Why do Bad Things Happen?

Some months back, I was one of the recipients of an email from a co-worker’s relative.  He was writing about an accident which had happened to someone else, and it triggered thoughts related to his own earlier accident.  Some of the questions he asked:

  • I am trying to figure out “God’s plans” — but am I supposed to or not?
  • Some of the bad things that happen to us just don’t seem fair.  Did God plan those things?
  • Why doesn’t God step in when tragedy or evil is among us and stop whatever bad thing is going to happen?
  • It was tough to hear my pastor say, as we prayed together, that God was with me when my accident happened.  If so, why didn’t He stop it?

Good questions, indeed.  If God is good, why doesn’t He stop bad things from happening to His people?  Does He really have a plan for me, and if so, what is it, and why does it include bad things?  Is God fair?

So, Why do Bad Things Happen?

The day I received this email, I had a question from someone else.  Something bad had happened to her family, and she asked me why.  My answer was “profound”:

The best answer I can give you is I don’t know.

Unless God tells us in the Bible exactly why He did something, we can’t know why, we can only guess.  But there are some things He has told us about this.  I gave my correspondent these five Biblical principles which can help us think rightly and keep those “bad things” in perspective.

God isn’t Really “Fair”

God is too merciful to be fair.  If He was fair, none of us would be alive, none of us would be going to Heaven.  Stop and remember this — Christ died on the Cross for us.  That was so “unfair” for God to love us that much.  We should have suffered the eternal consequences of our sin, and if God were fair, we would have.

The last thing Christians should really be talking about is fairness.  Christians don’t believe in fairness in eternal things, we believe in God’s grace and mercy.  To a Christian, fairness is the scariest thing there could be, because it means judgment instead of mercy, and every Christian knows what we deserve.  That should help us to put “fairness” in this life into perspective.  When you’ve been delivered from eternal punishment in Hell, even though you know you deserved it, it’s a wee bit silly to be talking about whether or not God is “fair.”

All Things for Good

Romans 8:28-29

28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
29 For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.

Christians are great at quoting verse 28 when bad things happen.  I have several things to say about this passage.

A) It doesn’t say everything that happens is good, it says that all things “work together” for good. That means that anything, bad or good, that comes into our life, is something that God is using to accomplish good. It would be silly to say that bad things are good, but it is obvious, when we look back over our life, that God has used bad things to accomplish good.  Sometimes, God uses bad things to help us see what a mess we are in, and uses them to get us back on track.

B) This verse is for those who love God.  Sometimes we just bounce past that little detail.  It is a promise for God’s people.  If you don’t love God, if you aren’t His, you might as well read on, because it isn’t going to help you.  The rest of this post won’t help you, either, because you need the Lord.  This post talks about how God helps His people and works in their lives.  If you want the things this post talks about when hard times come into your life, you should know that strength in hardship is just one of the many blessings that come to His people, but the greatest is forgiveness from sin and a restored relationship with Almighty God.

C) People forget to read verse 29, and if they do they often get caught up in the first few words and miss the whole point. It answers the question as to what “God’s plans” are. His plan is to make us like Jesus Christ. Why does God allow accidents and other bad things? Because He plans to use them to make us more like Jesus Christ. How? Well, there are various ways these things can accomplish that.

Maybe we need to be more humble, and so something happens that strips away our pride.  Maybe we need to learn more of His attitude towards suffering.  Maybe something becomes too important and is like an idol to us.  Who knows?  Sometimes your pastor or your spouse will be able to tell you what of Christlikeness was supposed to come out of a problem.  Some guy on the Internet certainly can’t answer that question.

What a guy on the Internet can tell you is that the purpose of things that come into our life, God’s plan, is to “conform you to the image (or likeness) of His Son.”  It isn’t to make you comfortable or give you pleasure in this life, it is to make you perfect, and you’ve got a way to go.  If you don’t like what is happening, it is usually because the goal of your plan is different from His goal.

D) We shouldn’t stop reading with verse 29, either.  We’re being told to trust God about “all things” in verse 28. The anchor for that trust is in verses 31-32.

31 What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?
32 He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?

God is on our side, and the proof of His love for us is the Cross. We may not understand how He is working together all things for good, we may not understand why He had to use these particular things, but we know one thing without a doubt. He loves us with a love that will never die, never end, never grow dim. The Cross proves it all. If we can’t trust Him with the temporary problems of this life, when we have the proof of His love at the Cross, then we need to re-wire our thinking.

