Three months to live. That was what my father heard when he went into the Mayo clinic for treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the Spring of 1986. That proved accurate.
My father made his living on the business-side of health care, as a hospital administrator, but even he thought it was jarring to be told so coldly, at age 47, that that’s all the time he had left. A college friend, who had become a pastor visited him there. He asked, rhetorically, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Why are they given only three months in the prime of life? This is the old “problem of evil.” Evil strikes even “good” people. Why? Can God not stop it? Or does He not care? The conundrum: Is He either not able or not good? The old friend, now pastor, told my father it was a mystery. Apparently, his demeanor was comforting because he wasn’t a miserable comforter.
That problem of evil goes back at least as far as Epicurus (c. 341-270 BC). He reasoned that if God cares about our suffering (loving) and can stop our suffering (all-powerful), then there shouldn’t be any suffering. So, since there is still suffering, either God is not all-powerful or He is not good. This argument is used by atheists to say, “See, there cannot be a God” and is often answered by Christians, like that pastor, by saying, “It’s a mystery.”
So, why do bad things happen to good people? A prominent Christian philosophy professor mused about this on Facebook. I simply replied, “Isn’t that what the book of Job is about?” He responded, even more simply, “No.” But since it’s about God and suffering, surely it’s relevant to the problem of evil. But the philosopher wanted to rely on a “free-will” argument. That doesn’t find any place in Job, except perhaps in the way the three friends assume that Job’s suffering is due to his free will supposedly choosing to sin. The book of Job vetoes that. So, even though we still debate the problem of evil, we rarely turn to Job for the answer. Let’s do it anyway.
The Megaphone and the Murky Window
Elihu, the fourth, enigmatic friend, says, in chapter 36:15, that God “delivers the afflicted by their affliction and opens their ear by adversity.” C. S. Lewis said something similar when he said suffering is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” But what is God delivering the afflicted from? From not knowing God. The scoffer will respond incredulously: ‘So, God is allowing suffering — loosing viruses that kill millions, tsunamis that wash people away, cancer that takes people in the prime of life, freak accidents, vicious criminals and murderous invaders — just so that we’ll seek God?’ They’ll say that God is a megalomaniac, a narcissist, a sadist to afflict people just to get their attention. ‘He should exist to make me happy,’ so people now insist (with no sense of irony). ‘He’s self-centered because He’s not centered on me!’
Indeed, while God’s right to afflict is questioned, our right to accuse Him isn’t. Modern people assume that the more the affliction, the more we should be angry and bitter with God. In the hit Broadway play “The Book of Mormon,” one song assumes that the poor, afflicted, ravaged African people must be so angry at God that they regularly curse Him. Like Job’s wife, the advice of modern culture to believers is “curse God and die.” We should doubt a God who afflicts, they say. But, in reality, it’s often the destitute and desperate who have the most reverence for God. They have less competition with God over their trust.
The smug who think they are already righteous have no doubts. They know God well enough already. They don’t need affliction to know God, they think. But that kind of knowledge of God is something that will have to wait until we see Him face to face. Paul told the Corinthians, “For now we see in a mirror dimly — a glass darkly — but then face to face.”
The book of Job tells us how to live while peering for God through a murky window. What we need now are doubts — not about God — but we do need doubts. Afflictions come to make us doubt the things we need to be doubting. So, you think money can solve all your problems? Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, had $7 billion. It couldn’t buy him a cure for pancreatic cancer that medicine didn’t have. You trust family. What if, like Job, the only member of your family remaining is scorning you? Maybe, like Job’s friends, you trust your morality or religion. To all who trust in the wrong thing comes God’s incredibly subversive question: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?”
The Need for Doubt
That question is really the climax of the drama. It settles everything; it doesn’t answer the questions, but it settles them. Job’s friends thought they knew enough about God to predict how He would always behave. Job thought he was important enough to demand that God answer his protests. Neither doubted themselves. People who ask “Why do bad things happen to good people?” don’t doubt that they are one of those good people. That lack of doubt needs to be subverted.
Job, like a lot of “good” people who suffer, wrestles with doubts about God. Job boasts “I will argue my ways to His face” (Job 13:15) He’s confident that if he can argue directly with God, he can convince God Himself that God was wrong to allow bad things to happen to such a good person. After dozens of chapters of that smug confidence comes the “Where were you?” question. It’s meant to reverberate through our souls. God then asks question after question, each one designed to put the doubter in his place. Notice the sarcasm in 38:21: “You know,” God says. Surely you can answer all these questions. “For you were born then” — when the earth was founded, surely! — “and the number of your days is great!” Sarcasm is meant to humiliate and here God is humiliating the one who doubts the wrong thing, namely Him.
Job doubted God’s goodness but, worse than that, the friends didn’t doubt God’s goodness because they didn’t doubt themselves. They had too much faith in themselves and too little real knowledge of God. What all these people have in common, including Job’s wife, is that they don’t doubt themselves. What they need, what God’s four chapters of unrelenting questions are meant to create, are doubts. G. K. Chesterton said that the best approach to doubters is be like God in the book of Job; keep asking them questions to destroy their faith in themselves:
In dealing with the arrogant assertor of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself.
The problem with the modern doubter of God is not that he has doubt, but that he doubts the wrong thing. If he would doubt himself rather than God, he would be much better off. That’s what God’s questions are meant to create: doubts about ourselves.
