When good things happen to bad people

When good things happen to bad people November 17, 2013

Nobody sits easy when good things happen to bad people. In George Eliot’s novel, The Mill on the Floss, Edward Tulliver is so miffed about an enemy he dictates a curse he wants inscribed in the family Bible.

“It’s wicked,” his daughter objects.

“It isn’t wicked,” Tulliver snaps. “It’s wicked [that] the raskills should prosper.”

Though we might not dare (or even think) to memorialize it in our Bibles, we’ve all felt Tulliver’s indignation. And the anger makes sense. Often enough the rascals do prosper, and we hate it when rule breakers win and we don’t.

God understands, seriously

It’s a universal complaint. And it turns out that Tulliver’s curse isn’t so foreign to the Bible after all. The Scripture gives voice to many such sentiments. Just read Psalm 10 (the second half of Psalm 9 in the Septuagint). Furthermore, we can find similar passages in Job (12.6 and 21.7), Jeremiah (12.1), or Ecclesiastes (8.14).

We shouldn’t be surprised by that. Ours is an incarnational faith, one that cradles the human heart while sifting its many parts. Christ, the word made flesh, identifies with us. He shares our nature and knows our impulses right down to our neurochemistry and social conditioning. The Scripture puts words to our feelings, while in his humanity Christ experienced them all.

But the Scripture does more than reflect our feelings. It also directs them. Beyond anger, for instance, several passages caution us about fear and anxiety. “Fret not yourself because of the wicked” says Psalm 37. “Do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes” (vv. 1,7). The thought is echoed elsewhere. “Do not fret because of evildoers,” says Proverbs 24.19.

He knows our weaknesses

God knows our weakness — that we are prone to worry we won’t get ours while the wicked reap rewards from their sin. Unrestrained by Christian morals and scruples, some people seem to score all the wealth and self-indulgence they desire. Looking at their gains, we start to question why we obey, why we deny ourselves. Our faithfulness seems pointless.

“Where is the reward of my good life?” writes Augustine, capturing our basic frustration. “Where is the wage of my service? I live well and am in need; and the unjust man abounds” (Expositions on the Psalms 73.15). That sort of attitude moves quickly from anxiety to envy. But, as with the outrage and fear we feel, the Scripture speaks directly to this impulse as well.

“I was envious of the arrogant, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked,” says the psalmist. Why? Because they are “always at ease” and “have increased in wealth.” And it’s not just the prosperity of the wicked. We could envy their power and luxury, their easy access to sex and pleasure. We could envy all the signs and trappings of the good life in this world. “Surely,” says the psalmist with a fatal resignation, “in vain I have kept my heart pure. . .” (73.3, 12-13).

The envy we feel exposes our own sin. But surprisingly, the Scripture reveals our hearts without much condemnation. Rather, it acknowledges the feeling we have, identifies it as a trap, and then warns us — repeatedly — to back away from the ledge.

Walk away from the ledge

“Be not envious of wrongdoers!” says Psalm 37.1. “Do not envy the violent or choose any of their ways,” says Proverbs 3.31. “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD,” says Proverbs 23.17, while Proverbs 24.1 insists that we not “desire” the company of the wicked — a desire more than one of us has surely felt.

More than acknowledging our sin and cautioning us against it, the Scripture also gives us two main reason to suppress our envy. The first rationale is that the gains of the wicked are fleeting. This is the solution we find in Psalm 37 and Psalm 73. God humbles the proud. The impermanence of their gains means they are ultimately unreal. There is no reason for anger, anxiety, or envy if the things we are hoping will give us peace and happiness — and feel are somehow denied — are actually bogus.

The second reason is that there will someday come a reckoning. “Do not envy the honors of a sinner, for you do not know what his end will be,” says Sirach. But that’s rhetorical because he in fact explains a moment later exactly what his end will be. “Do not delight in what pleases the ungodly,” he counsels; “remember that they will not be held guiltless as long as they live” (9.11-12).

Judgment, bad and good

There is a judgment, and that’s something about which we need to remind ourselves when our faithfulness feels pointless or we wish we could just ditch concerns about morality and get on with life.

But don’t see it only in the negative. The fact of a future judgment is also a great comfort. Tulliver could have skipped the curse in the family Bible; the Scripture already contains all necessary words, pro and con, on the injustice he felt. When when good things happen to bad people it reminds us that the wicked ultimately will not prosper and that God will see to our needs in the meantime.

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