When Bad Things Happen (Part 1)
Rabbi Kushner in his book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," describes how he learned one day that his three year old son would die in his early teens of the rare, but lethal disease called progeria. Progeria is a condition which accelerates the aging process. Medical authorities informed him that his son would never grow beyond three feet in height and would look like an old man while he was still a child. It was this spirit slashing and heart splitting news that prompted the Rabbi to seriously question his faith and God.
Rabbi Kushner could not comprehend how a loving, supposedly merciful and compassionate and just God, could allow such a tragedy to befall him and his loved ones. After all, he considered himself a God-fearing, obedient man who was living a more religiously committed life than most people. So how could a God of justice permit so great an injustice?
The Rabbi does not raise any questions that are alien to the majority of us. We all at one time or another have asked that same deeply felt question Why? Why me Lord? Why my child? Why my husband? Why? Why? Why?
When we hear or read about the thousands of lives lost due to famine, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, fire, shipwrecks, plane crashes, wars, riots, terrorism, - we cannot help but wonder Why? Where is justice, where is the fairness, where is God?
Questions about God as a just God always arise when people are called to experience the pain and stress of human suffering. Questions about the dubious meaning of human life amidst intense, and often times irreducible suffering, are not merely abstract theoretical reflections. They are inquiries emerging from the depths of our existence.
The Psalmist asked, "Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?" Psalms 10:1
Moses angrily asks God, "O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and you have not rescued your people at all." Exodus 5:22-23.
Job inquired," Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in?" Job 3:23.
Jeremiah questions, "Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails?" Jeremiah 15:18.
The cry of human agony has always been one of helplessness and a lack of understanding. How can we make sense of the power and goodness of God - if we open our eyes to the terrible presence of radical suffering and evil in the world, and in our own individual lives? And yet, it is in the midst of human misery and misfortune, calamities and crisis that Paul declares rather intransigently, "We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
We must understand that Paul was not speaking from the philosophic fatalism of his day. His stance was not one of passive resignation. His attitude was not "whatever will be, will be." Paul was totally convinced and wholly convicted that "all things work together for good."
In his letter to the Romans, Paul is not writing about some theological viewpoint or some ideal he internalized while studying under the renowned and scholarly Gamaliel. But rather, he is writing out of the experience of tremendous suffering. Paul's life had not been easy. He was a revolving door prisoner; on at least three different occasions he had been beaten with rods, on five different occasions he had been whipped with 39 stripes each. Once he was stoned. Three times he was shipwrecked and almost drowned. Often he was imperiled by robbers. Many times he was weary, in pain, hungry, thirsty, cold and naked. And, I suspect that Paul experienced even more hardships that are not recorded in scripture.
All of his suffering he accepted for the sake of Jesus Christ. He declares in Philippians 4: 11-13, "I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength."
You see, Paul perceives suffering in this world from the perspective of the eternal. In spite of the difficulties he had come through, he could boldly assert, "all things" work together for good." The word all is all inclusive. All things whether good or bad, bright or dark, sweet or bitter, easy or hard, happy or sad, all things work together for good. It does not matter whether we experience prosperity or poverty, health or sickness, calm or storm, comfort or suffering, life or death, because all things are working together for good.
(continued in Part 2)
Rev. Saundra L. Washington, D.D., is an ordained clergywoman, veteran social worker, and Founder of AMEN Ministries. She is also the author of two coffee table books: Room Beneath the Snow: Poems that Preach and Negative Disturbances: Homilies that Teach which can be reviewed on her site. Her new book, Out of Deep Waters: My Grief Management Workbook, is expected to be available soon.
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