If God is good, why do bad things happen?
The question is not new. People have asked it for centuries. It shows up in historical, philosophophical, and religious texts.
One of the places it appears is in Psalm 10.
Most think that David is the author of Psalm 10. Assuming that, what David is doing in Psalm 10 is wrestling with the question of how to reconcile God’s goodness with the reality of evil. He starts off asking:
Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
David is expressing his confusion, his sadness, his uncertainty, his doubt…in other words, David is just like us. When we see bad things happen, we wrestle with them, they affect us, they affect our faith. We pray, “God! when times are tough, I have a really hard time seeing you! God, when evil strikes, I have a really hard time understanding if you’re good! God, why do you hide yourself!”
When things are hard, it’s difficult to see God. We have trouble understanding how it is that we could be experiencing what we’re experiencing and God still be good.
How can God be good if he hides when trouble comes? But does he hide? Or is it the case that perhaps the problem is not that the Lord hides from us in times of trouble, but that it’s harder for us to see him in times of trouble.
When I was growing up, I remember my pastor telling a story. I don’t remember if it was his story, if it was a true story, or if it was something he made up. But he told the story of a couple who were dating and he would drive his car with a bench seat and she would sit right next to him. And they got married and experienced the normal ups and downs and they had kids. Twenty years go by and, one day, they’re sitting at a stoplight and they see a car coming the other way. There’s this young couple sitting in the car and the guy’s driving and his girl is sitting right next to him and he’s got his arm around her. The wife sees this scene and, from her seat by the passenger window, looks over and says to her husband: “Do, you remember when we used to do that?” And he looks over at her, across the seat, and says, “Yeah, but I’m not the one that moved.”
God doesn’t move.
God doesn’t change.
When times of trouble come, it’s that our circumstances have put a lot of seat space between God and us. We seem to have slid farther and farther across the seat.
God’s not intentionally hiding.
It’s just harder to see him when times are tough.
But David points out a problem: when it’s difficult for us to see God, evil seems to increase. The wicked seem to be emboldened by God’s apparent absence and they began to take advantage of the situation.
2 In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor;
let them be caught in the schemes that they have devised.
3 For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul,
and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord.
4 In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him;
all his thoughts are, “There is no God.”
5 His ways prosper at all times;
your judgments are on high, out of his sight;
as for all his foes, he puffs at them.
6 He says in his heart, “I shall not be moved;
throughout all generations I shall not meet adversity.”
7 His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under his tongue are mischief and iniquity.
8 He sits in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places he murders the innocent.
His eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
9 he lurks in ambush like a lion in his thicket;
he lurks that he may seize the poor;
he seizes the poor when he draws him into his net.
10 The helpless are crushed, sink down,
and fall by his might.
11 He says in his heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”
12 Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand;
forget not the afflicted.
13 Why does the wicked renounce God
and say in his heart, “You will not call to account”?
Unfortunately, evil tends to breed evil, wickedness, wickedness. We see this when we look at the world today. We hear stories of people growing up and seeing depravity all around them and instead of desiring a different way they just continue in it. They see the war, so they wage war. They see drugs, so they do drugs. They see wickedness and they learn it and they say, “look we’re not being punished for it. We’re not being held accountable for it. Therefore, I can do whatever I want.”
David says evil is a problem that just snowballs. It’s not random, it’s not chance: it comes from us. From humanity. Lying about one another, stealing from one another, persecuting one another, waging war with one another. If there’s no God to hold us accountable, then we can do whatever we want to.
“Do whatever you want as long as you can get away with it” is the modern mantra.
How many atrocities have come about from people operating on that understanding?
How many warlords are on their thrones today because they’re convinced that no one can stop them?
How many people today are walking around with this understanding: there is no God?
Thankfully, Psalm 10 goes on and David reminds himself and us:
14 But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation,
that you may take it into your hands;
to you the helpless commits himself;
you have been the helper of the fatherless.
15 Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer;
call his wickedness to account till you find none.
16 The Lord is king forever and ever;
the nations perish from his land.
17 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
18 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.
What is David saying? He’s saying, “God, I know you’re going to fix things. I know that you are going to do something about evil. God, you are good in spite of the fact that evil exists. This time of trouble is not the eternal state of things. God, you’re good and, yes, bad things happen. But one day, they’re not going to happen anymore. One day, God, you’re going to set everything right.”
