Why do bad things happen to good people? (And not as disturbing but equally perplexing: why do good things happen to bad people?) Does conventional wisdom offer any insight into the seemingly illogical happenings of life?*
Conventional wisdom, generally accepted as true, is often prescriptive, giving exact blueprints to follow in particular situations. It also tends to give its user a sense of certainty in its instruction, such as “You get what you pay for” and “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.” Experience has taught us all that conventional wisdom is not certain, and exceptions exist to every rule. The following question then arises: ought wisdom to be predictive and definite, or is life simply too variable to be constrained?
The quest for certainty is a function of human nature, and many ancient texts from wise men, prophets, and sages are filled with nuggets of helpful insights. Accordingly, the biblical canon of wisdom literature, for example, contains a myriad of perspectives on life that stand in tension with other lessons from the same book. How does one reconcile such inconsistencies? The answer is that such divergence is not meant to be reconciled, and the succinct biblical answer to “What, then, is wisdom?” is not a matter of certainty and one righteous perspective; rather, it’s about developing a closer relationship with God and walking in a path where the mind no longer seeks to know and have dominion over reality but to embrace the One who created that reality.
The book of Proverbs provides a primer in the art of wisdom when it says, “Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance” (1:5, ESV; italics mine). The Hebrew word for “guidance” is tahbulot, meaning “steering.” Wisdom, then, symbolically in a biblical interpretation, refers to steering one’s vessel down the waterways of life, carefully navigating based upon what lies ahead. Past experience, learned lessons, and intuition will assist the navigator to steer away from obstacles and through rough waters. Steering also tells one when not to navigate and to stay idle by the shore. Certainly, patterns will exist, but the art of steering will require one to be flexible and adapt to the current predicament based upon novel phenomenon. There will not be one definite reliable course to navigate because so many variables influence conditions on the water.
With this lens, the wisdom literature in the Bible begins to make perfect sense despite the fact that different sections offer seemingly contradictory advice. For example, the book of Proverbs tends to offer consequentialist recommendations, so if you do this, you will get that: “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling” (26:27, ESV). Contrast this to the book of Job, where the main character is declared to be without blame, yet several calamities fall upon him and his family in his innocence. In essence, Job does not dig a pit, yet he falls into a very big one. This is why the writer of Ecclesiastes can say, “In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing” (7:15, ESV). The Hebrew word for “vain” is hebel, meaning “an emptiness, breath, or a vapor.” The symbolism is clear—not to suggest that life itself is empty, but the quest for certainty is like trying to grasp and hold on to a vapor.
Back to the original question: why do bad things happen to good people?
The “why” is very powerful because it can trap you in a very heavy place where we’ve all been: a dark and hopeless locale where the more questions you ask, the less progress you seem to make and the more despair we seem to get into.
Again, the writer of Ecclesiastes suggests an answer: “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him” (7:14, ESV).
For the most part, most people do not need help in handling good days. We need help in handling the second part of the verse. The central point is that the subject of the text is God, so the focus of our human attention should not be on us, but on Him—the powerful revelation that follows is that God remains in charge when things are good and when things are bad. He does not switch from being kind and merciful to cruel and unjust, but He does know the future, and He does know what kind of effect these days will have on us. (Allow me to state that this is in no way meant to diminish or minimalize anyone’s experiences or struggles. Each person’s walk is his or her own, and as we have already learned, nothing can be generalized when it comes to life).
Accordingly, in bad days, the text tells us to consider—in Hebrew ra’ah, meaning “to figuratively see, discern, gaze into, or perceive.” Hence, bad days are meant to be instructional or introspective. We don’t learn well in good times because, well, we’re too busy enjoying ourselves. Trials tend to reveal to us what we’re made of and expose where we are weak. The trials themselves won’t make us any better until we seriously consider what is going on and what effect it is having on us. We could just focus on the adversity and become frustrated by its attempts to thwart our progress, or we could consider what defects the adversity is exposing so that we can turn a defensive weak point into a stronghold. Fighting the day of adversity, then, may be the exact thing you ought not to do because it was designed to teach you something—perhaps a new insight or a new swagger, as well as expose poor communication in a relationship, reveal a hidden danger, or engender a fierce tenacity or a resolute grit. Without the challenge, all these things cannot declare themselves.
I believe what the writer of Ecclesiastes was trying to say is that the day of adversity is made not to leave you the same as when the day started. The whole point is to effect change.
In my brief time on this earth, I certainly have not been through as much as other seasoned believers, but I do think I can offer an answer to this question of why bad happens to good: the question is flawed. Instead of asking why, which is self-directed, one should contemplate the Who behind everything, a stance that is God-directed.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal
* For the sake of simplicity, I have referred to people in this post as “good” and “bad,” yet it is very important to realize that other than Christ, due to the pervasiveness of sin, no one is good, and no one is without blame. One of the grand lies promulgated by institutionalized religion and those in places of spiritual “authority” is that anyone can become good by their own works, and as a result, engaging in a relationship with God is a meritocracy where if I do enough good things or obey enough laws, I will become moral and earn God’s favor—grace and “goodness” therein result from my behavior. Pride is the invariable end result. The genuine message of the gospel is that we all are sinners, and therefore “bad,” but that should not lead us to despair, because in spite of this, God already loves us as a function of His grace, an undeserved free gift. Since all people are sinners, they thus can enter into only two relationships with God: by not repenting, or repenting and being empowered to live a life of obedience through Christ. The point is that if anyone ever convinces you that you can earn righteousness or become good, this is a farce—it’s never about you, but it is all about Jesus. I say all this in order to put into proper perspective the contemporary notion of who is “good” and who is “bad,” reorganizing our mental perceptions of unjust things happening to these two groups.