It was another Tuesday night, and time for another installment of “Coffee. Conversation. Carl.” The wise veteran Bible study leader opened his home once a month to a wide variety of folks willing to open the pages of Scripture together and learn from the movement of the Spirit and the voices in the room. Tonight, the voices of “Coffee. Conversation. Carl.” were wrapping up their conversation about the book of Job. Once again, Carl in his wisdom did not need to say much. After the opening prayer, he asked the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” And they were off. Milt was the first to speak. A tongue-in-cheek self-proclaimed “Christian Buddhist,” Milt responded right away: “So why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen to bad people? Or good things happen to good people? Why ask the question? What good does it do? Stuff happens. Why spend so much energy trying to expect the world to make sense?” Job’s problem was that he expected his life to be good. He got used to it. It was normal for him. If he had been born a poor woman in Haiti or a member of the untouchable caste in India, he would have no problem dealing with losing his children or his money or whatever. It would pretty much be a normal day for him. His problem was that he had that stuff in the first place. Then to lose it meant that he had to deal with his expectation that he SHOULD have stuff like that. Why should he? What did God owe him?” “We do the same thing when we start to live our life based on what we expect! Anne Lamott said it best ‘Expectation is resentment under construction!’ I call it ‘Facebook syndrome’ – we see all these people in our lives that only present the good stuff – the grandkids’ or kids’ accomplishments or the marathon that they just ran, and we look at our lives and think that we pale in comparison. We expect to get all of that out of life, too. But it is a recipe for resentment. Life is suffering! It seems to make more sense to live life believing that God doesn’t owe us what we think he owes us. To empty ourselves of our expectations and needs and love God for God’s sake instead of for our own and what we get out of the deal. It seems that we would be a whole lot happier if we did.” “No!” exclaimed Kandy. “No, no, no, no, no, no! Where is the hope going around in life thinking that stuff just happens? I cannot believe it, and I don’t think that it’s the way that the author of Job believed it. Everything happens for a reason. I have to believe that. I have to believe that we are more than wandering around, without any expectations or hopes. God says, ‘For I know the plans I have for you.’ There is a plan! “Look at the book of Job. What’s the old joke about playing a country music song backwards? You get your wife back and your money back and your dog back? That’s the end of Job. He gets his house back. He gets his money back. He gets his camels back. He and his wife have more children. There is a happy ending at the conclusion of the book! The book of Job is about his patience…he waited out the suffering and the pain until his reward from God in the end! “And that’s what I am putting my faith in! Especially when bad things happen. I have to believe that God is still at work, even in the midst of my suffering and struggle, that there will be a happy ending. Sometimes, that happy ending comes in this life. Sometimes, it comes in the next. But if there is no happy ending, then what’s the point? “I like to think our lives are like one of grandma’s cross-stitch pieces. If you look on the backside of one of them, it looks all gnarled and ugly. You see the hanging ends and tied off pieces. But if you flip it over to the front, you see this beautiful work. Life is like that – how often do we see the backside, and focus on the struggles and the pain? On the other side, God is working on a beautiful creation, that we may not fully see until the end. But there is a plan. There is a happy ending!” Across the room, Jim cleared his throat. “Kandy, thank you for your words. That is just amazing. Beautiful and poetic. But wrong. I mean, it sounds nice and there is a romantic ring to it, but I cannot believe it’s that simple. I mean, sometimes, there is no happy ending. What happens when someone doesn’t get their kids and their camels back? Is that part of God’s plan? What about Milt’s example of the untouchable in India? Where is their happy ending? “Why do bad things happen to good people? It’s simple. Satan. In the story, Satan was the one who hurt Job, who took away his family and his property. I think we are making a mistake if we don’t recognize that there is evil in this world. There was when Job lived and there is today. After all, if it was just God and God’s plan, Kandy, then why would there be any bad things to happen to people? Wouldn’t God be able to fix the world better than that? “But in God’s commitment to freedom, he allowed sin and evil into the world. Before that day, there were no earthquakes or tsunamis or poverty or death or suffering or disease. But when sin entered the world, when evil entered the world, all bets were off. Our job, then, I think, is to join God in the battle against evil. Are we fighting against the powers and principalities? Are we sacrificing our needs to end the suffering of others? Are we putting on the armor of God in our daily lives? God is overcoming the sin of the world and it is our job to be the hands and feet of God in that battle. We follow the example of Christ, we take up our own cross, to defeat the injustice and the evil of our world!” As Jim sat down, there were several heads nodding, and even a couple of “Amen’s.” But then, from the back of the room, a quiet voice spoke up. Dr. Wyatt was a psychologist and therapist in town and spoke softly: “I agree that there is evil in the world, Jim, and that it is our job to fight against it. But I think more