Harold S. Kushner

When Bad Things Happen to Good People

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When Bad Things Happen to Good People Summary

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Harold S. Kushner wrote the philosophical self-help book When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981) after his young son was diagnosed with a degenerative, terminal disease. In this internationally-bestselling book, Kushner explores the doubts and fears we all feel when tragedy strikes, and the questions we ask ourselves.

Kushner served as the rabbi laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts. He is the author of more than a dozen bestselling religious and personal development books. In 2007, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jewish Book Council. When Bad Things Happen to Good People is his first book.

Kushner wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People after a family tragedy. His son, diagnosed with a premature aging disease, died as a teenager. Kushner couldn’t believe that a man as devout as he deserved to suffer such heartbreak. He wondered why God punished him with this pain, and he felt powerless to do anything about it.

In the book, Kushner explores two central questions—why, if a loving God created the universe, is there so much pain and suffering in it, and why do bad things happen to good people? This conundrum of evil existing in a world created by a benevolent God is known as theodicy. Although Kushner is Jewish, the book is accessible to readers of any religion.

Kushner’s position is that God is good and that He built a beautiful world for us, but He is not all-powerful. God sees people suffering, but it is impossible to prevent all pain and grief. All God can do is be with His people when they need Him. Many conservative scholars criticize this position because they believe God is omniscient and limitless, but Kushner believes this is the only plausible explanation for the strife existing in our world.

In the chapter, “Why Do the Righteous Suffer?”, Kushner explores the existing explanations for pain and suffering, explaining why they are insufficient. He argues that these explanations are based on the idea that God’s power is limitless. The truth is that God’s power is limited, as is clear from the world we live in. God must be subject to another power.

Kushner examines the nature of our free will and what it means to be part of God’s creation. His conclusion is that God granted us free will in exchange for a world with natural order and balance. God is subject to this natural order as we are, meaning He is subject to man’s free will. When we do terrible things, God can only watch. Just as we struggle, so does God.
Kushner believes that grace, and the strength to withstand heartache, is a gift from God. God grants us the strength to endure our problems even if He can’t make the problems go away. This is the natural order of all things that keeps the universe in balance. Kushner’s conclusion doesn’t sit well with conservative theologians.

At the heart of When Bad Things Happen to Good People is the idea that heartache, tragedy, loss, and pain make us appreciate the good times. These events allow us to understand the difference between good and evil, and they help us decide the kind of people we want to be. We can decide to bring goodness or pain into the world as we exercise our free will. We can also choose how we respond to life’s challenges, and whether we let them break or strengthen us. This is God’s way of teaching us about His world and what it means to be part of Him.

Kushner holds that everyone deserves redemption and a second chance, no matter how badly we’ve failed or how awful the choices are that we make. Mistakes are necessary for spiritual growth. As long as we repent and learn from our failures, we evolve and improve. God does not expect perfection from us, just as He has not created a perfect world. A key takeaway from the book is that, by doing our best, we earn God’s grace. Being a nice person doesn’t guarantee a pain-free life.

In the chapter “No Exceptions for Nice People,” Kushner explores this idea in more detail. He argues that natural order, or natural law, is blind. It has no moral code. Instead, it simply exists. God doesn’t save good people from earthquakes just as he doesn’t curse the evil, because He lets natural law take its course. God does not judge who here on Earth is good or bad, because it is unfair of Him to make that decision and alter the natural balance.

Kushner wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People as a way of coping with his own loss. However, he hopes that readers appreciate the wider message—the world is imperfect, and so is God, but we must all carry on and help each other along the journey. God wants us to grow and help ourselves, and that is what we must do.