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Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People?

Having taught Sunday school for the better part of 25 years, you’d think I’d know better than to start a class – especially a college class – with “Any questions?”

“This may not be that original,” offered up my lone student recently, “but I’ve been wondering lately why bad things keep happening to good people.”

True. His question wasn’t that original. But how can anyone read about some senseless act of violence or see floodwaters covering entire counties and not wonder what’s behind such awful events?

I should have had a ready answer. After all, it’s not like this was the first time I’d been asked this question. But instead I found myself being unexpectedly candid – both with my student and with myself. “I can’t say for sure,” I admitted, “but I’d be happy to explore the topic together, if that’s OK with you.”

Mind you, this was an exceptionally bright young man, who I knew would likely be as game for this sort of discussion as he would a sail around the bay. I also knew that it wasn’t my job to convince him of anything, simply to encourage him to consider the possibilities.

So we began.

I recalled a radio program I’d heard that included a panel of Christian leaders discussing the significance of the Book of Revelation (aka “The Apocalypse”), which includes the mythical battle between the forces of good and evil. At first there seemed to be a consensus that the purpose of this story was to illustrate that, ultimately, good is more powerful than evil. But one panelist – a minister of some denomination I can’t recall – offered another interpretation.

“My sense is that the Book of Revelation isn’t so much about proving that good is more powerful than evil,” he said, “but that good is the only power.”

While this conversation didn’t provide a complete answer to the question at hand, it did afford us a compelling starting point: What if God, good, really were the only power governing the universe, and everyone in it? Would this fact – even the admission of this fact – make any real difference in our lives?

Imagine a child looking at two math equations on a chalkboard. One says 2+2=5, the other 2+2=4. As long as he believes that both equations are valid, he’s going to have problems. But the moment he realizes that only one is or can be true, a solution begins to unfold and his suffering, as it were, begins to subside.

For theologian Mary Baker Eddy, the same could be expected as a result of anyone’s honest and vigorous exploration of God – not as the proverbial “bearded man in the sky,” but as that singular divine Principle she identified as Love. “It is our ignorance of God, the divine Principle, which produces apparent discord,” she writes in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, “and the right understanding of Him restores harmony.”

Even as a kid this made sense to me, but it wasn’t until my early 20s that I had some evidence that helped convince me of the power of understanding God in this way.

I was out for an all-day bike ride when I was side-swiped by a car going upward of 50 miles an hour. The impact was enough to break off the car’s side-view mirror and send me zigzagging in pain until I reached the side of the road.

It would have been logical, I suppose, to first assess the damage that had been done. But before I did, it seemed more logical – more natural, really – to just close my eyes and remind myself that not only did I believe in God, but that I believed Him to be the only power, the only law, the only reality governing my experience, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

I opened my eyes just as the man who hit me came running to where I was standing.

“Are you OK?” he asked?

“I’m just fine,” I assured him, and I meant it. After just those few seconds of quiet thought, not only was I not feeling any pain, the only “damage” I could find was a slight bruise on my leg and a tiny scratch on my arm.

As I was sharing this story with my Sunday school student, it occurred to me that not only did my understanding of God, as basic as it may have seemed, save me from a potentially traumatic experience, I believe it has since reduced the number of times I’ve found myself in similar situations, as this once accident-prone kid has been nearly accident-free for the past 20 years.

Toward the end of class, I realized that we hadn’t yet come up with any definitive answers, other than to suggest that a desire to know God better and put this understanding into practice might be a good place to start. And maybe that’s enough, for now at least – just as long as we keep asking questions and keep listening for the answers that inevitably come.

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