are mysterious, high and above our ways. God will do what God will do, which means sometimes bad stuff happens to good people. We can’t explain why that is, we just have to trust that God knows what God is doing because God is good.
When explanations run out for an injustice, this seems to be the default perspective. When a friend of mine had his job eliminated due to budget cuts, many around him said that God caused him to lose his job. God had intended for him to lose his job because God had something better in store for my friend. How many of us can think of times that we’ve heard similar sentiments or thought that way to ourselves? When we experience some injustice, however minor or major, we think to ourselves that the injustice was because everything happens for a reason. God has something better in mind.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Because everything happens for a reason.
I’ve offered three explanations: God is teaching us a lesson, God is in control, everything happens for a reason. All are common things that I’ve heard, both in growing up and in doing ministry. They all offer some level of explanation, they all provide some modicum of satisfaction, but we must admit this morning that none of them are really satisfying. At the end of each of these three explanations is this basic premise: God is the source of harm, the source of suffering, in our lives.
If that is true, it means one of two things about God. First, God is indifferent to our suffering, moving for justice in the world, unconcerned if that causes harm to people. Or, second, God is a cruel master, inflicting suffering as God deems fit, whether for our benefit or simply because God decides that it should be so. Either way, in all of our answers to why bad things happen to good people, God is the the source of harm, the source of suffering, in our lives.
Which makes this Psalm into a lie. How can we believe that God is both good and a tyrant? How can we believe that God is both trustworthy and the cause of our suffering? How can God be gracious and merciful if willing to hurt us, whether intentionally or unintentionally? How can God have gained renown by his wonderful works if he is the source of suffering? How can we say that God’s precepts are trustworthy if we can’t trust that God won’t cause us harm?
This is the problem in our scripture this morning. How can we believe that God is good and also explain why bad things happen? What is the source of suffering? Why do we experience pain and harm in this life? Why does it seem to come indiscriminately?
Why do bad things happen to good people?
As we all know, the flu is going around. Many of us have been sick with it. I read reports in the Wall Street Journal of how widespread the flu is, saying that it’s worse this year than the previous two bad years: 2009 and 2014. This particular strain, according to the article, is more deadly when it infects people, it’s more infectious, and the vaccine is only about thirty percent effective. That has meant all fifty states are experiencing widespread flu outbreaks at the same time, which is taxing resources. Hospitals in some areas of the country have had to set up tents in their emergency parking lots in order to accommodate the sheer number of folks visiting ERs. Tamiflu supplies struggle to keep up with demand.
And we all know that the flu doesn’t care if you’re a good person or a bad person. It infects everyone. It’s certainly a bad thing that happens to all people, whether good or bad.
In light of the flu that strikes without care for who you are: why do bad things happen to good people?
Back in September, a tropical storm came our way. While it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been, we experienced the consequences of a natural disaster. Across the world, people experience natural disasters all the time. Fires and mudslides in California are the latest examples. We’re still dealing with the consequences of the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico as IV bags are in short supply because of the hurricane’s devastation of their manufacturing facility on that island.
Across the world, we hear of natural disasters frequently. They inflict damage and cause much harm to good people. They are the source of great suffering, and they impact people regardless of whether they are good or bad.
In light of these disasters that strike without care for you who are: why do bad things happen to good people?
Natural disasters and diseases are terrible and inflict harm every year, not caring whether or not you’re a good person or not, not caring whether or not you’re close to God or far away from God. They have no agenda except destruction and harm. They are a source of evil in the world because they are a source of tremendous harm and suffering.
And therein lies the answer to our question. Bad things happen to good people because evil exists in the world.
With the fall of creation in the garden, sin not only entered the world, but evil as a force gained a foothold in the world. We don’t tend to talk about evil, we don’t tend to think of it as its own force, but it’s there, and it’s worthy of a moment of our time to give evil its due. Evil, the opposite of good, has it’s own power and its own force in the world and it, not God, is the cause of suffering and harm. Evil is the reason bad things happen to good people, for evil is the reason bad things happen at all.
