why do bad things happen to good people: Luke 3

read Luke 3.   Why do bad things happen to good people?  Woody Allen weighed in on this question by making a movie called Crimes and Misdemeanors in which the bad guys get away with it.  Woody Allen’s answer to the question seems to be that the universe is indifferent.  Is it?

To answer the question of why do bad things happen to good people you have to define your terms:  Who is good?  And what are good and bad things?  To define those terms, however, you have to first address the fantasy known as moral relativism, which asserts there is no absolute standard of good and bad.

Watching a debate at Socrates in the City, for instance, between Dinesh d’Souza and Peter Singer was like a tragedy of errors.   D’Souza, as a believing Christian for whom books like C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity
are mother’s milk, was operating off of Biblically defined parameters of absolute good and evil, which gave shape and structure to his positions.  Peter Singer made constant assumptions about what was good and bad, but when asked to explain why he thought, for instance, giving money away or treating animals with respect were good, he didn’t even seem to understand the question.  The audience asked him over and over: what is your authority for your truth statements?  Singer seemed to be operating off of the fatally flawed premise that there is no absolute truth – but that premise itself is a statement of absolute truth and therefore unsustainable.  People with unsustainable premises tend not to like to define them, for obvious reasons.  Singer is (in)famous for claiming you should kill an infant to save a village.  D’Souza also brought out that Singer has asserted that the life of an intelligent chimp is of more value than the life of an unintelligent human child.  There has never been a baby at Socrates in the City before or since, but the piercing sound of a baby’s cry punctuated that particular debate and answered the question Singer was unable to answer, but with the poignancy of absolute truth.

Although it’s currently popular to claim, as Singer flirts with in his preference utilitarianism, that there are no absolute truths, no one actually believes that – not even the people who claim it.  Peter Wehner wrote about this convincingly in an article in Commentary Magazine called “Our Lack of Moral Vocabulary“, springboarding off of a David Brooks editorial in the New York Times called “If It Feels Right“:

“[Moral relativity] is merely a pose. No one, not even a liberal academic, is a true relativist. Scratch below the surface and you’ll find them to be (morally) judgmental toward those who want to discriminate based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. They will likely have strong (moral) views on criminalizing abortion, restricting marriage to one man and one woman, anthropogenic global warming, water-boarding terrorists, rendition, Israeli settlements, profits for oil companies, and cutting taxes for the rich. The left is adamant: women have a “right” to an abortion and gays have a “right” to marry. These rights are viewed as a priori and inviolate. And no one, not even a progressive liberal arts professor, is morally indifferent to someone who wants to rape his wife, molest his children, and steal his iPad. It is fashionable to insist we don’t want to “impose our values” on others or “legislate morality.” But the reality is we do so all the time, on an endless number of issues, and no civilization could survive without doing so. The question, really, is which moral standards do we aspire to? What is the ethical code we use to judge ourselves and others?”

So if we use the Bible’s code, for instance, what does the Bible have to say about the question of why bad things happen to good people?

First, who does the Bible define as good?

The Bible teaches that no one is good.  Jesus said, “No one is good – except God alone.” Mark 10:18 (NIV); Matt. 19:17, Luke 18:19.  Jesus is quoting the Hebrew Scriptures: “No one does good, not a single one.”  Psalm 53:3. See also Ps. 14:1-3.  St. Paul echoes the refrain: “”No one is righteous – not even one.  No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God.  All have turned away; all have become useless.  No one does good, not a single one.”  Romans 3:10-12.  Here is where prideful people start to get red in the face: they like to think of themselves as better than others.  But the Bible says that standard is irrelevant: the only relevant standard is how do we measure up against God?  So if we take the Bible’s definitions and accept that all fall short of the glory of God, we have to change our starting question into this: why do bad things happen to bad people?   

Before we can answer that question, we next have to ask what the Bible teaches are ‘bad things”.  What does the Bible teach about circumstances?

The Bible teaches that sometimes bad things happen to us as a result of our own behavior.  Here is where we launch into Luke 3, and John the Baptist.  Why did God send John the Baptist to prepare the way before Jesus began his public ministry?  And why did Isaiah prophesy of John that the valleys will be filled, the mountains made level, the curves straightened, and the rough places made smooth?   Luke 3:4-6.  And why did people flock to John to be given a message of judgment?  John didn’t sugarcoat his message: “Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees.”  John tells the people to repent of their sins and turn to God or else they’ll end up in the never-ending fire.  And yet, strangely, crowds seemed to lap up his harsh words.  The crowds reply:  “What should we do?” Luke 3:7-10.

