Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God answer some prayers in the way we want but not others, even when we are asking for a good thing (i.e. health)? Why doesn’t God step in and prevent more of the bad that happens in the world? These are some of the questions I struggled with for a long time, and these questions were the biggest hindrances to my relationship with God…until I got the answers I was searching for, until I learned the truth.
If someone had asked me how my faith was before I got sick, I would have said it was very strong. Ha! I truly believed that at the time, but I had no idea just how surface my understanding of or relationship with God was before long suffering. Despite being a cradle Catholic who went to Mass and Catholic school my whole life, I was unprepared to suffer, and I had a lot to learn, especially when it came to the “why” questions.
As long as my life was on a normal track and I perceived that I got most of what I prayed for, God was great in my book. Sure, there were bumps in the road in my life, but they usually resolved themselves in time, or I could move on to something else as a distraction. Then serious illness hit and stayed, and I was left spinning with so many questions.
I’m sure we have all pondered at least one of the “why” questions at some point. Most of us have prayed for healing of someone who wasn’t healed and ended up dying, even when that person’s life seemed to end “too soon” by human standards. The world is full of people enduring injustices like human trafficking, other abuse, hunger, school shootings, tragic accidents, illnesses, etc. Why does God let all of this happen? Wouldn’t He just want to make all the bad disappear?
Of course there is the cliche answer that life isn’t fair (which it’s not), but the longer my suffering endured, the less that answer helped. Why was God not healing me when I had faith and knew He most definitely could heal me? I knew it wasn’t an ability issue with God, so was it that He not want me healthy? Why was He not answering my prayer or the prayers of many family members and friends who were praying for healing for me? I know this situation bothers them too. Why did God let this happen in the first place? If He was good, wouldn’t He spare me from this?
At the lowest point on my spiritual journey, I was questioning God’s goodness. I was deeply confused, hurting, and angry. I knew He was the only one for me to run to, yet He was the one with whom I was struggling so deeply. People would say to me, “You just can’t ask the ‘why’ questions.” Try as I might not to entertain those questions, they were just there, glaring at me.
There are cases where God calls people to suffer (i.e. those with the stigmata), and they do so for the sake of the kingdom and the conversion of sinners, but they know that is their call. That’s a different situation. I have never heard suffering to be His calling for me in that way, even though I have prayed about that in a disposition of surrender for years.
So what’s the deal then? This was all a source of internal spiritual friction that plateaued my spiritual growth…until I grew in understanding about the 2 types of God’s will: perfect and permissive.
Now of course we can make bad choices or commit serious sins that will bring unfavorable consequences upon ourselves and others, and that also falls under God’s permissive will, but here I am speaking about the hard things that are not our fault, the things that are not the results of choices we made but are seemingly senseless or unfair sufferings.
“As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.'”John 9:1-3 RSVCE
God is all good. His perfect will is plan A, but that’s often what doesn’t happen due to our fallen nature, our fallen world. Plan A is what God wanted for us- total goodness- but we humans chose otherwise, thus the fall. God’s permissive will is plan B- things He allows to happen due to the fall and the presence of evil in our world, though He is still walking with us in plan B and desires our cooperation with Him bringing good out of plan B.
“…the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination toward evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam’s sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the ‘death of a soul.'”Catechism of the Catholic Church 403
So the answer to “why” is the fall and the presence of evil in the world, which occurs under God’s permissive, not perfect, will. We press on here on earth while longing for heaven, the all-good eternity for which we were created.
These are some key truths that especially aided in my understanding of why bad things happen to good people and in my understanding of God’s permissive will:
- God is good and can’t be anything other than good because of the nature of who He is.
- The bad things that happen in the world and in our lives are the results of evil, of our fallen world. They are often the cause-and-effect consequences of nature taking its course in a fallen world.
- God respects our free will so much that He doesn’t step in to prevent things as often as we might like or think He should, but that doesn’t mean that He is causing the bad things to happen.
- God always walks with us. He desires us to turn to Him and grow closer to Him during the inevitable hard times, and to offer up our suffering. He desires to accompany us in our sufferings, as He is no stranger to suffering Himself. He has a lot to teach us about Himself in the midst of suffering.
- God only allows bad things to happen under His permissive will when He can bring a greater good out of them.
“For the almighty God, Who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil.”St. Augustine
God knows what’s transpiring in each of our lives. Using the example of my situation, I grew to understand that God is not causing this illness, though He is allowing it. He has been letting nature take its course for me, and the bottom line is that the core medical issue in my case has never been resolved, and the untreated core issue is causing many other medical issues in a snowball effect. So, what’s occurring in my life falls under His permissive will, not His perfect will. This isn’t what He wanted, but He is allowing it to happen.
Armed with the previously listed spiritual truths that I learned, it became easier for me to approach God with an attitude of trust instead of an attitude of suspicion or utter confusion. I was then able to shift my focus to growing closer to God and discerning how He is asking me to cooperate with Him bringing good out of my “unfair” suffering, out of the bad situation, knowing that since He is allowing it, He can bring a greater good out of it, and it can glorify Him. And I want to play my God-given role in that. It still doesn’t make the hard things easy in the flesh, but I’m much more at peace with these questions through the lens of truth. That has made it easier for me to see God for the loving father He is, which has then strengthened my relationship with Him. Now I can focus on cooperating with His plan for good instead of pondering those questions in an endless loop.
I don’t know exactly how what I’m going through fits into the tapestry that God is weaving. However, I can see the spiritual fruits of what I’ve been enduring- I have learned so much about who God is, how much He loves me, what love even is, the gems of our Catholic faith, the purpose in suffering, how many of the “good” things of this world and the desires of my heart don’t really carry that much weight in terms of eternity, etc. I know I am not the person I was 1 year ago or 5 years ago or 20 years ago. Praise God I am at a point now to be able to experience gratitude for my growth amidst the trials.
This does NOT mean that I like the suffering though. When I read about the saints, many of them seemed to be elated with suffering- something I definitely can’t relate to at all. I offer up my suffering, and I see the spiritual fruits of it, but that’s a far cry from liking it. Am I required to like it, though? I realized that I haven’t been given that specific grace (as of yet, anyway) that some of the saints and others had, but even Jesus prayed, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). I came to the understanding that if God isn’t giving me the grace to like the suffering, then He isn’t calling me to like it. He’s calling me to endure it, offer it up, unite it to Jesus’ cross, and cooperate with Him bringing good out of it.
I see God’s hand at work in my life under the umbrella of His permissive will. I know that I am able to relate to others and support them in a way I never would have been able to before long suffering, I know I have grown (and am sill growing) tremendously on my spiritual journey in a way that would not have happened otherwise, and I know I have lots of opportunities to offer this up for specific prayer intentions and for the salvation of souls. God is using my unfavorable circumstances and experiences to draw me closer to Him and to glorify Him, which are the ultimate goals in life anyway. Everything points to Him. He longs for a depth of relationship with us that I didn’t even know was possible. He is all good and has a love for each of us greater than we can understand or fathom. So when I’m frustrated with my circumstances and all the pain that comes with them, I am trying to be more on the lookout for how He is asking me to cooperate with Him bringing good out of the situation in the here and now, because He would only be allowing this to happen if He can bring a greater good out of it… For the Greater Purpose.
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