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The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell

The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC


Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

Job 1:8-9

July 21, 1996

In the land of Uz there was once a man, a great man, famous the world over, named Job. Job was even famous in heaven. God beamed with pride when He gazed down upon this most noble of His servants -- until one day a tough question is raised, right there in chapter 1, verse 9: Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you put a hedge around him? You have blessed him, his possessions have increased. Does Job serve God for nothing? Awfully good question -- not just about Job, but about you and me, and about the simplistic, boneheaded theology that says the righteous are rewarded, and the wicked are punished. If you serve God, if you love God, the question is, Why?"

Back in the early 5th century, St. Augustine distinguished two kinds of love, in Latin, uti and frui. Uti love is love of use. I love money -- not because I particularly enjoy looking at it or feeling it. I love money because I can use it to get something else I want. Uti. Now, frui love is different. I love -- I'm not sure that's a strong enough word -- I love chocolate, not because of what I use it for, which really isn't all that good. I get fatter, cholesterol count goes up. But it doesn't matter. I just love chocolate. I'll do anything to get it. Frui.

Augustine said we have this bad habit of loving God with uti love. We love God because we hope to get God to help us get whatever it is we want. Lord, I'm after the good life, a better job, this or that success: so, bless me! But God prefers not to be used. God wants us to love God with frui love. We just love God, not because of what we get out of it, but just because God is God, and we would do anything for God. As the Westminster Confession put it, the chief end of humanity is to love God and enjoy him forever.

Does Job serve God for nothing? Does he love God and enjoy him always? As Job soon found out, there are times it's hard to enjoy God. Who was it? Longfellow? who said "Into every life some rain must fall." A little shower we can deal with. It's the torrential downpour that sweeps us away. Maybe God's job isn't to make us rich. But God as a minimum ought to shield us from the harsh east winds. God should deliver us from evil, shelter us from disaster. I'd say as a pastor the number one question I get about God is precisely this: If there's a God, why do bad things happen -- especially to good people? On Palm Sunday a tornado struck a United Methodist Church and killed the pastor's daughter. In our church we have an infant born with a life-­threatening heart defect. Cancer, heart failure, a freak traffic accident. Every one of us knows the pain.

Why do bad thing happen to good people? How can we who believe in God ever hope to explain ourselves? Religion feels some obligation to give neat, tidy answers -- always transparently false: "God needed her in heaven" -- but what kind of God has such selfish needs? "He's in a better place." If heaven is so much better, why are people lining up, rushing to get out of here? Then there are cruelly pious, who portray God as vindictive, who say that AIDS is God's punishment on homosexuals. I suppose then that heart attacks are God's punishment for indulging in high cholesterol diet, or the common cold God's vengeance on those who go out of doors. Job's friends offered this kind of nonsense, and he rightly waved off their counsel.

C. S. Lewis used to say that suffering is "God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world." We do need to listen up. And I guess we can learn something from suffering -- although some suffering just has no discernable educational value, at least not in this life. But this megaphone business: listen, God doesn't cause accidents, or send diseases. Nothing is more obscene than to suggest God kills in order to get somebody's attention.

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. Not only is God not sadistic. God is no perfectionist. God is love. 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.

T.S. Eliot imagines God lamenting this decision: "O my people, what have I done unto thee?" Of course we bring plenty of suffering on ourselves. C. S. Lewis estimated that 4/5ths of suffering can be chalked up to human sin. A gun fired in bravado, drugs peddled to kids, meanness. And it's not just that we make a bad choice or two. We are flawed, adding incrementally, almost inevitably, to the plight of our world. Why do bad things happen to good people? Maybe we overestimate our goodness just a little.

Plenty of bad things happen because we are just plain fallible, snafu­-prone. We are smart enough to design airplanes that defy gravity -- but human as we are we need not be surprised when an occasional plane malfunctions and crashes. As a society we choose to hurtle heavy automobiles at one another, inches apart; little wonder that now and then one blows a tire and crashes. Plenty of disasters, and even some diseases, can be traced to this mingling of human ingenuity and human fallibility. You can't take it personally when a crash, fire, or accident strikes.

