From My Readings: Why Bad Things Happen To Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner

19 Sivan 5774

One of the main reasons I was an atheist for so long was that I was angry with G-d.

No, let’s put that another way. I was white-hot, incendiary-bomb, heart-of-the-volcano enraged with G-d.

You see, in the churches I was raised in, G-d was represented to me as three things: omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent ( always there) and omniscient (all-knowing). He can do anything, he is everywhere at once, and he knows everything. Not much was said about his love for us beyond his sacrifice of his supposed son, Yeshua. But even in many faiths where G-d is represented as a G-d of love, this message of “he’s all-powerful” comes through loud and clear, which doesn’t jibe so well with the reality of the world today. The truth is, bad things do happen to good people, and bad people get away with a lot of stuff and often never have to pay for it.

As two cases in point, my father was a good and godly man. I think of him as “the caretaker of wounded birds” – any person who was in pain could come to my father and get healing and help, in whatever measures my father was able to offer it. (My father would have made an excellent Jew, by the way.) And he died of complications of diabetes and cancer at the age of 63, specifically gangrene. It was a horrific way for him to die. My father had done nothing to deserve it except being dealt a rather crappy genetic hand.

On the other end of the scale, we have my mother’s (thankfully deceased) sperm donor. He was a child molester. Including myself, I know of at least five people (me, one of his sons, and all three of his daughters including my mother) who were abused by him, and I’m sure many others that we don’t know about. This monster masquerading as a man lived into his eighties and finally died of a heart attack – which surprised me, as I wasn’t aware he had a heart.

So the idea that G-d is all-powerful is kind of hard to swallow. If he was, my father would have lived into his eighties and that monster molester would never have laid a finger on me, my mother, my aunts or my uncle. Yet G-d didn’t step in and stop it. Why? My anger about him NOT stopping it is what fueled my atheism in the five years after my father’s death.

Kushner’s book is a painful and deep exposition of this question, and there are three main points he makes to explain it. The first is that G-d gave humans free will; the second is that the world, which runs largely by natural law, still has pockets of chaos and disorder in it; and the third is that G-d is all-good, but not necessarily all-powerful. And these points intertwine in startling, but important, ways.

First, Kushner likens G-d to a parent. Parents can caution their children against certain behaviors that have known consequences, but they are often unable to prevent their children from those behaviors. All they can do afterward is help the child deal with the consequences of the behaviors. When a child gets hurt by accident, or through the operations of natural law, the parent can, again, only help the child deal with the consequences of the accident. And if the parent simply keeps the child from learning to make his own decisions and experience his own mistakes, the parent is not doing his job. He is abrogating the child’s free will, his learning and his growth process and keeping the child artificially a child. In fact, Kushner claims, having free will is what makes us “like G-d” or “made in G-d’s image.” Without it, we’re just the most complex of all the animals.

Second, G-d is not like a cosmic puppet master, controlling every single atom in the entire universe. He is more like a worried parent who has allowed his children to make decisions and learn from and live with their consequences, because he knows that’s the only way that they can become adults. And here’s an important side point: sometimes things happen that we didn’t do anything to bring on ourselves. A fire burns down our house. A car hits our child who ran out into the street after a ball. We come down with cancer or diabetes or myasthenia gravis. That’s the “pockets of chaos in an otherwise ordered universe” part of Kushner’s argument. Again, like a parent whose child is stricken ill, all the parent can do is comfort and help the child who is suffering. He can’t change what happened.

According to Kushner, because he gives us free will and because he lets the laws of nature operate so that we have a mostly predictable, orderly natural world, G-d cannot fix everything. He gave us free will, so fixing everything is no longer an option. G-d is also bound by the laws of nature – even if he could and has superseded them in the past (the miracles in the Torah), he won’t do that any more because how would he choose which of his children to save? Are we so arrogant to believe that our problems are somehow more important than our neighbor’s? And a world in which we do not have to obey the laws of nature would be chaos. A world in which G-d made it so that some of us were not bound by the laws of nature would be equally so. Imagine, for example (Kushner posits) a world where there was no pain. That would seem to be beneficial until you think about the child who would press his hand to the hot stove, never noticing that he’s being burned, or the person who walks on a broken ankle because there are no pain signals to tell him or her that it’s broken. Maybe a painless world is not such a good idea after all.