The modern approach is, instead, to say, upfront, “Don’t doubt, because God’s not responsible,” for whatever reason, like supposedly to honor our free will. Perhaps He theoretically can prevent evil but because it violates some moral law that binds God Himself, like the inviolability of individual choices, He doesn’t. Or perhaps the modern seeks no reason at all for why an Almighty God exists in the same universe as evil. The question is dodged. In that testimony to modern American spirituality that is effectively canonical to many religious folk, the “Footprints” poem, evil and a loving God exist in the same universe, indeed, on the same beach, without any inquiry as to how. The Footprints’ therapeutic deity tolerates being doubted and accused of abandoning the believer in “the very lowest and saddest times,” like when you’re told you have three months to live. The idea that God might have the capacity to control those times is foreign to Footprints’ spirituality. In this narcissistic brand of spirituality, all that matters is how God makes me feel.
Ultimately, theodicies that make God incapable of preventing evil or Footprints-style piety that dodges the question, create doubts about God. What good is He? He’s at best an emotional crutch who can be bitterly accused and he responds sweetly. The book of Job disagrees. Throughout Job, God says He is responsible. In the prologue, in chapter 2, the Lord says to Satan that ‘you’ — Satan — “incited Me against him (Job) to ruin him.” In the epilogue, in 42:11, Job’s brothers and sisters come to him to comfort him, it says, “for all the evil — the bad things — that the Lord had brought upon him.” Doubt any god who is not in control of bad things.
The Law was given to show us how sinful we are. “We have this law to see therein that we have not been free from sin,” Martin Luther rhymed. It’s to make us doubt our self-righteousness. In the same way, the book of Job makes us doubt our smugness and leave us trusting God, with our hands over our mouths.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Answer the question! We demand an answer. It is just that attitude that the book of Job was inspired to crush and make us content with an unanswered question. Some say that the book of Job tells us why Job suffers, that the first two chapters answer that question. But that’s not really true. The first two chapters only say that God was, indeed, in control of it all. But why did God do it? We don’t know. He was challenged by Satan but He did not have to take the bait. Satan, the one who bears the blame for bad things in many people’s spirituality, recedes into a minor character. God takes responsibility.
Why? The unanswered question nearly drives Job crazy. In 6:1, “Oh that my vexation were weighed and all my calamity laid in the balances.” Elihu chides him, in 33:10, “Why do you contend against Him, saying, ‘He will answer none of man’s words’?” Job demands that God answers his questions in those long chapters of his angry, sullen debate and then God speaks out of the storm and instead of answering Job’s question, questions Job. Finally, Job, crushed by all God’s questions, admits, in chapter 42:
“I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” God is free. Our free will doesn’t stop His plan.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” Here Job recalls God’s question to him.
“Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand.” He tried to answer the problem of evil.
“things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 ‘Hear,” and he again is repeating God’s subversive interrogation, ‘and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ Again Job’s words echo God’s.
5 “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear.” Job had been a theologian.
“But now my eye sees you;” No longer, as much, through a glass darkly.
6 “Therefore I despise myself.” Here is Job doubting himself.
“And repent in dust and ashes.” He no longer sees himself as a good but wronged victim.
So, the answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people is frankly, “It’s none of your business.” Our business is to trust him. The immediate objection is that such is not a satisfactory answer. And that’s just the point: Who do we think we are to demand answers, to our satisfaction, from God? We’re supposed to trust Him with unanswered questions.
Good But Untamed
In the Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis writes of three children seeing “Aslan,” the enormous lion who symbolizes Christ. One of them asks if Aslan is a tame lion. They are told, “No, Aslan is not tame, but He is good.” That’s the God of Job. In chapters 40 and 41, He’s the creator of behemoth and leviathan: gargantuan, magnificent, fearful, wild beasts. “Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook?” No, you can’t. You can’t capture or subdue or domesticate him. “No one is so fierce that he dares to stir him up,” God says. ‘How much more Me,’ His maker. El Shaddai is not tame. Our morality or religion doesn’t train Him to do the tricks we want from Him.
“Why do bad things happen to good people?” That’s supposed to be a profound philosophical question, confounding the greatest minds. But a good philosophical argument should be free of unexamined assumptions. Yet there’s a glaring assumption in that question: why do you think there are “good people”? The Bible says “none is righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). Even in the book of Job, the best of men has to confess “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Even Job is not sinless. So, the question is false in its premise. There are no “good people.”
The problem for us is not the problem of evil. Only smug people so self-centered that they are out of touch with their depravity would assume that they are good, that the Almighty owes us protection if we’ve paid him off with the right morality or religion. The question is the problem of good. That’s why Job ends with an exorbitant display of God’s goodness to Job: healed, family restored, wealthy again, to amaze us with the problem of good. The conundrum: why do so many good things happen to us bad people?
Correction: there was one good person. Something bad happened to him. Why did bad things happen to Jesus, the good Person? So that God could bring good things to the rest of us bad people.
Once we’ve seen how big and good God is and how small and depraved we are, we can live content with unanswered questions. Then, we are ready for a better glimpse — a clearer look — of Him through that dark glass. And we know that whatever we find when we see Him face to face will not be tame, but He will be good.