When Bad Things Happen to Good People

In the 1990s, I photographed weddings as a way to supplement my income. In working with a bride and groom, I often got to know them pretty well. Many times, it was a double blessing because I knew the couple as personal friends, too.

So it was with a couple I had known for quite some time. They were active, faithful members of our church, and even as singles they had been involved in a variety of ministries. It was a wedding in which their entire church family celebrated with them as they spoke their vows.

A few months after their wedding, I received a call that my friend, John, had gone to the hospital with what he thought was an appendicitis attack. Out of no where, he had suddenly been gripped by intense pain in his lower side.

It wasn’t an appendicitis attack. It was stage four liver cancer. He had displayed no signs of being sick prior to the eventful evening he went to the hospital thinking he was in for a standard appendectomy.

It was nearing the fall of the year, and his doctors gave him less than a year to live. It was indeed bitter-sweet when I met my friends in a park here in Ankeny for another photo shoot. The trees were vivid with color, and there was a crisp breeze in the air. The mood was very different, however, for this photo session than when I photographed their wedding only a few months earlier. This time, I knew and they knew this would likely be their last formal portrait together.

A week or two after his diagnosis, John asked the elders of the church to pray over him in accordance with James 5. It was a powerful prayer meeting the night we gathered in the pastor’s office. There were tears, but there was also a lot of hope and faith.

That night, when I got home, I wrote the date in my Bible next to James 5:13ff, and expressed my sincere hope that the Lord will choose to heal John. He did not.

The next date written in my Bible is May 23, 2000, the day John died.

That was a hard truth for many of us to accept. Why would the Lord take such a godly, vibrant, young man who had served the Lord without a thought for himself, when there are so many worthless crooks who deserve death?

This aspect of God’s sovereignty is particularly difficult for many of us to get our arms around. Why do so-called bad things happen to good people, while the evil in this world seems to flourish?

Acts 12:1-5 drives right to this point. It’s easy to miss it as you read about Peter’s miraculous escape from a tightly guarded prison cell. The thing we miss is in verse three: “He [Herod the king] killed James, the brother of John with the sword.”

Why would God miraculously save Peter from death while allowing James to die by the sword? That’s a good question, one I’m sure many in the church asked themselves. There had likely been many Christian martyrs by this point in time, but this was the first time death had stuck the inner circle of the Apostles, the 12 who had walked with Jesus throughout the three years of his earthly ministry.

More importantly, the Gospel accounts clearly indicate that Peter, James, and John were closest to Jesus. Why would the Lord take James?

The Lord had the power to release Peter from prison, and He did. The Lord had the power to release James from prison, and He did not. For reasons beyond our understanding, the Lord chose to bring James home while he chose to leave Peter here.

Another silent person in this little passage of Scripture is the Apostle John. It is a safe assumption that James and John, titled “the Sons of Thunder” by Jesus, were as close as two brothers can be. In almost every instance where they are mentioned, they are mentioned together.

John was not as fortunate as his brother. He would escape death and martyrdom for another 50 years. Many scholars agree that James was likely executed in the 40’s, and that John became the longest living Apostle of Jesus Christ, living into the 90’s A.D.

Old age has it’s negative consequences, too. My grandfather lived to be a few months short of his 99th birthday. When he died in 2007, he was the last remaining member of his immediate family. Of his 12 brothers and sisters, he was the last to go. Many of his brothers and sisters had died decades earlier, in the 1970s and 80s. He outlived them all. He had also outlived two wives and one of his sons.

A few years before his own death, I remember him commenting that just about everyone he knew as a young man was dead.

So it was with John. As he spent his last years in exile on the island of Patmos, he was privileged to witness the great Revelation of Jesus Christ, and to write that is and is to come. Yet, his final prayer is one that all of creation will one day breath, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Perhaps you, too, have struggled with the pain and grief of seeing a beloved brother, sister, mother, father, wife, husband, child, friend taken in death. It’s never easy. Even the strongest believer will catch himself asking why?

There are really only three possible answers to this question: One, we can dismiss death as something that happens outside of God’s sovereign control, which is completely outside of the reality of Scripture. Two, we can view God from the perspective of many liberal theologians, in which God does not know the future and is caught by surprise as much as we are. Three, we can believe that God is sovereign in all things, that death is not an accident, but an appointment, and that from man’s perspective, the mysterious lives right along side the miraculous in Scripture.

That is my belief. I don’t understand many things about God, but I trust Him completely. My faith and trust and hope are in Him. And in the end, whether it is through the death of James or the release of Peter, the Lord Jesus is glorified.–Chris Eller

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