The earthquake in Nepal, the deliberate plane crash of Germanwings Flight 9525, 9/11, the relative who was diagnosed with cancer, the friend who died in a fire, the horrible boss, mean professor, financial woes, difficulty finding a partner, or simply a bad day: it feels like “bad” things happen all the time, from the personal problems we face in our daily lives, to the large scale calamities in this world. The first thing many often ask is, “Why God?”
Like everyone else, I’ve had my share of very difficult times in life, and over time I developed a framework to understand God’s place in all the difficulties. By God’s grace, that frame of mind has sustained my belief in a loving God in whom I trust, but there are unfortunately too many of us who eventually turn away from God when the tribulations we see around us become unbearable, and usually it is because people have a hard time answering the question, “Why God?” (For an accompanying PDF lesson, click here)
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
If you have an inadequate foundation of understanding God’s place and role in times of difficulty, you will be shaken, even to the point of rejecting God.
Take Ted Turner for example. If you don’t know who he is, he founded CNN, TBS, and is a super-rich businessman (see Wikipedia for more). Oh, and he used to be a devout Christian, a son of the Bible belt, but as this CNN article explains, “Ted Turner and God haven’t been on the best of terms.” Why? Because he didn’t have a good foundation for answering “Why do bad things happen.” The article explains:
His little sister, Mary Jean, got sick at age 12. He watched as she suffered terribly from a rare form of lupus and complications that left her with brain damage and screaming in pain for years until she died. It shook his faith profoundly. He could not understand why any God would let an innocent suffer.
“She was sick for five years before she passed away. And it just seemed so unfair, because she hadn’t done anything wrong,” he said. “What had she done wrong? And I couldn’t get any answers. Christianity couldn’t give me any answers to that. So my faith got shaken….”
If you were in Ted’s shoes, how would you answer the question: God, why do bad things happen?
You are free to answer the question as you wish, but in case you find benefit in the conclusions I have come to, I am sharing it here with you. I wish Ted Turner were given a better way of answering the question too, because maybe he would have ended up being a devout Christian who used his wealth differently.
HOW INVOLVED IS GOD IN HUMAN AFFAIRS?
So then, what is God’s role when bad things happen? The way you answer this question is closely associated with the way you answer the question, “How involved is God in our lives.” There are two extremes on either end of a spectrum of answers:
(1) Intimately Involved. God is intimately involved in every aspect of our existence, to the point of controlling cloud movements and the sun rising and setting and the rotation of the earth, and what parking spot I find, the person I just happened to meet, the classes I chose for college, the shoes I decided to wear, etc. People who have this frame of mind tend to hold on to it very tightly because in seeing God in every single aspect of their lives they gain comfort, giving even the minutest of circumstances purpose.
(2) Not Involved At All. God is absent from all human affairs completely. Weather events, natural disasters, my daily choices, and all sorts of various events and circumstances I confront, have no involvement from God whatsoever. People who think this way feel comforted in not blaming God for the bad that happens in the world.
If you are extreme #1, then, in order not to abandon God, you always answer the question “Why God” with a “because ….” You quickly try to find meaning in everything that has happened. That disaster happened because …. The accident I just got into happened because …. The horrible professor I ended up with is because …. However, this line of reasoning begins to become problematic when you find yourself having a hard time figuring out how to finish the sentence.
If you are extreme #2, the question “Why God“ is a ridiculous one to ask. God isn’t involved in human affairs, small or large. But with this mindset one may begin to feel troubled as they think deeper about why God is not involved, and some may conclude He is not a caring God. This too can lead to people abandoning God altogether.
Then there’s somewhere in between these two extremes. That’s where I have landed. Many of you will not agree, and because this goes to the very heart of one’s feeling of God’s presence in their lives, many will outright despise what I am about to say. But here it is:
God is love, and He cares for us. This never changes. When God created the world, he set up nature to run on its own—“Natural Law.” He also gave mankind Free Will. For the most part, God lets those two things run on their own, but He may get involved (e.g., parting the Red Sea, or creating the right circumstances to change a person from being your enemy to your best friend). We invite God to overtake our Free Will and align our lives with His will (e.g., help me with finding a job that suits Your will, etc.). We also request that God come and intervene when Natural Law inhibits our sense of happiness or security (e.g., please God help this sick person, please God bring us rain, etc.).
When “bad” things happen, God did not necessarily cause the bad thing (although in some circumstances He may have), but the “bad” thing is attributable to a variety of causes, one of which may be God. No matter what, I will always seek God’s involvement before things happen, and turn to Him as my refuge during and after suffering affliction (see the amazing story of how King David applied this mindset as his son was sick and eventually died—2 Samuel 12:1–25). Regardless of what happens, whether or not “good” things happen in my life, or whether or not I find relief from my tribulation, I know that if I am not compensated in this life, I will be compensated in the next. In this way, “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28).
