Of all the books in God’s canon of Scripture, the story of Job is among the hardest to swallow. A godly man’s happy life quickly torn to pieces, only to be followed by disheartening council from friends, and a horrifying rebuke from God Himself. Although the book eventually concludes on a happy note, readers are left struggling in its wake with difficult questions. A common query resulting from Job’s misfortune has made its way into both sacred and secular thought: why do bad things happen to good people?
It would be prudent to first define what I mean by “good” and “bad.” Of course, we are all sinners. The Bible affirms that “no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12). Good, in the context of this article, refers to those who have professed belief in Christ and are striving, albeit imperfectly, to obey Him. Bad describes those who care nothing for God nor for their neighbor, and unashamedly walk in rebellion before our great King.
As difficult as the question of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is, many Christians can reach in their biblical toolbox for answers. Maybe God is using the present calamity to sanctify someone. Maybe He is working something out for the believer’s good. Perhaps the trial will give muscle to the Christian’s testimony and aid another in coming to faith.
All would be peachy if we could stop here. Unfortunately, Job goes deeper. The gravity of his despair drives him beyond questioning God’s actions toward the good, and leads him to focus on the evil. From dust-covered eyes and disease-laden lips, Job’s laments pose a question with a much more elusive answer, which is why we need to ask the question, “Why do good things happen to bad people?”
In the midst of his agony, Job’s friends come to console him (they were wildly unsuccessful, by the way). Specifically, chapters twenty and twenty-one find our man and his friend, Zophar, immersed in passionate debate over the fate of the wicked. Zophar’s view is seen in the following:
“Do you not know this from of old, since man was placed on earth, that the exulting of the wicked is short, and the joy of the godless but for a moment? Though his height mount up to the heavens, and his head reach to the clouds, he will perish forever like his own dung; those who have seen him will say, ‘Where is he?’’ (Job 20:5-7).
Job fires back:
“Keep listening to my words, and let this be your comfort. Bear with me, and I will speak, and after I have spoken, mock on…Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? Their offspring are established in their presence, and their descendants before their eyes. Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them…They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol” (Job 21:2-3,7-9,13).
Zophar believes the run of the wicked is short, and the enjoyment of their actions lacks ultimate reward. Job is of a different camp, claiming that evil is overlooked, ignored, or even met with blessing. Perhaps Job’s opinion was a bit skewed at the moment. The whole lose-everything-you’ve-ever-loved-in-one-day thing may have produced some understandable cynicism.
Despite the obvious contrast between their approaches, both men agree on a truth that makes most Christians shy away from debating that eager atheist a few cubicles down: for the present moment, in God’s creation, those who walk in wickedness do prosper. There is simply no way around it. From politicians to celebrities, athletes to businessmen, adulterous husbands to treacherous wives, good things happen to bad people.
This is a haunting thought. From it stems three equally ominous questions. Thankfully, however, clarity begins to dissolve the confusion when we consider the following biblical answers.
Do good things happen to bad people because God is indifferent to evil?
Let’s be frank: God abhors evil. Nowhere in scripture does He take it lightly. The Psalms soberly remind us, “you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you” (Psalms 5:4). God also makes the following decree through the pen of Peter: ‘but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16).
Even with all the individual verses serving as evidence for God’s hatred of sin, the clearest, most explicit proof of this truth comes from the cross itself. The only Son of the Father hanging on a tree, drowning in his own blood until His strength gave out and He committed His Spirit to Heaven. All to atone for our wickedness. The majesty, righteousness, and purity of the Lord should make us tremble. Even the prophet Isaiah, when he is given a vision of God on His throne, pronounced woes on himself. As he looked on, “the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King…” (Isaiah 6:4-5). God is terrifyingly holy, and therefore not indifferent to evil.
What lesson would the wicked learn from having good things happen to them?
The holiness of the Lord is unquestionable; however, we do well to remember that God is also “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalms 103:8). Out of the wondrous riches of His mercy, God desires to extend His love not just to His sons and daughters, but also to those who presently reject Him. Why does God allow the wicked to prosper? In His awe-inspiring patience, motivated by a desire to draw all near to Himself, He may simply be letting a rebellious man run his course. After chasing what won’t fulfill him, he may, as the prodigal son did, “come to himself” (Luke 15:17) and run into the arms of his merciful father.
As Scripture tells us, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). When good things happen to bad people, God is not happily rewarding. He is graciously waiting.
If God allows the wicked to prosper, then why try to be good?
Followers of Christ may look upon their own lives with its labored obedience and let jealousy stir when they see the happiness and successes of the wicked who seem to make every day’s highlight reel. This can certainly be a discouragement to those striving for godliness. It leads one to ask, “What’s the point?” Nevertheless, I encourage believers to take heart. This is a particular area in which the promises of God’s Word transcend the temporal and shake the heavens with clarity and ferocity.
The Bible does not shy away from earthly trials for those in the faith pursuing righteousness. Moses is denied entry into the promised land after dealing with the insufferable Israelites for forty years. John the Baptist is beheaded. Stephen is stoned to death. Christ was crucified. And of course, our boy Job has all his children and possessions stripped away. Amidst the seemingly endless streak of peril, believers are reminded that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
Though it may seem fruitless now, good acts made in faith are pleasing to the Lord and never forgotten by Him (Hebrews 6:10). Paul summarizes this idea with a charge and a promise:
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10).
For those striving for obedience to the Lord while looking on at the successes of others, take heart. The ultimate blessings of God for His children supersede any “good thing” the world can offer.
As the sun rises on Job’s misery in chapter forty-two, and as he wipes away his tears in light of God’s mercy and restoration, we would do well to take stock of our own hearts. May we understand that as followers of Jesus, we are saved by God’s grace through Christ alone. May we remember that the Lord pulled us out of the muck and the mire and that in His patience, He is desiring to do the same with others who have not yet come to know Him. May we take heart knowing that our laboring for obedience does not go unnoticed. And finally, may we humble ourselves and open our eyes to see how the Lord may be using us as faint, yet mighty reflections of His grace in a world that so desperately needs to see it.