Some notes taken from the arguments presented in ‘When Bad Things Happen To Good People’ by Harold S Kushner.
Chapter 1: Why Do The Righteous Suffer?
Everyone is troubled by the unfair distribution of suffering in the world. It inevitably raises questions about the kindness, even the existence of God. One of the ways in which people have tried to explain it has been by assuming that we deserve what we get, that our misfortunes are punishment for our sins. Hence, we keep the world orderly and understandable. So we end up hating God and ourselves. We are told he has his reasons and it’s not for us to question him. But how can there be a higher purpose to such suffering? One suggestion is that we are part of a rich tapestry, a pattern which requires some lives be twisted, knotted or cut short. Another suggestion, is that we experience tragedy to learn, to evoke emotion and thought, expand our horizons. We are taught lessons, not for punishment sake but to help us evolve and become better human beings.
Chapter 2: The Book Of Job
Job is an ordinary man who loses everything. He becomes angry whereas his friends try to defend God, thus condemning him as a bad person. Which of the following 3 statements are you willing to sacrifice?
A) God is all powerful and causes everything that happens in the world. Nothing happens without his willing it.
b) God is just and fair, and stands for people getting what they deserve, so that the good prosper and the wicked are punished.
c) Job is a good person.
God responds but is he saying that he has other considerations to worry about, besides the welfare of one individual human being? That cannot be true; each person is important. Bad things do happen to good people in this world, but it is not God’s will. He would like people to get what they deserve in life, but cannot always arrange it. I would prefer to believe in his goodness rather than his ability to be all powerful.
Chapter 3: Sometimes There Is No Reason
But suppose God didn’t quite finish by the end of the week? Suppose that creation, the process of replacing chaos, with order, were still going on. Man was just created. The world is mostly an orderly, predictable place, showing ample evidence of God’s thoroughness and handiwork, but pockets of chaos remain. Most of the time, the events of the universe follow firm natural laws. But every now and then, things happen not contrary to the laws of nature, but outside them. They happen at random, and randomness is another name for chaos. Not the will of God, but represent that aspect of reality which stands independent of his will.
Chapter 4: No Exceptions for Nice People
Our human bodies are miracles, not because they defy laws of nature but precisely because they obey them. Pain is a warning that something is wrong. Laws of nature do not make exceptions. A bullet has no conscience; neither does a malignant tumor or an automobile out of control. Earthquakes and hurricanes are not ‘acts of God,’ they are natural disasters. It’s not how pain and illness is caused but the result that is important; such experiences can be either be made meaningful or empty and destructive. The vulnerability to death is one of the given conditions of life. What would happen to the world if everyone lived forever? Overcrowding, no change / renewal / rebirth.
Chapter 5: God leaves Us Room To Be Human (Free Will)
What does it mean to be human? Man was created part animal (needing to eat, sleep, mate) and part divine. Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And so we humans now live in a world that is good and bad, making our lives painful and complicated. Animals lives are much simpler, they are programmed to act purely on instinct and do not make moral decisions, whereas we can control our instincts on moral grounds. Animals can mate and reproduce, but only human beings can know love, with all the pain that it sometimes involves. We appreciate life more because we know we are going to die. To be human ‘in the image of God’ means being free to choose instead of following our instincts. Man can only show himself as being virtuous by choosing the good, when the bad is equally possible. Without good and evil, we can no longer be moral, which means we can no longer be human. Like a parent and child, If God intervenes, how will we learn to do things for ourselves. The freedom to choose includes the freedom to hurt and there is nothing God can do to prevent it, without taking control and reducing humans to animals.
Chapter 6: God Helps Those Who Stop Hurting Themselves
People sometimes make a bad situation worse by blaming themselves. Survivors feel guilty for being alive when a loved one is dead. Two elements seem to be involved: our strenuous need to believe that the world makes sense, that there is a cause for every effect and a reason for everything that happens so we try and find patterns and that we are the cause of what happens. Sometimes we have caused the sorrow in our lives and need to take responsibility. A sense of our inadequacies and failings, a recognition that we could be better, is one of the forces of moral growth and improvement in our society. But an excessive sense of guilt, a tendency to blame ourselves for things which are clearly not our fault, robs us of our self-esteem. If we want to go on living, we have to get over the irrational feeling that every misfortune is our fault, the direct result of our mistakes or mis-behaviour. The textbook definition of depression is anger turned inwards. We should be angry at the situation, rather than ourselves, others or God. Jealousy is also self-destructive as nobody in life is without sorrow.
Chapter 7: God Can’t Do Everything But He Can Do Some Important Things
If we do not hold God responsible for life’s tragedies, if we believe that God wants justice and fairness but cannot always arrange it, what are we doing praying? Who could worship a God who rewards only those who plead and grovel enough? And if we don’t get what we want, how do we keep from being angry? When miracles occur, we would be advised to express gratitude and not think that our prayers and actions are responsible. We cannot merely pray to God to end war, as he has made the world in such a way that a man must find his own path to peace, to end starvation because the resources are available to feed the entire world, or to end prejudice, despair and disease but we can ask for courage, determination and willpower to act for ourselves instead of merely praying to God. One suggestion for the purpose of religion and prayer is not to put people in touch with God but with each other, to share experiences within a community so we don’t feel alone. Prayer when offered redeems people from isolation; it is comforting so is beneficial whether or not it changes the world outside. You cannot make deals with God or present him with a long list of demands but you can ask for inner-strength and support. Fate, not God sends the problem but he can help you deal with it.
Chapter 8: What Good Then Is Religion (Summary)
No one promised us a life free of pain and disappointment, but we do not have to be alone; we can draw upon a source for the strength to survive life’s tragedies and unfairness. God is limited in what he can do by laws of nature and by the evolution of human nature and moral freedom. He does not cause our misfortunes; some are caused by bad luck, bad people and some simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws. They are not punishments or part of his design or will so we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God. Tragedies do not happen for any reason but they can be given meaning ie: now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it? Don’t dwell on the past, focus on the future. The facts of life and death are neutral. We, by our responses, give suffering either a positive or negative meaning. There are many good things as well as bad in the world. Only with time and distance can we see the tragedy in the context of a whole life and whole world. God inspires people to want to improve conditions, cure diseases, to help others in need and gives us the strength and perseverance to overcome adversity. Our responding to life’s unfairness with sympathy and with righteous indignation, his compassion and anger working through us, may be the surest proof that God exists. The ability to forgive and to love are the weapons we have been given to enable us to live in this less-than-perfect world.