Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
The first question we will address this morning: 'How do we explain sadness? How do we make sense out of suffering? Why is it so many times evil triumphs and the wicked succeed? Why do bad things happen to good people?' And in the wake of major flooding in the North West, hurricanes and other disasters, these questions weigh heavy on our hearts. Why?
I'll make the prediction: this message on this issue today will fall way short of your expectations. But let me be honest and right up front. I don't have all the answers, if I did, I would be God and I’m not. I don't always understand God's ways, but I trust Him.
In deep despair over the loss of his wife, Christian author C.S. Lewis cried out to God, 'Why?' The answer he received deep within his soul: 'My son, even if I could explain it to you, you would not understand. It would be like attempting to teach physics to a 4-year-old.' We must trust God - even when answers don't always emerge! That is a very difficult lesson to learn, isn't it? We may never understand God's ways, but we must trust God. But you came here for guidance and help this morning, not to hear an ignorant dissertation; and since I am at a loss to offer wisdom, allow me to introduce you to a man that can.
His name is Asaph, the author of the 73rd Psalm. I imagine Asaph to be an elderly gentleman as he writes these words. His hair whitened with age, his face furrowed with care, and his body stooped a bit by the weight of time. He begins his Psalm with a great word of testimony: "Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart." (1) This sounds pleasant, great words from one whom God has blessed; typical words from one of God's chosen men in the Bible. God is good! But Asaph quickly acknowledges that he has not always felt this way. Now his faith is planted firmly in his trust of the Almighty, but looking back, he faced many dangers along life's path. In fact, one place in that timeline of life, it seemed as if he was going to lose all faith. "But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold." (2)
Although this spiritual biography was written hundreds of years ago, it poses great significance for us today. It is obvious that many of you struggle with these questions of God's love, the existence of suffering, the prosperity of the wicked.
But perhaps unlike Asaph, your faith was secretly lost or at least greatly damaged by these burdensome questions of life.
Why didn't God stop the terrorists? Why do I have this disease? Why didn't He divert the hurricane? Why did I lose my child, or my parents or my spouse? Why did it happen to me?
What was it that caused Asaph so much difficulty? What question of life tempted the Psalmist to reject his faith? While details are sketchy, it is apparent that Asaph tried to get the facts of faith to measure up against the facts of life, and the facts of faith came up short.
Asaph believed God was both holy and all-powerful, and because of that, good people should always prosper and bad people should always fail. That sounds religious, right? It seemed to him a matter of pure logic that if God were really righteous and were indeed the master of all He surveyed, then good people should always get ahead, and nothing bad should ever happen to them. After all, wouldn't that be a great testimony to the power and protection of God over His precious children? Wouldn't that be a powerful point to share when evangelizing?
Now that kind of faith has been around since the age of time. It was the faith of Job's friends who came to sympathize with him as he suffered on his ash-heap. And finally after witnessing his deep physical and emotional pain, one blurted out, 'Well, whoever suffered being innocent? Great suffering is the result of great sin. Job, what have you done?' This was also the faith of Jesus' friends in John 9 when they came across the blind man and asked, 'Now who sinned, this man or his parents that he should be born blind? Someone has to be responsible for this, Jesus, because bad things just don't happen to good people.'
Oh yes, the belief is that great tragedy must be the result of great transgression. The reason that this kind of faith has flourished through the centuries, and is still present today, is because it does have some grain of truth. One who walks with God is better able to handle life's difficulties than the one who walks without Him. But if you walk through life believing good people always prosper, as the world counts prosperity, you're in danger of losing your faith altogether.
Now, what was it that brought this whole problem crashing down into Asaph's life to ask this question? Well, possibly the Psalmist had some neighbors, some folks who lived a little down the road. They had no time for God. They did not take time to pray, worship or study God’s Word. But when Asaph looked at them, they were doing remarkably well. Their big house stood high on the hill.
Their grain grew high in the field. Beautiful fences surrounded their land. The latest model chariots were parked in their garage.
