Bad Things Happen to Good People - Another Look

Steve Viars July 4, 2009 Psalms 73:

- Introduction

- in 1981, a brand new book was published entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People…[show pic]…the author is Harold Kushner who is described by his publisher as a conservative Jewish rabbi…

- this book was on the New York Times’ bestseller list for months, and has sold well over 4 million copies…

- I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that this work framed the way many people in our country have chosen to think about the so-called problem of evil, stated by Kushner as, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”…

- one of the attractive elements of this book is that it is not written by a cold theologian or a calloused academician…

- Harold Kushner wrote because he and his wife had a son named Aaron who suffered from what was later diagnosed as progeria…or “rapid aging”…

- they were told when Aaron was three years old that Aaron would “never grow much beyond three feet in height, would have no hair on his head or body, would look like a little old man while he was still a child, and would die in his early teens.”

- everything about that diagnosis eventually became true…

- here’s a bit of their story in Kushner’s own words…

“How does one handle news like that?  I was a young, inexperienced rabbi, not as familiar with the process of grief as I would later come to be, and what I mostly felt that day was a deep, aching sense of unfairness.  It didn’t make sense.  I had been a good person.  I had tried to do what was right in the sight of God.  More than that, I was living a more religiously committed life than most people I knew, people who had large, healthy families.  I believed that I was following God’s ways and doing His work.  How could this be happening to my family?  If God existed, if He was minimally fair, let alone loving and forgiving, how could He do this to me?

And even if I could persuade myself that I deserved this punishment for some sin of neglect or pride that I was not aware of, on what grounds did Aaron have to suffer?  He was an innocent child, a happy, outgoing three-year-old.  Why should he have to suffer physical and psychological pain every day of his life?  Why should he have to be stared at, pointed at, wherever he went?  Why should he be condemned to grow into adolescence, see other boys and girls beginning to date, and realize that he would never know marriage or fatherhood?  It simply didn’t make sense.

Like most people, my wife and I had grown up with an image of God as an all-wise, all-powerful parent figure who would treat us as our earthly parents did, or even better.  If we were obedient and deserving, He would reward us.  If we got out of line, He would discipline us, reluctantly but firmly.  He would protect us from being hurt or from hurting ourselves, and would see to it that we got what we deserved in life.

Then came that day in the hospital when the doctor told us about Aaron and explained what progeria meant.  It contradicted everything I had been taught.  I could only repeat over and over again in my mind, ‘This can’t be happening.  It is not how the world is supposed to work.’  Tragedies like this were supposed to happen to selfish, dishonest people whom I, as a rabbi, would then try to comfort by assuring them of God’s forgiving love.  How could it be happening to me, to my son, if what I believed about the world was true?

I am fundamentally a religious man who has been hurt by life, and I wanted to write a book that could be given to the person who has been hurt by life—by death, by illness or injury, by rejection or disappointment—and who knows in his heart that if there is justice in the world, he deserved better.  What can God mean to such a person?  Where can he turn for strength and hope?  If you are such a person, if you want to believe in God’s goodness and fairness but find it hard because of the things that have happened to you and to people you care about, and if this book helps you do that, then I will have succeeded in distilling some blessing out of Aaron’s pain and tears.”

- Your heart can’t help but go out to a family that has suffered in this way…

- but at some point, you have to objectively evaluate the proposed solutions…

- Kushner, even though he is described as a conservative rabbi by his publisher, chooses to address this problem by disagreeing with Scripture…

- for example, in discussing one of the classic Psalms on this subject, Psalm 92, Kushner says…”If I could meet the author of the Ninety-second Psalm, I would first congratulate him on having composed a masterpiece of devotional literature…But having said that, I would be obliged to point out that there is a lot of wishful thinking in his theology…I find that I cannot share the optimism of the Psalmist that the righteous, in the long run, will flourish like the palm tree and give testimony to God’s uprightness” (pp. 17-18)

- he then takes the position that the reason many people struggle with this issue is that we try to hold three propositions simultaneously…

- that God is powerful, and that God is just and fair, and that people are good

- in discussing the book of Job, he says…”We can see the argument of the book of Job as an argument over which of the three statements we are prepared to sacrifice, so that we can keep on believing in the other two” (p. 43).

