Why do bad things happen to good people? Have you ever pondered this? Maybe the question has taken the more personal form for you. Maybe in the middle of the rainstorm you have cried, “Why me?” Or the more seasoned “What next?” I had the opportunity to contemplate these questions and I thought I would share my thoughts.
First three examples.
Mary Ashton of England was possibly born in 1850. In 1863 she was married and as family legend goes, “married to someone to get her parents out of debtor’s prison.” Her marriage certificate says she was 21 but if the birthdate we have is correct she was only 13. Sometime after her marriage she became a stowaway on a ship and came to America. According to one report, she may have used silver spoons that she took with her and used those to fund her way west. Once in the Brown’s Park area she married and had two sons. After her husband died she married again and had two daughters. This marriage ended in divorce and she died the same year as her third marriage ended. All this was done within the 41 year span we think she was alive.
Now, I don’t know a lot about Mary and it might seem weird that I’m including her in this category. It’s a stretch to call her good because I really don’t know anything about her conduct. There are no reports of her murdering anyone so we’re going to use that as the reference for being good. Although I can’t vouch for her character, looking at the timeline of her life I will say she experienced the bad. I will take certain liberties by declaring she might have asked “Why me?” a few times as her life turned on windy roads.
The next example is more well known. From Our Heritage: A Brief History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – Chapter 6 is an explanation of the handcart companies that moved people west. “Between 1856 and 1860, ten handcart companies traveled to Utah. Eight of the companies reached the Salt Lake Valley successfully, but two of them, the Martin and Willie handcart companies, were caught in an early winter and many Saints among them perished.”
The final example comes from the Book of Mormon. In Alma 8 we read about Alma’s reclamation efforts to set the church in order. His missionary journey took him to a city called Ammonihah. Unlike the previous towns he visited the people in this town were not interested in his message and even became hostile. It wasn’t a total futile attempt though. He gained a missionary companion and there were a few believers. The majority, however, were not convinced. Alma and his new companion Amulek were smitten and imprisoned. As bad as that was though it wasn’t the worst part.
“And they brought their wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire; and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire.
“And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire” (Alma 14:8-9)
A horrific scene to be sure.
I’m sure if we were in their place we would echo Amulek’s words in verse 10.
“And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.”
A reasonable request.
Alma, however, has the presence of mind to recognize the higher law. His answer reveals an important aspect in why bad things happen to good people.
“But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day” (Alma 14:11).
Captain Moroni also taught a similar lesson in his letter to Pahoran.
“For the Lord suffereth the righteous to be slain that his justice and judgment may come upon the wicked; therefore ye need not suppose that the righteous are lost because they are slain; but behold, they do enter into the rest of the Lord their God” (Alma 60:13).
Why bad things happen to good people reason number one: agency is crucial. Unfortunately, there are people who use their agency to make poor choices. Their choices may even hurt other people. But a judgement day is coming that needs to be just. If we were stopped from doing something anytime our actions would hurt another person would we be able to grow or would we stop doing thing just because we knew we’d be stopped? Being allowed to exercise our agency is necessary for us to receive our highest potential.
Why bad things happen to good people reason number two: our trials help us develop a trust and relationship with God. Let’s look at the Martin and Willie handcart companies again. From Our Heritage: A Brief History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – Chapter 6:
A man who crossed the plains in the Martin handcart company lived in Utah for many years. One day he was in a group of people who began sharply criticizing the Church leaders for ever allowing the Saints to cross the plains with no more supplies or protection than a handcart company provided. The old man listened until he could stand no more; then he arose and said with great emotion:
“I was in that company and my wife was in it. … We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? … [We] came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.
“I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it. … I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.
“Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company.”
Our trials may be needed to help remind us to look toward God.
Why bad things happen to good people reason number three: this isn’t so much a ‘why me’ but more of a ‘how to.’ Looking at Mary and her life I can’t help but think how important a knowledge of the Plan of Salvation is to get us through our trials. To be clear, we will probably get through our dark times either with or without a bigger picture view that the Plan offers us. But sometimes on our journey through the rough patches we are saddled with baggage. We can accumulate hate, anger, frustration, disappointment, regret, hurt, doubt, or discouragement. What a knowledge of the Plan of Salvation has offered me is a chance to trade in all that baggage for peace, love, understanding, forgiveness, and happiness.
The ultimate example of a good person going through horrible things is the Jesus. In Doctrine and Covenants 122:8, the Savior asks, “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” We can look to His example of understanding the bigger picture and moving forward.
These are just a few of my thoughts regarding this subject. As a reminder, the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount share a lesson. “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:
And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. (Mat 7:24-25)
It didn’t say “If the rain descended, and if the floods came, and if the winds blew.” There is no if. No “if you are a good person you will avoid the rain, flood, and wind.” It only tells us to make sure our foundation is strong because the storm will come. Not as punishment but rather the result of living in an imperfect world.
To get through those hard times we can keep the big picture in mind to give us perspective, recognize the difficult times as a time to look toward God and be grateful, and to remember how important the exercise agency is for every person we can get through those hard times and look forward to finding peace. It’s a promise to believe in.