Wednesday, May 19, 2010

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

I know that I should be focusing on all the positives in life (and I do) but I realize that so many of my friends and myself have grappled at least once in our lives with understanding ‘God’s Will’. In some form or fashion we have been mad, upset with or struggled with our faith, this is especially the case with the loss of a loved one and even more so when it’s the loss of a child. In a recent discussion by our beloved pastor, we addressed this concern. We all wanted to know…What IS God’s will? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why would God allow this to happen? Why would he take my child or loved one away so prematurely? It was quite the daunting task for any minister to provide an answer that could satisfy such a needy congregation. It is the Ultimate question. One which we will never understand,… or so we’re always told. But, he instead, with courage and empathy began to offer a simple answer. One which I’ll never forget, for it was the first time that someone has addressed my own personal pain, loss and anger with so simple and comforting of an answer.

Many parents of a deceased child, stillbirth or miscarriage hear the well-meaning but hurtful words from sympathetic persons, “God sometimes picks the brightest flowers for his bouquet,” or “He just loved your baby so much he wanted to keep her with him.” These are meant to provide comfort but instead they only fill us with hurt and anger. Why on Earth would God take my child from me? Why give me temporary joy only to rip it away and leave me and my family broken, alone and hurting? How can my God be a ‘loving’ God if he chooses to hurt me this way? When we watch our loved ones suffer or experience the loss of a wife or husband, mother or father, we ask…Why me, Why her? Why him? Why now? These are all questions we’ve grappled with in our own painful, private way. And, here below are the very poignant and illuminating words of Pastor Michael Dent:

“We ask why because we want some logical explanation, reason, or greater cause to be in play. So someone says, “Everything happens for a reason” or “It was God’s will” or “It was meant to be" or ""It was her time to die; his time was up.” Such well-intended statements may comfort our heads in some way, but hurt the hearts of others. I do not find them comforting at all and believe they are unsustainable, unhelpful, and unbiblical.

Some suffering we bring on ourselves by our behaviors – our use or abuse of tobacco, alcohol or other drugs; our reckless driving; and or careless relationship choices. Some suffering is random – rockslides, earthquakes, and tornadoes.

If we want to say that it is God’s will in some way, perhaps we are connecting that pious proclamation to the wisdom of systematic theologian Paul Tillich’s explanation of the presence of evil and suffering in creation. Tillich said,

God made the world finite and free.

Physical evil – such as earthquakes and cancer – is the natural implication of a finite world.

Moral evil – such as murder and child abuse – is the tragic implication of a free world.

It is not the intentional will of God that 230,000 people die in an earthquake, or that our loved one dies of cancer or AIDS, that our best friend was killed in car crash. Pastor James Howell strongly expresses in his chapter on When Bad Things Happen, “God hates, God despises every act of evil, all human suffering. God will lead the celebration when cancer is finally cured. God champions car safety. God wants us to get away from storms. God does good and only good.”

What does Jesus have to say about the will of God and suffering? Here again his summary of the parable of the lost sheep from today’s reading, “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

Suffering is a part of life. Bad things happen. Evil is real. Sin is real. C.S. Lewis once estimated that 80% of humanity’s suffering is inflicted by our fellow human beings. That may be a little high, but wars, crime, drug abuse, pollution, family violence, and addictions are global self-inflicted behaviors that bring untold suffering and death to the human family.

This world is God’s creation – diverse, spectacular, and breath-taking in beauty. Last Saturday I stood with some of our youth and their adult leaders at the top of the world. We were at 13,000 feet on the Continental Divide at Loveland Ski Basin. You could literally see for scores of miles in all directions ski runs, snow-covered Rocky Mountains and treetops, and magnificent clear-blue skies.

But this world – so bathed in beauty – also dances with danger. Coming down the ski runs from top of the mountain can be hazardous to one’s health – even as getting off the lift at the top of the mountain can be, as one of your pastors discovered 8 days ago!

Accidents, diseases, and natural catastrophes, war, IEDs and terrorism are all a part of our fallen world. Suffering will touch us all.

Novelist Reynolds Price says he never asked, in his terrible sickness and pain, “Why did this happen to me?” He is a brilliant observer of the human condition and knew what the answer would be, “Well, why not you?”

To be human is to suffer from time to time, deserved or not. Pain is a part of the package. Death is a part of the deal. Sometimes bad things happen to good people.

One critical question remains as we wrestle with the reality of suffering in our human lives. Where is God in our suffering? Does God care that we hurt? Some of you have lost children. You know the incredibly deep pain, as well as the intense desire of friends to comfort. Sometimes we have said things to grieving parents that we should not have said: “God needed one more flower for his bouquet…God needed her more than you...”

In a sermon preached after his 19-year-old son Alex died when his car plummeted into the Boston Harbor in 1983, Rev. William Sloan Coffin Jr. shared such an experience with the worshipers at Riverside Church in New York City. He said in that message:

The night after Alex died, a woman came by carrying quiches. She shook her head, saying sadly, “I just don’t understand the will of God.”

Instantly I swarmed all over her. “I’ll say you don’t, lady! Do you think it was the will of God that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper, that he was probably driving too fast in a storm? Do you think it was God’s will that there are no streetlights along that stretch of road?”

Nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around with his finger on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths.

The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, “It is the will of God.” My own consolation lies in knowing that it was NOT the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”