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Why do bad things happen to good people?
Posted by Clare
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That’s the question posed to me by my son, Tyler, and a group of his high school friends ten years ago following the death of a fellow student in a car crash.

Their friend Melissa, an amazing and deeply spiritual girl had been at a beach party at our cottage on Lake Michigan with most of her junior class and having a great time. She and her boyfriend, Jordan, left for the drive home and a mile from the lake, he made a fatal error and another car slammed into them.

I was at the scene in minutes. I was relieved that no alcohol was involved, but that didn’t matter now. I had to return to our cottage and tell her friends that Jordan was injured, but okay. However, their friend Melissa had died. As you can imagine, it was a scene I’ll never forget.

Several weeks later a dozen students were hanging out at our house and our son came in our bedroom, woke me up and asked if I would speak with his friends. So I dressed and walked into a very somber, even angry gathering. “Mr. De Graaf, why do bad things happen to good people?”

“Well, what makes you think something bad happened to Melissa?” I asked them.

They were momentarily stunned by my answer.  But before they could respond, I quickly added this. “I’m not referring to the unbelievable anguish and sadness Melissa’s family, you her friends, her boyfriend and the person who hit their car are going through right now. Something very tragic and bad happened in their life and yours. I’m sad myself and for all of you and them and it’s okay to weep with those who weep.”

“But here’s my point; Melissa is happier right now than she’s ever been, or ever would have been in her whole life! And if we don’t believe that, then we don’t believe the gospel. I’m not just trying to put a good spin on a horrible death. It’s a promise of Jesus and others in the Bible that we can take to the bank.”

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” John 17:1-3

“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” II Cor. 4:17

Paul himself was so convinced of the glories of heaven that he wrestled with whether or not he even wanted to go on living.  “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.” Phil 1:22-26  Paul was convinced he should go on living, but only because he believed that by doing so the work of the gospel would benefit, but personally he’d prefer to be with Christ. That’s not just bravado on Paul’s part – that’s faith!

Hanging on to life

Humans, even Christians hang on to life, for dear life and it must surprise God that we do, so tenaciously. Here’s an illustration that may help you to think differently about death for a Christian.

Suppose you were a child born in a concentration camp in Germany in WWII. You’re now six or eight and life in the camp is your only reality. As terrible as it is, you know no other life, so it seems “normal” to you. Then one day allied troops show up to liberate you and tell you you’re going to Switzerland. But, you don’t want to leave. This is the only life you’ve ever known and you know little of Switzerland except what’s been whispered in the camps. And perhaps that’s all they are – rumors. “Oh, no, please don’t take me to Switzerland,” you cry as they drag you onto the truck, away from your friends and everything familiar. “Don’t worry,” the solider reassures you, “Switzerland is amazing and your parents and friends will hopefully join you there”.

A day later, you get to Switzerland. It’s cleaner, brighter and more glorious than anything you could have imagined. And sure enough, soon your friends and parents begin showing up and you can’t believe that you fought so hard to stay in the camp when this awaited you.

Death and eternity for Christians

Life with Jesus, for followers of his is our promise, not a penalty. Truly believing that will allow you to live with far less fear of death for yourself and others. I’ve made this statement many times: Compared to eternity with Jesus, this life is just a bad afternoon.

Having said all this, when I’m at a funeral or visitation I rarely address their suffering with pithy stories like the one above, or remind them that, “All things work together for the good…” Bible verses. I’m just sad for them, try to celebrate the memories of their loved one and leave it at that for the time being.

By the way, you can read the story of Melissa’s death and how her family dealt with it in a wonderful book written by her father, David Branon, entitled Beyond the Valley or you can also just Google Melissa Branon.

I’ve had conversations with all our adult children and our older grandchildren (over 10 roughly) on these thoughts regarding my own death. I’ve told them that someday they’re going to get a phone call that I have died. ” When that happens please, please don’t be sad for me or angry with God. God has given me my reward and I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life. If you really love me, then love God so that someday we’ll be together again forever. Personally, I’m not brave, but I don’t fear death at all. To be perfectly honest what scares me most is the process of dying – chemotherapy, losing my mind to dementia, the pain, loneliness, but not death itself. When Jesus said, “Fear not.” he wasn’t kidding, so to you I also say, Fear not.”

The reason I’ve intentionally had this talk with my grandchildren now is because I’ve sat with too many people who’ve walked away from God because he took their godly mother, father or wife. I don’t want my family to go through that. It’s my job as the patriarch of my family to prepare them for the inevitability of death- mine and their own.

In all fairness, I’ve not addressed what appears to us as “senseless suffering” of good people, but I will in the next few weeks.  However, next week I will blog on the subject of what happens one minute after we die another talk I’ve had with our older grand kids.

Questions:  Do you think it’s wrong for Christians to fear death?

Following Jesus in Real Life


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Comments (10)
  1. Nate Schmidt said...

