A couple days ago Isaiah looked up from his lunch and said,
“Mama, sometimes God does bad things to me.”
We hadn’t been talking about God or church or anything of the sort so I was caught off guard. I stalled for a second, saying, “Ummm, what?”
He gazed at me over his grilled cheese and said it again,
“Sometimes God does bad things to me.”
“Yeah?” I said. “Tell me more.“
“Well,…” he went on. “Like… sometimes I have bad dreams. Or he makes me fall down. Or I’m sad. Why does he do bad things to me?“
I just stared back at him blankly for a beat. I could feel the wheels in my brain start rolling, spinning fast through years and years of murky theology and unprocessed, unanswered questions.
What about the bad things?
When I was younger I was a card-carrying member of the “everything happens for a reason” club. I added some Christian nuance, of course. Everything happens for a reason because God ordains that it should be so. And the pithy platitude covered pretty much everything. Never fear! God has a plan.
Your aunt had an alcohol withdrawal seizure sitting across from you in the kitchen? It’s ok! God has a plan. God must have wanted you to learn something from all that frantic running up and down the street in your vain search for help.
You lost your central vision and spent six weeks of your senior year hoping that your retinas would heal from the bizarre blindness-inducing virus and that you’d be on the right side of the 2/3 chance the doctors gave you? It’s ok! God’s totally got this. Maybe God wants you to learn something really important from one of those books-on-tape that your grandma picked up for you from the library. You wouldn’t listen to them otherwise so you had to go blind and drop out of school. It happened for a reason!
Bad things are ok because they are part of God’s grand plan. You will learn something important or find yourself the recipient of some unexpected blessing. You will end up on a path that you would have otherwise avoided and it’s there that you will meet your husband or land the job or find the perfect apartment. It was awful but at least it happened for a reason.
It’s when you can’t see the meaning or glean the lesson or find the hidden blessing that the flaws in the theory first start to make themselves known. And what then? If it’s not part of God’s plan or some elaborate scheme for your ultimate betterment, what do you make of it? Believing that everything happens for a reason because God ordains it is erroneous theology and it’s particularly entangling because without it, all the suffering and the pain and the bad things feel meaningless. Without it, there is no grand plan and no important lesson and quite possibly no reason or meaning to our suffering at all; which brings us back to the age old question, asked this time by a 4-year-old: Why Do Bad Things Happen?
I don’t know.
We’re in Santa Barbara this week and yesterday I sat on a windy beach watching Jason talk with an old friend of ours. He was teaching Jason how to kiteboard and as I observed the two of them standing there on the sand, flying the kite, I thought about their stories. Our friend’s teenaged son died ten years ago on Jason’s birthday. Jason’s dad died of AIDS when he was only 8. A grown boy without his dad and a dad without his boy. When I thought of it, I had to look away.
Did those things happen for a reason? Was there some bigger scheme? Did Jason grow up without his dad so that God could teach him something important? Does our friend have to be alive without his son so that God could offer him some particular blessing that could not have otherwise been bestowed? I don’t think so. I think both deaths involved the horrifying, searing, pull-your-hair-out-screaming sort of pain that will perhaps always be devoid of “meaning.”
Here’s what I do know and this is what I told Isaiah:
God is love
God is love. Something that is, at its very essence, love, cannot abide death and fear and sadness and pain. God, who is love, would never give you a nightmare or make you fall down. It would go against God’s very nature.
God is near
You will fall down and you will have nightmares. People die and get sick and do horrible things to one another. This is without a doubt. I don’t know why these things happen but they do and they will. Yet even so, God is near. God is with us always. God will not be absent in midst of our fear or our pain or our unbearable suffering.
Might good things happen after or even in the midst of our suffering? Absolutely. Sitting on the beach yesterday looking out at the endless ocean while those two men worked with the kite was evidence of that. Might we learn things we would not have learned had the suffering not occurred? Maybe yes, maybe no. Either way, God doesn’t cause our suffering or our bad dreams or our fear. But when those things do happen, as they inevitably will, the God who is love does draw near and will one day make all things new. There might not be a reason or sufficient explanation for our suffering but there is reason for hope in the face of it and nowadays that’s good enough for me.