Injustice: Why do bad things happen to good people?
Next month I turn sixty. How could someone so young become so old? I like to think of the benefits of aging: young people will offer me their seat in crowded buses and trains, I will get senior discounts in restaurants, I will get to use parking spaces that are reserved for seniors that are closer to store entrances.
My adult children tell me to be nice to them. I ask them why? And they answer, “because we will be choosing your nursing home (smile).
But there are a few down-sides to aging. One of them is weakening eyesight. When I turned forty I needed to get bifocals. Bifocals are wonderful. They allow me to see things clearly far away as well as see things clearly that are close at hand, like the text in a book.
Tonight, we will be talking about injustice. What is injustice? It is unfairness, the violation of the rights of another person or our own. When we talk about injustice we need to talk about it from a near-sighted and from a far-sighted perspective.
Most of our talk about injustice is myopic; near-sighted. An example of near-sightedness when it comes to injustice is in Psalm 73. “This is what the wicked are like – always carefree, they increase in wealth. Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure; in vain I have washed my hands in innocence” (Ps 73:12-13). Or to put it another way: What’s the use in being upright and honest if the bad guy keeps winning?
Our Frustration: Injustice is all pervasive
Isn’t unfairness what we face on a daily basis? The guy that was hired last and works least gets promoted. Car companies manipulate emissions on their diesel engines and we have to pay for their deviance. When a corporate executive is caught cheating, all he needs is a high-powered lawyer to save his neck. We live in a world of injustice.
In in our world there are two forms of injustice (write these down).
1. Expediency: How can I get ahead in life? Whatever works best for me (as long as I don’t get caught).
“In the place of judgment—wickedness was there” 3:16
Several years ago young people in Switzerland wanted to have some fun. They crammed into a phone booth, opened the phone book, and indiscriminately called people. When someone answered all they said was, “everything has been made known”, and hung up. The next day the local newspaper ran an article on an unusual jump in suicides in their town. People were living with deep, dark secrets. They took their lives when they thought that their secret sins were now public.
2. Evil: How can I prevent others from getting ahead? Doing bad things to those who deserve good.
“in the place of justice—wickedness was there” 3:16
Expediency and evil are the most prevalent forms of injustice.
But the deeper issue is (write it down) wickedness! Wickedness is mentioned twice as the basis for injustice. What is wickedness? Wickedness is living life as if there were no God.
Now the sons of Eli (religious men) were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD (1 Samuel 2:12)
Injustice makes perfect sense – if life is only horizontal in nature, short-sighted. If there is no God, then there is no authority by which to judge what is right and what is wrong behavior. If there is no God, then there is no one to whom we have to answer, to give an account for our living. Even laws are regarded as arbitrary and to be circumvented, especially if they impinge upon our personal freedom to get ahead. Wickedness is always near-sighted; it takes into account the present without thinking about the future.
Theology is so relevant here. Theology influences ethics. Atheism influences ethics. If you believe in God, it will show in your dealings with others. If you don’t believe in God, it will show in your dealings with others.
For believers in Jesus Christ the vertical plane will affect the horizontal plane. Living under the beauty and authority of God will affect all of our relationships. We will therefore not seek to get ahead at all costs. We will not strive to harm others. As we regard God, we regard others. This is far-sighted living. We do not allow ourselves to be coopted by the present, but live in the reality of the future.
The question that we have posed in the sermon title is this: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The question implies that there are good people who are being treated unfairly. But in reality what we have are less-than-good people being treated unfairly by less-than-good people.
King Solomon, the wisest person who lived, up until the time of Jesus, tells us that this is a myth. There is no “good person”.
The Myth of the “good person”
“God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.” (3:17)
Notice who God will bring into judgment: both the righteous and the wicked, both those who regard God and those who disregard God.
Let me ask you this? Do you think you will be able to withstand the scrutiny of God for every deed that you have done? If you are honest, you must own up to your badness. And even in your best moments you have to ask yourself “what were my motives behind the deeds that I did?” Often we find ourselves doing good things but out of motives that are more vain than they are valor.
This is the rub: we judge goodness by our own standards. And as we judge others to be at fault we often overrate our own goodness. We rank ourselves too high.
What should the standard of goodness then be? The standard of goodness is God! Remember the young man who approached Jesus? “As Jesus started on His way, a man ran up and knelt before Him. “Good Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call Me good? Jesus replied, “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10: 17-18). God determines goodness because He alone is good.
Even Our good deeds are horribly stained
There is a passage in the Bible that makes me shudder every time I read it. Listen to what the prophet Isaiah has to say about what we think to be good about ourselves:
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6)
Notice the phrase “filthy rags” as a description of our righteous acts. The word “filthy rags” is what we would refer to as a used feminine napkin. All of our righteous acts are like a blood-stained tampon!
Such a verdict, to call our good deeds “a used tampon”, inevitably leads to despair.
When the prophet Isaiah, who wrote these words, stood before God in his holiness, this is what he said, “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the king, the LORD Almighty.” (Isa 6:5).
There is no such thing as a good person. We are bad people with gradations of goodness.
The Gospel is the Great Reversal (Heb 9:27-28)
In our despair God comes to the rescue. This is what we call the gospel – good news for those of us who are knocked down by the bad news that we are guilty. Listen to this:
Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Heb 9:27-28)
None of us is without fault. God will judge us. There is no escaping judgment.
But the good news is this: God has judged (past tense) Jesus (who lived a sinless life) in our place. There is freedom from divine judgement (salvation), if we want it. And that freedom of forgiveness can be ours today!
It happened many years ago, but I will never forget it. Wir were a young married couple with two small children and had moved into a rental home in Hofheim, a suburb of Frankfurt. After the move there were still lots of boxes lying around waiting to be unpacked. My wife went upstairs to do something, and our three-year-old son Erich remained in the living room.
I came in from a quick trip to the hardware store, and I knew immediately that something was not right. As soon as I came in the door, I smelled something burning.
While my wife was upstairs, Erch had found the steam iron, plugged it into the outlet and was happily emblazoning a new “iron” pattern into the relatively new carpet. As soon as I walked into the living room, Erich knew that he had done wrong and that his mom and I were not going to be happy.
I turned to him and asked in a calm voice, “Erich, which would you like from me – justice or mercy?” He didn’t understand the terms, of course, and so he asked, “Papa, what is justice?” I said, “Erich, justice means that you will get a spanking, and that you will have to pay for a new carpet with the money from your piggy bank.” He thought for a minute and then asked, “What is mercy?” I replied, “Mercy means that you won’t get a spanking, and I will pay for the new carpet.” He reflected for just a moment before he said, “I want mercy, Papa.” And mercy is what he received.
Why do bad things happen to good people? The question presumes too much. It presumes we are good people. But there are no real good people, only those with gradations of badness.
Only one time in human history did a truly good person endure injustice, and he did it voluntarily.
Only Jesus is good and pure. He who is without sin (evil) made himself to be sin for us that we might be pronounced righteous (able to stand in His presence clean and forgiven) because of his sacrifice for us.
The good news is this: What I deserve from God I do not receive. What Jesus did not deserve from God he receives. Why? So that in my sin I may be pronounced righteous in God’s sight. No, that is not fair. It’s called mercy.
Lay hold of Jesus and you will lay hold of mercy and of new life. Amen.