Why do bad things happen to good people?

Father Joe Krupp is a former comedy writer who is now a Catholic priest.  Twitter: @Joeinblack

DEAR FATHER JOE: So many good people I know have suffered horribly in the last month, and I’m really struggling to hold on to my faith. Why do good people suffer? How do I keep my faith in these times?

I’m sorry that things are so hard for you and your loved ones right now. As a priest, it’s not uncommon for me to experience first-hand the great suffering that many people, good and bad, go through. Struggling with our faith at times like these is not something we should shy away from.

I think too often we look at the sorrow and pain that we and others experience and we try to theologize about it. We get a bit defensive or angry with God and try to defuse our defensiveness or anger with ideas we think might help us cope. We attempt consolation with clichés: “God will never give me what I can’t handle,” “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

In my experience, all of these attempts at consolation fail for a simple reason: they don’t address the core of the issue, which is, “I hurt and I don’t like hurting. If God loves us and is all powerful, why does he let us hurt?”

Dr. Peter Kreeft put it best in his article, God’s Answer to Suffering. In it, he points out that our problem is answered, “not so much by explanations as reassurances and that is what we get: the reassurance of the Father in the person of Jesus.”

Think of it this way: Is there really any answer that could be provided that would make us look at the horrors and pains of life and say “Oh! OK! That makes it all better!”

It seems that we hope there is some answer that will make the hurt stop. I invite you now to purge that concept from your hearts and minds. Even if, for a moment, the heavens were opened and we got a “because” to our “why,” would it mitigate the pain? Does knowing how you broke your leg make the leg stop hurting?

Your hurt, my hurt, their hurt — none of it is soothed by an explanation of why we were hurt, but what will help is knowing how we can carry that hurt.

God’s answer to our pain is, in the words of Dr. Kreeft, not a philosophy, but a person and that person is Jesus. His answer to our pain is his presence.

As humans, we tend to avoid other people’s pain. When I talk to families who’ve lost a loved one, they often tell me of feelings of abandonment by friends who wonder when they’ll “get over it.” People who were extremely supportive during the funeral and for a couple weeks afterward begin to slowly fade away and even avoid them. In his book, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote about this experience after his wife died:

“An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t. Some funk it altogether … I like best the well brought-up young men, almost boys, who walk up to me as if I were a dentist, turn very red, get it over, and then edge away to the bar as quickly as they decently can. Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.”

That is the human response to pain: we avoid it. We avoid our pain, we avoid others’ pain. But this is not the divine response, not at all.

The response of God to the inevitable pain of we humans living in a fallen world was and is to immerse himself into it.

We are in the Easter season, when we celebrate Christ’s triumph over death, his resurrection. We remember too his passion and death — that he joined with humanity in the experience of fear, suffering and sorrow. He is with us now as we face our fears. There is no longer any human experience outside of sin that is not a divine experience as well, and this includes our tears. To continue to quote Dr. Kreeft, at Jesus’ birth, “human tears became divine tears.” Beyond the overt beauty of God himself joining in our sorrow, we recognize that he also offers to sanctify it – making our suffering not just about the pain of living in a fallen world, but about helping him save it.

When we recognize God’s presence with us in our sorrow, we can also say to God “I join my suffering to yours” and in that simple surrender, we join Jesus in his suffering and help him save the world.

Dear reader, we hurt and, so often, we hurt because we love. There is no love without suffering, and there is no suffering without love. The question for us is, will we take both realities? Our God did. He loves us, he hurts with us. His invitation to us in our pain is “If you love me, hurt with me.”

This is remarkable love. This is relentless love that hell itself cannot stop.

In the end, the battle cry of our God and his answer to our pain is not an explanation – it is an entrance. He lovingly, powerfully and gently enters into our wounds with us. He cries out, “You are not alone!” He takes our suffering and draws it into himself so that our tears and wounds are not just consequences of living in a broken and fallen world, but a divine experience.

Whatever pain, whatever sorrow, whatever loss we experience will be redeemed in heaven. There, when we see love face to face, all that has been separated or lost will be joined and reunited.

Weep and let God weep with you.

You are not alone.

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash