When Bad Things Happen to Good People
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
The disciples ask Jesus, ‘who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9:2). The answer, of course, is neither. The tragedy of the man’s blindness is not God’s doing. Yet, the fact is, we seem almost hardwired to attribute tragedy as evidence of sinfulness, and blessings as proof of righteousness. Doesn’t God make good things happen to good people and punish the bad?
We’re reading Kate Bowler’s book this Lent, “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler is an historian who specializes in the uniquely American strand of civil religion called the prosperity gospel, which teaches that you can control your health, wealth, and success if only you have enough faith. ‘When you pray for God to give you a Winnebago, you better tell him what color.’ In this version of religion, God becomes a cosmic vending machine dispensing blessings and tragedies depending on our own individual actions and/or inactions.
The prosperity gospel is easy to ridicule. Yet, like the disciples, it can be hard to irradicate. When Kate Bowler was diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 35, she found herself questioning God. Aren’t I good? Why is this happening to me? Her own quiet belief in the prosperity gospel revealed itself when she realized anything she thought was good or special about herself could not save her. Virtue and success do not go hand-in-hand. ‘There is no easy correlation between how hard I try and the length of my life,’ Bowler said. She was forced to face the fact “…that my life is built with paper walls, and so is everyone else’s.” (Kate Bowler, TED Talk, 2019)
I played Kate Bowler’s Ted Talk for our confirmands. One confirmand drew an opposite conclusion. It shows, he said, God did heal her cancer. It just took a long time. You might agree it’s ridiculous to pray for a Winnebago, but the prosperity gospel has a strong hold on us. Thanks to immunotherapy, Kate Bowler’s cancer is in remission today.
Faith IS good for you. Loving God and your neighbor as yourself can add to your own health and happiness. Yet eternal life is no antidote to mortality. We remain tragically vulnerable to the careless actions of others and ourselves. Yet, we are never alone. We are accompanied. We are loved. As theologian Jürgen Moltmann once said, “We are not loved because we are beautiful and good. We are beautiful and good because we are loved” (Yale Divinity School, “Theology of Joy: Jürgen Moltmann and Miroslav Volf,” Youtube, 8/14/14.) What I have learned in living with stage IV cancer, Bowler says, “When I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feal angry. I felt loved. I experienced so much love – I find it hard to explain… My own suffering felt like it revealed to me the suffering of others.” May we see as Kate Bowler sees. May the prosperity demon finally be cast out of us, and the gospel revealed.
The story of the man born blind has been a symbol of faith and new life throughout the history of the church. He appears in second-century frescoes in the catacombs of Rome (as does the Samaritan woman beside the well). These stories have been part of our Lenten baptismal liturgies since the fourth and fifth centuries.
The man born blind moved from the world governed by “if, then” clauses to living the way of the cross. The Pharisees were the acolytes of the prosperity gospel of their day. They believed if you follow God, then no harm will come to you or your loved ones. If you follow God, then you won’t fall on hard times. But nobody lived a more God pleasing life than Jesus and yet he was, literally, crucified. The cross was supposed to be the ultimate re-statement of worldly powers and principalities of if, then—if you don’t honor the Chief Priest and Caesar, then you will die. Yet God utterly transformed the ugly instrument of Empire into a trail marker showing us the way that leads into abundant life.
It is here, on the cross, that God meets us. Here is where God is fully present. In, with, and under our mortal flesh. We must only look at the cross to know where God is. God is hidden in weakness; vulnerability; suffering. God is among the forsaken, and the dying. We search the abyss of despair. We interrogate our deepest shame –for that is from where God comes.
The blind man’s movement from unseeing to enlightenment is part of the church’s celebration of the power of baptism. His journey into faith mirrors our own. The blind man’s words echo the famous hymn, Amazing Grace, “I once was blind, but now I see.” This gift of sight comes from the mind and body of Christ. The grace of God is lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105). God invites us with all people into the embrace of the undying life of the Holy Trinity —regardless of your regrets, despite your failures, and overlooking the pile of mistakes you have accumulated in the past. Jesus used a mixture of spit and mud so the man could gain the new sight of faith after he washed in the pool called Sent. Likewise, we are sent into the world to be God’s people.
This week, on March 24th, the church commemorates the memory and martyrdom of Oscar Romero, Bishop of El Salvador, assassinated as he stood behind the altar celebrating communion. Two months prior to his death, Bishop Romero received an honorary doctorate from the University of Louvain, in Belgium. In prepared remarks he spoke of his own spiritual awakening,
“…the words of Exodus have, after many years, perhaps centuries, finally resounded in our ears: The cry of the sons of Israel has come to me, and I have witnessed the way in which the Egyptians oppress them (Exodus 3:9). These words have given us new eyes to see what has always been the case among us, but which has so often been hidden, even from the view of the Church herself…. This coming closer to the world of the poor is what we understand both by the incarnation and by conversion. The changes that were needed within the Church …the changes which we had not brought about simply by looking inward upon the Church, we are now carrying out by turning ourselves outward toward the world of the poor” (Oscar Romero, The Political Dimension of Faith from the Perspective of the Option for the Poor, Louvain, Belgium, February 2, 1980).
The cross teaches: we do not find God. God finds us in our shame, our guilt, our pain, and our emptiness –and through that encounter opens our eyes to behold, through uncomprehending tears, the wonder of God’s unconditional accepting embrace. Here, in the cross of Christ Jesus, is God’s victory over the powers of darkness that reign in this world.
So, we see! We celebrate! The creator of the universe revealed in Christ is a risking, prodigal, extravagant, passionate, merciful, mothering, and fathering God who took on flesh and was revealed to us in Christ Jesus. “The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see and to understand the deepest mystery of our faith” (Rev. Daniel Erlander, Baptized We Live, p. 4).