Setting Affections Above

Colossians 3:1-3

1 If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.
2 Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.
3 For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

We have a new life in Christ, and that new life, our real life now, is in Heaven with God. We’re to set our affections, our thinking, the things we value on things above, in Heaven, not on things on the earth.

That doesn’t mean we’re to be idiots about things in this life, but it means our primary focus is on where we are going. We have a natural tendency to be too much focused on things on this earth. I want to be healthy here. I want to be financially well off here. I want to have nice neighbours here, etc. I don’t want unhappiness or being deprived of something now, I want all the good stuff NOW.

If we could see ourselves the way God sees us, I think sometimes we would look like a three-year-old — I want to go to MacDonald’s RIGHT NOW, I want my toys NOW, etc.  We need to remember that God promised that we will have perfect health, perfect wealth, perfect neighbours, perfect everything — but not yet.  He gives us a lot of glimpses of that in this life.  He may heal His people, or give them financial blessings, etc.  But that isn’t always the case, and the very best of this life is just a pale shadow of what is to come.

Sometimes I think that if life was too good here, we would become too complacent and forget to set our affections above. We’d be happy with this pale shadow. I think one reason God occasionally allows His people to suffer is to help them remember to set their affections above. Remember, there is a time coming when Revelation 21:4 will be perfectly fulfilled — and it isn’t here yet.

Pain is a Teaching Tool

Pain is real, and pain of whatever kind (physical, emotional, whatever) hurts.  We don’t try to pretend it doesn’t.  God loves truth and honesty. We ask Him to take pain away, and He often does, but it isn’t honest to pretend He has taken it away if it’s still there.  Worse, if we are pretending it is gone, we aren’t listening to the lessons He is teaching us through it.

We sometimes have to accept that we haven’t yet learned well enough the lessons we were supposed to learn.  Paul had a problem, a “thorn in the flesh” (we don’t know what it was) that God never took away in this life (II Corinthians 12:7-9). Whatever the problem was, it was there as a protection against pride, to keep him humble.  Here’s the hard part for us — God determined it wasn’t going away when Paul asked Him.  We wouldn’t mind problems if God would just take them away when we asked, would we?

God determined that Paul needed that problem to stick around.  It appears that Paul didn’t learn his lesson well enough to be free of the problem. God’s answer was just that His grace is sufficient, and that is a good enough answer for us with our problems.

You Can Handle It

This is the most important message for Christians facing difficult times in their lives.  You can handle it.  Anyone who is truly a follower of Jesus Christ is spiritually able to handle any problem that comes their way.  That includes you. How do I know?  God said so.  I call it the “no excuses” verse:

I Corinthians 10:13

There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.

Several key points:

    • Don’t complain, others have been through whatever it is you are going through. In fact, it’s common.
    • No temptation you face will be too hard for you, you are able to deal with it.
    • The guarantee of that second point is that God is faithful, which is a pretty good guarantee.
    • God makes a way of escape, every time.
    • God’s way of escape isn’t necessarily escape from the problem, because we are able to bear/endure it. So that means God’s way of escape is from the danger of the temptation, not necessarily escape from the problem itself. But if you are to continue to endure the problem, God will give a way of escape from the danger.

Someone I know had some unfortunate experiences in childhood, and sometimes the bad memories would come back, taking control of thoughts.  This person learned a “way of escape” — when the thoughts come back, this person can (mentally or aloud) sing “Jesus Loves Me”, wherever and whenever needed.  It doesn’t change those childhood experiences, it doesn’t mean the memories never come back, but it does mean those memories cannot take control of the thought life.

A way of escape is always there. We can always cope spiritually with any problem that comes our way. God guarantees it. There are “no excuses”.

People write whole books on the question of pain, and if I don’t stop I’ll write another. 🙂 That provides five principles that have been helpful to me, and to others as well, as we try to respond in a way that pleases God when “bad things happen.”

Update:  Further thoughts on “Fairness”, entitlement, and gratitude.

Related, on Job: God Started this Conversation!

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
This entry was posted in Daily Christianity and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Why do Bad Things Happen?

  1. Lamentations 3:21-26 — This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. The LORD is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him. The LORD is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD.

