One of the biggest challenges facing the Americanized Christian is the question of why good things happen to bad people. In our basic understanding of Justice, we believe that good things should be returned for good things. Sort of like a moral economy and this is something we’re taught from our earliest years. It is, relatively intuitive, and even works sometimes. Certainly, I’ve had my fair share of angst learning that just because I’m nice to people doesn’t mean they’ll be nice to me, but overall, this idea of karma has been repeated so often in our society it’s almost inescapable. When we do something right or good, we feel we are owed and entitled to reciprocity, even from those who have not promised reciprocity and sometimes, if we’re honest, from people who have shown us that they will not reciprocate.
But not only does this principle of karmic reciprocation fail us in our personal lives, but it fails even more dramatically in the spiritual realm. I have often found myself feeling as though I have done something good and then estimating the ‘market value’ of that good deed, by comparing it with the lack of good deeds I see in other people in my community or in the media, and then judging what return on my investment of good works I should receive in the future. I often find myself disappointed when the most difficult things in life then come to me, as they do to everyone. I feel cheated out of my rightful reward by God, and I lament, as many others have: why me? I am a good person! What did I do to deserve this?
I suspect I am not alone in this.
What may not surprise you if you’re looking at the pacing of this blog is that when we do this we are profoundly, categorically and preponderously wrong in both our premise and conclusion. While it is an immense aspect of our capitalist individualist and puritanical upbringing to think that good deeds merit a personal reward based on the current personal values of the recipient., the truth is that God’s economy is dramatically different. And I’m not talking about tithing (that’s for another time)! I think the Bible gives us two really good examples of good things happening to good people in Jesus and Job.
Jesus’ general story is well known and often explored, so I won’t go into it this time, but just keep in mind he did everything right and was killed because he did so. In his case, a bad thing happened to a good person so that God may be glorified and revealed and people may be saved, which, in the long run, is a good thing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s look at Job:
Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one on earth like him, a man who is blameless and upright, who fears God and shuns evil.”
Satan answered the LORD, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not placed a hedge on every side around him and his household and all that he owns? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out Your hand and strike all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face.”
“Very well,” said the LORD to Satan. “Everything he has is in your hands, but you must not lay a hand on the man himself.”
What follows is the death of Job’s children, loss of all his worldly possessions, and him falling ill to a debilitating disease. This is then followed by his closest friends attempting to help him figure out what evil he did in order to deserve this. The actual reason has to do with God showing Satan that he does not have full control of the planet, that there is still a man blameless who shuns evil. I don’t know about you, but my wife and closest friends would not describe me as someone who is blameless or shuns evil. They may even say some pretty nice things, but the best you will get is “yeah, I think she shuns evil, usually…” While I may tell myself I’m a good person, Job was actually the thing I sometimes imagine I am when I feel wronged. He truly did nothing to deserve what happened to him. And God explicitly allowed trauma into his life. What point could he possibly have to prove, what could be worth that?
Well, Job had a similar question. He demanded to confront his ‘accuser,’ because he, like we, like his friends, was brought up believing that if you are good, you get rewarded with perpetual happiness. This was what Satan planned to capitalize on, that doing good is only to get a reward, and that there was nothing actually good about Job. If that makes sense, then consider what our own good deeds to get rewards say about us. But I digress.
God answered Job. Well, answered is a strong word. God addressed Job. He sounded offended, and he starts with this sentence.:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
The intention seems clear, doesn’t it? It’s a rhetorical question. “Obviously God, I was nowhere, you know that…” but God doesn’t allow Job to answer or respond, he continues to ask these kinds of questions, and he speaks to us from Job for chapter after chapter. Go see, it’s Job Chapters 38 through 41. After a while, you get the sense he’s listing his credentials to make these kinds of decisions, and it turns out, everything is his credentials. Everything about Job’s world, about my world, about your world, is a thing that happens to us, but it’s on God’s resume. Essentially, reminding Job that He is the only one qualified to make those kinds of statements.
This is the sovereignty of God. The truth is that our reality truly belongs to Him, and while we have autonomy we do not have sovereignty. We are not self-sustaining, neither did we create ourselves. Everything we have, everything we are came from someone else, and if we trace that far back enough, that all goes to the Creator. This is why we are not entitled to anything because we are not the ultimate source of anything, but God is. So he doesn’t have to answer questions, after all, he’s more qualified to ask questions than we are as well. We seek to barter morally with God, but how do trade with someone who has everything, and can make another everything whenever they feel? Any economy based on trading a good with the source of that good will fail, even if that good is literally the concept of goodness.
But isn’t it funny how even in the Old Testament, this line falls into God’s response:
“Would you condemn Me to justify yourself? Do you have an arm like God’s?”
God sounds betrayed, but not because his position has been challenged, but, if you’ve read it, he points out that Job cannot save himself. If he could really condemn God then he would be alone to save himself, and God gives him a test, one that only God can pass, and claims that if Job could pass it, God would acknowledge that Job didn’t need him.
God’s priority is saving people. At the end of the day, this story is here for you. To give you this incredible dramatic reminder that much worse things happen to people much “better” in terms of good deeds than you, and that not only is that okay, but it turns out to be good for others. This is the failing of our moral economy in that it is selfish, it is based on our personal satisfaction. We want our good things to result in good things for us, the “good” people, and by that we usually mean “the people we like” rather than any particular action or character trait. The truth is that God loves everyone, and sometimes the good things you do result in good for people you’ve never met. Sometimes the bad things that happen to you result in good for people you’ve also never met. After all, God was willing to sacrifice His Son, He was willing to sacrifice Job’s well being. What makes your life and well being any more special?
If that feels hard, think of it this way, whenever something bad happens to you that you don’t deserve, or you feel some good you’ve done hasn’t been returned, think of me. Maybe those things are, ultimately, for my benefit, and will help me get into the kingdom of God, and we can have a good laugh and talk about it then. I’ll do the same.
His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God would be displayed in him.