Where is God when bad things happen to good people?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 19, 2008

Why do bad things happen to good people? This question keeps coming up among so many of my coffee companions. Responses of blame, guilt and anger pour forth. Many are driven to arguing with God over life’s unfairness.

One of our Cochrane readers, Kate Millar, even composed a song which some of you may have heard at one of her local performances. The chorus goes:

I'm hurt and I'm broken
And I'm down on my knees now before you
I hang my head in pain
And cry these words to you, O Lord.

But does God even care? Is He out to get us? To punish us? To teach us a lesson? Has He forsaken us?

Harold S. Kushner, rabbi and popular author, wrote what I regard as one of the finest books on this subject. In When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981), he tells of his own struggles surrounding the untimely death of his 14-year-old son, Aaron, stricken with progeria, “rapid aging.”

He received the diagnosis of Aaron’s condition when his son was only three.

 “How does one handle news like that?” Kushner writes. “I was a young, inexperienced rabbi, not as familiar with the process of grief as I would later come to be, and what I mostly felt that day was a deep, aching sense of unfairness. It didn’t make sense. I had been a good person. I had tried to do what was right in the sight of God. More than that, I was living a more religiously committed life than most people I knew, people who had large, healthy families. I believed that I was following God’s ways and doing His work. How could this be happening to my family? If God existed, if He was minimally fair, let alone loving and forgiving, how could He do this to me?”

His pastoral work as a rabbi helped Kushner see such grief and pain in the lives of all kinds of ordinary people. He soon concluded that guilt and self-blame were not the answer, and that when the daughter of parents in his congregation died at university, it was not because of the parents’ failure to fast on Yom Kippur, as the parents wrongly believed. Their daughter’s death had nothing to do with them “getting what they deserved.”

He turned to the Book of Job, which Kushner believes is “the most profound and complete consideration of human suffering in the Bible, perhaps in all of literature.”

Job was a godly man who loses nearly everything people consider important: his posterity, his prosperity, his health and his reputation. All he has left is his tortured life and his adamant faith, and his wife doesn’t help much with either when she tells him to “curse God and die.”

Job is sitting outside on a heap of ashes when his so-called friends arrive to “comfort” him. Like so many even today, they are convinced that suffering is an indicator of moral failure, and because Job is suffering so badly, he must be a really bad person and needs to repent.

But Job protests. In long debates with these “friends,” he argues his innocence and bemoans the unfairness of life. Can’t an “all-wise, all-powerful, all-knowing God,” as Kushner puts it, do something about this mess?

Finally, God arrives in a whirlwind, challenges Job’s attitude, and restores him to prosperity, yet without ever really explaining to Job what the suffering was all about.

Kushner has his own idea about the suffering in the Book of Job, however. The question of “How could God do this to me?” must be changed to: “God, see what is happening to me. Can you help me?”

It’s not a question of God being responsible for the evil that befalls people. “Instead of feeling that we are opposed to God, we can feel that our indignation is God’s anger at unfairness working through us, that when we cry out, we are still on God’s side, and He is still on ours.”

We are called to forgive and lovingly accept a world which is less than perfect, and even to forgive and lovingly accept God when it appears “He has let you down and disappointed you,” Kushner concludes. Such forgiveness and loving acceptance “are the weapons God has given us to enable us to live fully, bravely, and meaningfully in this less-than-perfect world.”

As we approach Good Friday, the Christian commemoration of Jesus’ crucifixion, I am reminded of this Good Man’s hurting and broken cry from the Cross, quoting from Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” But then I’m also reminded a few verses later in the same psalm (v.24), “he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard.”

In this hurting, broken world, are we hearing, too?

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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