“Everything Happens for a Reason”
I’ve heard this common phrase on the lips of many well-meaning Christians while comforting people during a time of suffering.
“I just heard that your brother has cancer. I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I know it’ll be ok. Everything happens for a reason.”
“I’m so sorry to hear about your divorce. I know it’s hard, but God has a plan.”
“Still can’t find a job? I’m sure that’s been difficult, but God’s timing is perfect.”
I think we’ve all heard these phrases in some form or another before. And while I’m sure that most of the time these phrases are used because someone wants to bring comfort to a person in a time of difficulty, I want to encourage us to take a moment and ask ourself if these phrases are actually true.
Over the last few years I have become convinced that the idea that everything happens for a reason is both untrue as well as potentially harmful. I’ve come to believe this for two reasons: the Bible and the goodness of God.
This may surprise some people, but the Bible taken as a whole seems to argue against the idea that everything happens for a reason. If everything actually was happening for a reason and unfolding according to some hidden plan of God I doubt we would find passages such as these:
“I spread out my hands all day long
to a rebellious people
who walk in the path that is not good,
following their own thoughts.
These people continually anger me
to my face…” (Isa. 65:2-3)
“This is what the Lord says:
What fault did your fathers find in me
that they went so far from me,
followed worthless idols,
and became worthless themselves?” (Jer. 2:5)
Here are just a couple of passages which seem to suggest that people are actually going against what God would have desired or planned. If everything happened for a reason, then we should expect nothing but passages where God seems to continually say that everything seems to be going just swimmingly or constantly proclaiming that “everything is going according to plan.” However, this is far from the case.
Instead, it seems the entire storyline of the Bible is about God desiring one thing, and humans deciding to do something entirely different. It seems God is continually putting up with and adapting to the reality that things are not actually going according to plan.
Why would Jesus weep over Jerusalem if what was happening there was actually just a part of some mysterious plan of God? (Lk. 19:41-44) Instead, Jesus weeps over the city because things are not going according to plan, and God is not getting what he would have preferred.
In all honesty, I find it hard to take a basic reading of the storyline of the Bible and come to the conclusion that everything happens for a reason when at every turn of the biblical narrative the opposite appears to be true.
The Goodness of God
The second reason I no longer believe that everything happens for a reason is because of the belief that God is good. Now I’m not saying that people who think everything happens for a reason don’t believe God is good. Instead, I’m saying I don’t think they really understand what this statement says about the character of God.
If it’s true that everything happens according to the will of God, then I only see two options when it comes to God’s relationship to evil.
Option One: God is evil
I know that might sound a bit extreme, but take a moment and consider this: If everything happens according to the plan of God, then anything evil was also planned by God.
This would mean that God is ultimately responsible for every evil action that transpires. Murder, rape, genocide, and any other evil event ultimately was planned by God. Now I’m sure most Christians would not want to say God is evil, so many may say that what appears to be evil actually happens for a good reason. They might say from our limited perspective these things seem to be evil, but if we could see the big picture from God’s perspective we would understand that these things are actually good and serve a greater purpose. This leads me to option two.
Option Two: There is no such thing as evil
If we take the idea that all things which appear evil are actually serving a greater purpose in God’s grand plan seriously, then I believe this forces us to admit that there is no such thing as evil.
If everything that happens in this world, even though it may seem wicked, is actually part of a larger purpose, then we cannot truly call anything evil. We have to look at all of the brokenness and ugliness of the world and conclude that it is actually all beautiful and serving a greater purpose.
If everything happens for a reason, and God is good, then every rape and murder is actually a good thing because it is part of God’s great plan.
What Does This Mean?
So if we take seriously the narrative of the Bible, believe God is good, and also believe there are things in this world which are genuinely evil, then I suggest this leaves us no choice but to admit that everything does not happen for a reason.
There are many things that happen in this life that have no greater purpose. Many of the horrible things that take place in this world grieve God and would not have happened if he was the only one who had a say in it. This is the part where you may begin to feel some discomfort or even worry.
If everything isn’t happening according to some great plan then how can we find comfort in the midst of our pain and suffering? Is God helpless in the face of evil? I can understand this initial concern because it’s the same concern I felt several years ago. But I want to assure you that this does not mean God is helpless in the world and there is no comfort to be found in him amidst such brokenness and chaos.
Even though I don’t believe God purposes everything, I do believe God will give purpose to everything.
For instance, I don’t believe God planned the death of my father several years ago. I do believe that God attempted to redeem his death and use for good that which was evil. The death of my father played a key role in bringing my sister to faith, and later bringing myself to faith through her. The experience of losing my father also matured and shaped me in many ways, even though it was simultaneously the most painful things I’ve ever experienced.
So while some may look at this and say, “See God had a plan.” I say, “God took what was evil and attempted to bring about as much good as possible out of it.”
I once heard it said, “God doesn’t let anything go to waste.” I think that is a lot closer to the truth than saying “Everything happens for a reason.”
Let me share a story that might help us understand this better.
Imagine that there is a child who one day decides to touch a hot stove and burns her hand. Now her parents didn’t plan this or purpose this. They would have never wanted her to touch the hot stove and hurt herself, but unfortunately she decided to do so. Now even though the parents didn’t plan this, they took this as an opportunity to teach her a lesson about what happens to us when we touch the stove when it is on. In this story, the parents didn’t make her touch the stove to prove a point, but they also tried to bring about as much good as possible by teaching her a lesson about the stove.
So this girl could say, “Me burning myself happened for a reason. If I hadn’t have touched that stove I never would have learned the lesson that I did.” But I don’t think that’s the best way to make sense of the story.
What I am ultimately trying to suggest is that God doesn’t cause or delight in suffering and evil. Your pain was not purposed by God, but (like a good parent) God won’t let it go to waste. God is grieved by the tragedy and pain you experience, but is committed to bring about as much good out of it as possible.
So does everything happen for a reason? No.
Does God attempt to work all things together for the good of those who love him? Absolutely.