- Several pages later he says, “Let me suggest that the author of the book of Job takes the position which neither Job nor his friends take.  He believes in God’s goodness and Job’s goodness, and is prepared to give up his belief…that God is all powerful.  Bad things do happen to good people in this world, but it is not God who wills it.  God would like people to get what they deserve in life, but He cannot always arrange it.  Forced to choose between a good God who is not totally powerful, or a powerful God who is not totally good, the author of the book of Job chose to believe in God’s goodness” p. 48-49).

- the summary of his argument is found at the end of the book when he says…”I believe in God.  But I do not believe the same things about Him that I did years ago, when I was growing up or when I was a theology student.  I recognize His limitations.  He is limited in what He can do by laws of nature and by the evolution of human nature and human moral freedom.  I no longer hold God responsible for illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters, because I realize that I gain little and I lose so much when I blame God for these things.  I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason” (p. 147).

- with all of that in mind, let me invite you to open your Bible to Psalm 73…(page 423 of the front section of the Bible under the chair in front of you…)

- it would be fair for you to ask the question, what does any of this have to do with anything?...

- the answer is, we’re entering the mid-point of a series we’re doing this summer entitled…Finding Hope in Growing from Your Past…so far…there are…

Four main emphases thus far in this series:

1. People tend to fall into one of two extremes when thinking about/discussing this topic:

  • The past is everything…so you can’t be held responsible for your choices today (or even understand them for that matter) because you’re being ruthlessly driven by events of the past.
  • The past is nothing…whatever events or abuses or choices occurred in your life in days gone by, they are completely irrelevant and totally disconnected from anything that may be happening today…

- we’ve tried to point out that both extremes are inconsistent with Scripture…

- “the past is everything crowd”, who tend to only talk about this topic in the negative, need to see that…

2. Your past can be one of your best friends…we studied several significant ways that’s true…you would not be better off without your past.

- but on the other hand, “the past is nothing folks” need to learn that…

3. Your past can be one of your worst enemies.

- if you have unfinished business with people or events in days gone by…that can really trip you up as you try to navigate life’s challenges today…

- last week we tried to show how part of the beauty of biblical theology (considering all God’s Word says on a particular subject) is that it allows us to organize or sort areas of our lives into appropriate and meaningful categories…

- if you view your past as if it’s one big lump, you probably will not address and handle it with the level of biblical clarity that’s really needed…

4. Your past can be divided into four categories.

- and the way you get there mathematically is by posing two questions…

a. Was this particular event initiated by your own sin, or by the sin of someone else (or simply the pain of living in a sin cursed world)?...

- so are we talking about something from your innocent past…a time where you were sinned against, or your guilty past---a time when you sinned and that’s what initiated the event?

b. How did you respond to what occurred?

- that’s how you get from 2 to 4 buckets…

- the innocent past where you responded well [David and Shimei]

- the innocent past where you responded poorly [David and his wife Michal]

- the guilty past where you responded well [David and Saul’s robe in the cave]

- the guilty past where you responded poorly [David and Bathsheba]…

- here’s what that has to do with Harold Kushner…this man is proposing a particular way of thinking about the innocent past…no one who was thinking biblically would say that Rabbi Kushner and his wife somehow did something to bring this event on…and it would also be completely contrary to Scripture to say that it was because of the son’s sin [we’ll look at the definitive passage on those two issues before we’re done this am]…

- so we’re clearly talking about the innocent past…and all of us have events that fit into that category…

- the question before the house now is…does Kushner’s approach truly help us put such issues to rest…or is there a better way to handle the so-called innocent past…let’s compare it to the words of the writer of Psalm 73…read Psalm 73:1-28

- with the time we have remaining, let’s organize our thoughts around three main ideas…

I. The Reality of Suffering, II. The Revelations of Suffering, III. The Resolution of Suffering

I. The Reality of Suffering.

- if we are going to let Scripture be our guide, we have to acknowledge that…

A. Pain and suffering are inescapable in this life.

- sometimes people long for the period of life when they’re won’t be any challenges…

- when we graduate from college…when we can finally get married…when we find jobs and settle down…when we have children…when our kids are out of pampers…

- one observation I’ve made over the years by being around so many different kinds of people in so many different circumstances is that there is no such thing as a problem free phase of life…

