Thursday, August 22, 2019

By Request: “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” - August 18, 2019

Texts: Job 38:1-13, Romans 8:26-28, 31-39

Dion Green lives in Dayton, Ohio.  His world has been turned upside down.  In May, the Ku Klux Klan came to town, spewing hatred directed at people like Dion.  Counter-protesters dwarfed those there for the Klan rally, but such open hatred was shocking.

Later that same week, Dayton was hit by a total of 12 devastating tornadoes.  One came right through Dion’s neighborhood, tearing the roof off of his house.  Blue tarps cover roofs and missing siding on houses not yet repaired.  Pieces of insulation from a neighborhood school are still on Dion’s property, and his house is not yet completely repaired.

Two weeks ago, another disaster struck.  This was the kind that cannot be fixed.  Dion’s family was celebrating a birthday when a gunman appeared and shots were fired.  Dion’s fiancé tried to run but fell.  So she played dead as the shooter stepped over her.  A bullet hit Dion’s father.  Dion, who had been getting tacos just a few feet away, held his father until he died. 

In his grieving, Green said he wondered what he and his city did to deserve this.  “I have questions for the person up above,” he said.  

Dion Green voiced what countless people have felt.  When we face suffering and tragedy – as we all do at some point – there is that question of why.  Why did this happen to such a good person?  How could something so awful, so horrific happen?  Why do innocent people have to suffer?

“Why do bad things happen to good people?” was one of the questions that showed up in the sermon suggestion box.  It is a question that people have been asking from the beginning of time.  In fact, this may be the most difficult question of faith. 

Last week a mother and little boy came up to our front door and rang the doorbell.  Susan spotted them as they were coming down the street.  “Jehovah’s Witnesses!” she said.  Sure enough, she was right.

This boy was at most 7 years old.  He wore a tie and had a little hat on.  He was as cute and as sharp as he could be.  And he was the one who did most of the talking.  “Do you ever wonder why God allows so many disasters in the world?” he asked. 

I said, “I actually wonder about that a lot.”  I probably overstated how much I wondered about it, but I did have this sermon and this question in mind.  And then he read a verse from the book of Job.  I remembered the gist of it and looked it up in the New World translation – the Jehovah’s Witnesses translation of the Bible.  It was Job 34:10:  “So listen to me, you men of understanding: it is unthinkable for the true God to act wickedly, for the Almighty to do wrong!”

And then this kid asked if I would like to discuss this.  His mom is standing there, of course.  I said that I was a pastor and I would actually be preaching from Job next week.  She said it was nice to meet somebody who believed the Bible and to have a nice day.

Job is essentially a drama with several characters.  It begins with God and Satan having a conversation about Job.  They agree that he is completely righteous and upright.  But Satan says, “Job only loves and serves you because he is so successful.  He would not serve you if his life were a mess.”  So God and Satan strike a bargain – they kind of have a bet going.  Satan can do whatever he wants to Job short of killing him.

In short order, enemies raid Job’s flocks, carrying off or killing his livestock and killing his servants.  A storm came along and a house collapsed, killing his children.  Job’s health is attacked and his body covered with boils.  Job’s wife tells him to go ahead and curse God and die.  But Job says, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

That is the opening of Job.  The majority of the book is made up of speeches by Job and his friends as they debate the ways of God.  The general consensus on how life worked was that riches and good health and success were God’s reward for living righteously, while poverty and sickness and struggle were a sign of one’s sinful condition.  And so his friends know that Job is sinful.     

For his part, Job knows deep inside that he is not a bad person and that if this is punishment for some wrong he has committed, it is all out of proportion.  He questions and complains to God, he wishes there were an umpire to judge between him and God, but he refuses to curse God.