often than not, instead of looking for the evil out there, we really ought to look for the evil in here. You might think I am a heretic for saying this, but as we read the story of Job, I kept agreeing with the friends. Again and again, they would say that suffering is a punishment for sin. And at some level, I have to agree. I know that the friends were not necessarily kind or supportive of Job, but does that mean that they are wrong? “What if much of our suffering is caused by our own sins? I have counseled clients for over two decades now, and the vast majority of them find themselves in a place of suffering or struggle because of decisions that they had made themselves. Unwillingness to change a life of addiction. Bad choices in relationships or with money. A lack of commitment in their relationships that brought about their own pain and suffering. And many of them echoed this language of the evil out there – it is someone else’s fault…I am a helpless victim of my circumstances…or like Job, God didn’t keep up his end of the bargain. “And my job again and again is much like those friends. It is to turn a mirror back at those clients and ask who is really the villain? And of course, there are cases when someone is truly a victim – that there is absolutely an abuser or a violent perpetrator or a person who could help who turned their back instead of helping. And I guess in those cases, I have to believe that God will sort that all out in the end. That in the future, there will be some retribution for those who are good… and for those who are evil. But at the end of the day, more often than not, we ought to look in the mirror first and ask how we are broken, and how we participate in the brokenness of others.” Coach Sal chimed in at this point. A middle-aged high school track coach, Sal often entertained the group with stories about the teenagers on the track team. “I think Doc is right, but I look at it a little differently. Every year, we get a new crop of freshman in who want to run track because they saw some movie about Prefontaine. Or they think the seniors are cute. But they don’t want to work at it. They think that they can run a four minute mile just by showing up. As the coach, I know better. I know that I have to push them. To test them to see what they are really capable of. They think I am a horrible person, making them run until they fall over. Would they get better if I just let them sit around a drink Gatorade all practice long? I know that if I don’t push them, they won’t get better. “I think God is the same way. God knows that he has to push us, to test us to show us what we are really capable of. When we suffer or struggle, of course we think that God is horrible and unjust and uncaring. But what would our faith look like if life were all peaches and cream? How many of us look back on our struggles as the times that we grew the most, that our faith was strengthened the most? By the end of the book, Job’s faith was stronger because of his struggles! It’s never fun in the middle, but by the end, don’t we trust God even more? There’s a quote from a Daniel Amos song that asks ‘Is this grace disguised as adversity?’ I think it is true!” More nodding. And a few moments of silence. In the quiet space, Carl finally spoke up. “Thank you. To all who shared. This is a hard book. I have said it before. Job is a book of questions, more than it is a book of answers. At some level, each of you is right. But maybe none of you really have the perfect answer, do they? If the answer to Job was a simple one, we wouldn’t have wrestled with it for 4,000 years. If the answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people was an easy one, it wouldn’t vex us so. It wouldn’t turn people from the faith and traumatize those who are within it. But it does and it has. Thank you – all of you –you’re your willingness to wrestle with it alongside of me. See you next month.” Carl got up and went to the kitchen to refresh the coffee, and when he got back, no one had moved. It was Milt who said what they were all thinking: “Come on, Carl. That’s it? Aren’t you going to tell us the right answer? Aren’t you going to tell us what you think?” And the whole room erupted in agreement. Carl laughed. “First of all, my answer is not the ‘right’ answer. I think that each of us has to figure out our own answer to that question, and sometimes we answer it differently at different points in our lives. But by the looks on your faces, I know I am not going to get off that easy. “’Why do bad things happen to good people?’ At least right now, at this point in my life, I would answer it in this way. We know two things by the end of Job. “One, Job is restored. But he is not the same. The cracks are still visible and the pain has changed him. Maybe even strengthened him in the long run. “Two, God is present and has always been present. From the beginning to the end. Through the good times and the bad. In the restoration and through the brokenness. God was there. Job didn’t always see or understand, but God never left. God was with him in the suffering. “And I believe that is a lesson for us as well. Look throughout history and around our world.
- Where has God been? Standing with the pieces.
- Where was God when the Israelites wandered in the desert? Standing with the pieces.
- Where was Christ when he came to live among us? With the prostitutes and the tax collectors – standing with the pieces.
- Where was Jesus at the end of his life? On the cross of sacrifice and death – standing with the pieces.
- Throughout Scripture, where do we find God? Standing with the pieces.
“I believe that when we hurt, God hurts. When our hearts break, God’s heart breaks with us. When we cry, God cries with us. When we suffer, God suffers with us. When we look at life and feel like everything has gone to pieces…there is God. Standing with the pieces.”