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The Rev. Dr. Charles Reeb The Rev. Dr. Charles Reeb

The Rev. Dr. Charles Reeb is pastor of Pasadena Community Church (United Methodist) in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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United Methodist Church

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Pasadena Community Church (United Methodist), St. Petersburg, FL


I Wonder Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

Romans 8:28-39

The 17th Sunday after Pentecost

September 11, 2005

"I wonder why bad things happen to good people. I wonder why my prayers go unanswered. I wonder about God's will for my life." Have you ever wondered about these things? I know I have! I don't believe we are Christians very long before these wonders begin to creep into our minds.

However, many of us are often reluctant to admit that we wonder about such things-that we have doubts and questions about our faith. We are afraid we will be accused of not trusting God enough or that we'll be looked upon as some heretic. And this is tragic, for sometimes there is more faith in wondering, doubting, and questioning than there is in blind acceptance. In fact, every strong Christian I know reached a deeper place of faith after going through a "dark night of the soul."

So, for next three weeks I am going to examine some common wonders of faith, and I want to see where these wonders take us. So hear these messages with an honest heart and attitude of prayer, and I believe you will find your faith enriched and strengthened.

As we remember the tragedy of 9/11 today, I believe it is very appropriate to ask: "I wonder why bad things happen to good people?" Certainly, this was a burning question in the hearts and minds of all of us as we experienced the horror of that day. Churches were flooded with people asking this question. Counselors were overbooked with clients asking this question. People all over the world were praying this question: Why do bad things happen to good people? 9/11 shattered many people's naïve illusions about how the world is supposed to operate.

We don't live life very long before many of our illusions are shattered. I recall a cartoon that appeared in The Atlanta Constitution after a man named Mark Barton walked into an Atlanta business office and shot and killed several people. In the cartoon, a small boy is sitting next to his mother, and a newspaper is lying on the table. The headline reads, "Atlanta Murderer: Mark Barton." Confused, the boy is looking up at his mother saying, "You said monsters don't exist." Well, we are all like that little boy, and we ask about this monster in many ways: "Why do the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper?" "Why does God allow evil and suffering?" "If God is great and good, why is there suffering?" Another way it is put is: "If God can't stop suffering, then he is not great. If he can, then he is not good." In the study of theology this wonder is called "the theodicy question." And it's been asked since the very beginning.

In fact, it is a frequent question in the Bible. The Psalms ask it. Job asks it. Lamentations is full of it. The prophet Habakkuk complains to God about it. The prophet Jeremiah questions God about it: Why do the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people?

So we ought to take a lesson from the biblical writers who cry out with this same burning question. And that lesson is that if we are going to be intimate and personal with God, we need to give him all that we have inside of us, even our deepest complaints and questions. Don't worry! God is big enough to handle them.

Now at this point, you may be asking, "It may be some consolation that the Bible asks the theodicy question, but do you have an answer for it?" No, I don't. I don't know why bad things happen to good people. I am just as mystified by it as everyone else.

The simple fact is that the Bible asks the question, but it never answers it. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, "The secret things belong to the Lord our God." This side of heaven we will never know why bad things happen to good people.

Now there is an incomplete response to this question. It is free will. Because God wants us to love him because we choose to love him, we have free will. It is a great gift. But there is a negative side to it. People can use their free will to do evil things and cause much pain and suffering. Four years ago, certain people chose to take their free will, get into an airplane, and crash into a building.

But free will is an incomplete response to our question today because it does not address things like natural disasters and diseases, those things that human beings do not cause to happen. The truth is that we live in a sinful world that runs amuck, and bad things happen to both the innocent and the guilty.

However, as Christians we have the hope that one day Christ will come in glory and all of our questions will be answered and all of the great mysteries will be solved and all of our confusion will turn into clarity. So get your list of questions ready for that day. I know I've got mine. And the question at the top of my list will be, "Why did bad things happen to good people?"

You know what Mother Teresa said? She said, "When I die, God will have a lot of answering to do." And Billy Graham once said, "When I die and go to heaven, I will spend the first 100 years just asking God questions." We can look forward to doing the same thing.

But, until that great day comes, we still have to cope with life in all of its suffering and tragedy. We still have to deal with the bad and unfair circumstances of life. So I want to offer some things that have helped me as I have struggled with the question of why bad things happen to good people. My prayer is that they will help you, too.