What brings people to the place where they are willing to hear the message that they need to change their ways?  This week, for instance, I heard stories of two husbands committing adultery, both of whom told their spouses that there’s “nothing wrong” with what they were doing.  “Okay, so you found out,” they both said.  “So why can’t I keep doing it?”  Even when their wives left them, both men continued to maintain that there was nothing wrong with their behavior.  These two men would not have been traveling out to the wilderness to listen to John the Baptist tell them to repent of their sins and turn to God.  In their way of framing good and bad, there was nothing for which they had to repent.  “Fools think their own way is right.”  Proverbs 12:15.  “Unfriendly people care only about themselves; they lash out at common sense.”  Proverbs 18:1-2.  If someone is being a fool, and denying God’s standards of right and wrong, no matter how often you tell them they’re wrong, wisdom will fall on deaf ears.  Instead, God needs to prepare the way.

Here is one of the ways bad things can become good things.  Both of those men who are asserting that adultery is good have chosen the lonely road.  Both of those men have made choices that have cost them their families.  And somewhere along the line, bad things will happen to them as a result of their bad choices.  For instance, what if one day those men wake up with new wives, new children, new toys, new mistresses, old guilt, and the same restless anxiety in their hearts?  What if they realize they have made a mess of things, and they are no better off, and in fact worse, because now they have a gnawing guilt they can’t shake?  What if they finally, then, cry out to the living God, and say – “I’m full of rough places I can’t make smooth!  Help me.”

God will say to them, “of course I’ll help you.  That’s why I died for you on the cross.  I want to take that guilt from you, and give you a second chance.  I want to restore your relationships.  I’ve been looking after the lonely hurt women on whom you cheated.  And I want to look after you, too.  I’m so glad you finally are willing to let me love on you.”

In other words, sometimes bad things happen to bad people because they made bad choices.  And sometimes those bad things bring good results.  Bad things can make people repent and turn to God.  That is why the Bible teaches we are not supposed to rescue people from the consequences of their choices.  “Hot-tempered people must pay the penalty.  If you rescue them once, you will have to do it again.”  Proverbs 19:19.

The Bible also addresses, however, the issue of when bad things happen for which people bear no direct responsibility – such as the victims of other people’s crimes or the victims of natural disasters?  Bad things happen to them, too.  A wife can never claim complete innocence, because if she’s breathing she knows she, too, was imperfect.  And yet being imperfect has never been an excuse for adultery.  Or what about a rape victim?  A bad thing has happened to her, for which she has no complicity.  Why do bad things happen to these people?  Isn’t rape bad – even for so-called liberal moral relativists.  And what about the people sunbathing on the beaches the day the tsunami struck?  Why did they suffer?  Are these bad things?

Yes.  God never says bad things are good.  God hates rape and abandonment and cheating  and violence.  But He promises to bring good out of bad for those who love Him. Romans 8:28.   The Hebrew Scriptures, for instance, offers a poignant story of God’s tender care of an abandoned woman; Hagar after bearing Abraham’s child Ishmael, is cast off into the wilderness by the very man who fathered her child.  She and Ishmael are on the brink of dying of thirst – only to have God assure her that He “sees” her pain.  God opens her eyes so she can see a well.  Genesis 21:15-19.  It’s a story of the tender care God offers to each of us in the wilderness.  He cares for our souls and restores the years the locusts have eaten.  So sometimes bad things happen to people who have done nothing to bring on those particular bad things, but God will always bring good out of it if you cling to Him.

But why do such bad things happen?  The global answer is that we live in a fallen world.  Disease, natural disasters, sin and death entered the world when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.  As with the examples of rape and adultery above, not every bad thing is a direct consequence of our own sin.  Jesus made this clear when people asked him why Pilate had murdered some people from Galilee: “‘Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other people from Galilee?’ Jesus asked.  ‘Is that why they suffered?  Not at all!  And you will perish, too, unless you repent of your sins and turn to God.  And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them?  Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem?  No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish, too.”  Luke 13:1-5.  Jesus said that neither victims of murder nor natural disaster were “worse” than anyone else.  We have all sinned, and we all live in a fallen world.

But the particular question – why do bad things happen to me and the people I love? – is more difficult.  The Bible teaches that God is in charge of all the details of our lives: “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.” Proverbs 16:9.  Two non-believers recently told me they don’t think God “interferes” with our lives, but the Bible teaches they are wrong.  God is involved in every detail of our lives.  So why the bad details?  Are God and Satan in a constant dialogue about each of us, like the one they have in the beginning of Job, where Satan asks God to lift “the hedge of protection” around Job, and so Satan afflicts Job with the destruction of his property, his health and  his children?  Job 1-2.

