Talking To Children
when Bad Things Happen

by Rev. Deacon Nicholas Jannakos

Why is there evil in the world that God created? Why do bad things happen, even to innocent people? When first asked to write an article to address such questions when they come from children, my first thought was that I am in no way the person to address such questions, which have plagued some of the highest intellects in the history of mankind, and required deep theological answers from the great saints of our Church. I don’t have the academic qualifications or credentials to even pretend to address them, yet alone to comment on answers given by the saints. Ordination to the Holy Diaconate does not give one the grace to preach and to teach, but to “wait on tables,” which is of great spiritual benefit to me.

Then the thought came to mind, “What would I say if my grandchildren asked me such questions?” That produced a different response within me. I know I would have to answer them, even if only to the best of my knowledge and ability. To evade these questions might produce in their minds doubts that would influence their thinking for the rest of their lives, and that I could not let happen. Since I have no seminary education, my answers could only come from my personal study, unstructured and untutored.

So I proposed to the editors of this God-loved publication that, if they wanted me to write this article, I could only do so in the form of a letter to my grandchildren based on my limited ability. The result follows. I pray that it may be of some value or help to parents when they are confronted (as they most assuredly will be) with such questions from their children. When that time comes, they may want to consider reading it to their children and adding their own explanations as they go along.

A Letter to My Grandchildren

Great Lent, 2000

Dearest Grandchildren:

Glory be to Jesus Christ! Glory be forever!

Because of all the bad things now seen on TV, reported in the news, and talked about at your schools (such as wars, school shootings, ethnic cleansing, killer tornadoes and earthquakes, etc.), you have written to ask me, “Why do bad things happen?” “Does God cause bad things to happen?” “If God is as good as you say, why does He allow bad things to happen to people and animals, even innocent ones?”

Beloved ones, these are very important and difficult questions for anyone to answer, because to answer them correctly, a person has to study long and hard to understand the Holy Bible and the teachings of our Holy Orthodox Church, and also be able to understand the hearts and minds of young people. And I don’t know if I qualify for all that.

But Orthodox Christian grandparents cannot evade such questions when asked by their grandchildren. It is one of the most important responsibilities we have at our age. I’m sure that you have already asked these questions of your parents, and maybe want a second opinion from someone else who loves you and has only your best interest at heart. So, I will answer them as truthfully and as best as I can. But I must be very careful how I answer them so that I don’t give you a wrong idea about God’s personality. As you grow up and increase in learning and understanding of our Holy Orthodox Faith, you can fill in all the details for yourself.

First of all, God has created each and every human being with the ability and vocation to grow spiritually and become like Him, and so be able to live together with Him forever in His eternal kingdom of peace and happiness. This is still God’s desire for each and every human being, no matter who or what they are, or where they come from. And, deep down in their hearts, this is what everyone really wants most of all, whether or not they know it or can explain it.

At this point you may ask, “What is God like?” Well, the One True God can not be described by human imagination or ideas. All that we know and can ever know about God is what He Himself tells us and shows us about Himself. What we know about Him is what is written in Holy Scripture (especially the New Testament), the writings of His saints, and the worship books of our Church. That is what is taught to you in your parish Church school. See how important your parish Church school is! It is the most important school you will ever attend. So if you want to know what God is like so that you can become like Him (your true destiny), you must attend you Church school without fail! As I wrote one of you in a previous letter, the knowledge of the things of this world is very important, but it passes away. What we learn from and about God in His Holy Orthodox Church keeps on growing throughout our earthly life and all eternity. As Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov, of blessed memory, said, “There is no end to that learning.”

So, in the beginning, when God created our first parents Adam and Eve, He made a very special place for them in the world to live where there was no possibility of anything bad happening, even death. That place is called the Garden of Eden (or sometimes, ‘Paradise’).

