Half-truth: Everything Happens for a Reason
Back in the ancient days when people sent handwritten letters, I was always excited to see when a letter from grandma appeared in my college mailbox. Her letters followed a predictable pattern, interlacing complaints with platitudes. They were things of marvel. After the opening greeting, she launched into a lengthy commentary about the weather. As a child of the Depression and a farm owner, no matter what the weather was, she saw it as a sign of impending disaster. If it was raining, it might be too much and ruin the crops. If it was sunny, it could be the start of a drought. Suddenly she’d catch herself and say something like, “Even if a drought comes, everything happens for a reason. I guess.”
The next paragraphs dove into health concerns. Uncle Gus died, Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s is getting worse, Uncle Bert’s goiter is acting up, and her macular degeneration made it hard to write the letter. Seamlessly she transitioned to, “God won’t give us any more than we can handle. I guess.”
On and on the letter went, every paragraph filled with bad news that eventually pinballed into some Christian saying that you might find on a bumper sticker. “But other people have it worse than we do…God helps those who help themselves. I guess God just needed another flower for heaven’s garden.” I guess employing these sayings reflected her attempts to bring her faith to give some hope for dark times and her honest way of connecting to faith that despite all the evidence to the contrary, God was still in control.
Intro to “Half Truths” sermon series.
She had what I think of as bumper-sticker faith. She readily employed Christian slogans to life circumstances. It’s an approach that most of us have, and it works…until it doesn’t. There are a lot of these sayings that are true to a point, but you don’t want to take them too far because they break down and give a misleading picture of God. Worse, they may come across as insensitive or turn people off to God if it seems God orchestrates suffering. In our new sermon series, we are going to examine several of these sayings to affirm what is good about them and then discern where they break down. The hope is that we can enlarge our understanding of God and equip ourselves with alternative tools to the cliches that help instead of harm.
Everything happens for a reason?
The first half-truth is, “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s something we reflexively blurt out when something horrible happens. One might think it comes from the Bible, but it doesn’t. Ecclesiastes 3 contains a line about, “For everything there is a season,” but that’s not the same.
I read a study that said most people believe something like everything happens for a reason. Even atheists believe that there is some meaning behind everything. One might say, “It was meant to be,” or “It all worked out how it needed to.” Maybe we call it fate or karma, but there is some sense that there is meaning beyond events. We want to believe some force or principle balances out the bad stuff.
How Christians use the phrase.
As people of faith, we want to think that beyond the chaos life throws at us, there is some bigger plan behind it all, and it will eventually make sense. I think Heath Ledger’s Joker character in The Dark Knight Batman movie got one thing right. He argued that people can get through anything if they think there is a plan. A bus crash kills innocent people. If people think it’s part of a plan, they can handle it, but if they sense there is no plan, it’s just chaos, they freak out.
I think the good part of the saying, everything happens for a reason is that it helps people lean into their faith instead of abandoning it when hard times come. The phrase gives us a sense that there is a plan that has yet to be revealed. Somehow in God’s grand design, it will make sense.
While there is a degree of truth to the sentiment, it is not the whole truth and it can lead us to believe things about God that are the opposite of what the Bible conveys and it can sound callous and insensitive.
Ways “everything happens for a reason” distorts the faith.
Rev. Adam Hamilton goes further than I would when he preaches that we’d be better off if Christians scrubbed “everything happens for a reason” from our vocabulary because the slogan undermines the Christian witness in three important ways.
1. It removes personal responsibility.
First, it removes personal responsibility for your actions. You wouldn’t want to think that whatever you did is because God wanted you to do it. That leads to absurd positions. You cheated on your partner or drove drunk and hurt somebody? God made me do it. It’s part of the plan. It all happened for a reason. Absurd.
2. We might attribute evil to God instead of free will and bad choices.
Second, it makes God out to be a monster who wills bad things to happen. A toddler gets hold of a gun and shoots his mother. You want to put that on God? Or there’s a plane crash. It was just their time. Really? For all of them? You want to believe that God orchestrated it?
