Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

That question has haunted religious people for thousands of years. I remember reading Rabbi Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People when I was in high school and I was disappointed by his conclusion. His answer to that question? Because God is limited. He’d like to help, but sometimes He can’t.

Seriously? That’s not an answer I can accept. God does not have limits.

There are many books on this subject, struggling to give an answer to this perplexing problem. We want to believe that if we do good things, good things come to us. If we do bad, bad will come to us.

And I do think that’s generally true, but it can’t usually be seen on the micro-level. If we’re looking at things that happen within, say, a 50 year span, that’s a drop in the ocean compared to the infinity of time. We can’t always see the threads of action and consequences because we’re limited to looking at where we are right now and a short space behind us. But the past no longer matters. We can create our future by acting in the present. Did you know that this poem is a translation from Sanskrit?

Yesterday is but a dream

Tomorrow a vision

But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness

and every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day.

Really, though, I have a problem with the question itself. What is “bad”?

It’s not that easy to define. Something that makes you unhappy? You control how you feel. While one person might be upset about a thunder storm because it will mess up her hair, someone else is delighted because her grass needs water. As Hamlet said, “Things are neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so.” It is our perceptions that decide something is bad.

There are a few things that people tend to agree are bad. The big ones like rape, murder, children dying. If one of those things happens in your life, does it mean you deserve it? Your karma gave it to you? I don’t believe so.

I believe that there is something to be learned from the situation. It isn’t there to make you miserable or to punish you, but to guide you towards a Truth.

There are things that you go through to burn imperfections from you, allowing your True Self to shine through more clearly.

Rabbi Kushner was inspired to write his book because of the death of his son. Why would God allow a child to die? It’s incredibly difficult to figure that one out if you believe that the child just started from scratch the moment it was born. It dies at one year old, and it never had the chance to experience life. What’s the point in that? But if you realize that we all have always been and will always be, we have no beginning and no end, then you know that child’s soul will still have the chance to experience everything life has to offer in another embodiment  Bodies are just clothes and taking them off does not hurt us.

When something happens in my life that I think is bad, here is the process my mind goes through:

  • Why do I consider this bad? Is there another way to look at it? Is it my limited perspective that labels this as bad?
  • Does it have a clear root or cause? Does it seem to have happened because of something I did? If so, adjust that behavior and try to do differently next time.
  • If not, is there some insight that this experience can give me?

Life will keep guiding you sometimes gently and sometimes forcefully towards learning, so don’t worry if you’ve missed the lesson. You’ll have infinite chances to find Truth!

You may also enjoy my post on whether evil exists: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/whitehindu/2013/01/is-there-evil/

About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • 5w_haul

    its tricky question i never heard anyone asking it in india

    • Ambaa

      That’s cause they just say, “Oh well, I must have done something to deserve this in some previous life”!

  • Seeker

    Hi Ambaa–

    Actually I have no problem with the idea that the bad things that happen to me in this life are a result of things I have done in previous incarnations. I’m trying to be a better person in this life but that doesn’t erase the harm I would have done in others. Karma is impersonal–it’s not picking on me or behaving unjustly. It’s simple cause and effect. For example, suppose I start chopping down a tree and then decide to stop because the tree really doesn’t deserve that and I should cherish all living things. I then nurture the tree and love it. Then one day, I’m sitting under it and it falls on me because my earlier chopping weakened it. Do I have a right to complain that a bad thing happened to a (now) good person? Of course not–if I hadn’t chopped it in the first place, it wouldn’t have fallen down.

    • Ambaa

      Great analogy! I agree that I really appreciate about karma that it is completely fair.

      And the good part is, from the point that you chose to cherish all living things, you wouldn’t incur new “bad” karma. So once all the consequences catch up with you, you should be in pretty good shape, right?

      • Seeker

        Exactly. As behavior changes for the better, then new bad karma wouldn’t be building up and the unpleasant things in life would be burning old karma off. I seem to remember that there is some kind of karma built up even by good behavior if it’s not entirely free of concern for consequences but really, if I ever got to that point I’d be feeling pretty good about my progress in my lives.

        • Ambaa

          Yes, even “good” action does have karmic associations. Krishna advises us that the only way to burn off all karma is to act in the moment without desiring the fruits of the action. Which is darn difficult to do, of course!

  • HARRY

    @ Ambaa

    Hindus believe that not all the questions in this world have answers, and if they do, then they are beyond your imagination and mind to understand it. There is never a logic with life and if there is one, then you will still not understand it. Like you said, one persons bad is another persons good. This is what you call MAYA. Maybe there was more suffering for the child in the future and the lord decided no more suffering and thus resulted in ending it’s life very young. This was my mothers explanation when my sister passed away at one+ year old before I was born. Like I said once before, you can not mesure the amount of water in ocean with liter jug. And we are not meant to either. This is the only way the good people take the refuse in the world by understand something known as will of god or force of nature at work beyond your control.

    Every kind of suffering shape us in to better people and we do our best not to let it happen again and learn from it. The only way Hindus think that your life was wasted is when you failed to recognise your true self in who you are in terms of soul. Swami Vivekananda passed away at age of 32 when he was truely enlightened. He lived more according to Hinduism then the one who lives to 100 and still does not achieve what he did. So the lesson here is not how long you live, but rather how well you live, that’s what counts.

    HARRY

    • Ambaa

      You make some great points. And I don’t necessarily expect to find the answer to this question (I am all about questions over answers!), but I find it interesting to ponder and think about the really difficult questions :)

    • Seeker

      Hi Harry–

      When I was in grad school, my classmates and I would keep asking, “Why?” One professor had a great answer: “That’s just the way the baby is.” In other words, some things we just had to accept as givens and not keep trying to find the reason.

