Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

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For the last several days the people of Oso, Washington and the communities of Arlington and Darrington have been confronting unimaginable pain and suffering. When the earth slid away from the face of a Cascade foothill above the community of Oso, it took only seconds to wipe away homes, trees, automobiles, and human lives, forever. One moment all was well with the world. The next, everything went terrifyingly bad. Such events overwhelm our minds. We are speechless before their profound, sudden, and seemingly remorseless finality. When this happens, even those of faith can be momentarily knocked off-center and can begin asking things like why did God do this? Or, why did God allow this? These were good people; mothers, fathers, infants and children. And in an instant they are gone from us, maybe to never be seen again.

These are normal responses in the immediate aftermath of such a terrifying shock. The sheer force of an event like this throws us off balance. It is too large for us to wrap our minds around. We are stunned and we grope for answers to questions that are beyond our understanding. But maybe the questions are off-center too. Maybe we need to ask different questions. But we may have to wait. We may have to wait for time to soften the wounds, to bring some distance and some quiet to our hearts and minds.
For now, those who are suffering the immediate fears and pains need to do whatever is necessary to find whatever answers they can, be they comforting answers, or be they answers that finally let them know for sure what happened to their family members and friends.

One thing is for certain, this is NOT and ʺact of God.ʺ Such a thought is the product of bad theology, heretical theology even. Such a god would be a two-faced being, like the pagan Roman god Janus. God is no utilitarian. He is not so small as to operate out of a philosophy as base as ʺthe ends justify the means.ʺ If we think that this event happened as a response to some evil in Oso, Washington, then we would have to accept that God is willing and able to wipe out even a 4 month old infant, just to get rid of a handful of evil doers. The God we Christians believe in does not do unjust things to bring about justice.

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No. This event was the result of a set of circumstances in nature; topography, geological history over eons of time, the qualities of the soil there, and the amount of rains that have fallen over the last few months. It is a matter of randomness, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is the reality that we all live in.

We often question God in such events, especially when we have been so initmately affected by such things as the Oso, Washington mud slide. Questions are natural to us. It is in our nature to desire to know. What we want to know is the truth about things. Sometimes we are not capable of knowing, or of handling the fullness of truth. On the other hand, sometimes the truth is startlingly simple. Yet, in either case, there is nothing we can do to change the results. What we have the power to do is to choose our attitudes as to how we are going to respond to any given situation. And in this, we Christians know that we need the help of God’s grace to have the strength and the courage we will need to move on, indeed, to move up from here. We know that God knows what suffering is. We know that he sent his only begotten Son into the world to suffer for us, and with us. We know that he is closest to us when we are in the midst of our suffering. His deepest desire is to comfort us. We know, too, that:

ʺThe Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness an love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.ʺ Psalm 23

Still, it is hard for us to see this sometimes, most especially when we are in the midst of our sorrow and suffering. This is where the Christian community can be of inexpressible value to those who are suffering. We must be there with them and for them. We must be at the side of those who are presently enduring incomprehensible and unrelenting sorrow. We do not need to preach to them. They might not be able to hear that now. But we can pray for them simply by being present to them, by volunteering in whatever way is needed, by praying in the silence and solitude of our own hearts, or in our churches on their behalf. Most importantly, we can listen to them without judgment. We can embrace them, wipe away their tears, or shed tears with them. We can give them shelter. When they ask us the questions that they are burdened by, we can answer them with understanding, patience, and love. Simple gestures are often more eloquent than flowery words after all. Sometimes we will have to answer them honestly with, ʺI don’t know. But I will be here with you. I will stay with you until you can begin walking your own journey again.ʺ Sometimes, that is the best medicine of all. If we do all of this in faith, God will take care of the rest.

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.