The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person

Since last Friday morning, only one event has been at the forefront of the collective American consciousness.

When 20 elementary school children, all six or seven years of age, are gunned down in a place where they should be completely safe, how could what happened in Newtown, Conn., not continually haunt those of us who were spared?

Naturally our hearts hurt. We struggle to consider the unimaginable pain their parents are going through. We marvel at the courage of the school staff who died trying to save their students.

And no matter where we stand on the “belief in God” continuum, we seem to share a built-in spiritual reaction at times like these:

“Why, God?”

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner is best known for his landmark book on the subject, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. But in the three decades since he explored what’s arguably the most challenging of eternal questions (in no small part because of his son’s rare disease and eventual death at 14), Kushner has returned to the subject—this time from the perspective of a biblical figure who experienced suffering on a grand scale.

Here’s a short interview with Kushner focusing on The Book of Job:

Job was a good man who experienced horrible things. Yet after losing everything, Job—though confused, angry, and questioning God—refused to reject his faith. Kushner examines the questions raised by Job’s experience, questions that have challenged wisdom seekers and worshipers for centuries: What kind of God permits such bad things to happen to good people? Why does God test loyal followers? Can a truly good God be all-powerful?

Kushner’s views on the subject have evolved since he wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In 1981 the rabbi concluded that God is not all-powerful, and therefore is unable to always prevent bad things from occurring; now Kushner believes that God is self-limiting in terms of power and has a deeper purpose behind that choice.

The following are excerpts from The Book of Job that speak to Kushner’s new views (also perhaps to what many are asking in the aftermath of Sandy Hook):

In the beginning, there was only God, and He was in total control. “Let there be…,” and there was. Then, as I understand it, God designated two areas of creation over which He would cede control. One was the domain of Nature and natural law. God is moral. He can tell the difference between a good person and a bad one. But Nature…recognizes no obligation to be fair, inflicting drought upon parts of the earth that thirst for rain and sending floods to places that crave sunshine. Nature blesses the undeserving with good looks, superior intelligence, and athletic skills that the rest of us can only envy…When I spoke in a New Orleans house of worship on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I told those in attendance, “You want to know why something like this could happen to you. I can give you the answer in six words: God is moral, Nature is not.”

The second area Kushner believes that God ceded control is “the human freedom to choose between good and evil…” The following excerpt is how Kushner imagines God speaking to Job about this area of life:

I could have created a perfect wold, a clockwork world in which nothing regrettable would ever happen…I chose instead to to make a world of challenge and response, a world in which humans would eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and have to make a hundred decisions every day as to what was the right thing to do…It would be a world with no shortage of problems, but a world blessed with great minds and great souls to solve those problems, to invent things, to discover cures, to create great works of art that can only be born out of great pain (like the book of Job). And most important, I did not abandon this world when I finished making it. I was always here, comforting, inspiring, strengthening. Where do you think people would get strength to overcome sorrow, to fight injustice, to heal the wounds of body and soul if I were not there to infuse My spirit into them?

Here’s Kushner talking at length on the subject of life’s pains (including the idea that “Why?” is the wrong question to ask God):