Why do bad things happen?

Rev. Meg Barnhouse
February 11, 2018
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756

Why do bad things happen? Are there evil people? In the “Question Box” sermon a couple of years ago, this was one of the most frequently asked questions.

Call to Worship
– Adrienne Rich

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom
September 18, 2001

For if they are evil and we are not, if that’s how we see things, then we are committing the same kind of error which led to this tragedy. That’s the problem of evil. Not so much that it exists–in that it’s really just a fact of life, or a force of nature. The problem of evil, as I see it, is that we are so readily tempted to imagine that it’s out there, separated from us over here; that it belongs to them and not us. And that, I believe, is ultimately the root and the design of evil–to make us categorize the world into us and them rather than recognizing our common kinship.


This old world is filled with sorrow. All you have to do is stack up some years on this planet and you will face your share. Living in a mortal body brings pain and limitations, children get caught up in addiction, jobs are awful, or they are lost, war sweeps through and people lose their lives, or they lose their humanity. Arms dealers foment unrest so they will have a market for their weapons. Dictators strip their nations of treasure and dignity, pitting people against one another, with truth and fairness the first casualties.

One of the members here was involved in a car wreck yesterday. I went to see her in the trauma ICU. She squinted up at me and said “Why do bad things happen?” Banged up, drugged up and still a smart aleck. A real question for her at this point too. And for me, looking at her. She had done nothing to deserve this.

This question has been debated for at least 20,000 years. We know this from excavations in the Indus Valley which uncovered fragments of Hindu scriptures. The Hindus among us say that evil is a part of God. Shiva is the creator and the destroyer. Kali-Ma creates by destroying. There are demons, but they roar and devour on assignment from the gods. All destruction isn’t bad, after all. Any gardener pulling up leggy, spent plants will tell you that. Destruction makes room for the new. Seeing God in a cancer cell or plague virus is a difficulty for me, but it solves the problem of why do bad things happen. They happen because God did it. For some reason. You are living out your karma. Maybe you were bad in a former life, or maybe you just need to suffer now for some reason.

Buddhism grew out of Hinduism. So the concept of karma is still there. The Buddhists say evil is illusion. If you can see through the illusion, becoming enlightened, you will be free. Bad things happen because people are attached to their picture of how things should be, to the outcomes of certain actions. We desire security, health, good relationships, admiration, long and happy lives for ourselves and our children. Since we are attached to those things through desire, we make ourselves unhappy when they don’t happen the way we want them to. If we could let go of desire we would suffer no longer. If only we could just enjoy our health, our families, our eyesight, our money, our minds as long as they last and let them go with peace in our hearts we would be fine.

One of the oldest books in the Hebrew Scriptures is the book of Job, and the question of why bad things happen to people is what the whole book is about. In that story, Satan is at God’s side, and they are talking like colleagues. “I bet Job wouldn’t be such a fine upstanding servant of yours if he weren’t so healthy and wealthy,” Satan says.

“You go ahead and test that theory,” God says, and Job’s sufferings begin. After he has lost all of his children, all of his possessions and his health, and is sitting on top of an ash heap letting the dogs lick his sores, his three friends come to him and deliver their best religious opinions of why he is suffering. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward,” one says. “God corrects and disciplines his people…. God wounds but he also bind up. You have to trust. You are not more righteous than God.” The second friend is shocked at Job’s questioning God. “God is always just. Your children must have sinned against God. Even now, if you become pure and upright, he will restore you. ” Job says “I have done nothing wrong … but how can a mortal be blameless before God? His is powerful and mighty. How can I argue with him? Then he goes on to argue some more … The third friend reiterates the argument that Job must have done something wrong. Even if he didn’t before now, these rude questions and arguments are bad enough to deserve all the punishment in the world. “Job still stubbornly says. “God is wise and powerful, and he is God. I want to talk to God himself about this.” So God comes down. Jung says it’s because God knew that God had done wrong. (In fact Jung talks about the death of Christ as God’s answer to Job.)