Job’s friends lecture Job about his sinfulness and God’s judgment on him.  It is Elihu, one of Job’s friends, that my little Jehovah’s Witnesses friend was quoting to me.  That doesn’t mean that statement is wrong, but Elihu is not a completely reliable source.  I could have told this boy, “Are you serious?  You’re going to quote Elihu to me?"  But that would have been really poor form.  (And I didn’t actually know it was Elihu until I looked it up later.)

While his friends are sure Job is being punished, Job himself winds up feeling that God is so powerful that perhaps God doesn’t have to be fair.

Our reading from Job this morning is God’s response.  It is an answer but not a very satisfying one.  “Were you there when I created the world?  Do you tell the sun to rise each morning?”

Does it mean that God is so powerful that God doesn’t have to give an explanation to the likes of Job?  Or that our problems are not really that big a deal in the larger scheme of things?  Or is it saying that God is so far above us and beyond us that we could not possibly understand?  One Jewish commentator understands this as God saying, “You think it’s so easy being God – why don’t you try?”

In the end, Job’s fortunes are restored, and doubled.  He has 14,000 sheep, 6000 camels, and ten more children.  Job is vindicated. 

Job is maybe the oldest reflection we have on the problem of evil.  The story of Job argues against the idea that doing well is a sign of God’s favor and that trials in life are a sign of a person’s sinfulness.  Beyond that, however, we don’t get a very satisfying answer.  And what about his children who are killed just to make a point? – who are just pawns in a game?  Well, it does help when you think of Job as a drama, a once upon a time story, a big parable.  But still. 

The problem of evil – the question of why bad things happen to good people – can be stated in this way.  There are three statements we all want to believe, that can’t all be true at the same time.

1. God is all-powerful.   2. God is completely good.   3. Evil exists in the world.

If God is all-powerful, controlling everything, and God is all good, only wanting what is best, then how can there be evil?

Some deal with this question by denying evil.  Suffering is just an illusion.  Or what look like bad things are actually for our good in the end.  Or there is a good and loving purpose behind it that we just cannot know or understand.

I would have a hard time telling Dion Green that his father’s death is not really evil and that God has a good purpose behind it.  We see terrible suffering in our world, and we can’t just can’t say that it is an illusion , or there is a greater purpose behind it all.  What greater purpose was behind the Holocaust?  No, evil is real.

And it is hard for me to say that God is not good.  The scriptures tell us that God is love.  We look at Jesus and we see one who is motivated by love.  Speaking of the problem of evil and suffering, James Howell writes:

Here is a good starting point: God is not sadistic.  God is love.  A God who childishly gets even, lashes out, strikes back is no God.  Such a god we should refuse to believe or serve… God could have created a perfect world, with perfect people, no illness, no evil, no flaws.  But God is more interested in love than in perfection.  Robots cannot love; love for God, love for each other, can never be ordered up.  God runs the risk of pain and suffering, hoping for love. 
To me, part of the answer is that God gives up some power and becomes vulnerable.  I mean, God came to us in Jesus as a baby, and that is the picture of vulnerability.  And you don't get much more vulnerable than being nailed to a cross.  

God does not control everything.  God does not control human beings.  Without the ability to say no, our yes means nothing.  We can choose good or evil.  We can choose love or hate.  We can make choices, and our choices have consequences. 

One of the memories etched in my mind is of a time when I was a junior in high school.  We were coming home from a church basketball game – we played at a gym downtown.  The coach and a couple of players who lived near each other were in the car.  We got close to home and the road by the airport was blocked off.  We actually had a hard time getting home.  And then came the news, the reason the road was blocked: the entire University of Evansville basketball team had died in a plane crash in the ravine just past our neighborhood.  How could something so terrible happen?  How could God allow this?  The Aces were to Evansville like the Cyclones are to Ames.  The whole community went into grieving.

Months later the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the plane attempted to take off with the rudder and right aileron control locks still installed.  This was not God’s fault; somebody had failed to do their job.

A large amount of suffering and tragedy and evil can be explained by human choices.  There is no other way; without real choices, we would all be programmed robots.  But what about natural disasters?  What about hurricanes and tornadoes and floods and earthquakes?

