When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Job 42:7 MRSV
After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

Job was a righteous man, a man who loved and served God with all his heart and might. He was a man who had prospered in an earthly sense, owning many flocks and having twelve children. He also was a man blessed with good health. All of this God allowed Satan to take from Job. Job’s life went, in a matter of days, from being comfortable and happy to being alone and miserable.

There is a saying: Bad things happen to good people.

To be honest, I don’t like that saying because it implies that there are things we should try to avoid, things that happen to us outside of God’s plan for our lives. Romans 8:28 promises believers that all things work together for our good. So while not everything is good, it becomes good for us because God is working in it. I think rather than saying “Bad things happen to good people,” I would more accurately say, “Painful things happen to good people.” That is certainly true.

When painful things happen to those around us, we often react with advice. Our advice can even be clothed as condolences or sympathy that our friend is going through this trial, but it is still advice. And why do we do that? I think for two reasons:
1) we are trying to make sense of what seems to be senseless: suffering, pain, loss; and
2) we are scared that a similar situation could happen to us. We want to justify our own fear and anger that there is pain and suffering in the world, pain and suffering that might come into our own lives someday.

When a friend loses a loved one (a spouse or a child), we realize that our own family could be taken. When a friend is taken desperately ill, we realize that our own health is fragile. When a friend loses their home or job, we realize that we are one step away from poverty. All of those things scare us because it means that our lives as we know them, that we are capable of having to suffer pain and loss that we cannot control.

So when painful things happen to our friends, we sometimes react with advice. And if not advice for our friends, then advice for those around them.

Job, after suffering his loss, sat with three friends who—with all seeming good intentions—began to offer him advice about his situation. They were, in fact, trying themselves to make sense out of what seemed senseless, to explain away what they feared might happen in their own lives. Job had been an example of them of a godly man, but if he perhaps could be shown not to be quite so godly, then that might explain the tragedies in his life. And if the tragedies could be explain, then they might be avoided. All this advice in, I think, an effort to try to control and to possibly avoid such pain in their own lives.

Sometimes we would do better to pray and not talk than to talk without praying. And if we prayed, we would probably know better not to talk!

The Psalms open with two verses about advice:

Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,… But they delight in doing everything the Lord wants; day and night they think about His law. Psalm 1:1a, 2 NRSV

Often when we are presented with pain and suffering (either our own or that of others), we are tempted to try to control, to try to avoid, rather than focusing solely and only on God. Our pain and confusion can crowd out all other thoughts, consuming us. The psalmist tells us to rather think day and night on God and His Word. Only with God can we find peace and comfort.

Even the Lord Jesus rejected advice that was given outside of God’s will.

Then He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But turning and looking at His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” Mark 8:31-33 NRSV

From that time on, Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to You.” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Matthew 16:21-23 NRSV

The Lord Jesus was clearly embracing the pain, rejection, and suffering that was ahead of Him. He understood that God works all things for good, even for Him as God’s Son. He willingly set His mind to embrace the seeming tragedy that was the cross, the tragedy that was actually victory. Peter responded as he thought was appropriate for a friend and disciple; he immediately came to the defense of his friend, stating that God couldn’t possibly want this for Jesus. But the Lord immediately rebukes him by saying you are setting your mind on human things, not on divine things.

When we give advice, we are often setting our mind on human rather than divine things. And we need to be so careful! S. D. Gordon once wrote:

“You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray before you have prayed.”

If we are tempted to give advice, to respond, to control, to try to justify, we need to first pray and very likely pray long. Otherwise we may be like Job’s two friends and kindle God’s anger against us or be like Peter and be rebuked by the Lord for failing to think of things from God’s perspective. God loves us so much that He is willing to take the long view of our lives, working all things for our good! When the waters rise and the darkness falls, we need to trust Him to work everything out. We need to pray. And often, we may need to close our mouths so that we learn rather than try to control.