Why do bad things happen to good people?
We’ve all heard this question before. Maybe from a friend walking through a tough time. Maybe from a coworker lamenting over a diagnosis. Or maybe we’ve asked the question ourselves.
We seem to want life to work like a scale teetering to one side or the other as we add pebbles for good and bad deeds. We claim, “I’m generous, I’m a good friend, I don’t steal or lie, I show kindness, I’m a hard worker.” And we think this means that we don’t deserve heartbreak, poverty, strife, bad diagnoses, slander, rejection. We add 5 more pebbles to our “good deeds” hoping that the scale stays tipped to one side rather than the other.
But, our karmic outlook on life falls apart when a 4 year old gets diagnosed with Leukemia, when the “undeserving” coworker gets chosen for a promotion over you, or when there’s not enough money in the bank to cover bills this month.
We cry out, “But God! I’m a good person. How could you let these bad things happen to me?”
The simple answer: sin.
In Genesis chapter 4, we’re introduced to the story of two brothers. The youngest brother, Abel, seemed to be a man of integrity. Each of his so-called good deeds adding proverbial pebbles to his scale of justice.
He was generous…add pebble.
He didn’t withhold from God…add pebble.
His older brother, Cain, seemed to have the opposite sort of character. He withheld the choice portion of his crop from God. He was angry and vengeful. He considered himself more important than anyone else.
At this point in the story, if we were sitting in the judge's seat, we’d emphatically bang our gavel down and declare Abel to be a “good person” who deserved good things and Cain to be a “bad person” who deserved bad things.
There’s just one problem: that’s not how life works. And that’s not how the story goes.
Cain, in his anger, meets his brother out in the field and murders him.
This is the point in the story where we would begin grumbling, “But God! Cain murdered his little brother! Abel loved you. How could you let this happen to him?” The gavel seems to have fallen on the wrong side of justice.
However, I find God’s explanation of the situation to be profound. He says to Cain in Genesis 4:6-7, “‘Why are you so angry?...Why do you look so dejected? You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.’”
Before Cain lures his brother out to his demise, God warns him: don’t let sin become your master. Don’t let it win!
Cain didn’t listen to God’s warning and we know where the story goes from there. By our standards, Abel didn’t get what he deserved. He deserved a life full of happiness and communion with God. He deserved offspring and plentiful livestock. His actions deserved good.
Cain, on the other hand, deserved to be punished. As we read on, we see that God didn’t let Cain off the hook for his actions. God promises Cain–a farmer–that the ground would no longer produce fruit for him and he would spend his days wandering the earth.
“Finally!” we think, “justice!” But wait…God then tells Cain something that completely dismantles our scale of good and bad deeds. Cain is afraid that he will be killed as he is wandering the earth. God replies, “No, for I will give a sevenfold punishment to anyone who kills you.” And the Lord marked Cain as a warning to anyone who would try to hurt him.
When we read this story from beginning to end, we see that neither Cain nor Abel get what they “deserve.” Abel, the good brother who loved the Lord and gave generously to Him is dead while Cain, the malicious brother who withheld his offering and murdered his brother is protected from harm.
Every blinking red light is going off in our brains. Emphatically, we stand up and yell “OBJECTION!”
But can I challenge you with this: We should be grateful God doesn’t give us what we deserve.
Because in this story, as much as we want to believe we’re Abel, so often, we are Cain. We’re the one choosing our own security over God’s calling to live with radical generosity. We’re the one protecting ourselves rather than standing up for a neighbor. We’re the ones choosing to hate and hold a grudge against someone rather than showing grace.
And no matter how hard we try, we will never be “good enough” for God. We will never live up to the perfect standard expected by His holiness. The good news is that, because of Jesus, we don’t have to.
God knew that this story would repeat itself over and over and over again. Brothers would reject brothers (Genesis 37). People would lie to protect themselves (Genesis 12). Authority figures would choose to cover up mistakes rather than own them (2 Samuel 11). Abuse would result in unspeakable things (Judges 19).
And in each of these situations–and innumerable others–where is the justice!? We cry out, “Lord, where are you? How could you let this happen?”
But God, in His sovereignty and kindness, chooses to show us His mercy time and time again though we don’t deserve it.
The brothers that rejected Joseph in Genesis 37 were saved from famine by the position of authority Joseph received. Abraham, who lied about his wife in Genesis 12, was promised that from him would come a great nation–the nation that eventually became the nation of Israel. David, the King who, in 1 Samuel 11, covered up his affair with Bathsheeba by murdering her husband, is regarded as a man after God’s own heart. And the Levite who allowed his concubine to be brutally raped in Judges 19 incited the uniting of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Each of these stories point to this truth: We are desperately in need of a Savior from the sin in our lives. And we can be so grateful that a holy and perfect God chose to show His mercy toward us by sending His son Jesus to die the death that our sin deserves.
Our question, then, should not be “Why do bad things happen to good people?” but “How do we, as inherently sinful people, deserve anything good?”
The answer: only because of Jesus.
In the scale of good and bad deeds, by God’s standard, our pile of pebbles leans vastly to the bad side. The good news is, all of Jesus’ pebbles are good. And God chose to give Him our punishment.
The gavel came down and indicted Jesus instead of us. The only appropriate response to this truth is to praise our good and merciful God who continuously gives us what we do not deserve.