Wednesday, August 03, 2011

When Bad Things Happen - Reynolds

A few years ago a New England rabbi, Harold Kushner, wrote a little book following the death of his fourteen-year-old son.  He titled it When Bad Things Happen To Good People.  Many people have found it a helpful book.  It emphasized the love of God rather than the power of God. God may be like a father, but not almighty, a God who did not will suffering and evil, and who would be with us in our pain and grief, who would help all those who called for help.

            All our responses to tragedy have at least one thing in common.  They all assume that God is the cause of our suffering, and they try to understand why God would want us to suffer.  Is it for our own good, or is it a punishment we deserve, or could it be that God does not care what happens to us?  Many of the answers are sensitive and imaginative, but none are totally satisfying.  Some lead us to blame ourselves in order to spare God's reputation.  Others ask us to deny reality or to repress our true feelings.  We are left either hating ourselves for deserving such a fate, or hating God for sending it to us when we did not deserve it.

            There may be another approach.  Maybe God does not cause our suffering.  Maybe it happens for some reason other than the will of God.  The psalmist writes, "I will lift my eyes to the hills.  From where does my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth!" (Psalm 121:1-2)  He does not say, "My pain comes from the Lord," or "my tragedy comes from the Lord," he says "my help comes from the Lord."

Could it be that God does not cause the bad things that happen to us? (Kushner, pp. 29-30)

            Its genius lay in the fact that it was a book to help people, not to defend God.  So today, as we consider this strange episode in the New Testament and the enigmatic words of Jesus, let us not seek to defend God but to understand ourselves. 

About that time some people came up and told him about the Galileans Pilate had killed when they were at worship, mixing their blood with the sacrifices on the altar. Jesus responded, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? I tell you No! But unless you turn to God you too will surely perish. And those eighteen in Jerusalem the other day, the ones crushed and killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed and fell on them, do you think these were worse citizens than all other Jerusalemites? I tell you No! But unless you turn to God, you too will surely perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

            Jesus refers to two incidents. He intensified the problem by referring to this second incident.  The first was an act of human inhumanity.  The second could only be seen as what insurance companies used to call - an "act of God." Towers fall on people almost every day.  Are such disasters God's retribution for evil done, or is there no justice in life?
            The seeming vehemence of Jesus' response may have been because he wanted to disabuse the people of the old notion that suffering is the result of sin.  In the instance of "the man born blind" (John 9), his reply was equally vehement.  "I tell you, No!"
            Jesus response must seem to us like a bit of an enigma.

Do you think that these were worse sinners than others? I tell you No!  But unless you repent, you will also perish.
            What does it mean?  Perhaps the following:
  1. First, suffering is not necessarily the result of wrong-doing, 

            Oh yes, I know.  Sometimes there is a certain correlation.  For instance, sustained alcohol abuse may lead to cirrhosis of the liver. And yes, sometimes the particularly destructive games that people play have their natural consequences.

            But surely Jesus in His teaching seeks to disabuse us of the old notion that has haunted our race for multi-thousands of years.  Suffering is not necessarily the result of wrong-doing. We've known too many instances of good people who suffered when there seemed to be neither rhyme nor reason for it. 
 2         Second, Jesus seems to have been saying, at least implying, that absence of suffering is not necessarily an indication of personal righteousness.  It is evidence not of God's approval, but of God's mercy. 
            We tend to forget what a precarious existence we lead, what a fragile creation human life is.  We think we have a right to "three score years and ten" at least.  When you think of it, life itself is a miracle in the face of all the horrifying forces that can destroy it.  A healthy baby, with every fingernail in place, is a miracle.  We know that.

            It seems so wrong, so unnatural, when some one's life is cut off violently or before her time.  But when you think of it, shouldn't we be grateful for every day of health and strength given to us, every degree of intelligence and happiness.

            Absence of suffering in our lives is not necessarily an indication of personal righteousness.  It is evidence not of God's approval, but of God's mercy.

3                 Repentance means to turn to God.  Jesus, I believe, is here calling for us, when bad things happen, to turn to God.

            When bad things happen, our response tends to be either to turn in upon ourselves, or to turn to God.  To turn inward may seem to be the natural thing to do, but its result is bitterness.  And with bitterness there is inevitably loss of vitality and spirit.  It is, in some measure, to die.  Is it not true, that we turn to God, or we "perish?"

            To "turn to God" may not seem the easy thing to do, nor does it necessarily result in instant satisfaction, but here is where we may find help.  As Kushner says, not the tragedy or the pain comes from the Lord.  "My help comes from the Lord," the psalmist cries.

            God may not prevent the calamity, but He gives us the strength and the perseverance to overcome it.  Where else do we get these qualities which we did not have before? . . .

            When a person is dying of cancer, I do not hold God responsible for the cancer or for the pain he feels.  They have other causes. But I have seen God give such people the strength to take each day as it comes, to be grateful for a day full of sunshine or one in which they are relatively free from pain.

“When people who were never particularly strong become strong in the face of adversity, when people who tended to think only of themselves become unselfish and heroic in an emergency, I have to ask myself where they got these qualities which they would freely admit they did not have before.  My answer is that this is one of the ways in which God helps us when we suffer beyond the limits of our own strength.”
            (Kushner, pp. 141-142)
            And if you are one who is crying out to God in pain and grief, and you have no sense that God is there, let me urge you to remember the testimony of the saints down through the ages. Looking back on their times of suffering and sorrow, they have affirmed that even when they least realized it, God was with them.  Even when they felt weakest and at the limit of their strength, looking back they say, "I could not have endured if the Lord had not been with me!"

            Do you think that these were worse sinners than all others because they suffered so?  I tell you, No!  But unless you turn to God, you will all likewise perish!

 Change is not necessarily a good thing.  Some change is for the better, some is regrettable. Progress is not necessarily a good thing. If we are going in the wrong direction, all the progress we make is only getting us deeper into the mud. Doesn't it make sense, in changing something, to try to ensure that it is for the better? 

            Way back in the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold wrote that we are “wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other struggling to be born.” Seems like it is still true. Some day, maybe we'll have it all worked out.  In the meantime, each one of us, before God, must try to decide, in a confused and overly confident age, what is good and what is bad.  God help us!

1 comment:

Peter Black said...

Thank you for taking us on this thoughtful journey, shedding light on Kushner's ideas and our Lord Jesus' responses to the matter of human suffering in relation to the aspects of personal sin and righteousness.

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