And, yet, when Asaph looked at himself in comparison, everything seemed to be going wrong. "For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. Therefore, pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence." (3-6)
Now notice, it wasn't just that his neighbors were wealthy, he also discovered that they were disgustingly healthy. Again I really don't know how it occurred, but maybe one day as he was driving some of his children to the doctor's office; it dawned on him his neighbor never had to make that kind of trip. Perhaps one evening when he was looking at the small pile of medical bills on his desk, it occurred to him that his neighbor never had to climb such paper mountains. Not only were his neighbors quite wealthy and healthy, he also found out that they were quite proud. Life was going well, and they were quite puffed-up. They wore their pride as one would wear a necklace or ring. And if you asked them the secret of their success, they were glad to tell you. Just ask anyone, they would say they were a 'self-made man', and just the way he or she said it, you knew they thought they had done a rather good job of it. Being a proud man, he was also a violent one. You know the kind. Once they decide what they want, they go and get it, regardless of whom they have to walk on to get it! I'm sure there were times when Asaph went to his neighbors and warned them to change their ways. But they refused to turn to God. After all, they were doing quite well without him.
This must have led Asaph to write "From their callous hearts comes iniquity; the evil conceits of their minds know no limits. They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression. Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth. Therefore, their people turn to them and drink up waters in abundance." (7-10)
Perhaps the Psalmist could have stood up to the injustice had it just been his own. But when he looked at God's people, he discovered that they were suffering just as he was. God's people came again and again to the temple, but they were filled with grief and plagued with problems. Their lives were not on the smooth path on which his neighbors were traveling. And these people of faith had become a little weary of the situation in life. They were turning cynical, all because of the prosperity of the wicked. So they say to Asaph: "'How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?' This is what the wicked are like - always carefree, they increase in wealth." (11-12)
I'm sure you've heard that argument before. They were excusing themselves from the guilt that came with living like the world. “Look, Asaph, a man's got to live.” This is a very competitive world and we're just as religious as the next guy. But we've got to play the game of life and Asaph, you're neighbor's got the right game plan. If you want to get ahead, you better do what everybody else is doing. After all, a person's got to live.'
If you ever hear someone repeat that phrase in a conversation, 'After all, I've got to live,' put it down that this person has compromised what he or she knows to be right and ethical and godly, just to get ahead.
They have made allowances in their stated beliefs in the name of making a living. But let me remind you of something - that statement is a lie, spawned by Satan himself - one of the greatest excuses to sin that he has given mankind.
We don't have to live! We have to die! We have to face God! But there have been multitudes of faithful people through time who have accepted death as a great testimony that there are things in life infinitely more important than just being alive. But that is not the prevalent philosophy today. We are more like Asaph's neighbors. At least I am. I say pro basketball is destroying the college game, and kids aren't getting an education, jumping straight to the NBA for the almighty dollar. Yet if someone offered me a job at 18, that would pay several million dollars a year, I'd have probably skipped college to. After all, a person has to live.
We value honesty, but after getting beat out of a few jobs or a few sales by competitors; hey a few resume exaggerations, a few lies to customers, whose going to get hurt, right? After all, a person has to live. Asaph refused to compromise. He refused to sellout his faith. He did his best to live the right way, and for that, he suffered.
"Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. If I had said, 'I will speak thus,' I would have betrayed your children. When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me..." (13-16)
Simply put, he says it doesn't pay to serve God. 'I've tried to live with a pure heart and keep my words and actions clean. I am honest, loyal, faithful, but everything seems to be going wrong. Each day brings greater struggles than the day before. Here I am wrestling with life and my godless neighbors don't even know about these problems. They don't respect me for trying to keep the rules.’ It just doesn't pay to serve God.
Ever feel that way? Ever wish you could rewind and start your life over again and do it the world's way? You know - get ahead, get the money, get the career, get the house and car; then find God? Does it pay to serve Him? Does it pay to live life His way?
Asaph wants some answers, just like us, and he gets them. But where does he get his answers? Notice: "I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! (17-19)
Hurting, despondent, questioning - Asaph went to church, yes to church!! I realize the great differences between the synagogue and temple of the O.T. and the church of the New Testment, but there are some similarities as well, and one of those is God's great blessing upon his congregated people.
But it's interesting that as many churches as we have in this nation, and as many mega-churches that run 2000 or more each week, the percentage of people who attend weekly worship services is only 45%, the same as it was in 1966 during the 'God is dead' movement. There is not an explosion of people running to church.
A few years ago I read a story about Jamestown, the first permanent settlement in the new world. The Jamestown colony held church services every day for 2 hours, and again on Sunday for 5 hours. Absenteeism was not tolerated. The penalty for missing a service was the loss of food rations that day. The 2nd absence resulted in a public whipping. The penalty for missing 3 times was to be placed in the stocks for 6 months. That's the most effective shepherding program I've ever heard of!