There are two forces in the world, and they regularly come into conflict: God’s force for good and the forces of evil. We see this through Jesus’s work against demons, illness, and maladies. We see this through diseases and natural disasters. And we see it through sin, which is evil caused by human action. God is regularly seeking to stamp out evil, working hard against it, but sometimes, for a moment, evil prevails.
Why God has not yet stamped out evil completely is a question I cannot answer. But I know this for sure: God is never the source of evil. God is never the source of suffering. God is never the source of harm in our lives. All of that is attributable to evil.
That means, when God is moving for good in the world, people do not get caught up in the negative consequences. God is actually moving to protect them, moving to do no harm, but evil will sometimes still have its way.
That means that everything does not happen for a reason. Sometimes, as the ancient proverb says, poop happens. There’s no explanation for it except that evil sometimes has its way.
That means that God isn’t trying to teach us things through suffering. God does want us to learn, but God will always do it through goodness, grace, and mercy; never through things that harm us or bring us suffering. If there’s a lesson from our experiences of evil, it’s not because God caused the evil, but because God redeemed the evil.
This also means, perhaps most strikingly, that God is not in control. We have been given free will, which means God has chosen to limit how much control he will exert upon us and the world. God remains sovereign, which is different from control. Sovereignty means you have the power and can use it, if you want. Control means that you exercise that power all the time in all circumstances. God is sovereign, for God has that power, but God is not in control because God gave control over to us. When suffering occurs, then, it’s either because evil has caused it, like disease or natural disaster, or, more often, suffering occurs because someone else used their free will to act sinfully, against God’s will.
That means that, when you’re suffering because someone has hurt you deeply, when you’re struggling with an illness, when your health seems to be against you rather than for you, when you’re facing financial challenges that just won’t quit, when you’re struggling against unethical behavior, when you’re experiencing anything negative at all in your life, it’s not of God. It’s evil.
We must remove these bad theologies: that everything happens for a reason, that God tries to teach us stuff through causing evil, that God is in control, because at their core they all say the same thing: God causes bad things to happen. No, that is simply not the case, for we have this guarantee, one that this Psalm makes loud and clear: God is always good and God is always working for our good.
If God is for us, who can be against us? That question from Paul echoes other parts of the Psalms, which say, “O give thanks to the LORD for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.” At funerals, we declare that “In the midst of life we are in death. From whom can we seek help? Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” God is our help, even in the midst of death, which is the highest and cruelest form of evil in the world, because God desires life and life abundant and will always move and work for it.
I don’t know why God hasn’t yet fully defeated evil as a force in the world. But I do know this: my relationship with God was transformed when I embraced that evil is its own force, separate from God. It gave me permission to stop questioning why God would cause me to suffer, it gave me permission to not have to explain everything in terms of God’s control. Evil happens in our lives, and it will until Christ returns. Why God has not yet fully defeated evil I cannot tell you, but I can tell you this:
“Great are the works of the Lord…Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds, the LORD is gracious and merciful…the works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.”
This morning, I give you that same permission. You may stop thinking of God as the source of suffering and harm in your life. There’s no need to question why God would let you suffer; evil caused that suffering, and God is in the midst of it, working for redemption, working for your good, working to destroy the evil that’s causing you harm.
Whatever ails you, whatever causes you harm, stop thinking that it’s God’s fault, for it’s not. It’s evil’s fault. We have in God not a cruel tyrant, not an indifferent King, but a suffering servant who loves us and wants no harm to befall us. Whatever suffering you’re experiencing this day, God is actively working against it, moving for its defeat and your restoration.
Give up these bad theologies. Instead, draw close to God in the midst of the suffering. There, in God’s presence, as we draw closer and closer through prayer and spiritual discipline, we find relief from what ails, release in the midst of suffering, and the defeat of evil in our lives.
For if God is for us, who can be against us? No one, not even the forces of evil. For God is good, all the time. And all the time, God is good.