“Everything Happens for a Reason”
In the series “Half Truths”
Many of us as Christians have things we believe and tell other people that we’ve never carefully considered. Some of these things sound so true or like something that comes from the Bible. We might be uncomfortable thinking through these things and questioning them, afraid that our faith will be hurt.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look at some commonly-held beliefs and statements that Christians sometimes say to others. We’re calling this series, “Half Truths,” inspired by Adam Hamilton’s book of the same title, because, as we’ll see, there is some degree of truth in these statements, but there is a lot that misses the mark. Here’s why it’s important to think about these statements: Because sometimes they can hurt people.
Over these weeks, you may not agree with everything we say, and that’s OK. Consider this an invitation to think, pray, study and listen to the Holy Spirit to strengthen your faith in God. You might consider joining the Sunday school class that meets in the Library, rm. 103, at 10:15, or in one of the small groups that will meet on Thursdays to discuss these topics, what you hear in the messages, and what scripture says. (Prayer)
The first of these statements is “Everything happens for a reason.” Have you ever heard that one?
This statement is true if, what is meant is that we live in a world of cause and effect. Choices and actions lead to consequences. For instance, if you text and drive, you may end up in a car accident. In our scripture, Moses is preaching to the Israelites who are poised to enter the Promised Land. He is telling them about choices and consequences and calling them to choose life which results in prosperity over death which results in destruction. He’s calling them to choose to obey and follow God so that they may live and experience God’s blessings, while warning them that disobedience leads to sorrow and destruction.
So, in that sense, this half-truth is true. However, that’s rarely what is meant when someone says, “Everything happens for a reason.” Have you ever heard that when you were going through a tough time? Or have you uttered that phrase in an effort to comfort someone experiencing a trial?
A couple whose friends’ teenage daughter died in an icy car crash could not bear it when someone told them, “Everything happens for a reason.” Months after her husband died suddenly on the front porch when coming home from work, a widow found no comfort in someone’s words that said, “Everything happens for a reason; it must have been his time.” Parents of an 11-month-old who died of a congenital birth defect found no hope when they were told, “It must have been God’s will, because everything happens for a reason.”
These were real words said to real people in my ministry dealing with harsh tragedies – and none of them found any comfort in the idea that “Everything happens for a reason.”
What is usually meant when someone utters this statement is that God has a particular purpose for allowing or bringing about this situation of suffering. It assumes that, though we don’t understand it, all the events in our lives and in our world happen according to God’s detailed and unchanging plan. God is in charge, and so whatever happens reflects what God wants. If we follow that logic, then that means, for example:
- “It was God’s plan for Ohio State not to be in this year’s BCS” (so why complain about it?)
- “I’m sorry that I forgot our anniversary, dear. It must have been God’s will” (wonder how well that will go?)
One of the problems with this notion that “Everything happens for a reason” is that it eliminates personal responsibility for our choices and actions. Whatever I do must be God’s will for me, otherwise God would have caused me to do something else.
So, if a drunk driver kills someone, it must have been the victim’s time and part of God’s plan. If the victim’s family suffers, that must have been God’s will for them. Yes, that drunk driver did a terrible thing, but God is using them to accomplish a greater purpose. The driver is not responsible, because they were only doing what God willed them to do.
This reveals a second problem with this half-truth: It makes God responsible for everything – the good and the bad – in our world. Think with me how this idea plays out in one example from this week’s news.
On January 6, 2017, a 26-year-old Army veteran picked up his checked baggage at Ft. Lauderdale airport. He removed a weapon and ammunition from his baggage and began firing in the crowded terminal. Five people died and eight others were wounded before he surrendered to police. One of the deceased victims and his wife had arrived in Ft. Lauderdale for a vacation. If everything happens for a reason, then it must have been God’s plan for that woman’s husband to die and for his widow to go through life dealing with the trauma of his violent death. And someday, when some good thing finally results, then we think that was the reason God did this.
If this way of thinking is true, then every act of violence, every killing, every act of child abuse, every war, every natural disaster, every child that dies of hunger, are all part of God’s will. That’s what we are left with when we buy into this half-truth that everything happens for a reason.
A third problem with this idea is that it leads to fatalism and apathy. A fatalist thinks, “Whatever will be, will be. There’s nothing we can do to change it.” If you’re a fatalist, you will never wear a seat belt – if an accident happens and you are injured or die, that’s what was supposed to happen. You won’t work out and eat healthy foods or take care of yourself, because when it’s your time, it’s your time. You won’t bother to vote, because whoever is elected and whatever they do is the will of God. But is that how things really work?
Christians use the term “divine providence” to speak of God’s way of working in the world. You’ll notice that providence is related to the word “provide.” Providence refers to God’s governing the universe and tending everything in it.
A closely related attribute of God is divine sovereignty, which expresses the idea of rule or authority. Christians affirm that God is the ultimate authority over all creation and so all power, honor, glory and dominion ultimately belong to God. Christians agree on God’s providence and sovereignty, though they often interpret these ideas differently.
At one end of the spectrum of understandings is a view that relieves God from responsibility. This view emerged during the Enlightenment, though its roots go back to ancient Greece, and was held by many of the founders of this country. Deism, as it is called, says that God designed and made everything, set it in motion, and stepped away, leaving it to run on its own. God is like an absent landlord or the Divine Watchmaker. While this idea keeps God from responsibility for everything, it denies that God has been involved in history and is involved in our lives today. Therefore, God did not lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and did not speak through prophets. God did not send Jesus Christ to show us the way and to save us. God’s Spirit is not here now. Everything that happens is the consequence of the interplay of human choice and the laws of creation.
At the other end of the spectrum is a view that emphasizes God’s sovereignty. Because God rules, then God has determined everything that happens. This is known as determinism. God must be the ultimate cause for everything that happens, because if something happens that is not God’s will, then God does not rule over everything. God essentially becomes a micromanager.
Under this view, then God is ultimately responsible for everything, including our salvation. God chooses to save some and not others, and there is nothing we can do about it, because God is the final authority. God gives grace to those whom God wants to save and that grace cannot be resisted.
Methodist founder John Wesley struggled with both of these ideas. Wesley believed that the Bible is clear that God has been involved throughout history and is now. God created everything and continues to work to redeem the creation. God is sovereign, allows humans free grace to choose their actions and works in every situation to bring about God’s best will. He taught that God’s desire is for all people to be saved and that God gives people the freedom to choose. God gives prevenient grace to all people, which enables us to respond to God’s love and mercy. Some choose to accept God’s grace, while others reject it.
God gives us a mind, a heart, a conscience, the Holy Spirit, the Bible and the ability to interpret and understand them as guides to help us choose the right path. When we don’t, we sin against God. God didn’t cause us to do it, nor does God abandon us in our sin. In fact, God offers us the gift of forgiveness, new life and reconciliation through Jesus Christ and his life, death and resurrection. And God reaches out to us continually and even gives us the grace to accept the offer.
The half truth says, “Everything happens for a reason.” But scripture says, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28 NIV). There is a logical alternative to thinking that God makes everything happen for a reason. Yes, we must acknowledge that bad things happen in this life; Jesus even told us that we would have trouble in this world, and that God is sovereign. But that does not logically mean that God caused it to occur. If we believe that God created humans with truly free will and truly free choices, then bad things can happen because of human decisions. In addition, because sin has infected our world and corrupted God’s perfect creation, bad things happen, some of which we cannot explain. It is a mystery. But what Romans 8:28 tells us is that, no matter what happens, God works in the midst of everything to redeem it and to bring about blessing and good. Thanks be to God. Amen.