When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Suffering is meaningless unless you decide otherwise.

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The following article, excerpted from Kushner's bestseller, is a response to suffering which assumes that God is not the immediate cause of tragedy. It should be noted, however, that this is the theological solution of this particular thinker, and indeed, is probably contrary to traditional covenantal theology, which assumes that suffering is inflicted on the Jewish people because of their sins. Reprinted with permission from When Bad Things Happen to Good People, published by Schocken Books.

Suffering is Not Punishment from a Cruel God

I believe in God. But I do not believe the same things about Him that I did years ago, when I was growing up or when I was a theological student. I recognize His limitations. He is limited in what He can do by laws of nature and by the evolution of human nature and human moral freedom.

when bad things happen to good peopleI no longer hold God responsible for illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters, because I realize that I gain little and I lose so much when I blame God for those things. I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason.

Some years ago, when the "death of God" theology was a fad, I remember seeing a bumper sticker that read "My God is not dead; sorry about yours." I guess my bumper sticker reads "My God is not cruel; sorry about yours."

God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.

The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God's part. Because the tragedy is not God's will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes. We can turn to Him for help in overcoming it, precisely because we can tell ourselves that God is as outraged by it as we are.

A Sense of Meaning Makes Pain More Bearable

"Does that mean that my suffering has no meaning?" That is the most significant challenge that can be offered to the point of view I have been advocating in this book. We could bear nearly any pain or disappointment if we thought there was a reason behind it, a purpose, to it. But even a lesser burden becomes too much for us if we feel it makes no sense.

Patients in a veterans' hospital who have been seriously wounded in combat have an easier time adjusting to their injuries than do patients with exactly the same injury, sustained while fooling around on a basketball court or a swimming pool, because they can tell themselves their suffering at least was in a good cause. Parents who convince themselves that there is some purpose somewhere served by their child's handicap can accept it better for the same reason.

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Rabbi Harold Kushner

Harold Kushner is Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in the Boston suburb of Natick, Massachusetts. He is the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People.