America is certainly experiencing its share of common suffering. Pandemic lock-downs and inconvenience challenge all of us. But it’s the uneven distribution of suffering that’s the hardest to take. Some people have no symptoms while others are truly miserable and many die. And some of that unequal experience is man-made, resulting from less access to health care and good nourishment. It isn’t fair.
So much of life looks like a neighborhood after a wildfire or tornado has swept through—some homes demolished next to neighbors left untouched. Why me? Why them? It just doesn’t seem fair. Why does God allow some people to suffer so much more than others?
If anyone could address this question, it is Jesus Christ. Whether you believe him to be the Son of God or simply the world’s most influential teacher, it would be great if we could ask him how we should think of both the injustice of random suffering and the injustice manufactured by society.
Actually, we don’t have to wonder what he thinks, because he directly addressed the issue. Let’s look at what he said.
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”Luke 13:1-5
A group from Galilee had made pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship. While offering sacrifices at the Temple, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate ordered them killed. We don’t know why; perhaps he suspected them of terrorism. (Of course, from the Jewish point of view, Pilate was the official Roman terrorist, disrespecting the Jews and their religion.) At about the same time, the tower on the southeast section of Jerusalem’s city wall collapsed, either from age or while being repaired, killing eighteen people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
People then asked the same “why” questions that we ask today. Some catastrophes are intentional and man-made, and some strike randomly. Either way, why does God allow such disproportional affliction?
“Do you think that they were worse offenders than others?” Jesus understood what people wanted him to say. They wanted assurance that those who died under Pilate’s brutality or in an unpredictable disaster actually deserved to die, that God must know of hidden sins in their life that merited such punishment. That way, they could be sure that everything in life really is fair. And as a bonus, they must not be as guilty as those other folks. They weren’t ready for Jesus’ response.
“No, I tell you.” Jesus’ answer is firm. He said that you cannot assume that the amount of suffering someone endures in this world is proportional to what they deserve. That simply is not true—not when it comes to random events, and not when it comes to intentional mistreatment. It is wrong, and even cruel, to assume that someone is a worse human being because they are randomly hurt or targeted for abuse.
Unjust suffering ought not to happen. God created us to live in harmony with nature and in harmony with each other. He gave each of us a conscience that affirms our responsibility to the planet, and our responsibilities to each other.
But something happened in the early development of humanity that fatally compromised God’s design. The Bible’s account of Adam and Eve is powerful because we have all experienced our own version. That is, we misuse the moral freedom God gave us, making choices to do what we know down deep is wrong. We know we should follow the Golden Rule (treat others as you want to be treated). We know that as human beings, we should use our power to preserve and protect the planet and its creatures. But we have developed stubborn and even perverse habits of violating what we know to be right, for personal gain. We do this in greater or smaller ways every day, and those abuses pool together to form oppressive social cancers. This happens in every person, every society and every generation.
The result is that what God designed should happen in this world is not what does happen, unbalancing our relationships with each other, and even our relationship to nature. Thinking and behavior that’s at odds with what God built into our soul is called sin. Everyone—nicer people and people who are not so nice—we sin when we put our personal desires over our inherent responsibilities, and then weave arguments to justify our actions.
Sin results in all sorts of human misery. But while the consequences of sin affect us all, they are not experienced uniformly or fairly. Perhaps the single ugliest thing about sin is that its consequences are not equally distributed. Some suffer more than others without any just reason. Failing infrastructure and authoritarian abuse demonstrate this every day.
It is important, of course, to reduce unjust suffering, whether random or targeted. Jerusalem could have used better building codes, and the Roman military a reworked policy for dealing with local religion. But we can never seem to entirely fix the problem. It remains true that those who suffer more are not worse people, and those who suffer less are not better people. In this life, justice is fundamentally broken by sin.
That leaves us with the original question, “Why doesn’t God Almighty put a stop to this?” “Why doesn’t he bring justice?”
And throughout the Bible, the answer is that he will. God promises to fairly assess and judge every violation of every conscience, whether public or private. On that day, all selfish thoughts and behaviors, all intentional malice and criminal negligence, every way that others have made us miserable and every way we have made others miserable—all of it will be remembered, and the measure of each person’s sin will determine the measure of God’s response. And when God enforces his design for humanity, his design for the planet will also be reestablished. That is God’s promise, communicated through the Bible and affirmed by Jesus.
If Jesus was wrong, if God does not exist or could not fulfill this promise, then we would have no hope for full and lasting justice … ever. But Jesus did know what he was talking about, God does exist and he will make good on his promise. That is very good news … and also very bad news.
We all agree that receiving just consequences for misdeeds is fair. It’s what we all want. We want builders who cut costs to be held accountable when shoddy work collapses. We want authorities who vent hatred through legal violence to be held accountable. Along with the rest of the Bible, Jesus promises that such a day is coming.
But when that day comes, God’s justice will not be selective. Every person will bear the weight of his or her own sin. We will all be held accountable for violent reactions and shoddy relationships. We will be held accountable for ignoring the needs of people we know, and people we don’t know but could still help. We will answer for every human being we’ve used as objects for our pleasure, and every win/loss that could have been a win/win. We will be confronted with every occasion we trashed this jewel of a planet. God will remember all the things our conscience told us was wrong to do, or wrong to ignore, and the measure of our actions will exactly determine the consequences we’ll live with forever.
Except that Jesus also promised an alternative. He went on to say, “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” In these simple words, Jesus explains why sin is currently allowed to go uncorrected and unpunished by God. God is patiently giving mankind an extended opportunity to repent. The word repent means “to change one’s mind.” We must confess that our passions and purpose are confused. We must abandon the way we pretend that what’s “right” is whatever we want for ourselves, instead what we know is best for everyone. We must acknowledge that because something is legal does not necessarily make it right. And if it is true that God made mankind to be in his image, then we must try to better appreciate the kind of person God is.
The opportunity to repent is a gift, because God came to us in Jesus to save repentant people from the consequences we are due. That is why an innocent Christ submitted to execution as a criminal, God absorbing in himself the justice he demands. The cross accomplished what seemed impossible. It enables God to maintain justice, yet at the same time cancel our moral debt.
That grace is offered to all who are willing to repent. God opens his eternal kingdom to those who own their part in this world’s mess, and seek in him what is truly right. Jesus’ salvation is for any who long to be set free from greed, indifference to misery, lies and half-truths, tribal hatred, bitterness, abuse of sex, abuse of trust, neglect of the helpless, neglect of worship—every moral failure we become aware of as our heart fills with a new vision of who God made us to be.
God does not expect us to transform overnight, but he does call us to live in a different direction, and show the same patience and good will toward other imperfect people that he shows us.
Jesus founded the Christian Church to embody this message (called the gospel, or good news), and pass it on to future generations. Sadly, the Church sometimes falls prey to the same corruption it officially challenges. But the failures and hypocrisy of some in the Church does not invalidate Jesus’ message. Neither does it invalidate the experience of millions who have, in Christ, reconnected with the good and gracious God who promises real justice, offers real forgiveness, and inspires real integrity.
Put justice, forgiveness and integrity together and you find something we can find nowhere else: hope.
Today’s random catastrophe and targeted abuse are costly spiritual opportunities we can’t afford to miss. They make us wonder, “Why? What did these people do to deserve this?” And if we listen, Jesus will tell us that in this broken world, they didn’t do a thing to deserve it. That can lead to the more personal questions, “What have I done?” and “What do I deserve?”
And when we are ready to change our minds about how to live, Jesus is still available to offer full forgiveness, with eternal fellowship on a road toward a just and better future.