Many years ago, two prominent movie stars died in separate alcohol-related accidents. William Holden died in a drunken fall, hitting his head on a table; Natalie Wood drowned when she fell into the ocean from her yacht.
A friend who was close to both of them, actress Stephanie Powers, was quoted in the newspapers: “Two of my best friends are gone; how can a God who is supposed to be kind and loving allow this to happen?”
That’s the usual way in which the question is put. People wonder why bad things happen in a world that is supposed to be God’s world.
Michael Harrington wrote a book some years ago titled The Other America, which opened the eyes of a previous administration to the plight of the poor in our country, and began the famous “War on Poverty.” I wonder: Whatever happened to the “War on Poverty”? It certainly wasn’t won, for every day we hear about more and more families dropping below the poverty line and the number of homeless in America increasing.
In later years, Harrington wrote a book titled The Vast Majority: a Journey to the World’s Poor. In this latter book, Harrington reflects on India and what he calls the Via Dolorosa of Calcutta. In that city he encountered a “vast, wheedling, festering army of the halt and the maimed.”
“They finally led me,” he wrote, “to think blasphemies about Christ.” Facing the appalling squalor and starvation, Harrington said, “If God were half the God he claims to be, he would leave his heaven and come here to do penance in the presence of suffering that he as God obscenely permits.”
I Wonder Just What God is Supposed to Do About These Terrible Things.
In the case of the tragic deaths of Natalie Wood and Bill Holden, what was God supposed to do? Should God have reversed the miracle of Cana and changed the wine into water? Or put a safety net around them so that they could not fall into oceans or onto tables?
And what is God supposed to do about the suffering people in India? Is God supposed to reverse the laws of nature, the laws of supply and demand, countermand the orders of the world’s leaders who squander the earth’s resources in new and often redundant military hardware instead of programs for the poor?
Nations build up mighty arsenals while millions go to bed hungry every night, giving us a world which spends over $550 billion on arms annually — twice as much as it spends on food and five times as much as it spends on housing. And then people blame God that the hungry are not fed!
What is God supposed to do about all of this evil in the world … evil which God has given us brains to combat, evil which God has called us to pray against? “Deliver us from evil,” we pray in our Lord’s Prayer, and that prayer is supposed to have legs on it when we walk out of the church, as each of us does his or her bit to deliver the world from whatever evil we come across in our little corner of the world.
Miss Powers’ and Michael Harrington’s questions came out of anger and grief, and if they think that they are angry and sad, I believe that God is a million times more angry and sad. God hates such tragedies more than we do!
Miss Powers and Mr. Harrington raise important questions. To try to answer some of these questions, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote his best-seller: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Note: the book’s title is often misquoted. It is not “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People”; it is “When.” It is assumed that bad things do happen.
We often hear the words of John F. Kennedy quoted: “Life isn’t fair.” Here is the whole quote. “There is always inequity in life. Some men are killed in war and some men are wounded. Some men never leave the country and some men are stationed in the Antarctic while others are stationed in San Francisco. It’s very hard in the military or in personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair.”
Many of us can say “Amen” to that. Life isn’t fair. But then, whoever promised that it would be?
Not for a moment would I criticize people who ask questions about the goodness of God and the evil in the world. They are honest questions, and they hurt. But there is a far deeper question in the Bible. We find it again and again in the Psalms, and here it is in Jeremiah.
“Why Does the Way of the Wicked Prosper?” Asked the Prophet Jeremiah.
Jeremiah had a problem. He took it to God, the “righteous” judge. The problem is this: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” It is an age-old problem, and one that often perplexed the people of the Bible.
According to a widely-held belief (set forth in
But Jeremiah’s experience — and the experience of countless folk ever since — is that that is too pat an answer. That is not the kind of world in which we live. We live in the kind of world where, as that great philosopher and baseball manager Leo Durocher used to say, “Nice guys finish last!”
You see, Jeremiah’s whole energy had been poured out in the service of God, yet Jeremiah had been rejected and persecuted while those doing the rejecting and persecuting seemed to be flourishing. It was not just an idle question that the prophet asked, when he said: “Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” It is a question which was wrung out of the suffering of his own heart.
It’s the sort of thing that goes through the mind of ministers these days when they read of the millions upon millions of dollars being given to television “celebrity clergy” while the rest of us who do not have blow-dried hair (or even much hair at all), must limp along hardly able to pay the fuel bills in our churches from month to month.
One Sunday night I caught a few minutes of the program “60 Minutes.” They were doing their usual thing: an expose of a religious charlatan who gets people to give millions of dollars to his “church,” much of which ends up in the pockets of the preacher or helps to finance his new jet plane or magnificent new mansion.
