During my two years as a missionary for the LDS church in West Africa, and now during my summer job as a summer church camp counselor, I frequently have been asked the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” When people ask this question, what they are really saying is, “If there is a God, and if He really does love us, why wouldn’t He stop all the pain and suffering that happen in the world?”
I have spent a lot of time studying and meditating on this question, and although I don’t pretend to be any sort of scriptural or religious expert, here is what I have found:
We live in an imperfect world, surrounded by imperfect people, and each of those imperfect people have a God-given gift: the ability to think, act, and choose for themselves. No one is ever forced by God to be good. When a drunk driver kills a member of your family, when a disloyal spouse has an affair, when the economy collapses and you are laid off of work, these are all conditions of our imperfect world, not punishments brought about by a vindictive Creator.
You might ask, “But why didn’t God stop __________?” (insert the drunk driver, the cheating spouse, the corrupt banks who caused the collapse, anything really). God never has, and never will, take away a person’s right to choose. If this life is a testing grounds for us to prove ourselves to God (which I believe it is), then taking away another person’s ability to choose would be like a professor standing over them during the midterm and giving them every answer. There would be no point.
2. We are not lab rats
People who think that only good things should happen to good people are under the false impression that life is a simple system of actions and rewards. Think of lab rats who get cheese when they press a green button, but get nothing when they press a red button. They are easily trained to always press the green button. Does the rat really understand the significance of the green button? Is the lab rat really choosing? No. It’s acting based on a forcibly taught behavior.
God isn’t training lab rats. He doesn’t want us to be “good” just for the reward that should come after. If that were how life worked, we would all just be mindless do-gooders who only did it for our own selfish reasons. And how good is a person really if they are only good to get something out of it? Humans need to do good, not even when bad things happen, but especially when bad things happen. This is how you truly demonstrate your character and your conviction. And whether you are a religious person or not, people behaving decently despite a difficult life is the foundation of our society.
3. “Bad” is a matter of perspective
When Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, it was bad. When Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, it was bad. When the Hebrews were enslaved and abused for hundreds of years in Egypt, it was bad. When Jesus Christ was beaten, tortured, humiliated, and executed, it was bad.
Or was it?
Many events can seem to be the end of the world when we are right in the middle of them. But time has a way of giving people a new perspective on what originally appeared to be a bad thing. Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, which allowed this mortal experience of growth to be possible. Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, and because of his faith was given promised blessings that would continue through generations. The Hebrew slaves were liberated by Moses in an awesome display of God’s power, which became a source of faith and hope for thousands of years. Christ was tortured and murdered, which gave way to the brilliant possibility of His resurrection and the salvation of all mankind.
Just because bad things are happening, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong. If I’ve learned anything from video games, it’s that if you are coming up against enemies to fight, it means you are headed in the right direction.
It may be hard to see it right now, but just remember that God has an amazing talent of taking what appears to be the worst possible situation, and making it a positive and strengthening experience for us. No matter how hard things get or how impossible your situation seems, remember that “with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). He really does care about what happens in your life, and one day you’ll look back and see that He was with you every step of the way.
One week to the day after posting this article, I lost my job. Call it life’s irony, but it prompted me to post a follow-up article: 3 Steps to Being Happy When Life Sucks