Spirituality is thriving in this country, but it hasn't translated into worship attendance. Even many Christians today find themselves nodding in agreement when their neighbors say that they can commune with God just as well out in a park as in a stuffy crowded auditorium. We find ourselves agreeing when told you can learn more by studying God in nature near a golf course than you can by hearing a sermon or sitting in a S.S. class. There is a world of difference between good sound reasoning and reasons that just sound good. The reality is that throughout history, God has had a way of meeting with His people, when His people have met together to meet Him. God has a way of breaking through when His people gather to sing, and study and pray.
There is no substitute for that ministry of the spirit that God gives when his people meet together. Private devotions, TV sermons, and listening to religious tapes and CDs will not take the place of that assembly. There is a need to meet together with God's people and allow God to break through and speak as He did long ago.
In the sanctuary of God, Asaph got his answer by receiving the long-range view. Asaph overestimated the prosperity of his neighbors. I'm sure when he saw their wealth, it looked very permanent. It seemed that house would stand on that hill forever; that their bank account would last five lifetimes. But in the sanctuary of God, when he looked into eternity and saw life with a long-range view, he discovered that it, too, shall pass away. And that can happen, sometimes suddenly. Just ask the folks out on the West coast in 2010 and 2011. We can lose all our accumulated wealth in a heartbeat. It's just not permanent, but eternity is!
And even if we keep it, one day our hearts will stop; and instead of our possessions being taken from us, we'll be taken from our possessions. Asaph not only discovered that he had overestimated his neighbor's prosperity, that the prosperity doesn't last, but he also discovered that it really didn't satisfy. There is no real peace for the wicked. The ungodly man is like a stormy sea, tossed one way, then another, constantly moving, no peace. And the testimony of individuals down through the centuries has borne this out.
Sigmund Freud unscrewed the tops of men's heads and hearts and came to the conclusion that he had never met a man who is not terribly afraid. Singer and actress Madonna sounding very wise as she looked back at the beginning of her career said, 'Money, sex, food - they're not going to make us happy. They're not real. They don't last.' Muhammad Ali, arguably the most famous athlete of his generation, once said in his now halting speech and uncertain movements, 'I had the world, and it wasn't nothin'.' All Howard Hughes ever really wanted in life was more. More money, more fame, more sensual pleasures, more thrills, more power. He was absolutely convinced that more would bring him true satisfaction. Howard Hughes died believing the myth of more. He died a billionaire junkie, insane by all reasonable standards.
And so Asaph writes: "As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies. When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you." (20-22)
The Psalmist never looked ahead; never saw the future. He was only concerned about the here and now. He only wondered why God was unfair, why he and God's people were not prospering as were the ungodly. Why bad things kept happening to good people. But then in God's house, after being with God, after reading his eternal promises, he realized he had overestimated the prosperity of the wicked, and underestimated his own prosperity.
"Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." (23-26)
Those of you who know God personally, through faith in His Son, will know what I mean when I say that even greater than knowing your sins are forgiven is to know the personal presence of Jesus Christ in your daily life. To know that in every occasion, in every circumstance, in every trial, tragedy or celebration - there is the real presence of God's Spirit and of God's Son. In sunshine and in shadow, in sickness and in health, in poverty and in wealth, when things go well and when things go wrong, there is the reality that Jesus Christ is with you. He holds you with His hand so you will never slip. He becomes your guide in life in all things, and your only guide to heaven.
Asaph's neighbor was headed toward judgment, but Asaph was being led to glory. When Asaph left God's house, he was transformed. He came to God's sanctuary feeling sorry for himself and envious of his neighbor; but he left feeling sorry for his neighbor and enriched by what he had. He came feeling that his neighbor was wealthy and he was poor; he left recognizing that by his faith he was the rich one and his neighbor was a poor pauper. Nothing had really changed.
The house was still up there on the hill, and the chariots were still in the garage, and the grain was still high in the fields - but Asaph had changed. Why? Because there in the sanctuary of God - he had seen life from the viewpoint of eternity.
"Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds." (27-28)
We have God beside us! His Spirit is in us! His Son died for us! We have a guide, a friend, a Father, a helper, a comforter, an advisor; and we have eternal promises and glory beyond the comprehension of the world. We are incredibly rich! Look beyond the here and now. Look beyond the present. When you see things with an eternal view, you still may not fully understand why God allows the wicked to prosper - but you will see the judgment that awaits them for their actions. You may never fully understand why bad things happen to good people - but you will see the rewards in glory that await them for their obedient faith.
Lloyd J. Ogilvie, If God Cares, Why Do I Still Have Problems (Minneapolis: Grason, 1985)
Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977)
Robert Jamieson, Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Southwestern Co., 1968)