It’s human to look for reasons why this good person is suffering this bad outcome, or to look for someone or something to blame, so that we can trust that the world is orderly. But oftentimes there is nothing and no one to blame, and looking for it is pointless and keeps us mired down in misery. Sometimes the reason is “because nature.” Viruses don’t know whether they’re infecting a minister or a madman; floods don’t know whether they’re washing away a doctor or a demented killer. Nature is remarkably equal-opportunity in who she hurts, and because G-d cannot mess with natural law, blaming G-d for not stopping whatever it was is really pointless. Human beings, having free will, often harm their fellows. Since G-d will not mess with free will, blaming G-d for things like the Holocaust or for other human-made tragedies are equally pointless.

Instead, Kushner asks us to redirect our anger to the situation. He also asks those who are trying to comfort those who are in these situations not to analyze what the victim could have done differently, or what he did to cause it. Instead, just affirm that it sucks that this is happening. Affirm that it’s not fair.

As an example of how to do this, I’ll relate something that happened to me a little under a year ago. My best friend and I went out for sushi. Now, I have to be really careful in restaurants, because any wheat contamination in my food will set off an arthritis flare that can last for up to 72 hours. Nothing touches that pain; it’s agonizing and awful. And I got wheated because someone in the kitchen was not careful with the fake crab (which is held together with wheat starch) and my food was cross-contaminated. Within fifteen minutes, I was in enough pain that I was almost crying. All my best friend could do was let me rant and rave about how much it hurt and how stupid and pointless it was, and affirm that yes, it’s offensive that something that minor causes me this much pain. But the point is, it was exactly what I needed. It helped me bear up under the pain until it finally began to wane about eighteen hours later (fortunately that was a short flare – 28 hours). She did not tell me what I should have done differently. She just said, “This really sucks. You do not deserve this.”

In the same way, G-d can’t always stop us from being hurt or from bad things happening to us. But what he can do is be there for us to lean on. G-d doesn’t usually answer prayers like “heal my cancer” or “make this pain stop,” but he can and does answer prayers like “please give me the strength to bear this pain” and “please give me the courage to get through this frightening journey.”

Many people will then find it offensive that the pain or the tragedy didn’t come from G-d. If it didn’t, if it’s all by chance, then does that mean that their suffering has no greater purpose, no meaning? Here’s where Kushner delivers the final point: Misfortune and tragedy have whatever meaning we give them. If we let them turn us bitter, then that becomes their purpose. If we let them turn us to greater works of healing the world or helping others – even if only by our example of bearing up under them – then that is their meaning.

This book was difficult for me to read. Although I have let go of the need to blame G-d for my father’s death and for being molested as a child, it’s hard to accept that G-d is not all-powerful. On the other hand, it’s a relief to know that G-d is there for us when we are in pain as a support and a help. And this explanation makes sense to me: free will and natural law between them make it impossible for G-d to intervene without screwing up both of those things, which we as humans depend on.

I still have to work on my hypervigilance about situations that seem dangerous to me, but at least now I know that when I’m scared, I can call on G-d to help me with the fear.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “From My Readings: Why Bad Things Happen To Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner

  1. I find it odd you refer to yourself as a former atheist but also gone on to say you were just angry with god. Those two things are not at all the same. I read Kushner’s book but I don’t remember a whole lot about it. There were a few good points but I don’t recall agreeing with much. Its far better than other books on the topic, I’m sure.

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    • I’m curious – how would you define atheism? Isn’t denial of G-d a form of atheism? For me that denial was motivated by anger, although I often said “there’s no empirical proof for G-d” as my public excuse for my behavior.

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      • Atheism is the lack of belief in the existence of god or gods. To say that someone denies god is to imply that god does indeed exist but the atheist denies that fact. So I, as an atheist, wouldn’t use the phrase.

        I’m a bit confused as to how someone could at the same time be exceptionally angry with god and also not believe god exists. Do you feel it was really the former, rather than the latter? I ask both because I’m curious and because others may have the same question when reading your blog.

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        • Well, at the time, I felt that I had a choice. I could hate G-d, or I could deny his existence. I felt the latter was the lesser of two evils.

          Have you never met someone whose reason for their atheism was because they were angry with G-d for not being there, not doing something, or not taking care of something traumatic? I’ve met plenty of former fundamentalist Christians who have rejected G-d because they’re angry with him.

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          • No, I can’t say that I have. I would be inclined to point out that if you bother hating something, you actually believe it exists and therefore, are not an atheist.

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            • This is an argument we could go around and around with. I believed for a long time that I was an atheist and mocked people who believed in G-d. It turns out that I was angry. It is possible to be both, you know.

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