One woman spoke of having been bilked out of seven million dollars! Seven million dollars! And all I could think of was the fact that I had just returned home from a church conference in which we agonized for hours trying to figure out ways to pay our bills and benevolences for the coming year. I must confess, the thought crossed my mind: “It isn’t fair!”
That was Jeremiah’s problem, too. “Why should things work out like this in a God-controlled world?” is Jeremiah’s real question. The question is a thorny one, and has plagued people down through the centuries.
I’ve alway found Woody Allen’s humor to be tinged with a great deal of sorrow and pain. I’ve always thought of Mark Twain’s humor in the same way. There is great pain in much of it. In one of Woody Allen’s films, Love and Death, he has the character he plays, a cynic named Boris, say: “If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think he is evil. I think that the worst thing you can say about him is that he is an underachiever.”
Yes, it does seem that way, doesn’t it? God’s program for the world has not made conspicuous progress. How come?
When Rabbi Kushner wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People years ago, many wrote to tell him that they had a great idea for a sequel. Why not write a book about Why Good Things Happen to Bad People.
The sufferings of the righteous are not the only theological problem, they told him. The prosperity of the wicked bothers them at least as much. Kushner says: “Why do selfish, dishonest people seem to get away with so much? If God can’t protect the virtuous from illness or from other people’s cruelty, couldn’t He at least send His divine thunderbolts in the direction of the mean, crooked, selfish people in His world? And if He’s not sure who they are, we could give Him some names” (The Rotarian, Sept. 1983, p. 26).
Yes, we could, couldn’t we? For instance, I can think of a half-dozen well-placed funerals which might benefit the world; but my candidates for eternity are still very much alive and, seemingly, prospering, while I can think of some fine, decent, upstanding good people whose backs are to the wall. It doesn’t seem fair to me. Nor did it seem fair to Jeremiah.
Actually, the problem is as old as the Bible itself. The writers of the Psalms often appear to be more concerned about the prosperity of the wicked than with the sufferings of the good.
I am afraid that it is still very true that we live in a world where bad things happen to good people, and good things do happen to bad people.
While This Is a Perplexing Problem, There Is a Hopeful Side as Well.
Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount said: “God sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (
Ogden Nash put it into a verse which says: “The rain falls on the just and unjust fellas, only the unjust have the just’s umbrellas!”
There seems to be an impartiality about God that is frustrating. People do not seem to get their “just desserts” in this world. But my studies in the Holy Land have given me a new perspective on these familiar words of our Lord. That is because I have learned that rain — water — in the Bible is a symbol of God’s grace, freely poured out upon us. The verse does not mean that bad things happen to good people, but that good things happen to bad people.
There is hope in this, because, if good things happen to bad people, perhaps they can happen to us as well! One person who wrote to Rabbi Kushner took issue with the title of his first book, saying, “There are no good people — we are all sinners.” He had a point. We are sinners, that’s for sure. We are sinners, born of sinners, born of sinners, etc. That’s one of the best clues to answering our first question: Why do bad things happen? Most of them we bring on ourselves. If we choose to drink ourselves into oblivion, and to get falling-down drunk, we are going to get hurt. If we choose to spend billions on research to kill, instead of research to cure, we can scarcely blame God that cancer and other life-threatening diseases are still among us.
But if God is, indeed, impartial and loves even the wicked, then there is hope, even for us. St. Augustine once prayed, “O God, slay the wicked!” and the answer came back: “Which?” All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (
As Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it: “Use every man after his desert (what he deserves,) and who shall ‘scape a whipping?” That’s what “Grace” is all about. None of us gets exactly what we deserve. God is not just. God is merciful. God always has something better for us. He has infinite love.
I admit that there is a danger here: the danger of thinking of God as a vast, impersonal love-machine, grinding out love mindlessly age after age, as though God were somehow aloof from the world and all its woes. Michael Harrington said that “If God were half the God he claims to be, he would leave his heaven and come here to suffer with us.”
Isn’t that exactly what God has done? Isn’t that precisely what the Incarnation is all about? St. Paul: “If God is for us, who, then, can be against us” (
One year, while he was still living, Pope John Paul II came to Detroit. His Holiness’ visit reminded me of an event which happened a few years earlier when Pope John Paul II visited London. It seems that a pottery shop decided to sell decorative plates with the Pope’s portrait on them. Only some of the plates came out of the kiln (or wherever plates come from) in something less than mint condition. These irregular plates were offered at a discounted price. Underneath the portrait of the Pope were these words: “Slightly imperfect.” So much for papal infallibility!
But it is not only plates and popes that lack perfection. It is preachers and people like you and me. God knows (and He does know), we are not perfect, any of us. And the good news that Jesus came to tell us is that God loves us anyway!
Good things do happen to bad people — that is, to you and me. And that is enough to give us hope to keep on keeping on, even when we don’t happen to have all of the answers. Amen.