I once asked the Reb that most common of faith questions: why do bad things happen to good people? It had been answered countless times in countless ways; in books, in sermons, on Web sites, in tear-filled hugs. The Lord wanted her with him . . . He died doing what he loved . . . She was a gift . . . This is a test . . .
I remember a family friend whose son was struck with a terrible medical affliction. After that, at any religious ceremony—even a wedding—I would see the man out in the hallway, refusing to enter the service. “I just can’t listen to it anymore,” he would say. His faith had been lost.
When I asked the Reb, Why do bad things happen to good people?, he gave none of the standard answers. He quietly said, “No one knows.” I admired that. But when I asked if that ever shook his belief in God, he was firm.
“I cannot waver,” he said.
Well, you could, if you didn’t believe in something all-powerful.
“An atheist,” he said.
“And then I could explain why my prayers were not answered.”
He studied me carefully. He drew in his breath.
“I had a doctor once who was an atheist. Did I ever tell you about him?”
“This doctor, he liked to jab me and my beliefs. He used to schedule my appointments deliberately on Saturdays, so I would have to call the receptionist and explain why, because of my religion, that wouldn’t work.”
Nice guy, I said.
“Anyhow, one day, I read in the paper that his brother had died. So I made a condolence call.”
After the way he treated you?
“In this job,” the Reb said, “you don’t retaliate.” I laughed.
“So I go to his house, and he sees me. I can tell he is upset. I tell him I am sorry for his loss. And he says, with an angry face, ‘I envy you.’
“ ‘Why do you envy me?’ I said.
“ ‘Because when you lose someone you love, you can curse God. You can yell. You can blame him. You can demand to know why. But I don’t believe in God.
I’m a doctor! And I couldn’t help my brother!’ “He was near tears. ‘Who do I blame?’ he kept asking me. ‘There is no God. I can only blame myself.’ ” The Reb’s face tightened, as if in pain. “That,” he said, softly, “is a terrible self-indictment.” Worse than an unanswered prayer? “Oh yes. It is far more comforting to think God listened and said no, than to think that nobody’s out there.” Questions for discussion:
- How do you answer the question, “why do bad things happen to good people?”
- As the Reb explains, “it is far more comforting to think God listened and said no, than to think nobody’s out there” Do you agree?
- In describing the journeys of faith taken by Rabbi Lewis and Pastor Henry Covington, Mitch Albom discusses his complicated relationship to his Jewish beliefs. Talking about one’s religious faith is a personal endeavor; do you find it easy or difficult to talk to others about religion, specifically your relationship to it? Are you comfortable discussing religion with someone with different beliefs?
- In continuation of the above question, do you think anyone can ever “win” a religious argument? What do you think lies at the core of disagreements about religion?
- Have you ever experienced a crisis of faith? How did you approach it? Was it resolved? Was there a lesson you took away from it?