3. Everything happens for a reason leads to fatalism.
Third, thinking that God controls everything leads to fatalism. Whatever will be will be. Why put on a seatbelt if it’s your time? Why work out and eat right because you’re going to get heart disease if you were meant to have it? Why should an athlete practice and train if God has already decided who will win the game? Many Christians refuse medical treatment believing it works against God’s plan. And some claim that whoever is elected won because God wanted appointed them to lead—unless of course, their opponent wins, then that is the devil at work.
“Everything happens for a reason” leads to seeing God as a micromanager.
There is a stream of Christian theology that makes God out to be the ultimate micromanager who causes everything to happen. John Calvin the father of reformed church movement taught that God even controls our thoughts and determined when we were born whether we were headed for heaven or hell.
Today echoes of this sentiment are ubiquitous, especially in mega churches. I heard one of the most popular preachers in America tell people that if they got fired, God put it on the heart of the supervisor to can you, so you’d be open to a better opportunity in your near future. It’s just part of God’s plan to set you up for future prosperity. No matter if it was a horrible manager, or you were doing a lousy job. Just trust the plan. It’s not you, it’s God.
Another preacher I listened to talked about how he plays Scrabble with his wife, and they pull out of the bag whatever letters God wanted them to have. If God wants one to feel good and the other to be humbled, God will lead them to pick the appropriate letters. If that’s true, God must really want me humble because I seem to always wind up with a rack of I’s and U’s.
Don’t blame God for the consequences of your actions.
I’m more inclined to resonate with the meme that says, “There is a reason for everything. Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and make bad decisions.” The problem with God as a micromanager is that it takes away our free will. I remember a passage in a novel where a kid asks his grandfather if he thought it was God’s will that his classmate died. The grandfather said that he didn’t think so. God gives us brains and free will and we should use them. As the grandfather says, “p’ticular when a train’s a comin’.
God’s plan for your life.
My wife had a homeless guy come to her office, who told her about God directing him to move to California. He did; but then he never got a job. He was waiting for God to reveal the plan to him about what he should do next. Eight months had passed and he was out of money. He kept going on and on about waiting on God’s plan to unfold. Finally, Dayna said, “Yes, God has a plan for you but it’s not to be your puppeteer. Rather God’s plan is for you to be a decent human being, kind, and considerate, standing up for others, and to take responsibility for yourself.”
Theology of Suffering
Instead of envisioning God as the ultimate micromanager, causing bad things to happen to us according to some hidden plan, it’s better to affirm a more scriptural view of suffering. This view states that suffering is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. People do evil things, mechanical parts fail, and hurricanes blow ashore. Bad things happen to good people. Even Jesus was not immune.
We don’t teach that God causes suffering to teach us something, but through it we may learn. Suffering is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened.
All things work together for good.
Romans 8:28 says, “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.” This is not to say that God causes the bad, but it affirms that God helps us squeeze something good out of the bad.
Whatever happens, can be redeemed, all suffering. Suffering is not final word in life. All the most painful experiences God used to bring something good into my life. Sometimes it’s as simple as gaining a deeper appreciation for someone else’s plight who faces something similar.
Say this not that…
Sometimes it is our discomfort with a conversation and feeling overwhelmed with someone’s problems that leads us to blurt out a cliché like, “Everything happens for a reason.” We say it as if to say, this is over my head, just have faith and quit your bellyaching. It’s like an employee saying, “I’m out—go talk to the manager.” But saying this creates a barrier in the conversation. Where can they go from there? It shuts them up when the most powerful thing you can do for them is to listen.
Instead of telling them that everything happens for a reason, sometimes more helpful things can be just listening and being with them. If you do speak, it may be more helpful to say things like:
• “I don’t fully understand what you are going through but I’m here to listen.”
• “What can I do to help?”
• “You didn’t cause this; you don’t deserve this.”
• “I’m here for you no matter what.”
In conclusion, when life throws us curveballs, we can improve upon my grandmother’s platitudes by having a sense that God is always with us and our friends and church folks will be there too.