Years ago I preached a sermon where I talked about a couple who seemed to have led a charmed life. They enjoyed good health, she was a stay at home mom/wife, his career was going well, they enjoyed traveling, all seemed well. Then their younger son got divorced. I used this as an illustration of how bad things come to all of us eventually. My best friend Dan Williams, may he rest in peace, also my very best sermon critic, said that was a weak example. He said most people face much worse at some time or other.
I told him I appreciated his input and that next time I preached on this topic I would pick something really horrible to talk about. No, I understood his point, and sadly, he was right. We don’t have to look far, perhaps not beyond our own family or our own lives, to think of something much more damaging which has befallen someone we know, maybe even ourselves.
We are all aware that bad things happen to good people. We all know that if we live long enough, people close to us will die, sometimes after lengthy illnesses or debilitating conditions. We know people who have lost a spouse, lost a child, had major surgery, fought cancer, and so on. And we all know that at least some of those people have been decent, God-fearing people who have lived virtuous lives.
So we wonder. Why do bad things happen to good people? Isn’t there a part of us that wants to believe that if we are good, if we really work hard at loving God and loving others, we ought to be rewarded? That seems only fair, doesn’t it? And in fact there is a major stream of thought in the Bible that agrees with that way of thinking.
For example, Deuteronomy chapter six begins, “Now this is the commandment–the statues and the ordinances–that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children, may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all God’s decrees and commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you.” The key to these sentences is the “so that” clause. The implication is that if the people keep God’s commandments, then God will reward them.
Psalm seventy-three goes at the question from a different angle. It begins, “Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.” It goes on, “For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.” The psalmist goes on to talk about how those who are not following God’s way are doing so well. But then he says, speaking of these people, “Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.” In other words, it may look like the wicked are doing well, but it’s just a matter of time before they get what’s coming to them.
Maybe we believe something like that. Maybe we would argue that those who believe in Jesus, or those who are good, or perhaps a combination of the two, go to heaven when they die, while those who do not believe, and/or are not good people, go somewhere else. But even if we do believe that’s how it works on the after-death level, it still doesn’t answer the question of why good, righteous people suffer in this life.
Is God thinking, if you’re good, it really doesn’t matter whether or not you suffer in this life, because you have eternity in heaven to look forward to? That doesn’t sound right, does it? Is God not able to prevent or get rid of suffering? And what about miracles; people who claim to have been cured or rescued or whatever when it looked like there was no hope?
Well, I don’t know. I just thought I’d raise the questions for you to think about this week. Ok, since you asked, I’ll give you two cents worth, just because we have a few minutes. And I’ll start with what’s in today’s scripture reading from Job.
You remember the story. Job is a good man. Even God says of him, “There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” So there is no question about Job’s righteousness. He follows the commandments. He does what God has said he is to do. Period. End of discussion.
But Satan, who in this story is not the devil but another heavenly being, says, well, duh. Job has everything. He’s rich, he has a great family; life is all peaches and cream for him! But let things start to go downhill for him and he’ll change his tune. I’d bet on it.
God says, give it your best shot, “only spare his life.” Now, we can debate whether or not God would ever do anything like that, but this is a story about why bad things happen to good people, not how. So we know that things do go downhill for Job. For starters, he is afflicted with “loathsome sores” from head to foot. I know. Yecch. So he sits around in a pile of ashes and scrapes himself with a piece of broken pottery. I know. Again, yecch.
So his wife comes to him and says, give up on this always doing things God’s way business. Just say, I’ve had it, it’s not fair, and give up! But Job says, not yet. “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?”, he responds.
You probably also remember that at the end of the book, which takes a while to get to, I might add, God speaks, but that’s the sermon for two weeks from today. I haven’t figured out how that sermon is going to be much different from today’s but we’ll see.
In the meantime, Job’s friends say, think hard, Job. What did you do wrong? You must have done something wrong in order for this terrible condition to have come upon you. What did you do?
Sometimes we think that way, don’t we? Maybe it’s just in the back of our minds, but sometimes the thought sneaks in on us that because we’re not perfect, not “blameless and upright” all the time, bad things come our way. And sometimes that’s very true. If we become a substance abuser, sooner or later the consequences of that will catch up with us. If we treat everyone like they are inferior to us, our list of friends will be short to non existent.
But sometimes the difficulties which come our way are not in any way related to our actions. If someone we love is in an accident and we are miles away at the time, we aren’t to blame. We don’t cause other people to have heart attacks or get Alzheimer’s. In our better moments, we know that sometimes bad things just happen, for no fault of ours.
So the message in the story of Job, at least at this point, is that what counts is how we respond to the hardships which come our way. The story says that in saying that we have to take the bad with the good, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”
That’s a double whammy, isn’t it? First, we learn that Job is still in God’s good graces because of his response. Apparently taking the bad with the good is the appropriate attitude. Second, we can sin by what we say! Probably good to keep that in mind.
I remember going to hear Dr. Bernie Siegel speak at E.C. Glass years ago. Dr. Siegel is an internationally known expert in cancer treatment. I remember his message because I think I expected him to say, live a healthy life and maybe you won’t get cancer, or, if you get cancer, get the best available treatment. I can’t quote what he said, but his theme was the importance of your attitude if you have cancer. He said people who believe they can beat cancer have a better chance of long term survival than people who automatically think the end is near.
Interesting words from a medical doctor. Fortunately, there have been significant advances in cancer treatment in recent decades. But Dr. Siegel’s message is still true. And it is true not just for cancer patients. It is true for life in general. The fact is, as the book of Job drives home, we cannot always control what happens to us, what comes our way in life. Some things will be beyond our control. What we can control is how we respond to what happens to us and around us.
After 9/11, we could not bring back the thousands of lives lost that day. But what we have done as a nation is rally around first responders. We have rebuilt the World Trade Center, bigger and stronger. We have, as a people, decided that we are not going to let the fear of terrorism dominate our lives. We cannot change what happened that day. But we can control how we continue to respond.
It’s all about how we respond. We can choose defeatism and despair when bad things happen. We can decide that we’re giving up on God. Or we can say, that’s how life is. There are good things and there are bad things. But God is still there. And I don’t have time to talk about miracles. Maybe that’s another sermon. I just believe that when it comes to difficulties in life, it’s all about how we respond. Amen.