Making Sense of Bad Things Happening to Good People

JANUARY 24, 2021 07:00 AM

There is a line in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Ernest” that presents one of the most frustrating aspects of reality. The governess, Miss Prism, is talking about a three-volume novel she once wrote. Her student, Cecily, is delighted. “How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily. I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.” Miss Prism’s retort: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”

We would all like for the good to end happily — and the evil unhappily, but, alas, that is not the way of the world. Everyone is aware of this cosmic imperfection, and thinkers from the Biblical author of Job to the modern Rabbi Harold Kushner have struggled with the sad fact that bad things can happen to good people — and good things can happen to bad people. Fairness is not always the way of the world, and we are often left wondering through our tears.

(Sometimes, however, good things happen to good people — and bad things happen to bad people, but these instances of fairness are often hard to remember when we or our loved ones are facing a loss or tragedy.)

The Bible approaches this basic life problem in many ways, and one that I find helpful comes in Psalm 92. Here is the text:

“A Song, A Psalm for the Sabbath Day:

It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing hymns to Your Name, O Most High!

To tell of Your love in the morning, to sing of Your faithfulness at night;

To pluck the strings, to sound the lute, to make the harp vibrate.

For You, Lord, have made me glad through Your work;

I will sing of the works of Your hands.

O Lord, how great are Your works! Your plans are so subtle!

The fool will never learn, the dullard never grasp this:

The wicked may flourish like grass, all who do evil may blossom,

Yet they are doomed to destruction,

While You, O Lord, are exalted for all time.

See how Your enemies, O Lord, see how Your enemies shall perish,

How all who do evil shall be scattered.

But You lift up my cause in pride, and I am bathed in freshening oil.

I shall see the defeat of my foes, my ears shall hear of their fall.

The righteous shall flourish like palms, grow tall like cedars in Lebanon.

Rooted in the house of the Lord, they shall be ever fresh and green,

Proclaiming that the Lord is just, my Rock, in Whom there is no wrong.”

The first section is a lovely reflection on the beauty of God’s creation and our ability to appreciate it and offer praise. Everything is tranquil and good. The second section seems to start off with the same spirit. “How great are Your works, O Lord,” but then we have a slight change in mood: “Your plans are so subtle!” The Hebrew word amku, usually translated as “subtle” or “deep,” is a clue that things are not as simple as one might hope. While one would expect the wicked to be vanquished, the fact is that they often “flourish like grass.” Indeed, they often“blossom.” The natural sense of right and wrong seems to be contradicted by what often happens in real life.

There is a resolution, but it is not what we expect. We are hoping that the good will emerge victorious — victorious over their evil opponents, but the Psalmist switches the contest. The struggle is not between us good people and those wicked people. The struggle is between the wicked people and God! Though the evil may flourish — even prevail over the good, they will eventually face defeat from God. “They are doomed to destruction, while You, O Lord, are exalted for all time.” There is a possibility that we shall have moments of glory — with our cause lifted up and our bodies graced with freshening oil, but the real battle is not between good people and bad people; the real battle is between the evil and God. Despite the apparent and temporary defeat of goodness, God is always the ultimate winner. This is the subtly that the fools and dullards never grasp. They think that, if they beat down the good, they win, but the fact of the matter is that God will inevitably win. The evil shall never have the victory they pursue.

The final section gives us advice on how we can cope with our defeats and losses along the road of life. “The righteous shall flourish like palms, grow tall like the cedars of Lebanon.” Both palms and cedars are part of God’s House, but each tree makes a different kind of contribution. The palm trees are planted in the courtyard and give beauty and shade. They are still alive. The cedars grow tall in Lebanon, but they are cut down and turned into lumber. From them is God’s House constructed. There are moments when our fate may be that of the palms, and we can give our praise and relish the delights of life. And, there are moments when our defeat in the vicissitudes of life render us as the cedars, cut down. Our only hope is that, by allying ourselves with God — through faith and righteousness, we can be the cedars with which God’s eternal House is built.

Rabbi David E. Ostrich is the spiritual leader of Congregation Brit Shalom in State College. He also teaches Jewish Studies at Penn State and is a frequent instructor for OLLI (the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute). This column is coordinated by, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

This was first printed in the Centre Daily Times on January 24, 2021.