Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? For example, what do we say when a Christian mother backs the car over the top of her little toddler crushing him to death? When a Christian man discovers he has brain cancer and must soon leave his three young children without a father? When a hurricane destroys the homes and disrupts the lives not only of unbelievers but also of believers? Perhaps you’ve asked that question while undergoing personal trial or tragedy. You’ve lost a loved one or gone through a heart-rending divorce or contracted a chronic illness or been betrayed by a Christian friend. The Lord has dealt bitterly with you, as He did with Naomi, and you desperately want to know “Why?”
A Jewish Rabbi tried to answer this question in a book entitled, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In this book, Rabbi Kushner argued that there’s evil in this world that God cannot prevent. God would like to help people if He could, but His power is limited. There are two problems with Kusher’s answer: first, he assumes that men are basically good and don’t deserve to suffer. But the Bible teaches that all men have sinned and are under the wrath of God (John 3:36; Rom. 1:18; Eph. 2:1-3). So the real question is “Why Do Good Things Happen to Bad People?” Second, Rabbi Kushner denies God’s absolute sovereignty. According to Scripture, God not only controls the good things that happen; He also controls the bad things that happen (Job 1: Isa. 45:7; Jer. 44:2; Acts 2:23; 4:28). The writer of Lamentations declares, “Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?” (3:37-38).
Rabbi Kushner doesn’t have the answer. But that drives us back to the question: why do bad things happen to God’s people? We are still sinners, but we are God’s people. Accordingly, when a godly Christian suffers some tragedy, we’re inclined to ask, “Why, Lord, are You allowing this to happen?” And it’s not always wrong to ask that question. When we read through the Psalms, we find the psalmist often raising this question when a difficult trial came into his life. For example, “Why do You stand afar off, O LORD? Why do You hide in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1); “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning?” (Ps. 22:1); “Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord? … 24 Why do You hide Your face, And forget our affliction and our oppression?” (Ps. 44:23-24).
The Bible provides some answers. It tells us that God causes all things to work together for the ultimate good of His people (Rom. 8:28). It tells us that suffering can make us more like Christ (Phil. 3:10; 1 Pet. 2:21). It tells us that Christians will ultimately go to heaven where there is no suffering (Isa. 25:8; 1 Cor. 15:54-58; Rev. 21:4). But the Bible does not give us all the answers! As the hymn-writer reminds us, “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.” Sometimes God’s mysterious providence can be very unpleasant. When we encounter these dark providences, it’s not always wrong to ask “Why?”
But there is a danger! The danger comes when we expect that God must give us an answer to all our questions. The danger comes when we demand that God remove the mystery and give an account for all of his ways.
In light of this ever-present danger, I’d like to highlight the importance of trusting God even when we don’t understand. We should be willing to trust God even when He does not answer our question. The text on which I base this proposition is Psalm 131. The author is identified as David, and its inclusion among the Songs of Ascent indicates its popularity and frequent usage in the worship community.
A Recognition of Inexplicable Mystery
David recognizes that there are lofty realities beyond our comprehension.
LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty.
Neither do I concern myself with great matters,
Nor with things too profound for me. (Psalm 131:1)
These “great” and “profound” realities include mysteries about the world and about God who created the world. More specifically, the terminology David uses is used elsewhere of God’s mysterious providences—those aspects of God’s activity in the world that are difficult for the human mind to comprehend (cf. Job 5:8, 9; 9:10; 37:5, 14; 42:1-4). This includes both the good things God did for David and also the unpleasant things: the trials, suffering, and tragedy that God brought into David’s life.
I believe those commentators are correct who see verse one as an allusion to some difficult and painful trial David was experiencing. What made this trial particularly challenging for David was its mysterious nature. Some of us can identify with David. We’ve experienced some dark providences. They are dark not only because of the pain but also because of the mystery. We don’t understand why God has brought these trials into our life.
Imagine that you’re about to run a race. Your coach comes up to you at the starting line, and he gives you a pep talk. He urges you to run well and to finish the course. Then, after he exhorts you to do your best, he hurries down the course and begins to set up obstacles in your way. He builds a wall for you to climb over. He digs a pit for you to cross. He breaks up the ground and makes it rough. You also notice that He’s not putting the same obstacles in front of the other runners. Their way seems smoother and easier. And immediately, you begin to wonder, “Why is he doing this?” I thought he wanted me to run well—why is he making it so difficult?
Sometimes, God appears to be dealing with us in this way. He tells us to “lay aside every weight and to run the race with endurance.” But then He seems to place obstacles in our way—trials, hardship, suffering. We immediately begin to wonder, “Lord, why are you doing this?” “What is Your purpose?” “What are You trying to teach me?”
An Affirmation of Trustful Humility
David not only acknowledges the reality of mystery, but he lets us know how he has responded to such mystery as it has directly impacted his life. According to his own testimony, David had come to accept such inexplicable mysteries with trustful humility.
David’s humility described
To begin with, David refuses to demand God give him an account for all His providences. To insist God answer all his questions would be the height of pride. David will not allow such pride to poison his heart or influence his behavior.
LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty.
Neither do I concern myself with great matters,
Nor with things too profound for me.
Surely, I have calmed and quieted my soul … (Psalm 131:1–2a)
If we’re not careful, asking the question “why?” can promote agitation and anxiety. These in turn can make us impatient and demanding of God. David knew this. Therefore, he purposely assumes a calm and quiet disposition. The expression David uses describes a humble, trustful disposition.
David’s humility illustrated
David continues and compares himself to a “weaned child.”
Like a weaned child with his mother;
Like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:2b)
The picture is that of a weaned child who is no longer fussy and agitated though his mother has removed something very satisfying. The child is not able to understand why. He does not realize that weaning is necessary for his growth and maturation. Nevertheless, he has become quiet and calm. Those of us who are parents know from experience that this is not the first response of a child being weaned. Initially, the child objects with loud complaints. But eventually with a little love and discipline, there is quietness.
The child is not at rest because he has learned the mystery! His mother hasn’t given him a lecture on the importance and necessity of weaning. She hasn’t explained to the child that he is entering in upon a new stage of physical development and that he must now learn to eat solid food. It’s all still a mystery and an unpleasant mystery at that! But now, the child is no longer objecting and complaining about the mystery. Now he’s willing to trust his mother’s wisdom and love and to live with the mystery.
David, like the weaned child, eventually responded to God’s dark providence with composure and quietness. Perhaps David, like the child, had initially complained about the unpleasant and uncomfortable providences in his life. But now he had come to realize all such complaining was futile because God was not going to give in. He had also come to believe that such complaining was unnecessary because God would take care of him.
An Exhortation to the Covenant Community
Like the Apostle Paul, David knew that all God’s children “must through much tribulation enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). They will not all suffer the same trials. They will not all suffer to the same degree. But like David, all God’s covenant people will be faced with mysterious providences. Turning from his own experience, David faces the covenant community and exhorts them to respond in like fashion to dark providences that come into their life:
Let Israel hope [‘wait for,’ ‘place her trust’] in the LORD
from henceforth and for ever. (Psalm 131:3)
What lessons can we draw from David’s experience and exhortation? (Part 2)
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.