Here is the answer God gives in the book of Job. I am God. Who are you? I don’t owe you anything. Then Job repents. God tells the friends that they have not spoken correctly about him as Job has, he makes them repent too. Then he restores all Jobs property and gives him more children. Seven sons and three daughters, to whom he grants and inheritance along with their brothers. We find beauty and sophistication in the arguments of this ancient text. But not an answer.

Is God responsible for evil? Did he create it? Those who say “yes” to that are the ones who believe, if God is Omnipotent, that He is in control of everything. He must therefore be “allowing” evil. The question, for those who want to believe that God is both all-loving and all powerful is best put by Archibald McLeish in his play about Job called “J.B.” He writes “If God is good, he is not God. If God is God, he is not good.”

There are those in the three religions of the Book, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, who say evil is a result of the Fall, which is what they call the story of Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden, choosing consciousness, choosing the knowledge of good and evil. All pain, all cruelty, all war and pestilence came into being after the Garden.

There are those who believe that all evil is a result of free will. We suffer because we decided to marry the wrong person or didn’t have the skills or the knowledge to work a relationship out, or we were too stubborn or too prideful, etc. People die in floods and earthquakes because greedy or lazy developers continue to build along fault lines or on flood plains. We get cancer because we eat food that’s processed with chemicals or have to breathe air that companies have polluted or because we live too stressful a life. Children are molested because their molesters were molested.

People make bad choices with their free will. Progressives are rooted in the Romantic Era’s philosophy that children are born a blank slate, and that if they have the right nurture they will grow into good people. People would make better choices if they had peace in their homes and neighborhoods, if they had good schools and consistent parenting. So we work to make those things better in order to decrease the suffering in the world. The UU thinking is that we are good in our nature, but capable of doing evil. The Humanist Manifesto of 1933, which was extremely influential in Unitarian thought, asserts that our living conditions and training have a big effect on our ability and tendency to choose good. If we can make these conditions better for people we will see more people choosing to do good.

There are those who say a lot of evil comes from “Natural Law.” Nature doesn’t take our hearts into account at all. If you are a living organism and you stay outside in sub-zero temperatures, you will freeze. Natural Law. If a woman decides to hit someone over the head with a two-by-four, it’s not the wood’s fault. It is, in fact, the wood’s job to be hard and unyielding. Natural law says if one hard unyielding object hits another one, the softer one will get a dent in it. We count on that law on a day to day basis, as we mash potatoes and cut paper. Our world would be chaos if wood were hard when you want to build with it and soft when you try to hit with it. If cars were strong when you load them down with your family and their luggage, but soft when they run into someone on a bicycle.

Nature makes a lot of organisms that are not viable. Other organisms break down and die. Nature doesn’t discriminate. Some of these organisms are microscopic. Others are us or our children. We use our free will to deal with what comes with as much grace, love, and compassion as we can muster. For some people this makes sense, but they feel the loss of a God who can protect and defend us and our children against the heartlessness of Nature.

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age, that blasts the roots of trees is my destroyer. And I am dumb to tell the crooken rose, my youth is bent by that same wintry fever.”

-Dylan Thomas.

Is most of what we call evil simply an interaction between human free will used badly and natural law, or are there people (or dogs and cats, for that matter) who are just born bad?

Is there a force of evil that exists outside of us, beyond us?

For people who believe in a personification of evil, in a devil, explanations are simpler, and the big picture has a drama and a story line that satisfy. Even if you just believe in some kind of an energy or force of evil, it helps explain a lot. As in most matters of belief, you end up choosing what you believe and acting as if it’s true. Those among us less comfortable with belief in he spiritual realms would say what choices made in the context of cultural and societal influences. Those among us comfortable with beliefs in spiritual unseen forces believe that there is an energy that wants to tear life down.

For us, the decision to be on the side of that which builds up, that which heals, to be on the side of love is our spiritual path. When terrible things happen, we lean on one another for strength and comfort. They will try not to say mean things like “How did you attract this suffering into your life? Or “Everything happens for a reason.” When bad things happen, We keep our kindness, if we can, through the panic and the pain. We look for the helpers.

Our friend in the hospital’s answer. “You have to have the bad so you can appreciate the good.” What’s your answer?

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