I don’t know.  But I know one thing.  God will bring good out of every bad thing.  We won’t know what that good is, fully, this side of heaven. The bottom line is that God’s ways are not our ways.  We can’t understand Him unless He shows us.  We know He is a redeemer.  He works all things, every circumstance, together into the beautiful tapestry He is weaving of our lives.  How do we know this?  How can we be sure?  How do we know Woody Allen wasn’t right?  How do we know the universe isn’t indifferent?  How did God show us He cares?

We know because of Jesus.  There actually is one person of whom we could ask the question: why did bad things happen to a good person?  If only God is good, according to Biblical absolute standards of goodness, then Jesus was the only good person who ever walked the earth.  And bad things happened to Jesus.  He was mocked, betrayed, tortured, murdered and suffered hell.  Why?  Why did a bad thing happen to this one good person?

God allowed bad things to happen to his good Son, out of love for us.  God knew that we would sin.  He knew that we would all fall short of his glory.  He knew none of us would be good.  He knew that we couldn’t save ourselves.  He knew that we would all commit adultery against Him – we would all chase other gods with a small g, all day long.  We would all turn like lost sheep in the direction of anyone or anything that seemed to affirm our restless seeking hungry selves.  He knew we would listen to our enemy, Satan, who hates us, instead of to God, our creator, who loves us.  And so God came down Himself to save us.  God Himself took the punishment we deserve for all our bad things.

So we can trust God, no matter what the circumstances.  That is the Bible’s bottom line teaching about circumstances.  That’s why the Bible claims we can rejoice, no matter what.  Because God brings good things out of bad.  So instead of asking why bad things happen to good people, we can just be thankful that good things happen to bad people.  That is the real mystery.  Good things can happen to us – to you – because of God’s love.  God will use bad things to clear the road for him.  He will level our mountains of pride.  He will straighten our curves.  He will fill our emptiness with Himself.  He will make our rough places smooth.  And all the people will see the salvation sent from God – salvation accomplished by bad things happening to the only good person.  “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.”  Ephesians 2:9.  Salvation is a gift to us, even though we are not good.

If we start to believe this, the heavens will open for each of us as they did for Jesus here in Luke 3.  And if we repent and ask for salvation, the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, will descend on us like a dove.  A voice from heaven will say to each of us: “you are my dearly loved Child, and you bring me great joy.”  God is not indifferent.  He loves us.  HIs love is not based on our goodness – or He could love none of us.  Salvation is a gift, not a reward.  May lightning strike us all in the place that makes us turn to God – deep in our frozen hearts.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on December 26, 2011

The Allure of the Quest: Mark 16

read Mark 16.  Why do men love xbox?  William Bennett recently whipped gamers up into a blogging frenzy with an editorial on CNN in which he challenges men to “man up”.  He notes that women surpass men in college degrees now by 3 to 2.  He says 18-to-34 year old men spend more time playing video games than 12-to-17 year olds.  He concludes his editorial with the battle cry: “Get off the video games five hours a day, get yourself together, get a challenging job and get married.”  Gamers responded by telling Mr. Bennet to “shove it before I use my Dragon Age Mage abilities on you.”  The Gaming Addiction.

Just last week I heard Mr. Bennett discuss his opinions in NYC on the decline of manhood at my friend Eric Metaxas’ series, Socrates in the City.  Mr. Bennett admits his own sons played some xbox, but that he and his wife monitored it.

You kind of have to.  Why?  Because xbox is fun.  Xbox provides quests that make the blood quicken, the heart throb, and the mind come alive.  My teenage son and his friends have long intricate discussions in which they compare strategies, exhort each other, and trade barbs like: “Dood.  What are you using THAT weapon for?”

Mr. Bennett’s solution includes men having better role models.  While helpful, I think that’s just a start.  You also need to ask why xbox games are so compelling.  You need to show people how the kind of adventure you find in an xbox can be yours for the asking in the real world.

In quest literature, the unlikely heros are given a commission and then equipped for the trials to come.  On their journey, they encounter hardships which draw from them their most hidden inner resources.  They discover the reason for the magic rings, swords and suits of armor with which they have been equipped.  They will have to figure out how to use each piece of equipment in order to conquer evil. No power is wasted.  Every piece of equipment is required. In the end, the unlikely heros triumph against all odds and carry out their commission, which usually involves rescuing people from the grip of evil.  Robert McKee, author of STORY, the definitive guide to modern screenwriting, claims that every story is at heart, a quest.