It is generally accepted that the existence of life on this planet depends on a very delicate balance.  Scientist and theologian Andrew Pratt notes that if the structure of the earth’s crust was different from what it is - if it was not constructed of tectonic plates moving constantly and inevitably causing eruptions and earthquakes, then there would be no life here at all, at least not as we know it.  The movement of the earth’s crust has generated mountains and valleys, which make for the possibilities of rivers and seas and oceans.  It was in these seas that we believe life began.  Somehow, the existence of life and the possibility of earthquakes are linked together.

Now, we certainly can’t find an explanation for everything.  There is just a randomness to life.  The tree in our front yard was struck by lightning last summer.  It fried most of the electronics in our house.  The power of the lightning strike was so great that pictures fell off the wall.  One photo frame fell on our dog’s crate.  It shattered and pieces of glass were all over the place in the crate.

We were gone at the time.  Rudy is always in the crate when we are gone.  99% of the time.  But this one time, we weren't going to be gone long so decided to leave him out, which saved him from serious injury or worse.  Why did the lightning hit the tree in our yard?  I don’t know.  Why did we decide just this one time to not put Rudy in the kennel?  I don’t know.  It seems random. 

You may have had the experience of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It’s random, it’s a fluke.  Or maybe you barely avoided tragedy – if that car had pulled out a split second sooner, it would have been a catastrophe.

Why does cancer strike this person and not that person?  Why does a good person suffer while a truly awful person seems to proper?  I don’t know.

Rabbi Harold Kushner had a son named Aaron who was born with a condition called progeria, or rapid aging.  When Aaron was 3, Kushner and his wife were told that Aaron would not grow much beyond 3 feet tall, he would have no hair on his body or head, he would look like a little old man and die in his teens.  A couple of years after Aaron’s death at age 13, Kushner wrote a book on the problem of suffering.

I read it years ago and in my memory, the title was Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.  But that wasn’t right.  The title is When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  And that is important.  We can’t necessarily come up with a good answer to why.  But we can talk about what happens when.

Our scripture from Romans is one of my favorite passages in the Bible.  But the translation of Romans 8:28 is difficult and the Greek is not entirely clear.  The more familiar translation – because at one time people grew up memorizing the verse in the King James - is “Everything works together for good.”  Which sounds like, whatever happens, it is for the best.

Many translations, including the NIV, which I read from, have this as in all things, God works for good.  This also fits the context of the passage, which speaks of the work of the Spirit on our behalf.   To say that in whatever happens, God is working for our good is very different than saying everything that happens is for good.  Because we know that is not the case. 

As much as we would like to, we don’t get an explanation for everything.  But what we know is that God does not send trials and tribulations our way.  When they come, for whatever reason, God is working for our good.  When we face trials, God can give us strength.  When we are searching, God can give us wisdom.  When bad things happen, God is there to stand with us and beside us.

In the face of pain and suffering, God can work miracles in our life.  Sometimes it is the miracle of healing and sometimes it is the miracle of strength and fortitude and sometimes it is the miracle of community and love to see us through.  And we have the promise that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Along with the question I found in the suggestion box was a follow-up question: is God still in control?  Well, as we have examined, God gives us free will.  And there is a randomness to life.  Right now, God does not control everything.  But ultimately, God’s kingdom will come in its fullness.  The witness of scripture is that ultimately, love will win.  For now, we can choose to follow Christ.  We can make ourselves open to the leading of the Spirit.  We can be a part of that coming kingdom.   

When bad things happen, we are called to stand with each other and to care for each other.  At Dion Green’s father’s funeral, his uncle, Jeffrey Fudge, was the first family member to speak.  He begged everyone to practice more love and togetherness because love, he said, is undefeated. 

When bad things happen to good people, God is there, and God calls us to be there, in love.  In this world God has created, that is our choice to make.  Amen.

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