When bad times hit good people

“I’ve been reading through the first books of the Bible again and I think there’s a lot to chew on that might help us better understand what’s going on, why things aren’t working right even though we’re trying to do everything that we know to do.”

“Where do we begin?” Lisa asks.

“God got Israel to Egypt,” Nate replies. “But then he left. Went silent. God went silent. It’s weird. But it’s what he did.”

“Makes me think about Jesus in the garden,” Karl says.

“How so?” Lisa asks.

“There he is, praying, sweating blood he’s so stressed, crying out to the Father. But where’s the Father?”

“He knew the Father was there,” Lisa says.

“I think the Israelites did too,” Nate replies. “They just didn’t know why he wasn’t responding. They knew to cry out to him. They remembered him. They kept crying out. Even if God was silent they kept crying out.”

“Why was God silent?” Karl asks. “Was it something they did?”

“That’s the question,” Nate says. “We can’t just say that if bad things are happening it’s because of sin. Sometimes we can. Sometimes that’s exactly it. But so much of the church has tried to follow the simple logic: ‘If you do bad things, bad things happen’; ‘Do good things and good things happen.’ But this isn’t when bad times hit good people necessarily the case. That’s why I’m so intrigued with Exodus. I mean look how it opens. Everything is going great.”

These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher. The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt. Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them.
(Exodus 1:1-7) ?

“What were they doing wrong?” Nate asks.

“Nothing,” Lisa answers. “Joseph was faithful to God and his family was saved because of how God had worked in his life.”

“His earlier, prophetic dreams came true,” Karl adds.

“Though with a bit of struggle there in the middle. But God worked. And everything was blessed.”

“Exactly,” Nate laughs. “We can’t poke holes in this. There’s nothing in this passage to say that they’re doing anything wrong, or that anything evil is happening. It’s saying that the family of Israel is right with God. But then it shifts. In a weird direction. We know the story so well we don’t realize how really strange it is.”

Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must
deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
(Exodus 1:8-10)

“Why is it strange?” Lisa asks.

“Because of what we expect next. The Israelites have been walking right. God has been working. We see something like this and then we expect a quick miracle, like all the Israelites get swords and fight off their Egyptian oppressors. Or that Pharaoh dies and a new one comes into power, this one who remembers Joseph. Or maybe, ‘…and from among the people rose up an Israelite leader who overcame the slavery and brought peace to all of Egypt.’”

“Well, there was Moses,” Lisa says.

“But that’s not what comes next,” Nate replies. “That’s what I’m getting at. We skip the middle. The hard parts. The parts that talk about struggle. We don’t want to dwell on those parts. We want the victory. The success.”

“Isn’t that faith?” Karl asks. “We hold onto the hope?”

“Not really,” Lisa answers. “I think I’m getting what you’re saying, Nate. If we skip to the end too quickly we lose how really serious the struggle is. And then we forget there is a struggle, which keeps us from seeing a relationship between the story and our lives. Because I don’t know the end. In Technicolor Dreamcoat, Joseph is in prison but they don’t sit with that for long. Instead, they show a little of his woe, and then he’s surrounded by people saying it’s all going to be alright. They’ve read the end, I think the narrator sings. Only that’s not the case with me. I don’t have a narrator following me around.”

“That’s the struggle I’m feeling too,” Nate says. “I really don’t know what direction to take next. I’m feeling a lot of frustration but what does that mean?”

“We want to blame something,” Lisa says. “Blame ourselves. Or come up with a reason something that could have been changed or could help us next time.”

“But like with a friend of mine,” Karl adds, “She got shot in a robbery. What could have been changed? Those kinds of things can happen almost anywhere, and it’s almost like plain bad luck.”

“Wrong place, wrong time,” Lisa adds.

“And the only way to prevent bad things from happening is to hide,” Karl says. “Let fear win. Give up and hide, or give in, totally ruined, and think that those bad circumstances are truth.”
“That’s what is so powerful about this early part of Exodus for me,” Nate says. “Unlike the prophets, who give the reasons and give warnings, all we see here is unprovoked anger. There’s
no cause. Israel was blessed. Egypt was blessed. Everyone was blessed with God’s work.”

“Which turns everything around,” Lisa says.

“What do you mean?” Karl asks.

“Like Nate said, the prophets are talking about curses—what happens when people do something wrong. Only that’s not it here. And that seems to be the point. The oppression came, not because they were cursed or doing something wrong. Seems like Egypt’s response came from jealousy. And fear. Because God’s promise was being worked out.”

“It was because they were within God’s path of promise,” Nate continues, “and Egypt responded by trying to take control.”

So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.
(Exodus 1:11-14)

“The Egyptian king didn’t remember Joseph, so he didn’t know what God had done in helping Egypt in time of famine,” Nate continued. “And he inflicted evil, undeserved evil, on the
people. He noticed their blessings, noticed their qualities, and it made him furious.”

“But God still was working,” Lisa says. “That’s what gets me about this verse. The Egyptians tried to throw everything at the Israelites. They ‘made their lives bitter with hard labor.’ Life was hard. But it didn’t change the fact that God was still working.”

“Like Joseph did in prison,” Karl says. “He was a blessing to others in the jail even as everything must have felt like a curse to him. God was working, but it sure didn’t seem like it.”

“But God was working even more,” Lisa says, “when it seemed Joseph was going through the worst. I mean, that really sounds strange, but I can’t help thinking that the isolation and
the frustration put Joseph in the position to help when the time was ripe.”

