Fourth Sunday of Lent

Reflection: Does God let bad things happen?


Why does God let it happen?

We might be talking about the death of a child, an unjust war, the loss of young people to gang life, or even a tornado or flood. 

Some people blame God and then decide to give up on believing, concluding that God is either unkind or untrustworthy. Others are convinced that tragedy is a punishment, even if they can’t name the offense. Still others defend God with justifying explanations like “We can’t understand the divine ways,” or “Somehow it’s for the best.” 

Innocent suffering is one of the most serious problems religions have had to face over the eons and across the globe.

Today’s first reading seems to say that Israel’s exile in Babylon was a punishment for their adding “infidelity to infidelity.” We also hear that the compassionate Lord sent messengers to the people, but that those messengers were mocked and their message ignored. As a result, the people were conquered, their city sacked and the survivors made slaves.

Did God do that?

In the Gospel, we listen in as Jesus and Nicodemus converse. When Jesus says that the Son of Man will be lifted up so that all who see him will have eternal life, the “lifting up,” refers to the cross and resurrection as one event of divine self-revelation.

While that may seem obvious, we shouldn’t think the same of the expression “eternal life.” It’s easy to assume that “eternal life” refers to immortality or heaven, but the New American Bible tells us that the term in John 3:15 stresses quality of life rather than duration.”

Spanish Scripture scholar José Antonio Pagola tells us that the eternal life Jesus promises begins in this life and reaches its fullness in our definitive encounter with God. That means that eternal life is nothing less than union with God.

Writing to the Ephesians, Paul falls all over himself in trying to explain his sense of this communion. In this short selection, Paul mentions grace three times, insisting over and again that we are saved through grace, that is, through God’s favor rather than any merit of our own. 

This grace comes from God, whom Paul describes as rich in mercy, immeasurably giving and great in loving. These teachings about God’s grace lead to his conclusion that we are God’s own handiwork, created for union with Christ and to continue his work. 

How do these ideas help us to reflect on the existence of a good God and a world in which unspeakable evil seems to run rampant?

Before we can respond, we need to examine the question itself. This question assumes that God intervenes directly in the events of history. Is that not one of our many assumptions that has more to do with our theories than with what Jesus revealed about his Father? Yes, Jesus taught that not a sparrow would fall without God’s awareness, but that awareness does not prevent the fall of the sparrow. 

Jesus told Nicodemus that God has no intention of punishing anyone, rather God looks to saving by drawing people into the communion of eternal life.

Following that, Jesus’ being “lifted up,” had nothing to do with condemnation or compensation for human evil. Instead, it exposed God’s loving solidarity with all who suffer and revealed that suffering and evil will never have the last word. 

Paul ended his description of God and grace by saying that we are created in Christ Jesus to continue his good works. If God could do it all, there would be no need for our good works. But the Incarnation itself revealed that God works through human flesh, here now as the body of Christ throughout the world.

Our first reading tells us that God sends messengers “early and often.” We have had the prophets, Jesus, the saints and all who strive to be the body of Christ in our world. What happens to them? Like Jesus, they are often mocked, and scoffed at — even assassinated. What does this teach us?

Jesus said that he was sent into the world so that all who believe could enjoy not a life free of suffering, but communion with God (eternal life). Jesus died in faithfulness to his vocation to embody God’s love in the world. He was slain because the love of God threatened the powers such that they tried to eliminate him. In that most evil of circumstances, God did not stop it, but brought life out of death.

God created, not to control us, but to entice us toward communion. If we believe that God works through us, instead of asking “Why does God let it happen?,” the prophetic question is, “How can people who believe in God and the power of love let it happen?” 

Looking to Jesus, we know where the answer can lead.

First Reading

(2 Chronicles 36: 14-16, 19-23)

In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people 
added infidelity to infidelity, 
practicing all the abominations of the nations 
and polluting the LORD’s temple 
which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.

Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers, 
send his messengers to them, 
for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place.
But they mocked the messengers of God, 
despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, 
until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed 
that there was no remedy.
Their enemies burnt the house of God,
tore down the walls of Jerusalem, 
set all its palaces afire, 
and destroyed all its precious objects.
Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon, 
where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons
until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.
All this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah: 
“Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths, 
during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest 
while seventy years are fulfilled.”

In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, 
in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, 
the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia 
to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom, 
both by word of mouth and in writing: 
“Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: 
All the kingdoms of the earth
the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me, 
and he has also charged me to build him a house 
in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people, 
let him go up, and may his God be with him!”

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 137: 1-2, 3,4-5, 6)

Second Reading

(Ephesians 2: 4-10)

Brothers and sisters:
God, who is rich in mercy, 
because of the great love he had for us, 
even when we were dead in our transgressions, 
brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved —, 
raised us up with him, 
and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, 
that in the ages to come 
He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace 
in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, 
and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; 
it is not from works, so no one may boast.
For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works 
that God has prepared in advance,
that we should live in them


(John 3: 14-21)

Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, 
so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, 
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish 
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, 
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, 
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, 
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world, 
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light, 
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, 
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.