Again I am writing to connect with Diana Trautwein in her “living the questions” series. This weeks question is “Why do bad things happen to good people.
My first thoughts about this question were to write about what I believe is a false notion of Divine Providence, the idea that God’s favor is manifest in material blessings. I am in the midst of a synchroblog myself, called Spirit of the Poor, in which the question has been asked about right behavior being rewarded by God, and wrong behavior being punished by God, so I want to say a bit about that. But then I want to respond more directly to Diana’s wonderfully wise post.
There are two stories I want to share about this notion of Divine Providence.
The first story is about my experience in Nicaragua on a delegation three months after Hurricane Mitch devastated the country. In one town, three thousand people were buried by a mud slide. Thirty inches of rain, yes, thirty, fell in three days. Everyone put their hand up to their chest and said “the water was up to here.” In one small village, where I knew many of the people, they said they gathered in the church and had the children pray, thinking the children were more innocent than they were, so God might hear the prayers of the children more than their own prayers. Then they prayed, “God, if you can’t hear our prayers and those of our children, please listen to the prayers of our brothers and sisters in the north because we know that they are closer to you than we are.” We were mortified. This is what happens when we think that material blessings are a sign of God’s favor. The poor internalize the idea and believe that their poverty is a sign of God’s disfavor.
The other story is from a book I studied recently called Heavenly Merchandise. It is a study of Puritan theology from 1620 to 1750. The book traces how this concept of Providence gradually changed the Puritan view of wealth and economics. The group that first came to our shores (and I live in Boston, so I mean our) came hear to escape the economic system of England; to create a society which prohibited the charging of interest, and prohibited all of the economic practices of capitalism. Because the flow of new immigrants stopped around 1640, they fell on hard times. They started thinking that their dire situation indicated that they were out of favor with God Then when some members started trading practices with other colonies, their situation improved. The notion that God now looked on them with more favor took hold. This notion became a theology of Divine Providence, and by 1750 it had grown to the point that a young man choosing between the ministry or being a slave trader found both professions equally valued in the church’s eyes. I belong to a UCC church which descends from this tradition. I know that we still have that theology deeply ingrained in our lives. I know it is wrong, and is, at root, the reason we ask the question that Diana poses “why do bad things happen to good people.” So with that, I will move to what Diana wrote.
I am so glad to read her words:
I would have to say that the ‘why’ part of it has pretty much disappeared from my vocabulary.
What can I do to offer comfort/support/encouragement/hope to people who are struggling?
I want to tell my personal story, and give away the ending (of the story) with other words of Diana.
Quiet. Stillness. Contemplation. Meditation. Wordless prayer. These are the gifts, these are the invitations
I discovered that I had Prostate Cancer about 6 years ago. I chose a radiation treatment which the doctors thought had a good chance of getting rid of the cancer. Four years ago I discovered it had metastasized into my bones. I have gone through a variety of treatments since then. One doesn’t expect to get rid of the cancer, just slow it down.
Up until last April I didn’t really feel the cancer. But I knew that there were two vertebras which were affected by the cancer.
I got a call from a friend who has some psychosis. He was in the emergency room and had been there all day and was hungry. Would I come and wheel him to the cafeteria. I did, and upon return to the emergency room he asked for help getting into his bed. As I was stabilizing him, he started shouting “I’m falling, I’m falling.” I was in an awkward position and had to give all my strength to get him into the bed. The two vertebras were crushed in the process. For a month the doctors thought I had thrown out my back. It wasn’t until I fell down walking that I had an MRI and they discovered the cancer had caused the damage. I had two back operations; one in May and one in August. So from April until September I was in bed on my back.
But durring this time, I realized that I could still pray. I spent many quiet hours in bed, just being quiet, meditating and praying.
The treatment I was on failed and in September I started Chemo Therapy, so that as I was trying to recuperate from the surgeries, my body was taking a hit from the chemo. But that period of quiet, of lying for months on my back gave me the serenity to deal with my status in this life/death cycle. I don’t consider my situation as a “bad thing” that is happening to me. I have a wonderful family and church community, and I will live until I die. But God is with me.
right there, in the middle of the mess, is where God is sure to show up
Diana, thank you for your post. You have acquired a lot of wisdom in your work and I thank you for sharing it with us.