Bad Things Happen to Good People

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Harold S. Kushner wrote a bad book with a brilliant title: When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Kushner's theology is very disappointing. For him, God is just like us. He pictures God as stuck with us in the world and who therefore has no pwer to protect His children from evil. His "God" is no God at all. Cutting God down to our size is typical of the Modernists.

The simple-minded or triumphalistic view of some believers is that those who trust in God should be protected from all harm. Good people deserve good things; bad people deserve bad things. For such people, the experience that innocent people suffer and wicked people prosper often causes them to lose their "faith" in God. They have built their house on sand and it is no wonder that it collapses when the first storm strikes it.

Studies in traumatic events suggest a possible link between suffering, anger toward God, and doubts about God’s existence. According to Cook and Wimberly (1983), 33% of parents who suffered the death of a child reported doubts about God in the first year of bereavement. In another study, 90% of mothers who had given birth to a profoundly retarded child voiced doubts about the existence of God (Childs, 1985). Our survey research with undergraduates has focused directly on the association between anger at God and self-reported drops in belief (Exline et al., 2004). In the wake of a negative life event, anger toward God predicted decreased belief in God’s existence.[1]

As I see it, the Book of Job was written precisely to demolish the idea that innocent suffering is inconsistent with God's goodness.

Theodicy is the branch of theology that addresses these kinds questions.

The story of the Thorn in Paul's Side teaches us that a vigorous, active, and apostolic faith cannot protect us from suffering. "When I am weak, then I am strong. God's grace is at its best in my weakness."

Jesus' death on the Cross, His resurrection from the dead, and His future Advent in Glory is God's final and definitive answer to the problem of evil. All innocent suffering will be redressed; all evil will be annihilated.

I blame God for the presence of evil in the universe. If it is not He who allows His creatures freedom to do evil, then who does? It is He who created a universe within which innocent children suffer, the good die young, and the evil get away with murder. And it is He who loved us so much that He gave His only-begotten son to be our savior, so that "whosoever believeth in Him may not die but may live forever" (Jn 3:16).

Why does God allow us to suffer?

Because He is love.

Why do innocent children suffer?

Why do children suffer? Because God loves them. Because this is what is best for them and for all of us. How do we know this? By studying Jesus. He suffered innocently--unjustly. No sin on His part. He suffered for our sins.

Primitive insight: life is good. Suffering is evil. Not fair for suffering to be inflicted on a good person for no reason. Where there is evil, there must be sin. Personal responsibility. Adam and Eve let hell loose on earth. We wouldn't experience this as evil if it weren't for the destruction of our relationship with God through Original Sin and the consequent darkness that surrounds us.

The question causes me profound anxiety and distress. Birth defects, accidents, and physical or psychological damage done in childhood are serious evils and real tragedies. We see the evil clearly; we do not see God's response to the evil as clearly, except by developing the eyes of faith.

God's answer to this question is the Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus.

All innocent suffering will be rewarded, just as Jesus' innocent suffering on the Cross was rewarded by His resurrection and glorification at the right hand of the Father. God is love. He allows evil to befall us because He is love. Love, not evil, has the last word. Suffering and death will pass away; love remains. All of our tears will be kissed away, and all of our sorrow will be turned into joy. We say, "Lord, it would be better if these suffering children had never existed!" The Father replies, "My glorified children and I disagree. Wait a moment and you will see what great good I can bring out of evil."

Suffering with Jesus

The closing oration of the Feast of the Sorrows of Mary reads: "May we make up in our own lives, whatever is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the good of the Church."

This prayer is derived from Paul's letter to the Colossians: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His body, which is the church" (Col 1:24).

What is "lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His body" is our participation in His priestly action.

Our sufferings are real. God does not heal everyone immediately.

Our sufferings are salvific. Jesus extends His mercy through us, with us, and in us.

The Body of Christ plus us is different from the Body of Christ without us. Jesus can't be me or you. Jesus can't suffer our sufferings. We have a unique gift to give--we ourselves are the gift! Each one of us is unique. We can say yes or no to being united to Jesus in His suffering on the Cross. The history of love is different when we and our sufferings are included. We have something of value to give to Jesus and to every member of the Body through our experiences of suffering.

CCC 1508
The Holy Spirit gives to some a special charism of healing[1] so as to make manifest the power of the grace of the risen Lord. But even the most intense prayers do not always obtain the healing of all illnesses. Thus St. Paul must learn from the Lord that "my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness," and that the sufferings to be endured can mean that "in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church."[2]

By entering into Jesus' priestly offering of Himself, we are empowered to act "on behalf of His Body, which is the Church."

The Body is blessed and grows when we are willing to pick up our cross and follow Jesus through suffering into glory.

Jesus is the Rock and the cornerstone on which the whole Body is built; but He is not the whole building. We are living stones placed upon the foundation of Jesus and the apostles. Without us, there is something "lacking" in the Body of Christ.

NAB footnote
What is lacking: although variously interpreted, this phrase does not imply that Christ’s atoning death on the cross was defective. It may refer to the apocalyptic concept of a quota of “messianic woes” to be endured before the end comes; cf. Mk 13:8, 19–20, 24 and the note on Mt 23:29–32. Others suggest that Paul’s mystical unity with Christ allowed him to call his own sufferings the afflictions of Christ.[3]
Frank Sheed, The Action of the Holy Spirit, pp. 111-112
He suffered, and Paul can say, "In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Colossians 1:24). It is a stunning phrase--something lacking in Christ's sufferings! In what he himself did, nothing is lacking. But God does not choose to do for men what they can do for themselves. We do not simply sit on the sidelines and watch Christ redeeming us. In the divine plan there is a value in suffering undergone by Christ's members in union with his. It is not an injunction to go and look for suffering; Christ did not; Paul did not. It means not shirking what we can and should be doing for him because of the sufferings it might bring us. At all times, we should want his work to be done in the way he sees best, not slowing it down by our own refusal to take any part in it.
τα υστερηματα
υστερημα: "a deficit; specially, poverty:--that which is behind, (that which was) lack(-ing), penury, want."[4]

What if suffering were ruled out?

No freedom. No natural law. ...

If humans could not suffer, no cavities. Couldn't know anatomy. Would we live forever? No suffering, no death? That's Heaven, isn't it?

This, too, shall pass

The last word is joy.

"Those who sow in tears will reap rejoicing" (Ps 126:5).

"In consolation ever to be sober, in desolation never to despair" (Bl. John Henry Newman).

"You turned my mourning into joy; you took off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness" (Ps 30:11).

Phil 2:13
θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν καὶ τὸ θέλειν καὶ τὸ ἐνεργεῖν ὑπὲρ τῆς εὐδοκίας.[5]
For it is God who is at work in you both to will and to work as it pleases Him.


  1. Cf. 1 Cor 12:9,28,30.
  2. 2 Cor 12:9; Col 1:24.
  3. Note on Col 1:24.
  4. Strong's Concordance.
  5. Interlinear translation.