- we’ll talk later about how that fits into the NT emphasis on rejoicing at all times…but if we have taken that to mean that it is wrong for men and women to acknowledge the pain and suffering they might be facing today---we are clearly out of bounds biblically [if this Psalm teaches anything, it’s that]…

- and I also wonder if the plastic smile and glib answers that are so often associated with followers of Christ aren’t actually a turn-off to the unsaved world that is longing for substantive truth that has a level of honesty and authenticity to it…

- you have to be careful when quoting the book of Job lest you inadvertently quote one of his miserable counselors who was saying something untrue, but these words certainly summarize what Scripture says on the subject…

- Job 5:7 - For man is born for trouble, as sparks fly upward.

- you say, how frequently is that?...every time they fly…that’s the point…

- I’ve thought a lot about the kind of people who would listen to this series…especially because I’m encouraging men and women to think about events from the past…

- what about the couple who lost a child?...

- what about the woman who went into her marriage with great hope and enthusiasm and commitment who found out 6 months later her husband was cheating on her and always had been?...

- what about the man who worked hard and believed the promises his company made and then found out just after retirement that the pension fund was severely undercapitalized and the new owners had no intention of honoring what had been said?...

- we could brainstorm such scenarios all day long…pain and suffering are real, even for a follower of Jesus Christ…and we also need to say that…

B. Acknowledging our confusion and hurt is an important part of the growth process.

- that’s what Psalm 73 is…

- [review some of the key “complaints” in verses 2-12]

- Psalm 73:12-14 - Behold, these are the wicked; and always at ease, they have increased in wealth.Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence;for I have been stricken all day long and chastened every morning.

- we could multiply references like this all day long, but one from the NT you might find especially helpful is the discussion Paul had with the Corinthian church in the book we know as II Corinthians…people had been gossiping about him and trying to discredit his ministry in his absence and he speaks openly in this book about how painful that was to him…

- 2 Corinthians 6:11 - Our mouth has spoken freely to you, O Corinthians, our heart is opened wide.

- and he recognizes that this kind of vulnerability is risky…but then he says back to them…

- 2 Corinthians 6:13 - Now in a like exchange—I speak as to children—open wide to us also.

- in other words, let’s be honest about what’s been going on here…this has been hurtful to me and I’m not going to act like it wasn’t…

- Christianity has a better answer than – just sweep it under the rug…

C. The church is called to help both sinners and sufferers.

- that is a loaded statement that could be teased out for hours…

- but biblical ministry is certainly not a witch hunt for the latest sin…

- many people are hurting around us because they are suffering…and we are called upon to…

- Romans 12:15 - Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

- Paul could speak about being1 Thessalonians 2:7 - But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children.

- so here’s the point – there are a lot of ways we would disagree with Rabbi Kushner, but his willingness to be honest about the depth of his struggles isn’t one of them…

- that is exactly the way the writer of Psalm 73 processed his pain and suffering…and to think we could put the events of the innocent past behind us without ever taking the time to go through a similar process is not always true…[not saying you have to do it repeatedly]

- now let’s move logically to…

II. The Revelations of Suffering.

- here’s the point…unless someone dies from the abuse or is mentally unable to process information, there is no such thing as a passive victim…we are all active responders, and perhaps better stated, active worshippers…

- and the way we choose to think about and relate to suffering in the past reveals a lot about what is really going on in our hearts…

- please try to personalize that as we go through this list…

A. Your view of fairness.

1. A central issue at the beginning of Psalm 73.

- Psalm 73:16 - When I pondered to understand this, it was troublesome in my sight

- in other words, God’s not fair…

- why do wicked people prosper, while godly people suffer?...where is the fairness in that?...

2. Also a core issue for Rabbi Kushner.

- over and over in this book, he comes back to that point.

- I am the rabbi of a congregation of six hundred families, or about twenty-five hundred people.  I visit them in the hospital, I officiate at their funerals, I try to help them through the wrenching pain of their divorces, their business failures, their unhappiness with their children.  I sit and listen to them pour out their stories of terminally ill husbands or wives, of senile parents for whom a long life is a curse rather than a blessing, of seeing people whom they love contorted with pain or buried by frustration.  And I find it very hard to tell them that life is fair, that God gives people what they deserve and need.  Time after time, I have seen families and even whole communities unite in prayer for the recovery of a sick person, only to have their hopes and prayers mocked.  I have seen the wrong people get sick, the wrong people be hurt, the wrong people die young (p. 10).

