Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? A Wrap-up

(9 of 9 in a series on “Why do bad things happen to good people?”)

Over the past several weeks, we have explored three broad reasons that bad things happen to good people.  First, the law of consequence says that even good people make mistakes and bad outcomes often follow bad choices.

Second, God has each of us on a training program that often includes some pain.  What I have tried to emphasize from Hebrews chapter 12 is the view that God’s discipline is never random, capricious, or mean.  If God disciplines us as a good father would (an analogy used in Hebrews 12), then I think we can expect his discipline to be understandable and a clear path to “our good and His holiness”.  If we carry Christ as our New Testament picture of God, we can rest assured that God’s training program will not be unknowable but rather can be understood through the character and work of Jesus Christ.

Third, we have a dark enemy.  I don’t think we recognize and teach enough the evil power in the universe who seeks to do us harm.  God is not the author of evil.  Don’t blame God for the evil in this world.  The author of evil is Satan himself, and he is an active and powerful enemy.  But Satan is a defeated enemy and we have the weapons of prayer and faith to overcome him and his schemes.

Now any time we answer an age-old question with three short points, there is always a danger of minimizing the complexity of this question.  Our goal has not been to just give pat answers and there may always be some mystery surrounding the bad things that happen to us.  But there are biblical answers and we have endeavored to explore these biblical answers over the past eight posts as thoroughly as this medium allows.  And while these answers may not take away all of the mystery, I believe God gives them to us to strengthen our faith.  And faith is one of our primary weapons against the evil forces that threaten us.

Remember, according to II Corinthians 4, it is Satan’s desire to hide the fact that under the new covenant, “the knowledge of the glory of God is shining in the face of Christ” (II Cor 4:6).  It is God’s desire to demonstrate his glory in the face of Christ.  So when the tide of evil is rising, either personally or in the world around us, keep looking to Jesus, “Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.”

Our Counterattack – Prayer and Faith

(8 of 9 in a series on “Why do bad things happen to good people?”)

In Mark 9:14-29, we have a story of demon-possession that includes a long conversation between Jesus, a distraught father, and the disciples.  As Jesus returned from the mountain of His transfiguration, he found a crowd gathered.  While He was away, His disciples had failed in their attempt to drive a demon out of a child and the desperate father turned to Jesus.  After describing the child’s pain, the father pleads, ” ‘But if you [Jesus] can do anything, take pity on us and help us!’  And Jesus said to him, ‘ “If you can?”  All things are possible to him who believes.’  Immediately the boy’s father cried out, ‘I do believe; help my unbelief.’  When Jesus saw that a crowd was rapidly gathering, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You deaf and mute spirit, I command you, come out of him and do not enter him again.’  After crying out and throwing him into terrible convulsions, it came out; and the boy became so much like a corpse that most of them said, ‘He is dead!’  But Jesus took him by the hand and raised him; and he got up.  When He came into the house, His disciples began questioning Him privately, ‘Why could we not drive it out?’  And He said to them, ‘This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer‘ ” (Mk 9:25-29).

Our first weapon in our counterattack is our prayers.  An absolute requirement in overcoming Satan’s evil schemes against us is prayer.  And it is prayer saturated with faith.  Notice in verse 23 of our passage, Jesus places great importance on the father’s faith, “All things are possible to him who believes” (Mk 9:23).  This leads to our second weapon in our counterattack; our faith.

Faith takes the spotlight in the Matthew account of this same story.  In Matthew chapter 17, Jesus gives a slightly different answer when the disciples quiz Him about their failure to drive out the demon.  “Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’  And He said to them, ‘Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you’ ” (Mt 17:19-20).

Here the emphasis is on the weapon of faith.  In the Mark passage, the emphasis was on the weapon of prayer.  Both are critical in our counterattack on Satan’s evil interventions in our lives.  I know it sounds simple, but it is really, really critical and must be put into practice.  When we interpret the bad things that are happening to us as attacks from Satan, we have a counterattack strategy.  We don’t get angry, we don’t blame others, we don’t lose hope, we don’t abandon our commitments.  We fight Satan’s attacks with prayer and faith.  So when faced with the devil’s roadblocks:

  • Pray for deliverance.
  • Pray for strength.
  • Pray for lessons learned.
  • Pray for God to intervene.
  • Believe that God exists and lives inside you.
  • Believe that He hears you when you pray.
  • Believe that God is good.
  • Believe that you see “the glory of God in the face of Jesus”.