    Some great thoughts, Clare. To the question Is it wrong for Christians to fear death?, I’m not so sure. It seems to be one of those things that like you say is a question of faith. When interacting with his disciples, Jesus didn’t address matters of faith in terms of right versus wrong, but rather, relationship to God and as part of our faith journey. E.g. “do you still not know who I am?” Hebrews says that one of the results of Jesus’s death is to deliver us from the fear of death (2:14-18). So I would say it is more a matter of maturity of faith – that a believer fearing death needs to be encouraged to grow and trust God. Indeed the hope of heaven, and all _that_ entails puts the reality of death, though not without pain, into perspective.

    • Clare said...

      Amen Nate! It is a matter of spiritual maturity, but wrestling with this question many years ago actually matured me. If Christians reading this blog are afraid of death, I’m hoping to trigger the question, “Why is that?” which will hopefully lead to the kind of self examination and biblical examination that will result in spiritual maturity.

  2. Pete Deutsch said...

    Mr DeGraaf,

    Great comments as always,Thanks!

    I just pray that my faith stays one step stronger than the pain that might overwhelm me at death.

    I know that Heaven awaits, praise Jesus!

  3. Duane said...

    Hi Clare,
    I just wanted to share with you that my father passed away in the middle of August from Cancer. It was a tough thing to watch the cancer destroy his body. But it did not destroy his Hope. He went through severe depression (several times) and made an attempt on his life after losing all hope 25 years ago.
    God used this time in my fathers life in which dad found himself empty and filled him His own stength. Dad looked at life very differently from that point forward. God allowed many more “bad” things to happen to dad from that point forward, including cancer 3 seperate times in the last 10 years. Dad always spread hope to everyone he met.
    At his service, our family was able to truly celebrate the life and gift of a father who lived what he believed. But it took so called “bad things” to make that happen.
    We even took a moment in the service to join with heaven in applauding dads choice to let God lead him and finish his race well.
    Before dad died, I was reminded of some words I heard you say on several occasions, “From God’s perspective, death is an upgragde.” While we miss dad so much, we take hope in the fact that if we follow his example to just except grace and the ultimate hope of Christ we will see him soon.
    God often has a higher purpose for our pain and often his perspective is not the same as ours.
    Thanks for your blog.

  4. Mike Walters said...

    As always, thanks for your insight!

    In response to your question regarding “is it wrong for Christians to fear death?”. I believe that many such questions are best addressed by the fact that there are usually “healthy” and “unhealthy” versions of things. For example, you once wrote about competition. And I believe there are healthy forms of competition and unhealthy forms of competition.

    When it comes to death, or as you mentioned, the process of death, I think the same applies. I believe this is what Jesus illustrated when he prayed to God the Father before his arrest… “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

    • Clare said...

      Mike, perhaps it was a poor choice of words on my part. It’s not a right or wrong moral issue. But if we do fear death-Why?

  5. Mike Fortner said...

    Another great post, Clare. My short answer to your question is no, we are not to fear anything (in the sense you are using the word fear). As I read the Bible, this point could not be more clear. There are many verses directly instructing us not to be afraid. But like you, I find the story you told more compelling. Here’s a lens I use often on this topic.

    When I committed my life to love & serve Christ first, my trajectory changed forever. And part of that change is now being covered by grace. Jesus served my sentence (hell) by dying on the cross for me. That means i am given eternal life. Now for the haymaker.

    My eternal life doesn’t start when I die. It started the moment God changed me. I am living my eternal life right now! That means the death of my earthly body is just another event that will take place along my journey. I don’t really die. I merely change locations. For the better!

    Sadness is a natural emotion my earthly companions will feel, and that sorrow should be processed in a healthy way. But like you, I’d say the mourners should grieve their loss. Not mine.

    I’m leaving this life right now. We all are. I am on my way to see my God, my creator, my Dad, the King of the universe RIGHT NOW.

    He has me taking the long way to Him. It includes at least a few more moments here on earth. Maybe days, maybe years. I don’t really know. But I’m trying to trust His plan, not mine.

    • Clare said...

      I love it. Great observation.

  6. Mike Holton said...

    Clare: gave this thought on and off today. First thought was how people deal with their feelings at a funeral service. In the past, I was always respectful but also recall a desire to try and “lighten things” and create a smile or laugh….I thought I was “helping” others in the moment but I know now it was my own discomfort. I appreciate your thoughts to just be there for others and recall Proverbs 25:20. The other thought was in regard to the question of “fearing” death, specifically, the scriptural refences to “fearing” God. I see this “fear” as a very healthy perspective, not so much an emotion. Perhaps a similar perspective of fear can be applied to death? In either case, I think what inspires most people to desire to follow Christ is the love, mercy and grace shared with us…our response is out of love, not fear. I do not fear death, I fear not being steadfast if the way becomes exceedingly painful for someone very close to me. I was struck hard by the stories of David, Solomon and Peter….all so close a relationship and all three faltered significantly. Having said this, I do not look forward to death….I hope to experience more of life with my wife and children….I know this is not fear based and I don’t think it is selfish. So, I think I agree that there is a healthy type of fear and an unhealthy type (as there is with guilt.). Interesting how much response ere is on this one…something we all have in common. Blessings.

    • Clare said...

      You’re right about many things you’ve said and also about the amount of response about this blog, on this issue. I think that’s so because death and suffering are not just interesting theological issues. They touch us all.

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