      Aside to Ambaa–this is not a criticism of your thinking about tough questions; it’s just that Harry’s comments triggered an old (and comforting) memory for me.

      • HARRY

        @ Seeker

        One should never ask which tree the sweet mango came from but rather only should be interested in enjoying the sweetness of the fruit. :)

  • Leum

    In Buddhism we’d say that suffering (which is more of a reaction to what happens than what happens in and of itself) is caused by ignorance, but I’ve never seen, or thought to ask for, an explanation for ignorance itself. As for bad things happening at all, birth is the natural condition to arise from existence, and birth naturally leads to sickness, old age, and death. Since we lack a supreme being, there isn’t really a problem of suffering like there is in religions that are more god-centered (Buddhism has god-like beings, but in Western Buddhism they’re treated as things you can believe in or not without much consequence).

    • Ambaa

      Sometimes it can be difficult to see the differences between Buddhism and Hinduism, but I think this is an issue where there are some very clearly different approaches!

  • Drekfletch

    My philosophy contains inherant amorality of God/Universe. (Amoral not Immoral) Good and Bad are distinctions people make. While they are important to people, they’re irrelevant to the Universe. As for the limitations of God, I see limitations as a result of dealing with our reality in Maya. By reaching through the veil of Maya, God is ‘contaminated’ and segmented into parts with limits. (Fairly to be expected of someone who offers to Ganesha, Lord of Categories.)

    • Ambaa

      Yes, I also think that these good/bad distinctions are part of the human way of processing the world and are not true in the ultimate reality.

  • Suzel V Boyer

    Why would children dying be a bad thing? My mom had a miscarriage when I was 9. I don’t and didn’t consider it a bad thing. I only think that adults and people in general that die is what you should be saying, not just children. They didn’t really experience life and all it’s ups (many) and downs (not so many depending on our perspective like you said). So… with that said… I think people dying in general makes people sad because of the way death is treated. It is also then that they don’t experience more that they wanted?. I don’t know. Still don’t but good article either way..

    • Ambaa

      I’ve found that there are certain things that people feel the most upset about and children dying in particular is one of those things. I think because we look at children and see innocence.

      Personally I still don’t really believe anything is bad. I think all distinctions of good and bad are part of the illusion of the world. Since death isn’t real, isn’t an end.

  • http://www.ILCTheory.com Tom Gatch

    “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

    The three primary theories of life, until The ILC Theory, are ‘Determinism’, ‘Randomness’ and ‘Free Will’. Bad things sometimes happen to good people because of the Randomness factor in life. Free Will, combined with bad decision-making, can be a source of bad things happening, but little if any Determinism can be attributed to this unfortunate life event.

    The only problem with these three theories is the fact that each one mutually excludes the other two. However, as described in “The Intelligent LifeCycle Theory”, by Thomas O. Mitchell, life cannot exist if these three theories are mutually exclusive. The ILC Theory is based on a new theory of life called “Intergyism” (referring to intelligent energy), which actually combines the other three theories.

    Our current LifeCycles are impacted by pre-determined influences, random occurrences and our exercise of free will. Experiencing all three in a given LifeCycle, which is the norm, results in Intergyism. This is a small part of The ILC Theory, but an important one. The Intelligent LifeCycle Theory is the only theory on reincarnation ever published that explains how, why, when, where and how often we humans get reincarnated. And it makes sense.

    If you’re interested, the book is featured on:

    http://www.ILCTheory.com (official website)
    http://www.Amazon.com
    http://www.BarnesAndNoble.com

    The official website offers free drawings and Internet Specials. “The Intelligent LifeCycle Theory” is also available on Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com.

    Hope you enjoy the book.

  • Arjun

    Lets not forget that good things do also happen to good people and bad things do also happen to bad people.Of course karma balances everything out but we are subjective and limited to our emotions and thoughts that we cant see that clearly.Sometimes bad things also lead to good things and good things can lead to something really bad.Its like the story below but with Hinduism there is no such thing as bad karma or good karma but on a higher level its seen as all good .

    Karma : It’s all Good

    An Indian king had a close friend who had the habit of remarking “this is good” about every occurrence in life no matter what it was. One day he king and his friend were out hunting. The king’s friend loaded a gun and handed it to the king, but alas he loaded it wrong and when the king fired it, his thumb was blown off.

    “This is good!” exclaimed his friend. The horrified and bleeding king was furious. “How can you say this is good? This is obviously horrible!” he shouted. The king put his friend in jail.

    About a year later the king went hunting by himself. Cannibals captured him and took him to their village. They tied his hands, stacked some wood, set up a stake and bound him to it. As they came near to set fire to the wood, they noticed that the king was missing a thumb. Being superstitious, they never ate anyone who was less than whole. They untied the king and sent him on his way. Full of remorse the king rushed to the prison to release his friend.

    “You were right, it was good” the king said. The king told his friend how the missing thumb saved his life and added, “I feel so sad that I locked you in jail. That was such a bad thing to do”

    “NO! this is good!” responded his delighted friend.

    “Oh, how could that be good my friend, I did a terrible thing to you while I owe you my life”.

    “It is good” said his friend, “because if I wasn’t in jail I would have been hunting with you and they would have killed ME for having no missing limbs or a thumb.”

  • Pat K Sensing

    Interesting

  • Rangarajan V

    what is said in hinduism about god who lets bad things to happen without controlling it.


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