BOOK REVIEW: When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Author: Harold Kushner

Reviewer: Vera Omwocha

Available at: Amazon

Joshua would never have violently squeezed life out of a poor mosquito. To him, it was God’s creation and deserved to live. His life was limited to subsistence farming in his small house in Eldoret after he was laid off by a mining company. He woke up every day at 5 a.m to pray, he told stories to his children and wife, he helped everyone he could. A ‘good’ person, right? One calm Tuesday evening on a chilly July, robbers break into his home, almost chopping his head off, such that his head will forever lean on his left and he loses his sense of speech.

Did Joshua deserve that? Does he have a reason to wake up every day to ‘pray’ even silently? Does he have a reason to believe in a God who has let him down, undeservingly so?

This is the kind of dilemma that confronts American Rabbi Harold Kushner when his only son is diagnosed with an incurable disease, Progeria (rapid aging). This condition sets Aaron, Harold’s son, up as a candidate of death aged only 14.

According to the Rabbi, he hasn’t done anything to warrant his son’s death. So, why do bad things happen to good people?

Aaron’s death makes Kushner rethink his beliefs about the world and about God. He realises that being a servant of God does not offer immunity to life’s pain and suffering. Like many of us would, he questions the goodness and omnipresence of God.

 “Tragedies like this were supposed to happen to selfish, dishonest people whom I, as a rabbi, would then try to comfort by assuring them of God’s forgiving love. How could it be happening to me, to my son, if what I believed about the world was true?” He questions.

Kushner doesn’t claim to have the answers to this tough question but he combines philosophy and theology to build up his arguments.

You will be confronted with more questions: Is God fair? What role does He play in our suffering? Does suffering build towards achieving a higher purpose? Some of the ideas presented herein may almost lean towards being insultive towards God but I loved Kushner’s practicability; that of a rabbi who doesn’t feel a need to ‘justify’ suffering.

Kushner holds that  ‘sometimes there is no reason’ for suffering. Quoting Job, the author mentions that Job understands his misery by understanding that we cannot expect fairness from an unfair world and that though there is God, He is free of the limitations of justice and righteousness.

Kushner also examines the power of prayer; prayer not as an appeal to God to influence the outcome of a natural happening but as a quest for strength and togetherness.

Are we, then, capable of doing God’s will out of our love for him and not out of self-interest? Do we treat God as a vending machine, into which we insert the right number of tokens and get whatever we want?

Kushner holds that God cannot stop the laws of nature from taking place.

“For me, the earthquake is not an ‘act of God.’ The act of God is the courage of people to rebuild their lives after the earthquake and the rush of others to help them in whatever way they can.”

This book might not give you the comfort you might be looking for but it’ll present interesting viewpoints and it can help you make sense of whatever pain you’re dealing with.


A Christian, I felt a little uncomfortable to think of God as imperfect, for how can we mortals measure God against our limited understanding of what makes perfect? What do you think?

I felt Rabbi’s honest cry to God for the loss of his son. Do you think death is the worst thing that can happen to human beings?

In the end, pain is inevitable.

Sample these quotes:

“In order to let us be free, in order to let us be human, God has to leave us free to choose to do right or to do wrong. If we are not free to choose evil, then we are not free to choose good either. Like the animal, we can only be convenient or inconvenient, obedient or disobedient. We can no longer be moral, which means we can no longer be human.

“Pain is the price we pay for being alive. Dead cells—our hair, our fingernails—can’t feel pain; they cannot feel anything. When we understand that, our question will change from, “Why do we have to feel pain?” to “What do we do with our pain so that it becomes meaningful and not just pointless empty suffering?”

“I don’t know why one person gets sick, and another does not, but I can only assume that some natural laws which we don’t understand are at work. I cannot believe that God “sends” illness to a specific person for a specific reason. I don’t believe in a God who has a weekly quota of malignant tumors to distribute, and consults His computer to find out who deserves one most or who could handle it best.

“It becomes much easier to take God seriously as the source of moral values if we don’t hold Him responsible for all the unfair things that happen in the world.”

“Laws of nature do not make exceptions for nice people. A bullet has no conscience; neither does a malignant tumor or an automobile gone out of control. That is why good people get sick and get hurt as much as anyone.”

“For many of us, we will come to the point where death will be the only healer for the pain which our lives will have come to contain.”

“God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws. The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God’s part. Because the tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes. We can turn to Him for help in overcoming it, precisely because we can tell ourselves that God is as outraged by it as we are.”

“We don’t have to beg or bribe God to give us strength or hope or patience. We need only turn to Him, admit that we can’t do this on our own, and understand that bravely bearing up under long-term illness is one of the most human, and one of the most godly, things we can ever do.

 “Finally, we cannot ask God in prayer to do something which is within our power, so as to spare us the chore of doing it.”