In order for Adam and Eve, and all their descendants, to be able to truly become like Him, God had to give them the ability to have and to use personal freedom — the personal freedom to obey Him (which is His desire for us and what is best for us), or to ignore and disobey Him. The more we obey Him, the closer we come to Him and the more we become like Him. The more we ignore and disobey Him, the farther away we go from Him and the more we become unlike Him.

The ability to have and to use personal freedom is what is called an “image of God” in human beings. Only human beings are given this personal freedom. All other of God’s creatures are governed by the peculiarities of the species to which they belong.

In the Garden of Eden, God allowed Adam and Eve to be influenced by the evil one (also named ‘the devil’ or ‘satan’) to see how they would use their personal freedom. Well, Adam and Eve made the choice to ignore and disobey His instruction to fast from the fruit of one special tree that grew in the center of the Garden of Eden.

(Adam and Eve’s ability to decide one way or the other in their encounter with satan’s thought-suggestions is a clear indication of the personal freedom given by God to His human creatures.)

Their decision to ignore and disobey God had disastrous results, not only for them, but also for all their descendants, and even for the whole earth. With their bad decision (called ‘the original sin’) something very strange happened deep down in the hearts of human beings, something like a contagious genetic spiritual sickness that only God fully understands and can cure. And because of their disobedience, Adam and Eve could no longer live in the Garden of Eden, and so they and their descendents became subject to a way of life which God did not want for them — a way of life filled with evil, suffering, catastrophes, and finally, death. Because of the spiritual sickness of disobedience to God, human beings then gradually changed from the best of God’s creatures to the most destructive and disruptive. Many even became what an Orthodox bishop from Serbia last year described as “the meanest of animals.” (One of the first signs of this was the murder of Abel by his brother Cain.)

Every evil, and every natural disaster that has happened throughout history, is the result of the human ignorance or disobedience to God’s teachings. This may surprise us, and be hard for some of us to understand. But there is a spiritual connection between human sins and the natural order of the world. Science can not show or explain this connection. However, the science of ecology does indicate the destructive results on nature caused by selfish human decisions.

Some people ask, “Why doesn’t God just take away human freedom and force us to live by His teachings, and therefore stop all the evil?” If He did, human beings would become just another species of animal (maybe something like talking chimpanzees without fur), and that is not what God wanted when He created us.

Human disobedience to God increased as time went by, and it became harder and harder for people to even know the difference between good and evil. Death became the earthly destiny of every human being, and every day became a struggle to control the fear of death, since our strongest desire is to live forever. Human beings became trapped in an evil situation, and could not by themselves escape no matter what or how hard they tried. The more they ignored God, the more they forgot about His teachings. The more they forgot about His teachings, the more disobedient they became. And the more disobedient they became, the more bad things happened.

Now I want to tell you a little story that I heard a long time ago. I don’t remember where I heard it, but I have never forgotten this story, and it has a special meaning for us. I don’t remember it all, but it goes something like this:

There once was a farmer who had a new barn on his farm. One day a big flock of birds, apparently flying south for the winter, all landed in his barnyard. It was evening and a big storm was blowing in. It got so bad that the flock of birds was in great danger. The farmer became concerned about the welfare of the birds and he went out and opened the barn doors and then tried to shoo the flock of birds into his barn where they would be safe. But the birds would not go in. They were frightened of him as well as the storm, and so would just scatter around the barnyard and become more and more in danger. After many tries at shooing the birds in, the farmer became so concerned that he prayed to God: “O Heavenly Father, please turn me into one of those birds and make me their leader so that I can lead them into my barn where they will be safe from all harm.”

The meaning of the story is that “becoming one of those” is just what our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, did to save us from the terrible conditions of disobedience and death. When the right time in human history came, Jesus agreed to be born of the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary, and to grow and live as a real human being on earth, while still being God at the same time. He agreed to do this because of His great love for us, and because of His total obedience to His and our Heavenly Father. By His appearance on earth, human beings could now, by following His teachings in their everyday lives, become like Him, and so be able to live forever together with Him in His eternal kingdom of peace and happiness.