“I think this is where real faith comes in,” Nate says. “Faith didn’t change the circumstances. Not right way. I mean we could even say things got worse and worse. But faith transformed the situation. The oppression wasn’t better, but it wasn’t meaningless either. The faith gave meaning. A lot of faith isn’t about what happens in the future. It’s about how we see what is happening to us in the present.”

“But isn’t that just putting a good spin on things?” Lisa asks. “Optimism. What if we don’t have any optimism left? What if we just feel the ruthlessness of it all so heavily we feel we can’t go on?”

“God was working through them,” Nate says. “They were still blessed, even though the very blessing was the source of their pain. They grew in numbers, even still. The persecution wasn’t enough to offset God’s plans, even though I know those people felt so abandoned and so crushed, wondering where God was in their pain.”

“Reminds me of the early church,” Karl adds. “Acts is full of these stories. Stephen is martyred. The church grows. James is beheaded. The church grows. Saul goes on a rampage, and the church is scattered. Then it grows in all sorts of places, and Saul becomes Paul, the greatest missionary.”

‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit,’” Lisa says. “I have seen that as being a consolation. The poor and depressed and whoever else don’t have anything to show for their labor and suffering,
so they feel like they have their rewards in heaven. But what you’re saying explains it better to me. It’s the people who God has particularly chosen who are being oppressed. What if we had forgotten the story of Joseph too? And came to Exodus without knowing anything of the promise to Abraham? All we would see is a bunch of low-class people having a lot of children. But we know the end of the story, so we can’t see the Israelites as the people at the absolute bottom of society.”

“God may be working the most among those who are most persecuted,” Karl says. “They’re the least and the lowest in their own cultures, but they might be very important for what God is doing in this world.”

“Maybe,” Nate says and nods.

“Maybe.” Karl pauses for a moment. “Maybe instead of asking ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ we should ask, ‘What do good people do when bad things happen?’”

“I think you are exactly right,” Lisa says. “We can’t explain God or life or what happens to people. All we can do is explain what we’re going to do about it—how we respond and how we
choose to act.”

“How we choose to act when we are attacked,” Karl adds. “And even then, this is really hard for me. I mean, I get it, but it takes so much more from me than I think I have. When we respond right, we still can’t expect everything to turn out right.”

“Like with Joseph,” Lisa says. “He served God and things got worse.”

“Which is crazy,” Nate says. “But that’s what Scripture says. In Exodus the people are blessed by having more children. Only, the oppression doesn’t just get irritating and then ease up.
It gets worse. Even what they have—the increase in their families which is the one thing they can point to as being a sign of God’s favor—is attacked. That’s taken away from them.”

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, “When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”

The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”

The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous.

And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”
(Exodus 1:15-22)

“The one thing, the one thing the people could point to,” Nate continues. “What may have been the one joy in their lives—having children—is taken away from them. We focus on the miracles that come later. We focus on the victories and the triumphs. But pause here and everything is dark. Boy children are being drowned in the Nile! Where is God as these babies are

“That’s a hard question,” Lisa answers. “He’s with them. Because we know they didn’t die out but were saved.”

“We know that,” Nate replies. “But think of how it feels in the moment. Here—here in Exodus—God is telling the story that defeat and attacks aren’t the whole story. They are included
within the story.”

“I remember being out of work for a year,” Karl says, “a few years after high school. Almost on the street many times. No one would interview me. No one would call me back. Each time I submitted an application it went with hope and prayer. And then the silence slowly beat me down. I did have music. But when the guitar strings broke, I couldn’t justify going out to buy more. I had to pawn my guitar. I was really depressed. God stopped me, and I couldn’t do anything to move forward. Nothing worked. Then it seemed what I did have was taken away. I
couldn’t distract myself from the frustration.”

“What words would have been comforting to you?” Nate asks.

“Honestly, nothing,” Karl replies. “Answers. That was the only real comfort.”

“But you kept trying,” Lisa says.

“Yeah, I did keep doing what I could. My thought was that even if I was cursed or whatever, I wasn’t going to give an excuse. Honestly, I was challenging God. I was saying he wasn’t
going to provoke me to becoming my own problem.”

“Which is what the midwives did,” Nate says. “They didn’t follow the orders. They lied to Pharaoh. And this lying wasn’t to protect themselves. It was, I think, an assertion of the promise.
They were holding God to his promise. They weren’t going to let the promise go, even as everything was being taken away.”

“And they were blessed because of it,” Lisa says. “Because even when everything was wrong, they didn’t just lie down and let the babies die. They fought. They held on. God blessed them
for it.”

“Then Pharaoh stepped up again,” Nate says. “He told all his people that they had to throw the baby boys into the river. He wouldn’t take any excuse. He was ruthless. Insulting. Absolutely
crushing. Where was God?”

“I don’t know,” Karl answers. “It doesn’t make sense to me. Seems like infanticide is enough reason for God to step in. But he doesn’t.”

“Not right away,” Lisa says. “But the time came when God did act. And the people who held on to the faith found freedom. God had a promise waiting for them. And when God acted, not even Pharaoh could stand in his way.”

“But they had to wait,” Karl says. “Even without seeing anything, they had to wait.”

“And that’s faith,” Nate replies. “We wait on God, because we know that he does work, even if things seem really bad or things even get worse. We wait and we hope, because God is going to win and he promises that we win with him.”

An Excerpt from my new book, How Long? The Trek Through the Wilderness

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