By Sarah Byrne-Martelli, Seminarian
Sarah Byrne-Martelli, BCC, was Board Certified with the Association of Professional Chaplains in 2004. She is a Chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital and is endorsed by the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School and currently is a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) student at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.
She wrote the following essay for a broad audience (Orthodox and non-Orthodox!) as part of an assignment for her D.Min. class, “Advanced Preaching and Communications.”
Sarah also co-hosts a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio called, “The Wounded Healer.” Sarah, her husband, Peter, and their son, Rafael, are members of St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things happen to bad people? We hear these questions a lot, and wonder how to make meaning of this. Do we deserve the good things, the bad things? Where is God in all of this? If we do good things, and live a decent life, not hurting anyone, it seems like we should have some guarantee that life will be good. But a quick glance around shows us that this is not the case.
We all know the stories…. Our sweet, elderly neighbor, who goes to Mass every day, had a stroke and is in the hospital. Your boss is a complete jerk, who disrespects people at every turn, and yet he gets promotions and accolades while you get nothing. My friend’s young wife is dying of cancer and they have a six month-old baby. And so on and so on…. And after a while, it’s too much to bear: bad things happening to good people, and good people suffering, all the time.
Some people respond by rationalizing these questions from a rigid religious perspective. There is this idea that God controls literally everything, from whom you marry, to your job offers, and your daily experiences. It’s like God is a micromanager. God helps you find your keys, and grants you that sweet parking spot you got at the supermarket. It’s related to the old “everything happens for a reason” line that people love to say, to reassure themselves. If I had been standing a foot to the left, that tree would have fallen right on me and I would have died. Everything happens for a reason! Hashtag #blessed. Well, that’s good for you, but what about the man it did fall on? What was the reason for that? Was that guy bad? Are you good? Was he good? What does that even mean? It makes you want to give up.
Perhaps more appealing is the idea that God is not involved at all, and we are the authors of our own destiny. You’ve probably heard of bestsellers like “The Secret,” with its “law of attraction.” Simply put, the law of attraction states that if you put out positive energy into the universe, you will receive it back. If you put out negative energy, you will receive it back. It’s like your mind is an existential magnet. If you manifest your vision, you deserve all the good you get. That sounds really appealing…until something bad happens. What’s the reason? What about the wonderful person who manifests positive energy, yet gets cancer? Did she deserve it? Is she to blame?
These ways of thinking are at best internally inconsistent, and at worst incredibly hurtful. If you have a tragedy, and someone responds with, “Well…everything happens for a reason!” or “You must not have manifested enough positive energy,” you know it feels like a straight punch to the gut.
And you have full permission to reject these responses. The good news is there is a better way to face the troublesome fact that seemingly bad things do happen to seemingly good people.
As you know, my tradition is Orthodox Christian. Reductive responses and cheery slogans don’t resonate with the rich theology of the Church. We don’t have this idea that God is a creepy puppeteer, orchestrating everything. God is not a cosmic babysitter, or a petty micromanager. If He were, I wouldn’t want to believe in Him either!
And we’re also not just sending and receiving energy into the cosmos, like rechargeable batteries. It doesn’t work that way.
I’ll start with an important premise. God is good. Everything and everyone who God created is good. Everyone. Yes, even those people who seem “bad.” We are all made in God’s image. And this God created us to be free. Real love doesn’t force anyone to do anything. We can do whatever we want.
But as humans, we tend to do things in a way that prioritizes our own pride, our own needs, our own selfish ways. This allows the force of evil—a twisting of the good—to take hold in people. This is what it means to live in a fallen world: that the second humanity had a chance to do something selfish, they did—cue Adam, Eve, and the apple. It took them about one second to mess with the freedom that God gave them. With this freedom came sin, and death, and suffering, all inherited, in a sense, from our ancestors. With this freedom comes a world of struggle and tragedy.
Suffering comes as a result of this inheritance. But that’s not the end of the story.
