(2 of 9 in a series on “Why do bad things happen to good people?”)
The Bible gives three broad reasons for why bad things happen to good people. First is the law of consequence. Poor choices in life lead to bad outcomes. Second is the training program of God. God may send uncomfortable – I hate to use the word bad in describing God’s interaction with His children – situations to stretch us and grow us and mature us. Third is the idea that we and God have a dark enemy, Satan, who is working in this world, including in the lives of believers, with ill-will toward us on both large and small scales. While Satan has no power to possess us in the classic sense, he can make our lives trying and worse. Let’s look at these three reasons one at a time.
The law of consequence basically describes the book of Proverbs in the Bible. It is also the easiest way to understand bad outcomes because it fits our human understanding; it fits what we can readily observe. If a life-long smoker develops lung cancer, or a couple living beyond their means goes into financial distress, or an obnoxious person has trouble keeping friendships, we can understand it. It makes sense. If a current challenge you are facing is easily explained by poor choices, it is time to change your choices and see where God takes you next in fixing the problem. Bad outcomes due to poor choices is fairly easy to understand and in a sense is not exactly the crux of our question. We are more interested in the bad outcomes we cannot understand and so we move on to reason two.
Reason two for bad things happening to us is that God has a training program for believers that may include pain. This idea is developed in Hebrews chapter 12. “And you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives’ ” (Heb 12:5-6).
The Greek word translated discipline in this passage carries the idea of a training program such as for athletes. God has us, you and me, on a training program. With that in mind Hebrews 12:5-6 could be read, “My son, do not regard lightly the training program of the Lord. And do not give up when you are corrected by Him. The Lord puts those He loves through this training program. And the program may involve pain” Just like an athlete may experience pain in his training to win, so we too may experience pain while on God’s training program.
Reason three for bad things happening to us is a direct attack by Satan himself. And honestly, this gets a little tricky. We don’t want to scare up an image of Satan behind every tree or attribute God-equal power to him, but based on the Bible’s descriptions of the character and activities of God and Satan, ascribing the evil we see in the world and our own circumstances to Satan makes a lot of sense. When your child suffers a stroke, when you are long-term unemployed for no apparent reason, when a serious relationship suddenly ends, what is going on? Or more specifically, “Is God to blame?”
Scripture teaches us that the influence of Satan in the bad things that happen to us is at least something we should consider. Let me visit just two of the several examples in Scripture that suggest this. First, consider the woman Jesus healed in Luke 13. She had been sick, bent double and unable to straighten up, for eighteen years. Jesus healed her, but was immediately criticized for doing so on the Sabbath. Jesus responds with an answer that ends with, “And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16). In this case, the woman’s illness was a direct result of Satan.
Another example comes from Revelation chapter 2. Jesus, speaking to the church at Smyrna, says, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days” (Rev 2:10). Again, Satan himself is the instigator of the believer’s upcoming suffering.
So, in summary, I believe the Bible describes three broad reasons bad things happen to good people. First, good people sometimes make mistakes that lead to painful consequences for their actions. Second, God has a training program for believers that can involve pain. Third, we have an enemy with the desire and ability to do us harm. But God has not left us in limbo regarding how these processes work and we will visit what the book of Hebrews says about God’s training program next time.