3. A question for you to consider.

- Do you really want a God who is simply “fair”?

- we’ll come back to that in a moment, but would you have really wanted God to give us, and everyone we know, exactly what we deserved, the moment we were conceived?

- the point is, the way you’ve responded to the times of suffering in the past reveal your view of fairness.

 

B. Your view of truth.

- one of the great things about the Psalms is that the writers often not only give us the solution, they tell us the process…the Lord could have airbrushed all of that out of the Bible…it certainly would have been far less messy…

- but verse 17 points us to….

1. The Psalmist’s solution.

- v. 17 – until I came into the sanctuary of God…

- this man decided that God and his Word were his only reliable guide during times of suffering…

- one of the questions regarding the suffering of your innocent past is, in which direction did you subsequently go?...

- Psalm 61:1-2 - Hear my cry, O God; Give heed to my prayer.From the end of the earth I call to You when my heart is faint; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.

- that is why the Scripture can make such an outrageous claim that…

- Psalm 119:71 - It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.

 

2. A turning point for many.

- one of the most disappointing aspects of this book is the way a so-called conservative rabbi speaks about the Old Testament Scriptures…

- and I’m not here to criticize him…but I am here to say that if you have followed a similar path in trying to resolve events in your innocent past that resulted in pain and suffering…that approach can transform such occurrences into balls and chains around your leg and prevent you from moving forward in the days to come…

 

- one example is Kushner’s view of the book of Job…

- he dedicates 1 full chapter of his 8 chapter book to his interpretation of Job…

- because you may have already been thinking…how could someone possibly read the early chapters of the book of Job and come away with the belief that God had no power over what occurred?....

- the answer is that Rabbi Kushner believes the book of Job is a simply a fable, a philosophical poem…but the events did not really occur…

- that would lead him to the incredible conclusion that “The God of the fable, held up as a figure to be worshipped for so many generations, is very much like an (insecure) ancient king, rewarding people not for their goodness but for their loyalty” (p. 47).

- he says a few pages later that in the most powerful section of the book, when God actually answers Job’s questions in chapter 40 verses 9-14, that…”I take these lines to mean ‘if you think it is so easy to keep the world straight and true, to keep unfair things from happening to people, you try it.’ God wants the righteous to live peaceful, happy lives, but sometimes even He can’t bring that about.  It is too difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming their innocent victims.  But could man, without God, do better?” (p. 49).

- that shows you where denying God’s Word takes you in terms of trying to make sense of suffering…

- in fact, this week I’ve been reading the book of Ecclesiastes as part of my personal Bible reading and I was struck with how similar King Solomon, when his heart was far from the Lord, sounded in his explanation that all is vanity…it’s a position completely devoid of hope…

- the way you respond to suffering in your past reveals your view of truth

 

C. Your view of God.

- one of the key questions we all have to answer is….

1. Is God sovereign?

- Psalm 33:10-11 - The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples.The counsel of the Lord stands forever, The plans of His heart from generation to generation.

- I’ve encouraged you on several occasions to read Jerry Bridges’ book Trusting God…

- “God is in control.  He is sovereign.  He does whatever pleases Him and determines whether we can do what we have planned.  This is the essence of God’s sovereignty: His absolute independence to do as He pleases and His absolute control over the actions of all His creatures.  No creature, person, or empire can either thwart His will or act outside the bounds of His will” (Jerry Bridges, Trusting God, p. 34).

- Proverbs 19:21 - Many plans are in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the Lord will stand.

- Lamentations 3:37 - Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, Unless the Lord has commanded it?

- now, there is a point that we have to deal with here…because Rabbi Kushner repeatedly uses the phrase “God causes”…in his book…that is what He refuses to affirm but he sees no other option than…if God doesn’t cause, then he has no power to control…

- and what is missing logically is precisely the argument of the book of Job…

- that God allows certain kinds of suffering to fulfill His sovereign plan upon the earth…

- but the chasm between “God causes” and “God allows” is enormous…

2. Is God Powerful?

- Kushner - “If we had grown up, as Job and his friends did, believing in an all-wise, all-powerful, all-knowing God, it will be hard for us, as it was for them, to change our way of thinking about Him (as it was hard for us, when we were children, to realize that our parents were not all powerful, that a broken toy had to be thrown out because they could not fix it, not because they did not want to” (p. 51).