God responds to suffering in the person of Jesus, who was real, who lived and saw everything that was going on. Jesus walked and talked and knew what it was to be human. He responded to the suffering He encountered with compassion and clarity. He calmly turned things upside down. Instead of condemning an adulterous woman, He called the crowd to examine their own failures. He touched the supposedly “unclean;” He welcomed the noisy children; He taught that every suffering person is our neighbor. Jesus loved the poor and ate meals with sinners. Every human experience, every tragedy, every joy and grief—all are known to Jesus.
It can seem like the end of everything when a tragedy happens to someone we love. We ask, Why? We ask, Do I deserve this? Those are good questions, and Jesus himself asked questions like this, as He approached His own death. Again, He gets it, because He was fully human. He faced the pain of suffering, betrayal, and death head-on, with compassion, forgiveness, and love.
Life is not just about doing good works or having an impressive faith so nothing bad happens to you. It is not about judging others or making assumptions about another person’s “energy.” It’s about a path of holiness that constantly seeks peace and radical kindness to ourselves and others. It’s about approaching suffering with gentleness and introspection, not as if we deserve it or don’t deserve it. It’s not about good people and bad people and good things and bad things. It’s about seeking the only truly good thing: aligning ourselves with the heart of God, the love of God in us and around us. It is a daily choice—a choice that God gives us.
Well, then, you say, why does God need us to choose it? If God is so powerful, then why doesn’t God just do something?
Well, God has already done everything. God has done everything in the person of Jesus. And even Jesus was not immune to tragic feelings. He cried with compassion for his friend Lazarus who died. Jesus shows us so tangibly what God is like. We can do the things that He did.
When a tragedy happens, we hear that wonderful quote of Mr. Fred Rogers, telling us to look for the helpers. Mr. Rogers was a minister, you know, and his faith was quietly woven throughout his work. He said, look for the helpers. The helpers are choosing love, kindness, compassion. This is where we see God, when bad things happen. When we look for the helpers, we see that God is not distant, God is not gone. God is alive among us. And in moments when we don’t see any helpers, then perhaps the helper is already close by. Perhaps we are the helpers, the ones called to love someone in need.
The ultimate fear—that life has no meaning and tragedy is unavoidable—is conquered by a love that fills and surrounds everything that exists. That’s what I mean when I say that God has done everything, and He is never far away.
Now of course, sometimes we still grieve, we still fear, we still shake our fists at the sky. We don’t just magically bask in God’s glory and act perfectly. Life can be incredibly sad, and overwhelming, and heartbreaking. I have spent countless hours with people in the midst of traumatic loss. I have witnessed a mother and father cradling their stillborn twin babies. I have witnessed my best friend going through a terrible divorce. I have witnessed the shock of a new diagnosis, the shock of sudden loss, the shock of a heart attack. It is honestly a mystery. We don’t know why. But faith helps us abide and be brave. Faith turns to God in the shock, in the sadness, in the heartbreak. Faith gives thanks for the helpers and empowers us to help, in love and in faith.
The grief we feel is a cue in our hearts that this is not right, that death cannot be the end. Grief is borne out of love, and this love cannot be overcome. And honestly, sometimes there are no words. Sometimes silence is the most loving response.
On the cross, with His last breath, Jesus said, “It is finished,” and was silent. “It is finished” doesn’t mean it’s over or it’s done. “It is finished” means it is complete. Even the final tragedy— death—was conquered by the love that never ends. God does everything that can possibly be done. It is God’s complete way of saying: My children, I love you, and I’m here with you.
The question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” isn’t the question we should keep asking. Instead, we must bravely ask: How can I be a helper? We must say, God is good, and life is messy, and God has redeemed it all. We must say, Lord have mercy. We must say: Help me understand, help me love.
Does everything happen for a reason? Yes, but it’s not the reason you think. It’s not because you deserve one thing, and someone else deserves something else. The reason is that everything in life—loss, joy, grief, gratitude, everything—is a chance to pray and a chance to love. It’s a chance to seek the helper, to be the helper, and to pray, cry, and give thanks. Helping others, we witness true goodness, and we share this goodness with a world that so desperately needs it.