When something bad occurs, a frequent reaction I have seen is for the affected person to say: “Well, this happened for a reason.” And, more generally, they adhere to the idea that “everything happens for a reason.” This seems, in my experience, to be especially prevalent among Christians who obviously believe in a God who is involved with the world and has ultimate control. This is the doctrine of Providence, but the assertion is intended to go beyond generality. It’s supposed to mean that this specific bad thing has happened for some good, albeit perhaps as yet unexplained, reason. