It sounds like a joke. Did you hear the one about the 7-foot tall basketball player who famously wore a mullet and once nearly came to blows with legendary coach Larry Brown?
It’s not a joke. Dwayne Schintzius played basketball a couple of decades ago and wore his hair long and proud, as the picture shows. Though he never lived up to his initial promise, he managed to sub his way through eight NBA seasons. Along the way, he lived it up, accruing a reputation for partying and arrogance. He made his millions and moved on from the game. He settled into the easy life of an athlete gone to pasture. Life was good. Until throat cancer struck with a vengeance and nearly (should have) killed him.
In a recent story entitled “Former NBA Big Man Schintzius Fights Cancer, Ghosts of Past” on NBA.com (common research fodder for high-brow culture mavens) writer Shaun Powell profiled Schintzius, a man who has suffered a great deal and found himself asking a weighty question: Is this happening to me because I am a bad person? Powell looked back at the day when the former center found out he had cancer:
“The first thing I did, after I lost faith for a bit and broke down and cried was think, what did I do in my life to deserve this?” Schintzius said. “I just started thinking about all the bad stuff I did in my lifetime. Was I such a bad person?”
Powell cycled back to this question later in the story:
So he had a journeyman career. Was that so wrong? Was that cause to undergo multiple blood transfusions? Is that the reason his family, thinking he wasn’t going to make it, prepared to pay their last respects?
The answer became obvious to Schintzius then. He wasn’t a “bad person.” He didn’t bring this upon himself. There’s nothing he did in his 42 years that could remotely lead to what he was going through. If anything, friends and family are quick to tell you about the Dwayne who calls everyone “bro” and looks for humor in everything.
The remaining threads of Schintzius’s story are inspiring. He resolved to beat the cancer, and he now lives with a desire to seize what opportunities are given him.
Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People—or the Opposite?
This little piece asks a humdinger of a question (or a variation of it): Why do bad things happen to good people? Powell’s writing, as with Schintzius’s thinking, reflects a belief in a kind of karmic universe, where good people see things go right and bad people get what they deserve.
This is a rather obvious current in secular culture; it seems to be one variant of the secular man’s gospel, the truth which if followed charts the way to happiness.
This view, however common, reverses the biblical formulation. In books like Job, the question posed to man by God seems to be “why do good things happen to bad people?” God’s assumption, as unfolded in the apologetic tornado of Job 38-42, is that mankind deserves nothing from God but his just condemnation. Foundational sections of Scripture like Isaiah 64-66 and Romans 1-3 corroborate this view. Humans have no claim on goodness, no right to blessing. According to the Bible, following the fall of Adam and Eve, sin has brought suffering to all sinners, and promises still greater suffering in the life to come. Suffering, then, comes to us all. As Tim Keller has said (see also chapter two of his Reason for God), “[T]he problem of tragedy, injustice, and suffering is a problem for everyone no matter what their beliefs are.” In sermons and other teachings, Keller has urged his congregation to expect suffering as a result of living as fallen beings in a fallen world.
This suffering that is a problem for all people may appear capricious to our human eyes, striking like lightning when we least expect it. Yet if we rightly consider the biblical testimony, we see that suffering, though often unexpected, should not truly surprise us. A major part of life in this cursed place is suffering. It comes in many forms: sickness, disease, estrangement, isolation, depression, miscarriages, sex trafficking, hunger, childlessness, loneliness, abuse, and so many other terrible forms. It visits us all, striking those who strive to be mature in the faith and those who have turned as far away from it as they can. The common denominator between sufferers, whether pious or pagan? We all deserve it. Contrary to what our modern era teaches us, we are not good people. We are bad people. Suffering is not strange. It is not the exception. It is the rule. It comes for us all.
How NBA.com Is Right—And Wrong
There is a kernel of truth in Powell’s story and Schintzius’s testimony, however. The Bible clearly teaches that though every person deserves to suffer—both temporally and eternally—for his or her sin, it is not the case that sinning immediately occasions harmful consequences. As Christ taught the crowds after the death of many in Siloam from a tower’s fall, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:4) Jesus answered his own question with a flat “no.” He then exhorted the people to “repent” for without repentance, “you will all likewise perish.”
So, answering Schintzius’s poignant question, no, his past sins did not necessarily contribute in an immediate sense to his cancer. The first part of his response is correct. It is the second part of his answer, one found on the lips of countless lost people, that is wrong. Bad things don’t happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people. We do not deserve good things from God. We have earned only his wrath.
The Christian has been freed up to see that the true paradox of life in this place is not, “Why do bad things happen to good people?,” but “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Why, though we have offended a holy God, does he proffer mercy? This is the question that rings in the ears of Christians when they confronts biblical realities.
Philosophical theology asks hard questions and often provides insightful answers. But at the end of the day, much that governs the world is too great, too ethereal, for us to comprehend. We are left to embrace the plain teaching of Scripture, to trust God at his word. This is no copout; it accords with the wisdom of thinkers like John Calvin, who once said that “Though God’s kindness (as well as his severity) can sometimes be clearly discerned in history, other times the causes of events are hidden.”
This is the experience of many who read the aforementioned book of Job. Not every loose thread is tied up. We are left with great questions. Yet the Bible summons us to trust a great God who works all things for his glory and his people’s good. If we follow up our reading of Job 38-42 with time in Romans 8-9, we are left not bitter and distrustful of God and his wisdom, but full of doxological praise and overwhelmed by divine kindness. It is not God’s supposed injustice that causes a catch in our throat, but his mercy, his undeserved favor.
The deeply existential reality of suffering brings dark days and hard nights. But whomever we are, whether NBA centers, mid-level-managers, soccer moms, hobos, presidents, or high-school students, we learn from biblical reflection that this question, so often posed to Christians as a conversation-stopper, is the wrong question to ask.
Rather, the biblical authors, tackling the deepest, darkest realities of human life and nature, ask, How is it that good things can happen to bad people? This is the question we pose to fellow sufferers, whether those found in Christ or those who have rejected him. To Dwayne Schintzius and countless others, we present this question, even as we point lost people—of which we once were—to the hope of Calvary, where the only truly good person suffered and died under the weight of our evil and shame. As Christians, when suffering knocks on our door, we remember that being a Christian—and doing devotions, and sharing the gospel, and serving others—does not mean that the curse evades us. Suffering, in myriad forms, comes to us all.
Perhaps the irony of this weighty reality is also our comfort. As we all endure suffering, appointed for the purposes of glorification and sanctification, we are reminded that it was in his lowest point that God came to Job. In our sufferings we often experience most powerfully the beauty, the tangible glory, of life in Christ. Though afflicted, and given from a worldly point of view every reason to distrust and curse God, we adore the just God who is, demonstrated by the agony of a cross, a merciful God.