Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072
Church School: 10:45 AM
Why Bad Things Happen to Good People
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 13, 2011
One day, a young woman named Kisa Gotami came to see the Buddha. Kisa had had a bad run of hard luck and tragedy in her life. First, her husband had died, and then another close family member had died, too, just a few weeks later. All she had left was her only son, a young boy of about nine. But then, tragically, he was stricken with disease, and he too grew sick and finally died, as well. Wailing in grief, she carried the body of her dead child all around the village, asking for help, for a miracle, or some kind of medicine, to bring him back to life. But of course no one could help her.
Finally, she heard about the Buddha, who was teaching in a nearby forest grove. So Kisa traveled into the forest, and approached the Buddha, and still crying with grief, she asked him, “Great teacher, master, please bring my boy back to life.”
The Buddha thought for a moment, and then replied, “First you must do something for me, Kisa Gotami. You must go back into the village and get me a handful of mustard seed, and from this I will fashion a medicine for your child. But there’s one more thing,” the Buddha then continued. “The mustard seed must come from a home which has never known sorrow.”
So, Kisa Gotami ran back into the village and up to the first house begging, “Please, please, may I have some mustard seed? I need just a handful of mustard seed.”
People would see her grief and wanted to help
her, so they responded at once, “Mustard seed? Yes, certainly!” (for mustard
seed was a very common spice in
But when Kisa asked, “Has anyone in this house known sorrow?” the answer was always the same: “Yes, we have...”
At the first house, they had lost a child, just the year before... At the next, the mother had died, two months previously... At the third, a brother... At the fourth, a son.... A daughter... A husband... A wife... And so on...
“Yes, we have known great sorrow,” they all told her-- from house to house, throughout the entire village. The story was always the same. She could not find a single household that had not known sorrow.
Finally, Kisa Gotami went back to the Buddha, still carrying the body of her dead son. But this time, he was buried with all the proper rites. She had learned to let go. After the burial ritual was completed, Kisa bowed before the Buddha, and asked this time for teachings that would bring her wisdom and comfort at her times of sadness. (And, it is said, she took the Buddha’s teachings so deeply to heart that she became a great teacher and a wise woman, known for her ability to comfort others.)
When we build a bridge from our shared pain
When we listen to the voice within our souls-- when we are true to our spiritual and religious callings-- then perhaps this is what we’ll be able to discern of why we’re here:
to help one another through the night;
to try to make sense of this existence;
to take the daily events of our lives and try to weave from them a pattern of meaning;
to rise at the dawn of each new day with a sense that it is somehow important that we are here.
But you and I know what this life can do. It can rip us apart at times. It can tear away whatever fragile sense of meaning we might have found in all our wondering and searching. All of us have been-- or will be, sooner or later-- a part of what Albert Schweitzer called “the fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain”. That, truly, is a universal community, and while some lives certainly might have more tragedies piled upon them than others, none of us escapes completely unscathed. None of us leaves this life without first experiencing pain, sorrow, suffering, sadness in our lives.
But if there is some deeper reason-- deeper meaning-- behind all of our existence, then when bad things inevitably happen, we ask: “Who is to blame? Who is at fault?” That’s one of those Big Questions of human existence which nags at us sometimes...
Now, there are some bad things for which the cause is no mystery. It’s as close as the morning’s news.
A Soviet defector in
“We were told not to take any prisoners of war. None. Generally, we killed them on the spot. As soon as we caught them, our officers ordered us to slaughter them.”
Or, it could be a quiet, secluded neighborhood in
There is no mystery at all about why many bad things happen. They happen because people-- and nations-- all too often choose to do bad things to other people. There’s no mystery there, certainly, just evil.
But what about those sufferings whose cause lies
beyond the realm of mortal control? What about earthquakes and tsunamis, as
we’re reminded once again with the tragic experience of
Some people blame the Devil.
In the world according to the Gallup Poll, two-thirds of those surveyed say they believe that the Devil-- Satan-- exists as a real, living person, power, or spirit.
Now, if one does believe in Satan-- that is, if one believes in an incarnate power of evil, working behind the scenes, orchestrating and directing all these bad things that are happening-- then I suppose that the question of why pain and suffering exist is an easier one to answer: Whose fault is it? Why, it’s Satan’s fault, of course! The Devil did it!
According to this view, the forces of Good-- of God-- are continually at war with the forces of Evil in a kind of Cosmic Super Bowl (or maybe it’s more of a Cosmic World Series-- best four out of seven, or something like that).
