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Augustine on "Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People"

This is a very old post. It dates all the way back to the summer of 2008, when I listened to the entire City of God in audio form (available free from Librivox).

Suffering has been on my mind lately. The intellectual problem of suffering (aka “theogony”) as well as the one that hits a little closer to home (aka life). For some reason, this ancient explanation of the problem of suffering has always made sense to me. I always come back to it. I hope it helps and blesses you in some way.

Ps. If you get lost in the dated translation and complex reasoning, skip to the last line, then work your way back. Thanks for reading.

 

From City of God, Book 1, Chapter 8, available here.

This passage was written in discussion of the “sack” of Rome, where many Christians as well as non-Christians were killed and cruelly treated. Enemies of Christianity are saying, in effect, “If your God is so strong, why did he let his people suffer?” Here is part of Augustine’s response.

There is, too, a very great difference in the purpose served both by those events which we call adverse and those called prosperous. For the good man is neither uplifted with the good things of time, nor broken by its ills; but the wicked man, because he is corrupted by this world’s happiness, feels himself punished by its unhappiness. Yet often, even in the present distribution of temporal things, does God plainly evince His own interference. For if every sin were now visited with manifest punishment, nothing would seem to be reserved for the final judgment; on the other hand, if no sin received now a plainly divine punishment, it would be concluded that there is no divine providence at all. And so of the good things of this life: if God did not by a very visible liberality confer these on some of those persons who ask for them, we should say that these good things were not at His disposal; and if He gave them to all who sought them, we should suppose that such were the only rewards of His service; and such a service would make us not godly, but greedy rather, and covetous. Wherefore, though good and bad men suffer alike, we must not suppose that there is no difference between the men themselves, because there is no difference in what they both suffer. For even in the likeness of the sufferings, there remains an unlikeness in the sufferers; and though exposed to the same anguish, virtue and vice are not the same thing. For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed; and as the lees are not mixed with the oil, though squeezed out of the vat by the same pressure, so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked. And thus it is that in the same affliction the wicked detest God and blaspheme, while the good pray and praise. So material a difference does it make, not what ills are suffered, but what kind of man suffers them. For, stirred up with the same movement, mud exhales a horrible stench, and ointment emits a fragrant odor.

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BxHxGyYGRw5hbnl2MDlzV3BKRzA/view?usp=sharing

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