- compare that to:

Jeremiah 14:22 - Are there any among the idols of the nations who give rain? Or can the heavens grant showers? Is it not You, O Lord our God? Therefore we hope in You, For You are the one who has done all these things.
 

3. Is God good?

- friend, do you agree with 2 Samuel 22:31 - As for God, His way is blameless; The word of the Lord is tested; He is a shield to all who take refuge in Him.

- see, what have your responses to suffering in the past revealed about your view of God?...and do you want that view to be more like Rabbi Kushner’s, or more like that of the Scripture?...

 

- there’s also the issue of…

D. Your view of man.

- if you’ve studied what the Scripture says about the nature of man, you know that we would even have some concerns about the title of this book…

1. Bad things happen to good people?

- time doesn’t allow us to sketch out a biblical anthropology…but the point of Genesis 3 is that human beings sin…we sin all the time…David explained in Psalm 139 that the sin nature is passed down through the normal process of procreation…

- Psalm 14:1-3 - The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good.The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men To see if there are any who understand, Who seek after God.They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one.

- that’s the conclusion that the writer of Psalm 73 comes to…

2. Who’s on trial here?

- we’re not saying that the question was wrong…or that the suffering could have been avoided…’

- but as that suffering boils off the dross of unbiblical thinking, if in fact there is any present, that needs to be addressed…

- Psalm 73:21-22 - When my heart was embittered and I was pierced within, then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before You.

 

- this is why we do not want a God who is simply fair…because we’re born in sin, any breathe we take is a gift of His grace…and I know those can sound like hard words when applied to real life circumstances, but any other view cannot stand the test of Scripture…

 

- having a wrong view of man also makes it difficult for you to think about:

3. What about your part?

 

E. Your view of trials.

1. Not a direct cause/effect.

- another major point of the book of Job is that his 3 counselors were miserable because they kept saying that Job’s suffering was because of his own sin…

- because of the way the book is set up, we know from the very outset that this is not the case…

2. Can draw us closer to Him.

- Psalm 73:25-26 - Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

3. Can bring God glory.

- do you remember the question the disciples asked Jesus when they came upon a man born blind?...

- John 9:3 - Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

4. Can purify God’s people.

- suffering may not have anything to do with a particular choice a person made in the past, but they can still be used by God to mold us into the image of His Son…

- James 1:4 - And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

- all of this assumes that you’ve let trials and suffering have their desired effect (develop the opposite – bitterness…)

F. Your view of the Savior.

- those who see no value of suffering need look no further than the cross…

- cf. John 3:16 [develop the gospel]

- Hebrews 2:10 - For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.

G. Your view of eternity.

1. A great phrase in the Bible – “a little while”

1 Peter 5:10 - After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.

2. The possibility of simultaneous emotions.

- 1 Thessalonians 4:13 - But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.

III. The Resolution of Suffering

A. Avoid the tendency to compare your sufferings to others.

- cf Peter regarding John’s death – “what is that to you”…

B. Let God’s Word frame your view of suffering.

- 2 Timothy 1:12 - For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.

C. Consider the end of those who handle suffering well, and those who handle prosperity poorly.

- Psalm 73:17 – Until I came into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.

Steve Viars

B.S. - Bible, Baptist Bible College
M.Div. - Grace Theological Seminary
D.Min. - Westminster Theological Seminary

Pastor Steve Viars has served at Faith Church since 1987. He and his wife Kris were married in 1982 and have two married daughters, a son, and two grandchildren. Pastor Viars’ gifted teaching ministry, enthusiasm for the Word of God, and organizational skills are instrumental in equipping Faith Church. He oversees the staff, deacons, and all Faith ministries and serves on the boards of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, Biblical Counseling Coalition, Vision of Hope, and the Faith Community Development Corporation.

Read Steve Viars’ Journey to Faith for the full account of how the Lord led Pastor Viars to Faith Church.

View Pastor Viars' Salvation Testimony Video