You’ve heard this before—we get asked about it all the time. Why does God let “bad things happen to good people”? Look up the profiles of the kids killed in the Parkland shooting or the Santa Fe shooting, and you’ll do a lot of soul-searching. It all seems so meaningless. Why would God let this happen? We have a faint shadow of the answers, none of which may be particularly comforting to a grieving parent or someone dealing with the shock of an unexpected cancer diagnosis. When I went to seminary for the first time, one of everyone’s favorite students was a young man named James. He and his wife were the picture-perfect couple for youth ministry. Teens flocked to them. Parents loved them. A good, steady influence with credibility and depth. In our second year of seminary, he got throat cancer and lost the ability to speak. He died within a few years. I still don’t understand it. And of course he’s just one of so many examples that we all know.
Paul's experience gives us at least one of those answers: God allows things to happen to all people; it’s just part of being human. It’s not for us to decide if they’re “good” or “bad”; it’s for to decide how to respond.
I pleaded with the Lord three times that it [some debilitating hardship] would leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7
Whatever Paul's “thorn in the flesh” was, it was so significant that he prayed repeatedly for God to take it out of his life. But God said no. God would not “fix” Paul’s problem. (Remember, this is on top of all of the other things Paul suffered in the name of Jesus—unjust imprisonment, hunger, exposure, shipwreck, stoning, etc.) We realize that when we suffer terrible things, heroes of our faith have suffered them and more. Abel was killed by his brother for reasons we will never understand. Noah and his family had to experience the destruction of the known world (deserved as it was). Hagar was sent into the desert to die by Sarah. Joseph—well, you know what happened to Joseph. You know there were good Jews who were killed by the Egyptians, by the Assyrians, by the Babylonians. You can read the painful stories of what happened to God’s prophets (like Jeremiah and Daniel). Why would God allow such things to happen to people who love Him and serve Him?
There’s a big difference between God allowing and God causing. Our world is broken by sin by our own choices and human failures. Every day we all suffer the consequences of people who have chosen selfishness and greed and violence. Our governments are products of such decisions. Our environmental and food crises are products of such decisions. Our war zones are products of such decisions. Stress in people’s lives is compounded by their interaction with other broken people in their schools, jobs, and communities. But God is with us, and as we experience life, we realize that His strength is perfected in our weakness.
And there is a reason God does not magically prevent any problems in our world. God does not want us to be satisfied or comfortable with our current world. If we lived in a utopia, we would lose sight of the fact that all is not right and that we need a Savior. We would fail to depend on Him, we would fail to see our need for Jesus, and we would end up in a much worse situation than we’re in now (i.e. hell). The truth is that God does not “play favorites” when it comes to the sufferings of this life; He gives His children the strength to respond well and use our experience to help others. And He will reward us with eternal joy in heaven.
When you or someone you love suffers an unjust tragedy, know that God knows and God remembers. Pray for grace and patience and peace, and know that God can use the outcome of that tragedy for the good of many. And have faith that the joy of eternity in heaven is so much greater than any suffering in this life.