Our bodies are fallible, too. Variously composed of strong or weak muscles and tissue, our bodies break down and fail at uncertain rates. I mentioned the boy born with half a heart. I found out recently that I am missing an entire lobe of my liver; sounded alarming, but the doctor said I don't need that lobe -- it's just an abnormality. When I look around at some of my guy friends, I notice they are missing some of their hair. But to be missing half of your heart! God could have made us perfect specimens, wound up to live in blissful health until easy death at age 95 -- and maybe we wish God had. But since we are mere mortals, we know that a certain percentage of livers will fail, aneurisms will appear, cancers will spread. You can't take it personally when illness or death come calling.

And yet nothing could be more personal. James Russell Lowell, after the death of his own child wrote, "Console if you will, I can bear it; 'tis a well­-meant alms of breath; but not all the preaching since Adam has made death other than death." If only our questions were mere intellectual riddles!

Of course, one reason we are so keenly interested in this question is illustrated in Amy Tan's "The Kitchen God's Wife," when Pearl says "My father had died of stomach cancer when I was 14. And for years, my mother would search in her mind for the causes, as if she could still undo the disaster by finding the reason why it had occurred in the first place."

One thing is for sure; we can't be fatalistic. Not all that happens is God's will. You hear this all the time. After a recent shooting, the victim's mother said of her son's death, "It was God's will." Well, if it was God's will, instead of imprisoning the killer, we should give him a medal or a ticker­tape parade for doing God's will. God's will isn't done all the time.

There is always an unexplainable element in suffering. Elie Wiesel imagined Job, surviving his catastrophe, hurling a barb at God; "Very well, I forgive you, but what about my dead children? Do they forgive you?" The Bible doesn't explain suffering. But in the Bible, people frequently cry out in agony, storming heaven with their protests. Maybe we need more of this defiant spirit in order to be truly faithful. Never stop being outraged at what is evil! Shame on us for reducing suffering to an intellectual problem. And never stop resisting evil. Jesus didn't explain evil, he resisted it!

And he took that evil on himself. In Job, God answers in a whirlwind. In the New Testament, Jesus answers beneath a darkened sky and a trembling earth with His life, His blood, His love. The heart of Jesus; on the cross, Jesus took on Himself, He felt all the hurt, all the pain, all the tears, the agony, the emptiness, the loneliness, all the hurt of all people. Jesus knows our pain. And God refuses to leave us alone in our pain. Somehow God embraces, ennobles, redeems our suffering. We are not alone. And having endured the cross, and having been locked up tight in the grave, Jesus nevertheless was raised up, to glory, to be with God forever. Here is the beauty, the power of the Christian faith. Jesus is there when we hurt.

Does Job fear God for nothing? Do we serve God for nothing? No, we serve God, not because there is some mega­payout at the end of the line for us. We serve God because God is God, and because God is love, because God is with us through whatever. And Jesus will be there beyond the pain, redeeming the hurt, never letting us go. Don't get me wrong; when we get to heaven, God will have to spend the first million years or so answering questions. But God has an eternal, marvelous purpose for us that cannot be denied. The future is God's.

How do we live until then? Near the end of "Farewell to Arms," Hemingway wrote, "The world breaks everyone, and then some become strong in the broken places." We hang on. We bank our faith upon this God who knows reality. We become strong. And we look for others who are broken, and we love them.

The doctor breaks the news: I'm sorry, it's malignant, there's nothing we can do. But there's something you and I can do. We can be there. C. S. Lewis, when he stopped lecturing about suffering and faced the real-­life suffering of his own wife, wrote these poignant words: "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid . There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me."

What can we do? We can show up. Not like Job's friends, with a trite alms of breath. And I believe that when we are there, together, we'll discover that God is there, in our midst, in our suffering. That's about the best we can do.


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