In this view, God’s world is free of pain and suffering, death and despair. But the Devil’s world (and that means this world, that means our world) is the place where evil can occur. The only way to avoid bad things-- or at least to transcend them-- is by accepting some particular idea of salvation, rejecting Satan and all of his works, and joining “God’s team” in the great cosmic battle that is always raging.
Now, I’m sure I’m not the only one here this morning who has a problem or two with this perspective. For one thing, it tosses monotheism-- the idea of there being one God (or, as many Unitarians might say, “at most, one God”) right out the window. It posits, if you will, a second “immortal, invisible” god (an evil one this time) at work in the depths of Creation. In this dualistic way of looking at things, there are, in fact, two gods battling it out for control of the universe-- and that’s (at least) one too many gods for most of us to take.
This viewpoint also turns the natural world over to Satan, which I have real problems with, too, and which flies in the face of the little song some of us used to sing, years ago, in Sunday school:
This is my Father’s world,
And what about a song we still sing, from time to time:
For the beauty of the earth, for the splendor
of the skies,
No, I’m sorry, but in my view, the natural world is, by and large, a wonder-filled, profound, soul-shaking blessing-- not a curse to us-- and Satan can’t have it!
Of course, there are other theological explanations for why pain and suffering happen.
There’s the doctrine of reincarnation, which says, basically, that if something bad happens to you, you’re being punished for something you did wrong in a former life.
I wish I could believe in reincarnation. There’s a certain primal justice in it that appeals to me. Tit for tat, cause and effect, and all that: do something wrong, and sooner or later your karma catches up with you and then-- bam!-- you get what you deserve.
I often wish I could believe in reincarnation-- but I can’t.
For one thing, no one is ever going to convince me that there is (say) poverty in the world because poor people “deserve to be poor” because of something they did in a former life... Or that someone gets cancer because God wants to teach him or her a lesson. Or that 14-year olds drown while fishing or 16-year olds are killed in car crashes because they did something wrong in a former life. I just don’t buy it.
You see, the basic question for me resists all of these pat answers and neat theological packages that have been developed over the centuries to try to explain it away. It goes deeper, and much of it, frankly, remains a mystery to me.
Looking out at all the pain and suffering in the world, I just can’t accept that there always is a deeper, divinely-inspired reason for our pain-- a divine, holy, silver lining of a reason which we mortal ones simply do not discern or comprehend.
I don’t believe that our suffering is “God’s will” because I don’t believe in a God who is a tyrant. I don’t believe the Middle Eastern proverb which tells us, “If you see a blind man coming, kick him, for why should you be kinder than God?”
No, the God I worship is infinitely kinder than we are. We don’t all get what we deserve; for many of us, we’re probably getting a good deal.
Instead of always having to have someone or something to “blame” when bad things happen-- ourselves, or other people, or the Devil, or our past lives, or even God-- there is, I think, a more empowering way of looking at life when bad things, inevitably, come our way.
We don’t need to “blame” anyone at all. Instead, we can acknowledge that Creation is wonderful, but that Creation is imperfect. We can accept as given the limitations of the natural order and our need to exist within certain natural laws. None of this takes away from affirming and celebrating the Gift of Life as a profound and immortal blessing. Indeed, as the father says in Pearl S. Buck’s The Big Wave: “Every day of life now is more valuable than it was before the storm.”
A healthy, holistic religious faith can declare that in these human lives we lead, joy and pain and intimately intermingled-- just like light and dark, heat and cold, life and death. We can affirm that there is so much we do not control-- but that we are nevertheless co-creators of this world, full of the power to heal-- or to hurt; full of the potential to do good-- or to do evil.
This we know: We are part of the creative, expansive, interdependent web of all Creation. And as human beings we have been especially blessed with our consciousness of this interdependence.
The real issue, to my way of thinking, is not so much why bad things happen, but ultimately: How shall we respond humanely both to the blessings and the pains of this life. As Bruce Southworth has written, “To accept the reality of suffering does not mean that we need to be defeated by it.” Even when bad things happen to us (maybe especially when bad things happen) we need to be able to turn our spirits outward, embrace life, and go on living.
This world tears us apart sometimes. At times, this grim battlement of everydayness weighs heavily upon our spirits. We can feel as times as though we live in an eternal Lent, with Easter nowhere on the horizon.
But the love and warmth and hope we can give to one another can be enough: not enough to make our lives painless and easy; not enough to take away all of our sadness; but enough to get us through another day; enough to guide us through another hard night.
We, too, can be, as Blake wrote:
like the bird, who