Beyond these short points there is much more about prayer and faith in the New Testament to bring into the picture and I pray you discover these things as you study God’s Word and allow it to impact your life.  Let me close with two verses that highlight our role in the fight.

“With all prayer and petition, pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints” (Eph 6:18).

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb 11:6).

Prayer and Faith.  Our weapons of power against the dark enemy; the author of evil.

Under Attack

(7 of 9 in a series on “Why do bad things happen to good people?”)

If Satan is the author of evil and his plan includes harming believers, how do we rightly evaluate the bad things that happen to us?  That is, how do we recognize the difference between God’s training program and Satan’s attacks?  We start by interpreting our situation through “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (II Cor 4:6).  We ask ourselves, “Is this harm that has befallen us consistent with what we expect when we look into the face of Jesus?  Is this the kind of discipline we expect from our Savior, or is this so outside the realm of His love that it must be an attack from Satan?  Let’s think about some example situations that might help us out.

Suppose you have a problem with procrastination and are always just squeaking by at the last minute with your college application, paying your bills, or filing your taxes.  Then your passport application is denied as late because it got held up in the mail.  You thought you sent it in in plenty of time, but you also know you should have done it much sooner.  I think it is safe to say that this “bad outcome” is not the likely work of Satan, but rather an opportunity for God to show you the consequence of your laziness.

Or maybe a lack of patience is a besetting challenge for you.  You stop into the Home Depot to pick up some things.  When you go to pay by check, your check is denied by the system.  You know you have the money in the bank.  You have a choice to make.  Do you blow your top, blame this on an incompetent cashier, and make a scene that the check should go through, or do you step back and recognize a pop quiz, as it were, from the Lord; a test from God in which you respond by patiently taking out your credit card, paying the bill, and saying goodbye to the cashier with a blessing?

Compare these examples to our missionary friend who applies for a visa to a South American country.  As part of the application process, he must fill out a form verifying that he was never convicted of a drug crime.  Sounds simple enough except the form must be accompanied by a $3200 “fee”.  This is capricious, random extortion, and the exorbitant amount has no connection to a service rendered.  The most straightforward explanation is that this is the work of Satan to slow down our friend’s return to ministry.  Of course, God could have a lesson in here for our friend about money, but only he could answer that based on what he knows of his own heart.  But it sounds like the work of Satan to me.

Or how about one of the most painful experiences of all, the death of our children?  My cousin lost her daughter, Nikki, who died of breast cancer at the age of 29.  Nikki left behind a husband and two small children.  You know many stories like this.  I don’t believe God “took” Nikki to teach her husband, or her parents, or others close to her some kind of a lesson.  Does this sound in any way like the Jesus you know from the Gospels?  I believe in Jesus, we see not only the image of God, but the character of God and the work of God.  I believe a stroke in a two-year-old child, cancer in a loved one, and untimely death are the work of the evil one, the power behind death and disease.

So when our life situation carries a harm that is capricious and random, unexplainable and unpredictable, mercurial and fickle, I think we need to consider the possibility that Satan is throwing a roadblock into our way, because this is not how God’s training program works.  So if Satan is at fault in a particular situation, what is our next move?  It is one thing to recognize the enemy’s attack (and this is indeed the first step to understanding the bad things that happen to us), but in light of that understanding what do we do next about the pain?  We will cover this topic next time.

The Dark Enemy

(6 of 9 in a series on “Why do bad things happen to good people?”)

When the pain we experience seems capricious, random, or unexplainable, I believe that rather than blaming God, we need to recognize we have a powerful, dark, and active enemy who hates us.  As C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked about a Dark Power in the universe – a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease and sin.”

