At a recent dinner, someone mentioned that age-old human conundrum: why do bad things happen to good people — if God, indeed, is a good and loving God? It is a problem that has trouble people of faith — and people of faiths — for centuries. I remember a class I took in seminary called “The Problem of Evil”, in which we spent an entire semester grappling with the question, and with the responses of various theologians to it over the centuries. It seems that whatever solution a theologian proposed would, inevitably, lead to other theological problems. “Solving” the problem of evil seemed only to create new problems about God, or God’s relationship with the world. It perhaps says something that 20 years after taking that class, I can’t remember much of anything about what we read (or perhaps it just says something about my memory).
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote an excellent book on the topic from the Jewish perspective that I highly recommend. He was moved to consider this question in part because of his own experience, when he lost a child to an unusual disease. It’s been a few years since I read the book. I still have it on my shelf somewhere. I remember that I thought it was an excellent book — but perhaps it says something else that I can’t remember the conclusions that Rabbi Kushner comes to.
We might take some comfort in the fact that the question even gets dealt with in the biblical literature. The Book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures is precisely about this problem. The reader knows that Job is an absolutely righteous man, and that no fault can be found in him (as hard as that may be to believe!). Yet, he suffers deep tragedy and pain. In his anguish, he cries out to God for an explanation. And in come his friends, who give all of the standard, orthodox answers of the day. Yet, the reader (and Job) knows that none of these theologies of evil is correct. Finally, at the end of the book, God shows up, and puts Job in his place: these are among the deepest mysteries of life, and sorry, Job, there is no explanation. I have always been somewhat amazed at Job’s response to this less-than-satisfactory response. Rather than yelling at God for being so obtuse, Job bows before the mystery of life and the mystery of God, and humbly confesses his own limitations. Then, Job gets on with his life — he seems to leave the question completely aside. He has grappled with it, he has “lost” in a sense, and he lets go of it and moves on.
The Book of Job suggests that there is no answer to this theological question. Why do bad things happen to good people? It’s a mystery, and while we may theorize about it, we will never be able to answer it in any definitive way. To me, there is another message in Job’s story, and that is that sometimes grappling with a question is more important than finding an answer. The more experience I have of life — and of other people’s lives — the more I have come to believe that explaining tragedy and suffering is not nearly as important as how we choose to respond to it. The deep learning of life comes not by explaining, but by living through the inexplicable.
In the course of my priesthood to date, I have walked with a number of people through some terrible things. It is safe to say, I think, that all of them at one time or another wondered, “Why me?” A few people were not able to get beyond this question — and I saw their spirits whither. Most people, however, did not seem to linger on that question long. Instead, they accepted what was happening to them, and moved into it and through it. And in those people, I saw an amazing expansion of their spirits. Their lives acquired a deeper dimension. The lesson I have drawn from all this is the lesson of Job: that the journey can be infinitely more important than the destination.
So, I’m sorry to disappoint you: I don’t have an answer to this question, either. But, I will say that, like Job, I have given up trying to have an answer. When I consider the teaching of Jesus, I find that he seems to be far more concerned about what we do and how we are than what we think. In terms of the problem of evil, this suggests to me that what we do and how we are in the face of suffering — whether our own or others’ — is far more important than our theology about it. Perhaps this is another way of saying that the “devil” is indeed in the details, but God is to be found by moving into and through whatever life brings us, by living as courageously and as faithfully as we can.