Book review: When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Harold Kushner

I’ve just finished reading Harold Kushner’s book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. This is a best-seller and something of a self-help book, two elements that would normally imbue me with distrust (self-help books, in particular, generally have the unfortunate effect of making me feel completely overwhelmed by all my flaws and incapable of changing them), but having read another of Kushner’s books and liked his take on Jewish theology very much, I thought it was worth a try.

And, actually, it’s really very good.

Basically, Kushner looks at the problem of evil: how, if God is both good and omnipotent, can evil happen? And his solution is quite simply that God is not omnipotent. Yes, he created the world (through evolution, incidentally), but he created it with rules – laws of physics, chemistry and biology – that cannot be broken. Disease, natural disasters, and human evil are all parts of this world, and God can’t change that. What God can do is help us have the strength to live and make meaning of our lives despite all of this.

This argument is both appealing and slightly disappointing. Immature as it may be to say this, I can’t help feeling that God really should be omnipotent. Isn’t that the whole point of being God? Intellectually I accept and appreciate the argument, emotionally, it doesn’t seem quite fair.

On the other hand, I really do like Kushner’s repeated emphasis on the idea that the awful things that happen to us are not intrinsically meaningful – they are not sent by God to punish or test or strengthen us. They just happen, and frankly, they are pretty awful. But we are able, as humans, to make meaning from them.

Kushner wrote this book out of the death of his 14-year-old son from a genetic condition, so he knows whereof he speaks. One of the more justly famous lines in the book occurs in the last chapter:

“I am a more sensitive person, a more effective pastor, a more sympathetic counsellor because of Aaron’s life and death than I would ever have been without it. And I would give up all of those gains in a second if I could have my son back.”

He does not ask us to accept the horrible things that happen as part of some cosmic pattern, or to be glad of them for the ways in which they have enriched us – we make meaning in spite of suffering, not because of it. It’s a strangely comforting view.

Kushner also commentates interestingly on the book of Job, and even more interestingly on the creation story – I particularly like his discussion of the result of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He explains that the consequences of this are not about punishment for disobedience, but are in fact a metaphor for becoming human. Without this knowledge, humans are no different from animals, acting on instinct. Once we learn about good and evil, however, we are forced to make ethical choices – bearing and raising children IS more difficult, human relationships ARE complex, finding food is no longer simply about instinct, but about learning to farm, or learning a career that will provide the means to afford food, and while animals and humans both die, humans alone are aware of this throughout their lives.

I also enjoy some of his fables, particularly the one about the grieving woman who asks a holy man for a magical working that will bring her son back to life. He tells her to bring him a mustard seed from a house that has never known sorrow – naturally, no such house exists, and at each house where she asks, she hears all their tales of tragedy and misfortune, and stays to minister to them out of her grief. In the end, she forgets her quest, without realising that the search has taken the sorrow out of her life by filling it with purpose and connecting her to others who grieve.

Anyway. I can thoroughly recommend this, especially to anyone who is interested in counselling, or on theology. It is engagingly and sympathetically written, and is really a very lovely book. If its title has become a cliché, it has certainly deserved it’s notoriety, and I find myself once again wanting to read more of Kushner’s work. His approach to life is one of the most positive that I have read of.

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