Do you hear David’s relief? Do you get his sense of understanding?
God’s not hiding; God’s going to do something about this evil. Indeed, God has been doing something about it all along.
What is God doing about it?
God Gave Us A Choice
First, God gave us free will. Debate the particulars all you want, but he gave us a choice: worship him or worship not-him. And humanity chose not-him and everything that has happened since has been a consequence of that decision to not worship God.
But God hasn’t moved. God hasn’t changed.
And what God established from the beginning still holds true.
God created the heavens and the earth. And he made light and he made the moon and he made the sun and he made the animals and he made everything and he said, “this is good.” And then he made Adam and he made Eve and he said, “this is very good.” When God said it was good, was he unaware of how bad it would get? No! He wasn’t surprised. It’s very good because the end result would be to God’s glory and the ultimate good of his creation.
When God declared over his creation, “this is very good,” he was not saying, “this is very good because they’re never going to face difficulties, they’re never going to choose to reject me, they’re never going to have to deal with trouble.” Not at all. He’s saying this is very good because God built his solution to the problem of evil in from the very beginning. He built in his understanding that mankind would choose not-God and that all of this trouble would come as a result.
God knew that. And he can still say it’s very good because of what he’s going to do.
God Gave Us Life
In spite of the evil to come, God gave us life. He could have made nothing! If God created nothing then we would not exist to even ask these questions! We would have been spared pain but we would also never know joy. Existence is better than non-existence.
So, God gave us life out of love. But then why didn’t he create us without the ability to choose not-God? Because, if God would have given us no choice but to worship him, if the only option was the God-option, we’d be no different than robots.
How much does a robot understand of love? How many robots drive hundreds of miles to visit a national park, stop at the overlook, and marvel at the panorama of creation? How many robots go out at night to look at the stars and see the Milky Way stretched out above them?
The reason didn’t God didn’t create us like robots, the reason he gave us a choice, is not so that he could punish us when we finally fell. No! He created us with a choice so that we would have the capability or the possibility of knowing what love and beauty are.
God gives us life and it’s interesting that we still have it. He didn’t change when we fell. God didn’t pull the plug. In spite of our sin and the trouble we cause and the trouble we experience, we still have life. We still experience goodness. We still experience love. We still experience God’s provision.
Whether we acknowledge him, or not, he still allows us the chance at making something of this life. One of the things that God is doing about evil is he gives us a glimpse of good things in this life and invites us, through them, to see the rest of his work.
But we say that’s not enough. We don’t want glimpses of good in the midst of the bad: we want God to fix the problem!
God Made Us In His Image
We misunderstand what God’s purpose was for us. He created us in his image. God didn’t just give us life and say, “here, eke out whatever meager meaning and purpose and beauty and love you can find.” No! He gives us the opportunity to be like him. He says, “look, you’re going to be like me. You’re going to understand and you’re going to be able to create and you’re going to have dominion and you’re going to be able to rule. You’re going to be creative and there are going to be problems and you’re going to be able to fix them.”
One of the things that God is doing about evil is that he made us in his image. We’ve been given the stewardship of creation and one another. We’re supposed to be the ones representing God to the world. We’re supposed to be the ones who fix problems when they come up. We’re supposed to bring order out of the chaos of everything like God brought order out of the chaos of nothing.
When we experience trouble, when we experience the effects of sin on this world, we’re not experiencing something that God is surprised by. Instead, what we’re experiencing is God giving us the opportunity to image him. We so often look the problems of this world as if, somehow, we were helpless creatures in the hands of time and fate.
And yet God has given us minds that are almost unimaginably creative and hands that can build the most intricate and beautiful things. Through history, we can see that God gave us the ability to create amazing things, technology that allows us to travel faster than sound waves. We can build stuff as high as mountains. And we have medical technology that can save lives. We have this unbelievable potential to fix problems as they arise. That’s God’s gift to us.
And yet when times come in hard times come, we just want to take our hands off and say, “Jesus, take the wheel.” Or worse: “This is your fault, God.”
I don’t think that God’s plan for humanity was for us to shrink from problems: he created us to solve them. There is a near-constant invitation for people to join him in his work. When we see evil, we need to understand that God is giving us opportunities to exercise the gifts he’s given us.
