Why do bad things happen to good people?
This question has been asked for centuries. Almost everyone can probably think about a time where they either experienced something bad, or they know of someone else who experienced something bad despite them being relatively good people. As Christians, this question often becomes a theological one. Why does God allow evil to happen to apparently good people? Would he not protect them from evil and instead bless them? Likewise, why do unrighteous people sometimes seem more blessed than righteous people?
St. Augustine, ancient church father and bishop of Hippo, addressed this question following the sack of Rome in 410. Many Romans attacked the church claiming that the abandonment of their pagan gods in favor of Christianity had caused the gods to abandon them, which allowed their barbarian enemies to successfully invade Rome. At the same time, many questioned why God would allow some Christians to suffer as a result of the barbarian invasion and some pagans remain safe. If Christians served the one true God, why did they suffer similar fates as some of those who opposed and even mocked Him? Partly in response to this backlash, Augustine wrote his massive volume, The City of God.
In it, he writes, “Will someone say, ‘Why, then, was this divine compassion extended even to the ungodly and ungrateful?’ Why, but because it was the mercy of Him who daily ‘maketh His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and unjust’ (Matt 5:45)... nevertheless does the patience of God still invite the wicked to repentance, even as the scourge of God educates the good to patience. And so, too, does the mercy of God embrace the good that it may cherish them, as the severity of God arrests the wicked to punish them... But as for the good things of this life, and its ills, God has willed that these should be common to both; that we might not too eagerly covet the things which wicked men are seen equally to enjoy, nor shrink with an unseemly fear from the ills which even good men often suffer.”
Essentially, Augustine quotes Christ in the book of Matthew, identifying when even Jesus explained that both the good and evil will suffer and be blessed equally. He then explains that, even though their treatment is similar, their outlook on these trials and blessings is fundamentally different because of their understanding of the nature of God. For example, though trials should drive the wicked to repentance, they allow the saved to grow in character and faith. Biblically, trials and tribulations are to be looked at as blessings from God, testing and refining our relationship with him (James 1:2-4).
In fact, Paul writes in Romans that the trials of this life do not compare with "the glory that is to be revealed to us" (8:18). While the pagans' entire lives were dedicated to temporal happiness, that is, happiness that can only be found in our present lives, Christians had the hope of eternal life with our Lord and Savior.
Augustine continues, “There is, too, a very great difference in the purpose served both by those events which we call adverse and those called prosperous. For the good man is neither uplifted with the good things of time, nor broken by its ills; but the wicked man, because he is corrupted by this world’s happiness, feels himself punished by its unhappiness.” Augustine here explains that the so-called blessings and sufferings of this world should not effect those who have already determined to live their lives for a kingdom of a different world. Conversely, the wicked will look at the adversity in their lives and despair since their happiness is bound to the happenings of their earthly lives.
Furthermore, Augustine makes the claim that temporal losses are not genuine losses for the saint. He questions, “They lost all they had. Their faith? Their godliness? The possessions of the hidden man of the heart, which in the sight of God are of great price? Did they lose these? For these are the wealth of Christians...” Though a Christian can lose all worldly possessions, no one, barbarian invader or modern day politician alike, can ever steal that “true wealth” that a believer has. Our earthly possessions pale in comparison to the gift of salvation and relationship that Christ offers.
Next time we think to ourselves, “Why is this bad thing happening to me?”, we should always remember that God’s ways are greater than our ways, and ultimately, he will never take away that true wealth that we as followers of Christ have. Times may be rough, but we lose nothing if we still have our faith.