The question of why people suffer is a longstanding existential question. It is a question that brings people to God and it’s a question that makes some people doubt God’s very existence.
Why do bad things happen to good people?
The Bible approaches this from several angles. That frustrates some people, but I find it encouraging.
I like that the Bible gives us multiple viewpoints and invites us into conversation with God from different angles. From Moses to Job to Jesus, we get different approaches to the problem of human suffering.
Moses tells the Israelites that suffering can be avoided through obedience. He says, “if you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments … blessings shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:1-2). These blessings include children, livestock, food, life, and high status for the people of Israel collectively. “But if you will not obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, … then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:15). It takes just eleven verses to explore the blessings that come with obedience, but more than fifty verses to outline what comes of disobedience. The curses include incurable “ulcers, scurvy, and itch” and “grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head” (Deuteronomy 28:27, 35). Actually, the incurable skin diseases are the least of it. All in all, you will be “driven mad by the sight that your eyes shall see” (Deuteronomy 28:34).
Moses paints a comprehensive picture of what happens when we disobey God.
We know from our own life experience, however, that suffering and life go hand in hand. It isn’t as simple as rules + obedience = a life without suffering.
The Bible confirms this with the book of Job. Job is righteous and good, but bad things happen to him. This gives us permission to question Moses’ formulaic approach. The book of Job doesn’t solve the problem of suffering for us, but it does remind us that God is still God, even when we experience suffering.
Jesus also addresses the question and, as usual, I think he has the most interesting answer.
Jesus is asked about why a bad thing happened to some Galileans while they were doing a good thing. They were performing a religious ritual (a sacrifice) at the Temple in Jerusalem and Pontius Pilate executed them (Luke 13:1). In the discussion, Jesus brings up the tragic death of eighteen people when “the tower of Siloam fell on them” (Luke 13:1-4). Jesus says that the Galileans who were murdered in the Temple were not “worse sinners than all other Galileans” (Luke 13:2-3). Similarly, the people who died in Siloam were not “worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem” (Luke 13:4-5).
Jesus tells the crowd they shouldn’t feel superior just because tragedy had not befallen them. It wasn’t as if God spared them from suffering the fate of those in the Temple or those in Siloam because they were better. We all need to repent; we can all do better (Luke 13:3,5).
But Jesus doesn’t stop there, and that’s what makes his answer to the problem of human suffering interesting to me.
Jesus offers a parable to help the crowd understand (Luke 13:6-9). In the parable, there is a fig tree that never makes any figs. Year after year after year, the landowner expects the tree to bear fruit, but it never does. Finally, the landowner tells the gardener to chop it down. The gardener, however, has a curious response. He asks for one more year, one more chance to fertilize the fig tree and tend to it, to try to coax some fruit from it.
When asked about the problem of human suffering, Jesus responds with a call for repentance and a story about a tree not bearing any fruit.
That feels … personal to me.
If I live my life in a way that bears fruit, I wonder how that might reduce another person’s suffering. In fact, maybe my ability to reduce another person’s suffering is the very fruit my life is supposed to grow?
The parable is an exercise in hope. The gardener is not willing to give up on the tree. It seems God is not giving up on me, either. I have the potential to bear fruit and in a world with too much suffering, even a little bit of fruit can make a big difference.
What do you think? In your own life experience, have you found that bad things happen to good people? Do you think there are things you can do, choices you can make, that could possibly reduce another person’s suffering? I’m all ears. Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.
More Like This From Beth: