St. Augustine on Why Bad Things Happen to Good People
City of God, Book I
|Chapter 8.— Of
the Advantages and Disadvantages Which Often Indiscriminately Accrue to
Good and Wicked Men.
Will some one say, Why, then, was this divine compassion extended even
to the ungodly and ungrateful? Why, but because it was the mercy of Him
who daily makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends
rain on the just and on the unjust. Matthew 5:45 For though some of
these men, taking thought of this, repent of their wickedness and
reform, some, as the apostle says, despising the riches of His goodness
and long-suffering, after their hardness and impenitent heart, treasure
up unto themselves wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the
righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to
his deeds: Romans 2:4 nevertheless does the patience of God still
invite the wicked to repentance, even as the scourge of God educates
the good to patience. And so, too, does the mercy of God embrace the
good that it may cherish them, as the severity of God arrests the
wicked to punish them. To the divine providence it has seemed good to
prepare in the world to come for the righteous good things, which the
unrighteous shall not enjoy; and for the wicked evil things, by which
the good shall not be tormented. But as for the good things of this
life, and its ills, God has willed that these should be common to both;
that we might not too eagerly covet the things which wicked men are
seen equally to enjoy, nor shrink with an unseemly fear from the ills
which even good men often suffer.
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.
Chapter 9.— Of the Reasons for Administering Correction to Bad and Good Together.
What, then, have the Christians suffered in that calamitous period, which would not profit every one who duly and faithfully considered the following circumstances? First of all, they must humbly consider those very sins which have provoked God to fill the world with such terrible disasters; for although they be far from the excesses of wicked, immoral, and ungodly men, yet they do not judge themselves so clean removed from all faults as to be too good to suffer for these even temporal ills. For every man, however laudably he lives, yet yields in some points to the lust of the flesh. Though he do not fall into gross enormity of wickedness, and abandoned viciousness, and abominable profanity, yet he slips into some sins, either rarely or so much the more frequently as the sins seem of less account. But not to mention this, where can we readily find a man who holds in fit and just estimation those persons on account of whose revolting pride, luxury, and avarice, and cursed iniquities and impiety, God now smites the earth as His predictions threatened? Where is the man who lives with them in the style in which it becomes us to live with them? For often we wickedly blind ourselves to the occasions of teaching and admonishing them, sometimes even of reprimanding and chiding them, either because we shrink from the labor or are ashamed to offend them, or because we fear to lose good friendships, lest this should stand in the way of our advancement, or injure us in some worldly matter, which either our covetous disposition desires to obtain, or our weakness shrinks from losing. So that, although the conduct of wicked men is distasteful to the good, and therefore they do not fall with them into that damnation which in the next life awaits such persons, yet, because they spare their damnable sins through fear, therefore, even though their own sins be slight and venial, they are justly scourged with the wicked in this world, though in eternity they quite escape punishment. Justly, when God afflicts them in common with the wicked, do they find this life bitter, through love of whose sweetness they declined to be bitter to these sinners.
If any one forbears to reprove and find fault with those who are doing wrong, because he seeks a more seasonable opportunity, or because he fears they may be made worse by his rebuke, or that other weak persons may be disheartened from endeavoring to lead a good and pious life, and may be driven from the faith; this man's omission seems to be occasioned not by covetousness, but by a charitable consideration. But what is blame-worthy is, that they who themselves revolt from the conduct of the wicked, and live in quite another fashion, yet spare those faults in other men which they ought to reprehend and wean them from; and spare them because they fear to give offense, lest they should injure their interests in those things which good men may innocently and legitimately use — though they use them more greedily than becomes persons who are strangers in this world, and profess the hope of a heavenly country. For not only the weaker brethren who enjoy married life, and have children (or desire to have them), and own houses and establishments, whom the apostle addresses in the churches, warning and instructing them how they should live, both the wives with their husbands, and the husbands with their wives, the children with their parents, and parents with their children, and servants with their masters, and masters with their servants — not only do these weaker brethren gladly obtain and grudgingly lose many earthly and temporal things on account of which they dare not offend men whose polluted and wicked life greatly displeases them; but those also who live at a higher level, who are not entangled in the meshes of married life, but use meagre food and raiment, do often take thought of their own safety and good name, and abstain from finding fault with the wicked, because they fear their wiles and violence. And although they do not fear them to such an extent as to be drawn to the commission of like iniquities, nay, not by any threats or violence soever; yet those very deeds which they refuse to share in the commission of they often decline to find fault with, when possibly they might by finding fault prevent their commission. They abstain from interference, because they fear that, if it fail of good effect, their own safety or reputation may be damaged or destroyed; not because they see that their preservation and good name are needful, that they may be able to influence those who need their instruction, but rather because they weakly relish the flattery and respect of men, and fear the judgments of the people, and the pain or death of the body; that is to say, their non-intervention is the result of selfishness, and not of love.
Accordingly this seems to me to be one principal reason why the good are chastised along with the wicked, when God is pleased to visit with temporal punishments the profligate manners of a community. They are punished together, not because they have spent an equally corrupt life, but because the good as well as the wicked, though not equally with them, love this present life; while they ought to hold it cheap, that the wicked, being admonished and reformed by their example, might lay hold of life eternal. And if they will not be the companions of the good in seeking life everlasting, they should be loved as enemies, and be dealt with patiently. For so long as they live, it remains uncertain whether they may not come to a better mind. These selfish persons have more cause to fear than those to whom it was said through the prophet, He is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand. Ezekiel 33:6 For watchmen or overseers of the people are appointed in churches, that they may unsparingly rebuke sin. Nor is that man guiltless of the sin we speak of, who, though he be not a watchman, yet sees in the conduct of those with whom the relationships of this life bring him into contact, many things that should be blamed, and yet overlooks them, fearing to give offense, and lose such worldly blessings as may legitimately be desired, but which he too eagerly grasps. Then, lastly, there is another reason why the good are afflicted with temporal calamities — the reason which Job's case exemplifies: that the human spirit may be proved, and that it may be manifested with what fortitude of pious trust, and with how unmercenary a love, it cleaves to God.
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