    As believers, we should not only be thankful that the Lord our God is not “fair,” but is faithfully compassionate and merciful, in relation to our eternal future, but also that He is not “fair,” but is faithfully compassionate and merciful, in relation to our present walk. If not for our Lord’s faithul compassions and mercies each day, we would be consumed under His wrath even for our daily sins. If you commit sin at least once each day, then be abundantly thankful that the Lord our God is not “fair” toward us and our sinfulness, but is faithfully compassionate and merciful. In “fairness,” whatever hardship we experience is less than we deserve — to be consumed.

    Also —

    Often we tend to define what is “good” for us through a grid of physical, circumstantial, emotional, and relational “goodness;” whereas the Lord our God defines what is “good” for us through a grid of spiritual “goodness.” Indeed, He is far, far, far more concerned about our spiritual character than He is about our physical, circumstantial, emotional, and relational comfort.

    For the Excellency of the Knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord,
    Abiding in Christ, and Christ in us,
    Pastor Scott Markle

  2. Melissa Jo Elliott says:

    Great blog! Very true!

  3. A couple questions.
    1. Do you mind if I print this for my personal use? Long articles are hard for me to read on the computer and I want to injest all this.
    2. Would you have a problem if I linked to this on my blog? I’ve read several books by bird rehabilitators, but not a one believes in God. Why is that? How can they touch, see up close the beauty of a Robin, Bald Eagle, Crows… but not be amazed at the wonders of creation? But they see the how man’s actions have brought most of these birds into their care- the power lines, cars, man’s cruelty, feral cats, lead bullets…. Would they accept a Creator who allows this?
    I asked my husband these things and he said evolution basically claims survival of the fittest- there is no room for compassion. Those same rehabilitators have been benefitted by the compassionate actions of others, whether by donations, bringing in an injured animal, and people who volunteer their time. That compassion was given to us by God.
    I think this would tie in rather well, but I’d like your permission first.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      1. Of course you can print it. Up to 500 copies for non-profit use, and if you need more :), contact me.
      2. Absolutely you can link to it. In fact, I’m comfortable enough with your blog that if you want to post the whole thing as a guest post, I’d have no objection. Just say something like “reposted with permission,” and clearly distinguish between my content and anything you want to add to it.
      3. Romans 1 tells us why people who see God’s creation don’t believe in Him. We all are made in God’s image, and thus have the capacity to recognise much of His working, and to do much which is consistent with His nature, but it has been marred by sin.

      • I appreciate that. 😀
        This is off topic a little. I noticed when you were referring to Romans 8, you skipped verse 30. I found it and it seemed to be that same issue that you said people would “get caught up in” at verse 29. .

        Do you think this type of thinking is wrong… When it comes to something I may not fully understand in Scripture, I should just leave it up to God as to when or how He reveals it to me and not get all bogged down about it. Just live out Scripture as I understand it at that time… There have been passages that for years have not been very clear, but yet I later hear of a different viewpoint and it seems to make total sense when compared to other Scriptures and I feel a peace where I had none before. Do you understand what I am trying to say?

      • Jon Gleason says:

        What do you know. I did skip verse 30. I guess I see how it happened in my thought processes while writing this, but it emphasises my point about the whole predestination / calling question. God is talking about the purpose and the direction of His working in our lives in this passage, not trying to answer the (admittedly interesting) questions of exactly how He does it. He is saying that He is working, and working to an end.

        As to not fully understanding a Scripture, that’s an interesting question. Several thoughts:
        1) God wants us to be diligent students of the Word (II Timothy 2:15). So I don’t think we should just shrug and move on if we don’t understand something.
        2) Knowing God and His truth is something we won’t complete in this life, so there will be things we won’t understand now. It would be somewhat arrogant for me to expect to understand everything right away.
        3) Scripture is a unified whole, so there are parts you won’t understand until you learn other parts of it first.

        So we should not just move on if we don’t understand something, but neither should we get bogged down. It may be the answer is right there if we aren’t lazy and just do a little study. But it may be the answer depends on us learning some other things in Scripture first, so if we don’t find the answer, we should indeed move on.

        What we must not do is worry about it. We have a God who loves us. If our heart is towards Him, He’ll make sure we know what we need to know when we need to know it. He’s not going to zap His child who is trying to follow Him just because we didn’t understand part of His Word. He wants us to be diligent, but He also wants us to rest in His love.

        I hope that answers the question you were meaning to ask. 🙂

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