Review: When Bad Things Happen to Good People

When Bad Things Happen to Good PeopleWhen Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the books on the “must-read” list for people struggling with grief of some kind (if there is such a list; dreadful). In it, Rabbi Harold Kushner endeavors to explain why, exactly, bad things happen to good people, and how we should react to it.

It’s clearly a book that has resonated with many people, and with good reason: Kushner doesn’t seem to be talking down to the audience at all, for he has known deep grief. The impetus for the book was the death of his son at 14 years old, having lived his short life with a terrible rare illness known as progeria. As a man of faith, a teacher in his community, and a man who has suffered great personal loss, he is uniquely positioned to address these questions from the same vantage as the reader.

He does an incredible job nailing the kinds of things people say in an attempt to make the suffering person feel better; perhaps an even better job explaining why these things are hurtful, and how they make the grieving person feel. I found myself nodding along; yes, yes, that is how it feels when that happens.

The crux of Kushner’s argument is that the story of Job is a blueprint of grief, and it posits three things:
1) God is all-powerful.
2) God is just.
3) Job (and humans in general) is good.

His theory says that all three things cannot be true: if God is all-powerful, his actions toward Job are unjust or Job is not actually good. If God is just, he may not be all-powerful. If Job is good, then God cannot be both just and all-powerful.

Kushner solves this riddle by deciding that God is in fact not all-powerful, that there are limitations on His power, some self-imposed in the form of allowing free will, and some created by the ambiguously named force “Fate.”

He says that his understanding of God is that God does not give people terrible wasting fatal illnesses, does not kill babies when they are new-born, does not test people’s faith with unbearable suffering for no reason. His understanding of God is that He gives the strength to go on despite these troubles, to encourage compassion and kindness.

For the first half of the book, I felt like this was a book every person of faith should read. But then we got to the second half, and I found myself disagreeing with Kushner, even while I liked what he said. I just can’t get behind it. For one thing, Kushner holds that God does not give people illnesses or kill people off: I have to wonder if he remembers anything from Exodus–the plagues, perhaps? He also seems to say that God doesn’t interfere with people’s lives directly, which is a fine enough thing to believe, I guess, but that also is directly contradicted by several Biblical stories–Elijah, Samuel, David, Moses, Noah, Ruth….lots of stories of direct intervention.

For me, Kushner’s argument just doesn’t quite hold up, for those reasons.

I hope this book gives comfort to those who seek it, but it just left me unsettled.

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