Why does God let bad things happen?

This question is probably as old as religion itself. It is a stumbling block for some of us, and for many more at given moments of tragedy.

Death and Sorrow

One of life's chapters, but not the whole story

Written by Senter Crook

A number of years ago, a person whom I loved dearly was diagnosed with terminal cancer. A particularly virulent form of the disease, it struck him in the prime of his life and killed him within three months of the initial diagnosis. Jack was a person of deep faith who wasn't afraid to die—but he wasn't ready to die, either. I was his priest, and he asked me many times, "Why? Why would God do this?" I longed to offer give him a comforting answer—one that would give him some peace and acceptance. But I had no answer. The last few weeks of his life were marked by extraordinary physical suffering, accompanied by the relentless silence of God. His burial and resurrection service was a celebration of thanksgiving for his life, and for the way he had touched the lives of the hundreds of people who had known and loved him. But our experience of loss was profound, and our grief could not adequately be expressed in mere words.

During a very difficult period in my own life, I made some unspeakably painful decisions after years of wrestling with the issues involved. The consequence was that people whom I loved were catapulted out of a world of safe familiarity into uncharted territory, where nothing would ever again be the same. One dear and concerned friend came to visit me. She told me of a period in her own life when she had been so low that she would come home from work and go upstairs to bed, often not even cooking dinner for her family. Finally, she went to see her physician, who prescribed antidepressants, and from that day forward she was able to cope with the stresses of life. The implication was that I should do the same. I heard myself say to her, "Mary, I am the saddest tonight that I have been in the whole of my adult life—but for the first time in twenty years I am not depressed!"

A friend tells of a time in her life during which she experienced unimaginable betrayal. Things had been done which could not be undone, and words had been spoken which could not be unspoken. In all honesty, she could not deny her own responsibility in the series of events that had brought her to this place. But she felt as if she had stepped out into a world of unending darkness. Nothing brought her joy. She lost weight. She was a person of deep faith, and believed that what God would want from her was forgiveness.She prayed and prayed for forgiveness to come to her, so that she could move on with her life and let go of the pain. But there was no release.

She managed to get out of bed in the mornings, and to move through the day doing what was necessary, but nothing changed. She described to me the moment in time when healing began. "I was sitting at a railroad crossing, waiting for a very long train to pass. As I sat there, I had an image of what I had been doing. For the last year I had been trying to outrun the pain, and thinking of myself as a bad person because I was unable to get rid of it and move on with my life. It suddenly came to me that I couldn't release something I had never allowed myself fully to embrace. So I closed my eyes and imagined myself turning toward all that had happened and opening my arms wide to receive it. It was a visceral event that shook me from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. It literally took my breath away. But," she said, "from that moment on, the pain began to lose its grip on me. It was weeks, even months, before I was able to go a full day without thinking about the painful events of the past, but eventually I was truly healed. The time came, in fact, when I discovered authentic forgiveness, and was no longer a prisoner of my own pain and anger."

To feel is to be alive. To be depressed is only to exist. Grief is always associated with loss, and loss is always associated with death in some form. The physical death of a loved one symbolizes, at a certain level, all that was or that could have been that is no longer. But there are other kinds of deaths. There is the death of dreams—of ideals to which we have clung, but which we must let go. This includes our longing for the parenting we needed, but didn't get (and fruitlessly seek out in other relationships, but cannot have because others are not our parents). Our aspirations to be model parents ourselves, and failures because of our own wounds. The marriage we longed to have but couldn't because of our own humanity and the humanity of our spouse.

There is no life without death, and the accompanying grief that is natural to the experience of death in all its forms. But there is no death apart from the possibility of new life and transformation. Depression is the result when we identify with the pain in our lives as the whole truth, rather than as a part of the truth. We cannot open our selves to life in all its fullness and avoid the pain of death and grief.

The human experience of the apparent abandonment of God and the grief and even despair that are a part of that experience are very real for many people. Finding the courage to accept loss and death, and to enter into the grief they bring, is a sacramental act that allows us to participate in the deeper truth that, although evil and death are real, they are not ultimate. Rather they are part of a larger Truth that does not wipe away their consequences, but transforms them and brings out of them a new creation.

Copyright©2004 Senter Crook