When Jesus was born into this world he became completely subject to its real human condition. He suffered and endured every evil that any human being has ever suffered, but without complaining or committing any sin whatsoever. He was completely obedient to His and our Heavenly God and Father. And because of His passion, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven as a human being, He was able to bestow even greater blessings on the human race and all creation than existed in the Garden of Eden. Ten days after His return to the right hand of God the Father, on the great and holy day of Pentecost, He sent God the Holy Spirit from His Father into His apostles who then started His Orthodox Church. Through Its holy Mysteries, every human being, family, work, and society can be sanctified. Through Its blessings all of the natural and man-made world can also be sanctified. In the Divine Liturgy we experience a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom. Even time itself is redeemed and sanctified by its daily, weekly, and yearly liturgical cycles of worship. And because of our Holy Tradition (the continuing life of God the Holy Spirit within the Church preserving Her as “the pillar and ground of the truth”), the Orthodox Church will always be “the faith which was once and for all delivered to the saints.”

But even after all that Jesus did, and still does for human beings through His Holy Church, people still have the personal freedom to ignore and disobey His teachings, in spite of all the bad consequences for themselves, others, and nature. And this situation will continue until He comes again. Until then, human beings, including Orthodox Christians — maybe even especially Orthodox Christians — will continue to suffer from wars, murders, shootings, ethnic cleansing, natural disasters, sickness, and death. But the “Good News” for us in all of this is that Jesus has conquered death, and that true faith in His resurrection can overcome our fear of death. By Jesus’ death, He transformed death for Orthodox Christians from a horrible tragedy into a new and indescribable birth into the eternal life that everyone longs for, with all creation and creatures at peace.

In the meantime, we should try to live a life of faithfulness to Jesus and His promises. We should learn to love God first of all, and our neighbors — even our enemies — as ourselves. Our saints tell us that if we love our enemies, then we will not have any enemies; everyone, good and bad, will be our neighbor. They also tell us that the love of enemies is the greatest sign of the love of God: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Even so, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” This means that, because of the cooperation of our wayward desires with “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” we will constantly fail in our spiritual efforts. Human disobedience to God will trick us, simply because we are surrounded by it on all sides, and still have its seed in our hearts. And we will find ourselves recaptured again and again by the ways, glamour, and demands of the sinful, ignorant, and disobedient world in which we live.

That is why every springtime, when nature begins to come back to life and renew itself, during the period we call the Great Fast, our Holy Orthodox Church calls us to regain our spiritual perspective, senses, and commitment through increased prayer and fasting. It is also the time when we are to compare our thoughts and actions with the earthly life and teachings of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ. This teaches us true and sincere repentance, which is “the gate to Paradise.”

Now repentance is not an apology to God for breaking some rule or law with a promise to do better next time, as little children do when they meet “Santa Claus” in the shopping malls before Christmas. Orthodox Christian repentance is a clear understanding that we are “missing the mark” of growing in the image and likeness of God, which is the only reason that God created us in the first place. (It could be called a “paradigm shift”, as some very intelligent people in today’s world would say.) True repentance is a blessing from our all-good God who loves mankind, because it opens our hearts and minds to the healing power and the grace of God the Holy Spirit. It is the cure for the terrible human sin of pride, “which cannot bear to be subject to anyone.” But here again personal freedom comes into play: people have to want to be cured.

And so, dearest ones, at every moment during the coming Great Fast, let us rise up together and pray: “O God, grant me to make a new beginning, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and to always remind ourselves: “From this day forth, from this hour, from this minute, let us love God above all, and do His holy will.”

Your devoted Grandfather,

Deacon Nicholas X

Fr.Dcn. Nicholas Jannakos serves at St. Herman Orthodox Christian Church in Littleton, Colorado.

© 2000 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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