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When Bad Things Happen To Good People

November 6, 1983 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | Romans 8:28-39

Usually our minds have a way of dulling painful memories, so that, in time, we actually forget them. But some memories are so powerful that even time cannot erase them. Such a memory I share with you today.

It happened 25 years ago. I was 16 years old at the time. It was a bright, hot, summer day and four of my friends and I went water skiing at a marina on a river just south of Mobile, Alabama, where I lived. At mid-afternoon, our fun and laughter were shattered by cries for help from the dock. There a young couple shouted that they couldn’t find their 4 year old son. They were afraid he had fallen into the water. Immediately, and I suppose instinctively, the five of us jumped in. The water around the dock was only about five feet deep, but the current was swirling, and it was mushy so that we couldn’t see the bottom. We walked around the dock in a line hoping that we might somehow find the little boy before it was too late. As the moments passed, there was a gathering sense of desperation. Then, after what seemed to me then and seems to me still an eternity, suddenly my bare feet kicked something in the mud on the bottom. I can still remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach. I dove down into the water and came back up with the little boy. I quickly carried him through the swirling water and over to the dock. The parents cried out in horror upon seeing their child and the shock seemed to paralyze them. I placed the little boy on the dock, wiped away the mud and began to try to revive him. Nothing happened. The parents began to sob. Still I tried. I tried everything I knew. Frantically I tried to make him breathe. Nothing happened. The seconds ticked into minutes. The sobs turned into cries. The sound pounded in my ears and my heart pounded within me. “Please God,” I cried, “please make him breathe.” Nothing happened. The boy was dead. As I held that now lifeless body in my arms, the tears began to run from my eyes. I stammered out the words to the mother and father because I couldn’t think of anything else to say except, “I’m sorry.” At that point, the mother erupted in hysterical grief. She grabbed me and then began to pound me with her fists, screaming in her agony, “Why? Why, my baby? He’s our only child. Why did God let this happen? Why? Finally, her husband managed to pull her away. I had no answer. All I could do was hold that dead child and cry.

I don’t know that I have any answers now. But at least over these last 25 years I have come to know Jesus more deeply, and I have learned some things from Him which I hope are worth sharing.

Let’s begin with life’s toughest question.

Here it is: Why do bad things happen to good people? G. K. Chesterton once said that people have been burned at the stake for differences of belief in answer to the question. We don’t do that today. In fact, some people today say that it doesn’t really make much difference anymore what you believe. But that is not so. For I believe that how you deal with that question will determine not only how you live in the midst of life’s uncertainties, but also how much help and comfort you can be to others whose lives are ripped apart by tragedy.

Why do bad things happen to good people? We would like to know. We stand beside an open grave and hear some preacher say, “Forasmuch as it has pleased Almighty God to take…”—and for those whose lives have been long and useful and fulfilled, for those who have died after their allotted “three-score years and ten or if by reason of strength then fourscore years,” perhaps we can utter such words. But what of a 4-year-old boy who drowned? What about a young woman who dies in childbirth, leaving a heartbroken husband and a motherless child? What of the 45-year-old man at the peak of his gifts and abilities whose life is snuffed out by a heart attack. What then? Almost automatically we murmur the words, “It’s God’s will.” I used to say that. I don’t say it very much anymore. For I have to ask you: Do you think it is God’s calculated will to so souse a man with alcohol and then put him behind the wheel of a car that he should then speed down a highway and murder a whole family? Do you think it is God’s calculated will for some misguided maniac to express his twisted mentality by walking into a city park and grabbing an eight-year-old girl from the playground and raping and killing her? Do you think it is God’s calculated will for some individual or group of individuals to think so little of human life that they would load a truck with tons of explosives and commit suicide in order to massacre more than 200 young Marines? If your answer is “Yes”, what kind of God do you end up with then?

You see, the reason this question is so hard for us to grasp is that we honestly believe that goodness has its rewards—that if we are good enough and if we pray hard enough then God will somehow place a protective bubble about us, and we shall be spared the same problems and fears and calamities that anyone else faces. That’s why the question haunts us. It’s because so many times our experience does not square with the notion that God watches specially over His own. When someone dies or a river overflows or the earth crashes open in an earthquake or an airplane falls from the skies, we stand gaping at the newspapers wondering where God was in all of that. It is because deep down inside we know that for all of our praying and all our believing, the same thing could happen to us. That’s why this is life’s toughest question: Why do bad things happen to good people?

Now let’s see what the Bible offers in answer.

The question is raised many times in the course of the Scriptures. Listen to Moses in the wilderness: “Lord, why have you chosen to do this to your people?” Or listen to Elijah when the life of the widow’s son was snuffed out: “Lord, why have you taken this boy’s life?” Or listen to the words of John wrung from a special agony: “O God, does it seem good to you to despise the work of your hand and to favor the design of the wicked?” It’s asked all through the Bible: why do bad things happen to good people?
Well, I believe that a close study of the Scriptures will lead to some answers. The Bible clearly teaches that God created all things. However, in the process of creation, in order to sustain life on this earth, God established a system of irreversible natural laws. The intense heat at the core of the earth which makes this planet inhabitable, also causes the skin of the earth to expand and contract resulting in earthquakes. Furthermore, the Bible declares that God created people free. He did not make us to be marionettes constantly responding to the pull of His strings. He cut the strings. He gave us the power to choose good or bad, to choose to love Him and live for Him or to love and live for only ourselves. That means we are able to sin. And it is from these two factors—the process of natural law or the possibility of human sin or even a combination of both—it is from these that life’s tragedies ultimately derive. That’s in the Bible.