Perhaps the allure of Xbox, and the reason that every story can be boiled down to a quest, is that our hearts were made to long for this kind of a quest.  Our hearts resonate to the strains of this story.  Our hearts are longing to be given a quest of our own – and not just in Skyrim.

Is this just a coincidence?  Is it a trick of DNA?  Is it an evolutionary necessity, in which people who longed to be heroes squashed the DNA (i.e. murdered) their cavemen compatriots who were happy sitting at home in aprons?

Or is it because the Lord God Almighty created us this way?

Have a look at the last chapter of the gospel of Mark.  In it, we discover every aspect of quest literature.  Mark ends with the quest of Christ accomplished, and the challenge to each of us to embark on our own quest.

Every human in this chapter is an unlikely hero.  No one seems to be asking: “I wonder when Jesus will rise from the dead as He told us?”  No one believes Jesus has risen from the dead.  No one believes anyone else who claims they have seen the risen Jesus.  Finally, Jesus appears to the eleven remaining disciples and rebukes them “for their stubborn unbelief.”  No human here is a hero.

But instead of telling them to “go away,” Jesus tells the eleven: “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.  Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved.  But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned.”  This is known as the Great Commission.

Jesus then tells the disciples of the miraculous signs that will accompany them – a list  that, at first glance, makes it sound like He is turning them into Indian snake charmers.  He says they will survive snake bites and drinking poison.  Are these gifts for show?  Does Jesus want the disciples to wow people with special effects?  As the book of Acts will demonstrate, Jesus is equipping the eleven disciples in very particular ways for the trials to come – including a snake bite that Saint Paul survives.  Jesus never does anything unnecessary.  He commissions his unlikely disbelieving heros, and equips them with the particular powers they needed to accomplish their quest – the quest to rescue people from slavery to evil.

The same quest is offered to each of us 2000 years later.  We each have the choice to be lifted out of an ordinary humdrum imperfect life into a life of adventure and quest.  We are each an unlikely hero – full of disbelief and stubborn hearts.  We, too, often think God is far away.  Sometimes we may wonder if God is dead.  But God is alive.  He is walking in the midst of our lives.  All He asks is that we believe.

If we accept His commission, God will equip us with the tools we need for the journey.  The tools are free for us, because God paid the price for them on the cross.  As with all quests, the key to the quest God offers us is to accept that we need the tools He offers us.  He will give us power in place of our weakness.  He will give us stillness in place of our anxiety.  He will give us love in place of hate.  He will give us trust in place of envy.  He will give us whatever we need to accomplish the tasks he assigns us.  He offers us the “full armor of God”.  Eph 6: 10-17.  We need it: “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”  Eph. 6:12.

Did you catch that?  Our enemies are not other people.  Our enemies are the powers and principalities of darkness.  That leap in your heart when you “kick some butt” in Call of Duty is there for a reason.  You are made to long to battle the powers of darkness.  But if we step off the grid – if we think we can conquer the powers and principalities of darkness all on our own – we’ll end up powerless and gasping for air.  Hopefully we, like my teenage son, will have friends journeying with us along the Way, who can say to us: “Dude.  Why did you choose THAT weapon?”

The key to success is to choose the right battle, and along with it the right weapons. Do we want to be the unlikely heroes who are given a commission, equipped for the journey and vanquish the powers of evil with God’s love?  Do we want to be the person God is calling us to be?  Do we want to fulfill the destiny for which, deep down, we know we were created?

Listen to your heart.  It already knows the answer.

And as for the issue of how we solve the crisis of manhood… well, I couldn’t even get my son to read this blog.  I waved it under his nose (granted he was on the xbox at the time, which was a poorly chosen moment on my part).  I rewaved it under his nose, however, when he was off the xbox.  He still evinced zero interest in his mother’s thoughts on quests.  But that’s okay.  Because I truly believe that the best thing we can do for the men in our lives is pray for them.   Prayer unleashes all the powers of heaven’s armies.  I don’t need my son to read my words. He needs to experience the living God on his own.  And he will. Somewhere there lies a sword in a stone that only he can wield.

My heart quickened when I read The Lord of the Rings as a teenager. I knew that Tolkien had tapped into eternal truths. When I met Jesus, I thought: “oh so YOU’RE what I sensed in all those fairy tales, fantasy novels and books, and in those majestic mountains and crashing waves.”  So go ahead, xbox.  Bring it on.  You’re onto eternal truths, but you are not eternally true.  Only God is.  And only His quest can satisfy our heart’s deepest Call of Duty.  Xbox is no match for the One True God.  I’m not afraid.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on December 22, 2011