SUPPORT FOR MY TAKE
Having trouble with my conclusion? It does not come without any support. I remember at a retreat in the Midwest, long ago, I stood up and asked Bishop Antonious Morkos as well as Bishop Moussa to validate this idea of Natural Law and Free Will as being the main cause for “bad things” that happen, and they both expressed agreement. That was one small step in solidifying my take on this issue.
Then I heard His Grace Bishop Youssef explaining the “Five Sources” of “bad things” that happen (and the accompanying personal action we should take when confronting each):
- My personal sins (repent)
- Corruption of the world (rely on God)
- Envy of the devil (put on the armor of God)
- God’s discipline (learn)
- Test of faith (strive to pass)
In this way we can see a dichotomy between what God permits (sins, corruption, and the devil) and what God wills (His discipline and also tests of faith). This is why I have been putting the word “bad” in quotes in this article, because while something may seem “bad,” it may not be bad at all.
HOW DO WE COPE WITH WHAT GOD WILLS & PERMITS? POPE SHENOUDA ANSWERS:
His Holiness Pope Shenouda III tells us in his book “Experiences in Life”:
I have heard many people say about everything that comes about: “It was God’s will,” whether the outcome was good or bad. Yet God wants only the best. As for the ills that happen on the earth, they happen against God’s beneficent will.
… God permits these things to happen because He has generously granted man free will, but God will judge him for it… So that is why the tyrant is free to oppress, the murderer to kill and the thief to steal. All these matters are opposed to God’s good will and He will judge the wrong-doers for them. There is, therefore, a big difference between what God wills and what God permits.
In his book, “Many years with the people’s questions, Volume III” we find the following exchange:
Question: If everything comes about according to the will of God, and nothing on the face of the earth happens without His command alone, then why doesn’t He prevent evil before it happens?
Answer: Before coming to the reply, let us make note of various errors in your question. It is not correct to say that nothing happens on earth except by God’s will, for various wrongs, evils, crimes and injustices take place all too frequently in the world, and how could all these be “according to the will of God“? That would not be right at all. Could all the killing, the adultery, the theft, fraud and lying that goes on in the world, ever be in accordance with God’s will?! No, of course not. And does God like all these things to happen?! No, not at all. Therefore your words “everything comes about according to the will of God,” are theologically incorrect, because everything would have to include the bad as well as the good.
When bad things take place, it can never be in accordance with God’s will, for God never desires what is bad. God only ever wants what is good. He wants all to be saved, and all to accept the knowledge of the Truth. All the good that happens on earth to people, or by them, comes about in accordance with the will of God, but not the evil. So what, then, is the position of evil in relation to God’s will? It was God who gave mankind free will. It is God who permits human beings to do as they wish, whether good or bad, otherwise they would be nothing but robots. The good that man does, he does in accordance with God‘s will, while the bad things that he does, is tolerated by God, but does not meet with His approval. There is a difference between what God wills and what God permits. His will is only ever for what is good. But He tolerates what is not good, because it is the inevitable consequence of that freedom of choice which He has given to some of His creatures.
ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM EXPLAINS THAT IF WE ARE NOT COMPENSATED NOW, THEN WE WILL BE COMPENSATED LATER
Do you not see how many have departed after a life of virtue and innumerable sufferings without receiving any of the good they deserve? Others, however, have departed after displaying great wickedness… enjoying wealth, luxury, and innumerable good things, without suffering even ordinary troubles.
So when will these former people receive the reward for their virtue, or these latter people suffer the punishment for their wickedness, if our affairs last only for the present life? . . . [Since] God exists, [and] He is just, . . . He will repay both the former and the latter as they deserve. But if He would repay both the former and the latter as they deserve, but in this life neither of them have received their deserts, … obviously there is some time of life in which each of these will have their fitting recompense, [in the afterlife].
When something happens that is seemingly “bad” but is meant to punish, discipline, or there is some reason for it, then we should be content because when God acts it is always for the greater good.
When something “bad” happens because of human will and/or natural law, we should still feel content because we have a powerful God to turn to as our refuge, to help us, and to compensate us for the lives we live.
No matter what we face, when we remain content with God and happy, we are going to be glorified in heaven for it.
For “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6), and “the eternal God is your refuge” (Deuteronomy 33:27).
- PDF Lesson Link
- CNN Article: “Ted Turner Wants to Go to Heaven” (title changed to “The Reinvention of Ted Turner”)
- CNN Article: “Where was God in the Philippines?”
- Cover Image Credit: NOAA/NGDC, Marko Kokic, IFRC.