So what the Bible is saying to us is this: God does not strike us down with tragedy. The bad things that happen in life sometimes happen because of unfortunate circumstances and sometimes happen because of our sins and sometimes happen because of the sins of other people and sometimes happen as a consequence of living in a world of inflexible natural laws.

And what the Bible is saying to us is this: God suffers just as we do. Not only does He not single us out and lower the boom on us, but when because of the way things are—when bad things happen because of natural law or human sin or a combination of the two—when bad things happen to good people, God hurts as much as we do. I now believe that that day when I was holding a dead little boy as his parents’ life broke apart and all I could do was cry—I now believe that God was crying too. And I believe that as the families of our Marines experience heartbreaking grief, God’s heart is breaking too.

And what the Bible is saying to us is also this: God entered this twisted, tarnished, broken world in Jesus Christ to live amongst us, to share our burdens, to show us the power of His love, and to redeem us to a life that is eternal. He came in Jesus Christ so that we might know that the One who could take a crown of thorns and twist it to His glory, the One who could take a hideous blood-stained cross and make of it a symbol of victory, the One who could crack open a sealed tomb and raise the dead body of His Son out of it—this One can deal with our problems and our tragedies and ultimately lead us to victory.

That’s what the Bible teaches and I am convinced that anything but that progression of thought ignores the truth of the Scriptures.

Now, on the basis of Scripture, let’s make these great Christian affirmations in the face of life’s tragedies.

Here is the first affirmation: When tragedy comes, we have the right question to ask. Harold Kushner writes: “Only human beings can find meaning in their pain.” So when tragedies come we can redeem them from senselessness by imposing meaning on them. The question, “Why did this happen to me?” is really an unanswerable, pointless question. A better question would be, “Now that this has happened, what am I going to do about it?” Martin Gray, in a book called For Those I Love, tells how after managing to survive the Warsaw ghetto and the concentration camps, he rebuilt his life. He married and had a family. Then one day, his wife and children were killed when a forest fire, deliberately set, ravaged their home. Gray was pushed about to the breaking point. Some people urged him to seek revenge upon those responsible for the fire. He concluded that that would only compound his misery. Instead he focused on the future and put his resources into efforts to prevent such fires. He said, “Life has to be lived for something, not just against something.” Christians can ask the right question—not “Why did this happen to me?”, but, “Now that it has happened, what shall I do about it?”

And here’s the second affirmation: We can use tragedy as a means of growth. It is significant that in the Book of Hebrews it says that “Jesus learned from what He suffered.” The power of trouble and sorrow to chisel the spirit and deepen the character is a fact. It wasn’t until Beethoven became deaf that he gave the world his greatest music. It wasn’t until Handel was bankrupt and partially paralyzed that he wrote “The Messiah.” I think here of Dr. Charles Allen, the great Methodist preacher from Houston. He has written more than 25 books, but there is an added depth and dimension to his last two books. I think I know why. Tragedy has invaded his life. More than five years ago now, his wife lapsed into a coma from which she has never emerged. For all this time now, several times every day Charles Allen visits his wife in a Houston hospital, hoping on hope. And I believe that because he is walking through this awesome tragedy hand in hand with Jesus Christ, he is now better able to minister to other people whose lives are torn apart by tragedy. That can happen to us when tragedy comes, if we will be open to the possibility.

Then the third affirmation: we can trust God to work for good. Paul says it in Romans 8:28. I was brought up on the King James Version of the Bible. I memorized parts of it, including Romans 8:28. But that verse in the King James Version, while it sounds wonderful, couldn’t be further from the truth. It says, “All things work together for good to them that love God…” But that is not true. All things don’t work together for good. Some things work for bad or evil. The new translation is accurate. It says, “God works in all things for good…” In these words, many things happen which are not according to God’s will, but God can still work in them and through them to bring good. That means that you and I can face the tragedies, the uncertainties, the pain, and the difficulties of life with this prayer on our lips: “O Lord, if it be possible, remove this burden. But if it cannot be removed, then give us the power to be sustained through it. And if we cannot be sustained through it, then when we lose our life here raise us to new life in your Kingdom.” Yes, God is at work in everything to bring His good. My friends, a faith built upon that promise can overcome any obstacle, weather any storm, defeat any enemy, and endure any hardship. For in everything—no matter how tragic and senseless and diabolical it may be—in everything, God works to bring good.


A little boy looked at a painting of the crucifixion. It was graphic in its detail—the excruciating pain for Jesus was quite obvious. Tears welled up. in the little boy’s eyes. Then he began to sob. At last with all of the emotion he could muster, he cried out: “O God, if you had been there, it never would have happened!”

But God was there. In the greatest tragedy the world has ever seen, God was there. And He will be there with you when tragedy comes—no matter what, no matter how, no matter where, no matter when—God will be there with you.

That’s a promise
That’s His promise!

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