Why Do Good Things Happen to Bad People?

By Gerardo Corpeño

I didn’t grow up as a Christian. My conversion took place when I was 18 years old and was a bit dramatic because it was connected to a seemingly tragic event in my life: a car accident. As a result of that accident, I lost my left eye. While I was in the hospital, I remember my mother talking with a physiologist who recommended she buy me a book to help me recover. I remember one day, at home while recovering, I picked up the book and tried to read a bit. Suddenly, I felt uncomfortable with this book, but I didn’t know why. Then I realized that what bothered me was the title of the book: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” For some reason, even before I was a Christian, of one thing I was sure: I was anything but a good person. So, I concluded that this book was not for me. When I converted to Christ, it was even more clear to me that I was not good, and therefore I needed a Savior, and that salvation was a gift from God that does not have anything to do with me. It was for pure grace!

This leads me to the two stories I want to share with you today. There are so many details in these two stories, but I want to focus just on how the grace of God produces what we can’t produce by own our capacity. And that what should motivate our Christian life is not our merits or efforts, but our gratitude as a response to God’s grace

1. Jesus’ encounter with the rich ruler

The first story is Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler in Luke 18:18-27. This story starts precisely with the issue of being good and doing good things. In this particular way, the rich ruler approached Jesus: Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? (v.18) Jesus did not overlook this emphasis on goodness and merit, as we can infer from His answer: Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone. Then Jesus adds, “you know the commandments.”

One could think that Jesus’ response should suffice for the rich ruler to back off and show a humbler approach. But that was not the case. Instead, he replies: “All this I kept since I saw a boy.” This could be true, but to be honest, we cannot help but be surprised by the super confident way that he responds by saying he had kept God’s commandments through all his life. One thing is for sure: this response seemed to get Jesus’ attention as well. As the text shows: “When Jesus heard this, he said to him….” (v.22a) What follows is a specific commandment to sell his possessions, give everything to the poor, and follow Jesus—which will significantly challenge and trouble this rich ruler precisely because he was very rich!  Suddenly, a story that is supposed to end with a happy ending turns bad: a respectable ruler who has a foot in heaven should receive full confirmation of his status as a heavenly kingdom member. Instead, the story ends with the rich ruler leaving Jesus and feeling very sad!

There is also a final note on this story, which I want to highlight to connect this story with the next one. Jesus commented how hard it is for rich people to enter God’s kingdom. The disciples, then, with surprise, say: Who then can be saved? Jesus replied: “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

2. Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus

In the next story, which is in the next chapter, Jesus encountered another rich man, Zacchaeus. There are some similarities and some differences in Zacchaeus’ story and the rich ruler. The first obvious (and essential) similarity is that both were rich. It also could be argued that both have an important position—the rich man was a ruler, and Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. There was, however, a big difference. While the rich ruler held a respectable position within the Jewish community, Zacchaeus did not. On the contrary, as a tax collector, Zacchaeus was hated and probably even ostracized from the community. Tax collectors, to put it mildly, were not super famous in Jesus’ time. They were considered corrupt but also as traitors!

Well, as in the previous story, in this story Zacchaeus encounters Jesus, or better: Jesus encounters Zacchaeus. However, in this story, we don’t find Zacchaeus approaching Jesus with the same confident (and even prideful) attitude as the rich ruler. In fact, here it is not Zacchaeus who comes to Jesus, but Jesus who approached him: (v.5). Jesus, taking the initiative, invited himself to have dinner at Zacchaeus’ house. In contrast with the ruler, who left very sad, Zacchaeus received Jesus at his house joyfully! (19:6). 

This story ends astonishingly: While at dinner, people began to mutter that Jesus was eating with a sinner. But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord: “Look, Lord: Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody, I will pay back four times the amount” (v.8) Notice what is going on here: Zacchaeus is doing (in a sense) what the rich ruler could not do, without Jesus asking him to do so! This story ends with a remarkable word by Jesus saying: Today, salvation has come into this house because this man, too, is a Son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (19:10)

Observations on God’s Grace

A few closing observations:

First, these two stories combined teach us that Christian life is not about how good we are, but actually about how God’s grace makes a way amid our sinful way of living so that He can transform us into his sons and daughters.

Second, although Zacchaeus’ story focuses on grace, it also focuses on conversion. In other words, it is not “cheap grace,” but a costly grace, a grace that produced tangible fruits in the life of Zacchaeus.

I think the general lesson of Zacchaeus’ story and conversion in this sense could be very well summarized by a phrase pronounced by another sinner who, by the grace of God, was radically converted to Christ: Paul, the apostle to the gentiles!

In 1 Corinthians  15:10, Paul says: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove in vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” I think this could be Zacchaeus’ motto after meeting Jesus. I wish this verse to be my motto as well.

Someday I would like to write a book with a slightly different title than the psychologist recommended me to read. The title will be: “Why do good things happen to bad people?” People like Zacchaeus, like Paul, like myself. This is for me the most amazing question!

Gerardo Corpeño is a Langham Scholar pursuing a PhD in Theology from Wheaton College with support from Langham. Originally from El Salvador, he lives and ministers in Guatemala—where he served as professor at Central American Theological Seminary (SETECA), and where he plans to serve after he graduates with his PhD.