by Megan Elmendorf —
The universal question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” came up as I was teaching my senior religion class. It was expressed by a second generation Adventist and not (as one might expect) from one of the international students. A follow-up question was then asked by a born-again Christian, “And why do good things happen to bad people?” In response, we discussed once more the great controversy, and then the discussion turned to such biblical truths as those found in Matthew 5:44-46 and 2 Peter 3:9, homing in on the fact that the God we serve is a relational God—a God who, as Creator of both the “good” and the “bad,” seeks that both may know Him and that both may have equal opportunity for salvation (Romans 3:21-24).
This question mulling in the minds of my students of “Why, God?” is also connected to another concept. The faulty idea of good deeds resulting in good treatment from the “powers that be”—and the converse for bad deeds—has been around long before the Romantic writers of the 19th century touted it in their plot devices. In fact, this idea was supported and expressed by Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar to their friend Job (Job 4, 8, 20). They presented the idea that God was seeking retribution from Job because of Job’s sins. This “retribution theology” is dangerous, however, not only because it is not Scriptural but also because it in essence diminishes God from who and what He is (as He explains in His lengthy and mighty response to Job in Job 38-41). It reduces Him to no better than a pagan god or goddess who is petulant and utterly changeable. This is far from the reality of God (Numbers 23:19, Hebrews 13:8, James 1:17).
As we read, Job wrestles with the accusations of his friends just as he wrestles with his own questions, seeking evidence to back up what, up until his trials, he had believed about the character of his God. In chapter after chapter, we see Job cursing the day of his birth, saying he is just in his suit against his God, despairing of ever seeing an end to his tribulations as there seems to be no mediator, and expressing his desire that there indeed be “a God” to whom he could plead. His belief and faith waxes and wanes through the story just as ours might (and does) through the days of plenty and days of want. He questions God’s motives for creating him in the first place, then defends God to his friends when they maintain that God is punishing him. Then, when God answers Job (and his misguided friends) in the ending chapters of the story, we see another vital truth, and that is: God does not need our attempts at vindication and instead vindicates us where we stand (should we accept Him).
In looking at God’s answer to Job (the longest recording of God speaking directly to a man in the Bible), it is interesting to note that in all His dialogue with Job, God mentions Himself less than He mentions Job. Yes, He is a bit sarcastic in His questions to Job (my personal favorites are found in Job 38-39), but it is still important to note that God put Job at the center of His focus. He does mention Himself, of course, but the subject of His discussion is Job. He thus shows himself to be a creation-centered Creator (a relational God).
Job, in contrast, in his first response to God in Chapter 40, features himself as the primary subject and he only mentions God once. By the end of God’s follow-up (the “mic drop” of God’s discourse, as my students describe it), Job’s focus seems to have changed. He still appears to be (as we all are) a self-centered creation, but there is a key difference in his responses. Yes, he still mentions himself more than he mentions God but only marginally so and, where he had once spoken as if his problems and his pain were too great for God to heal, at the end he admits his fallibility and his need for salvation (and his understanding of where that salvation comes from).
Job has moved from what psychologists refer to as bottom-up processing, in which perceptions of reality start at the stimulus, the sensory input, thus making perceptions “data driven” from what is directly before him and into the brain in one direction only (bottom-up). He’s moved from only seeing what is directly in front of him to, in a fashion, seeing things through top-down processing. Job formulates the reality of his life, creating his perceptions using prior knowledge (in this case his relationship with God) to make sense of current events (his dialogue with his Creator). He takes in the data of the sensory input, he sees his trials and tribulations, but he now reflects upon the provisions and mightiness of his Creator and thus lives on in hope. Job has begun to move from the pleading question of “Why, God” to the difficult one that takes faith and a clinging to hope of “What for, God?”
As we move in and out of the routine of our days, having mountaintop experiences of faith and troughs of adversity, may we remember Job and his questions. May we too ask “What for?” when trials arrive.
Megan Elmendorf works as an educator and mission coordinator at Hawaiian Mission Academy on the island of Oahu. Originally from Tennessee and her home church of McDonald Road SDA church, she has resided in Hawaii for two years after serving seven years abroad in East Asia as a missionary.