The problem of evil is ultimately not that God doesn’t intervene every time, but that we, his created solution, choose not to.
Instead of solving problems, we create them. We end up causing more destruction than we do construction. Why? Because we take the gift of creativity and the ability to make stuff and we twist it.
We take minds that were meant to harness the healing power of creation and instead we split the atom and build weapons capable of destroying every single one of us.
Instead of serving, we’re lazy.
Instead of loving, we’re uncaring.
Instead of giving, we’re greedy.
And then we blame God for our problems.
The problem is not God, the problem is our sin.
But God’s not done yet: there’s another thing that he’s done to deal with evil.
God Gave Us Jesus And Took Our Sin
God knew that in order for us to do that which we were created to do, in order for us to join him, in order for us to truly demonstrate who he is to the world around us, he has to fix something first: sin. Because so long as sin is in us, we will continue to abdicate our role in creation.
God has to change something in us in order for us to change the world.
He’s inviting us to see problems as an opportunity to join him in his work but we will never see them as such until he gets through to us. Not until he takes that heart of stone from us and puts a heart of flesh in its place are we ever going to experience what it means to truly image God
The reason we can know that God is good even when bad things happen is that God takes those bad things and turns them for His own glory and for our good.
He does this most visibly with Jesus Christ.
Jesus comes. And Jesus experiences all the things that we experience. He lives, he breathes, he struggles, he hurts. Jesus is just like us: he’s human.
Still, there’s something different about him because instead of creating chaos where there should be order he brings order where there is chaos.
Instead of breaking things that should be fixed, he fixes things that are broken.
Jesus does what man should have done: he fixes problems instead of creates them.
And we killed him for the trouble. We put him on a cross. We did the most unimaginably evil thing possible. We sought to kill God.
But Jesus didn’t stay dead. Jesus rose again.
In Jesus, we finally see hope. We see the possibility of God dealing with this problem of sin that we’ve got. Because, in Jesus dying and rising, we are invited to place our faith in Him. We are invited to exchange our heart of stone for a heart of flesh. And we’re given Holy Spirit and now we’re empowered to live a life that exists for God’s glory and for the good of others and not for ourselves.
Instead of doing good things to further my own ascension, Jesus ascension means that I don’t have to do anything for me anymore. I can do things purely for others. There’s no need for selfish motives.
If God is good why do bad things happen? I don’t know: look at the cross.
Bad things happen so that God can redeem them. In redeeming them, God shows us a better vision of His glory. God saves us by removing the sin from us. It’s only after sin is taken out that we’re able to finally do what it was that we were created to do: fix what’s broken!
What is God doing about the problem of evil: he’s redeeming people and setting them free of themselves so they can focus on fixing things. The question is not, “where is God when suffering comes,” but, “where are the people at whose hearts have been changed so that they can now live the image of God out in this world?”
When war breaks out.
When tragedy strikes.
When injustice reigns.
When oppression is the law of the land.
Where’s the church?
God doesn’t rush in and fix all of our problems; he doesn’t curtail our free will; he doesn’t cut us off at the knees: he wants us to know true love and true beauty and true grace. He invites us to see evil dealt with at the cross.
But when we receive that vision, the saddest thing in the world would be for us to imagine that the only reason we’ve received it is so that we can go to heaven.
No, no, no, NO!
God Gives Us Purpose
God saves us and he gives us a purpose. That purpose is what to finally do what we are made to do which is to image him, to showcase him, to allow creation to see who God is. He has made mankind a steward, a creative, problem-solving being that points back to his goodness.
That can’t happen unless our sin gets dealt with.
Our sin can’t get dealt with unless we’re humble enough to ask God fix it.
And once it’s fixed, we’re free to do that which we were created to do: meet the challenge of evil head-on and work to eradicate it.
What’s that mean when the question comes up, “If God is good, why do bad things happen?”
It means that the Church has some work to do.
Christian, you and I are God’s answer to the problem of evil.
Sometimes we think there are two kinds of Christian: there’s the professional Christian and then there’s the everyday Christian. Not so. There’s just one kind of Christian: those who work to fix what’s broken.
When problems arise at work.
When a terrorist strikes your city.
When a hurricane devastates the coast.
The people of God should be right there, working to fix things.
We won’t be perfect.
We’ll always need Jesus.
But let’s get to work.