The first bit of help I offer is simply this: Do not allow the question of bad things happening to good people to make you cynical. It's fair and healthy to ask this question and struggle with it, but I have seen too many people hang on to it way too long, like a protest, and remain stuck in their faith, or stop believing in God altogether. I have also seen people use it as an excuse. Some people feel that as long as they wear a badge of prideful agnosticism, they will not have to deal with the truth of God in their lives.

Don't allow unfair pain and suffering to harden your heart. A good way to protect yourself from cynicism is to reflect on the insightful words of Harry Emerson Fosdick. He said this: "Goodness is a far greater problem for the atheist than evil is for the believer." Instead of focusing on the evil and suffering in the world, look at all the goodness that abounds in our world. Where does that goodness come from? It can only come from a loving God who cares for us. Allow the goodness in the world to lead you back to the goodness of God.

The goodness of God can help us overcome anything, which leads me to offer another bit of help as we grapple with the question of why bad things happen to good people. And this bit of help comes in the form of a question: What happens to good people when bad things happen to them? This is a question that the Bible does answer. This is what our scripture lesson for today is all about. Did you hear all of the words Paul used to describe the assumed pain and suffering of life: hardship, persecution, distress, nakedness, peril, the sword? The apostle Paul and the early Christians were very much in touch with unfair suffering. But what did Paul say happens to Christians when bad things happen to them? Not only did he say that we will never be separated from God's love, but in Romans 8:28 Paul says something truly remarkable: "All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

This means that evil and pain is never the will of God, but God can take evil and pain and use it for good. Over and over again in life we see this. When evil attacks with pain, God uses it to build character. When evil shows resistance, God uses it to build strength. When evil cripples with tragedy, God finds a way to victory. When evil destroys with death, God restores life. God is in the transforming business. God can turn our trouble into triumph!

One of the greatest examples of God turning rough times into glory is the story of Joseph in Genesis. Joseph was the favored son, and his brothers were jealous. So in a jealous rage, they beat him and sold him into slavery as a youth. Through an amazing turn of events, as Joseph grew older, his abilities impressed the authorities of Egypt and the Pharaoh made him second in command in Egypt.

Now he had the power to get revenge on his brothers. But he didn't. Instead, he forgave them. His brothers approached him, scared to death, and Joseph said, "Don't be afraid. Am I God? I can't judge you. What you did was meant to hurt me, but God used it for good. I have strength and character, and now I have the power to save and provide for the people of Israel." At that moment, Joseph knew that God had taken something very ugly and made it beautiful.

H.G. Spafford had the same experience. In 1873, his wife and four children sailed from New York to France on an ocean liner. Mr. Spafford was unable to make the voyage with his family because of business commitments in Chicago. He told them goodbye, promising to meet them in France in a few weeks.

At two o'clock on the morning of November 22, 1873, when the luxury liner was several days out, it was hit by another liner. Within two hours, the ship sank. Nine days later when the survivors landed at Wales, Mrs. Spafford cabled her husband these two words, "Saved alone." When he received her message, he quickly booked passage on a ship to Europe to join his wife. On the way over, the captain called him into his cabin and said, "I believe we are now passing over the place where your family's liner went down."

Well, that night in the mid-Atlantic, filled with much pain and sorrow, Mr. Spafford wrote five stanzas, the first of which contained these lines: "When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea-billows roll, Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul!" And these words have been a part of one of the most popular hymns in the church today. Little did Spafford know that his words would give comfort to so many people. God turned his scar into a star.

We can't control the fact that bad things will happen to us. They just do, and one day we will find out why. But the one thing we can control is how we respond to the bad things that happen to us. We can get bitter or better! We can stay angry at life and at God and never move on, or we can give our pain to God and allow him to do something beautiful with it. Then we'll be able to say with confidence:

I will be untouched in the midst of fire
I will stand firm in the midst of a storm
I will not crack in the midst of chaos
I will not lose heart when the world is torn

I will not fear when the heat blazes
I will not fret when drought comes
I will bear fruit in the midst of all of it
I will march to a different drum

I will discover victory in tragedy
I will trust in El Shaddai
I will laugh in the face of death
I will wave evil and pain goodbye.

Let us pray.

Dear Lord,
When peace like a river attendeth my way. When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, "It is well, It is well with my soul." Amen.

 


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