When bad things happen to good people

By Judy Paulsen
Open hand by Billy Pasco cropped

A vulnerable senior loses their life savings to a fraudulent telemarketing scheme. A young mother gets cancer. Innocent lives are lost to a crazed gunman, or a drunk driver, or in a plane crash. We seem to hear about such tragedies almost every day. But how are people of faith to make sense of them? As Wycliffe Professor of Evangelism Judy Paulsen writes, making sense begins with asking the right question.

By Judy Paulsen

Our universe has little respect for one’s moral standing. The patch of black ice, the fine-needle biopsy, the faulty electrical wire, the rogue wave; none of these discriminate on the basis of whether you are a “good” or “bad” person. Deep down we know this.

Something else we know is the plethora of ways in which we personally fall short of the label “good person.” Only One truly deserves that label. The rest of humanity simply offers different shades of grey. Certainly, some live more moral lives than others, but the reasons for that are complex and often involve factors unrelated to one’s personal moral fortitude or fibre. However “good” we are, the universe doesn’t seem particularly interested. To expect it to take note of our particular place on some cosmic moral measuring stick, and adjust its sometimes terrible freedom accordingly, is a pipe dream.

Note, it’s not the question of why bad things happen to good people that I want to address. I’ll leave that to the theologians and philosophers who have mulled over it for millennia. The question that interests me is how faith makes any difference when bad things happen to any of us. How does what we believe affect how we navigate the inevitable suffering that is part of human existence? Now there is a question that has missional repercussions.

In his book, The Language of God, the leading geneticist Francis Collins writes about how he was first drawn to explore Christianity because he noticed that his patients who were Christians often exhibited an unusual peace and hope, even when experiencing terrible suffering. What made them this way? Collins didn’t know he was about to be confronted not with the inherent goodness of these patients, but with the inherent goodness of the Triune Living God Himself.

Christianity makes the stunning claim that God’s goodness is such that He was willing to enter and embrace the depths of human suffering, and that He did so for the sake of humanity. In the birth, life, and death of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh, we see a God willing to know suffering as we know it; the pain, anguish, heartache, loneliness, and despair. All of it. We Christians worship and follow a Saviour with scars, and those scars are never more precious to us than when we suffer.

When we cry out to God, we call and listen to the One who has walked the path of suffering and is a trusted guide who will help us as we navigate that path ourselves. He is the brother and friend who never leaves us or forsakes us. We are accompanied by the Suffering Servant Himself, who is also now the Risen and Exalted King of Kings. He guides by experience, leading us through the valley of the shadow of death and beyond it. Whether we return from the depths of suffering to our service and adoration of Him in this life or continue our service and adoration of Him beyond the grave, eternity with God has already begun, and that is something that can in no way be changed, even by what may follow from an unexpected patch of black ice.