God is not the author of evil.  For too long, in our dogmatism about the sovereign plan of God, we have either inadvertently or deliberately, painted God as the author of evil.  With this foundational error, it comes as no surprise that many among us blame God for evil and suffering on both a personal and worldwide scale.  Inquiring minds soon see a contradiction between our teaching on God’s love and goodness, and the evil He supposedly prescribes which, to them, becomes untenable and they abandon the faith.  Let me say again, God is not the author of evil.

We think we are enhancing God’s reputation by ascribing to Him the authorship of all things.  But we are actually harming God’s reputation when we imply the evil that befalls us is part of God’s sovereign plan.  I believe the best way to make God’s name famous in all the earth is to point people to Christ as the most complete image of God.  When we look into the face of Christ, we see God the Father.

“The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God…For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (II Cor 4:4,6).  Satan, the god of this world, is the one actively working to keep men from seeing the “glory of God in the face of Christ.”  Why?  Because when we look into the face of Christ, it becomes clear that Christ, the image of God, is not the author of evil.  It does not fit the New Testament picture of our Savior.

Satan does this to cover his tracks, because, as the Bible teaches, Satan is the author of evil.  Jesus simply called him “the evil one” (Mt 13:19).  By his very nature, he is evil, deceptive, and a pathological liar (Jn 8:44).  As to his influence, he is “the god of this world” (II Cor 4:4), “the ruler of this world” (Jn 16:11), “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2) and “the whole world lies in the power, or grip, of the evil one” (I Jn 5:19).  Satan is the author of evil.

If Satan seeks to do us harm and is one of the three reasons bad things happen to good people, how do we know when he is at work?  When bad things happen, how do we know when it is God’s training program or the work of Satan?  We will take up this question next time.

The New Testament Picture of God

(5 of 9 in a series on “Why do bad things happen to good people?”)

When you picture God in your mind, what image do you see?  Because God is so unique, so holy, so multi-faceted in His attributes, there are a variety of images that could come to mind.  Think now about the New Testament image of God.  In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus gives us a picture of God as a compassionate father; looking, longing, running, kissing, embracing, forgiving, and celebrating his son’s return.  The apostle John highlights in his letters the love of God as the very essence of His character.  And the apostle Paul refers over 200 times to God or Christ living inside us.  Let this New Testament picture sink in and realize that it is largely the opposite of the common view of God as distant, vengeful, and unfeeling.

Let’s not miss the point.  In the Old Testament, God clearly carried a big stick, often punishing sin right on the spot.  His ways were also clouded in mystery.  His answer to Job’s suffering was not an explanation of “why”, but a description of “who”.  God’s point?  “Where were you when I set this world in motion and now keep it going with My incredible power?  You have very little insight into My ways.”  Throughout the Old Testament, the summary of our understanding of God is, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:9).

But that all changed at the coming of Christ.  It is easy to get hung up on the word change.  We fear that change implies that God is not the same yesterday, today, and forever.  But this is not the case.  God did not change at the coming of the new covenant.  But two important things regarding our understanding of God did change: God’s revelation about Himself and God’s arrangement with man.

Concerning His revelation about Himself, the New Testament explodes with new revelation about God, largely through the appearance of His Son, Jesus Christ.  In the upper room, Jesus said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9).  God’s revelation about Himself as “tender Father” describes our relationship to Him in the present age of grace.  So our new arrangement is not as distant subjects of a distant King, but as children who address the sovereign of the universe as “Abba Father”.

Jesus continues the father analogy in Matthew chapter 7.  “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened.  Or what man is there among you, when his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone?  Or if he shall ask for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he?  If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Mt 7:7-11).

So getting back to the topic of God’s discipline, God is not in the business of giving His children a “stone” or a “snake” or anything evil.  His gifts will always be good and I think that is one reason we can expect to understand where God is taking us in His training program.  In fact, is it too much of a stretch to say that because we have the mind of Christ, the Spirit of Christ, the righteousness of Christ, that God’s ways are no longer “higher than ours” and beyond our understanding?  Something to think about.

But, of course, we often cannot make sense of the bad things happening to us and to those we love.  So if we expect God’s ways to make sense in our renewed mind and to always be good, but keep running up against this angst about the bad things that happen to us, what gives?  We will answer that question next time.