When bad things happen to good people

Pentecost 19 – 2015

The Book of Job (or why bad things happen to good people)

Marian Free

In the name of God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Amen.

I’d like to begin today with two stories, one true, the other fictional, both traumatic. You may remember that some twenty to twenty five years ago there was an horrific accident on Brisbane’s bayside. It was Easter Day, a mother and her three children were returning home having attended church. A drunk driver ploughed into their car and all three children were killed. As you might expect the Parish Priest visited the mother in hospital but after a while he began to feel that his visits were not having any effect on the bleakness that had descended on her. He appealed to the Bishop for help. The Bishop (who related the story) visited the woman in hospital.

When he visited he asked: “What is the most painful thing?” The woman responded by waving weakly in the direction of the drawers beside her. The Bishop opened the drawer and discovered that it was full of sympathy cards. They contained sentimental, pseudo-religious statements such as: “Your children are in a better place.” “Your children are with the angels.” “What,” the woman asked, “was so wrong with me, that God had to take my children to a better place?”

A similar story is recorded in the movie: “Down the Rabbit Hole”. The plot of the movie centres on the experience of a couple whose four year old son and only child has run through an open gate onto the road and been killed by a passing vehicle. As happens, the child’s parents cope with the grief in different ways and each one struggles to come to terms with their partner’s reaction and coping mechanism. At one point the couple join a support group for grieving parents. One evening, as the group were discussing their different stories, a well-meaning group member says: “God just wanted another angel.” The mother storms out saying angrily: “Why couldn’t God just make another angel, why did he need my son?”

These stories illustrate our failure to face death and tragedy head on, our need to find reasons why bad things happen, and our tendency – in the face of awkwardness and embarrassment – to resort to simplistic explanations, using pietistic, “God language” or some other evasive technique that, under a pretext of caring tries to cover over or avoid the pain. The stories illustrate too, the way in which our clumsiness and evasion add to rather than diminish the pain.

This is no less true of Christians than it is of the general community. Despite our belief that even Jesus suffered and died, we do not always have the language or skills that would help us adequately address the suffering of another person.

The Book of Job tries in part to answer the question[1]: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” Job, as we have heard, has been sorely tested. Everything has been taken away from him. All the things that gave him status in the community – his livestock, his children – all gone and for no apparent reason. Even his health has gone and we find him sitting among the ashes, scraping his sores with a potsherd. Luckily for Job he has three good friends – Zophar, Bildad and Eliphaz – who come to comfort him in his distress. Unfortunately, like many of us, they are at a loss as to what to say, so they resort to the simplistic and the trite. Together they look for explanations as to why Job is in the situation in which he finds himself.

If you have time, I suggest that you read the Book of Job in its entirety or at least the first eleven chapters and the last five chapters. The middle tends to be repetitive. For chapter after chapter the three friends seek to explain away his suffering, primarily by suggesting that Job has behaved in ways that deserve to be punished. The friends say such unhelpful things as: “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” or “How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” or “Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.”

Time and again, Job responds by protesting his innocence. He is sure that he has not behaved in a way to offend God and that his suffering has no rational explanation.

Finally, or so the story goes, God can stand it no longer. God cannot bear to listen to the four friends. As we will hear in a few weeks time, God explodes and in words dripping with sarcasm attacks Job from out of the whirlwind: ““Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” On and on God goes, challenging Job to demonstrate his wisdom, his ability to understand and therefore his right to speak for God. Finally Job (in what I imagine is a very small voice) responds: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

As Job realises in the end, none of us can read God’s mind, none of us have any real idea why the world is as it is. What we do know is that life can seem haphazard, that the world is full of both the good and the bad and that we have no control over the weather or the movement of the continental plates. We know that accidents do happen, that disease can hit at any time and that at the moment none of us is immune from the process of aging. When we are confronted with suffering, whether it is ours – or that of another, we should not try to explain it away or to make excuses for God. Instead we need to accept that there are times when we will not have the answers, when we are simply unable to comprehend why it is that bad things happen to good people and why some suffer their whole lives and some seem to suffer hardly at all.

When faced with unbearable suffering or distress in our own lives or that of others, surely it is better to admit that we simply do not have all the answers, that there are aspects of this life that are beyond our comprehension and that there are some things that we will not understand this side of eternity?

When tragedy hits and lives are turned upside down we have to remember that even though God doesn’t intervene as we would like, that God in Jesus knows just what it is like to experience suffering and pain, rejection and torture. When our lives seem to fall apart, when nothing seems to make any sense, it is important to remember that God is with us – supporting, encouraging and strengthening us until such time as the troubles pass and the world is put to rights again.

[1] It is important to remember that Job is a story or fable. It is also important to note that in this story “Satan” is not associated with evil but is one of the angels in heaven. He is “the accuser”, the “devil’s advocate”, the one appointed to present an opposing view.

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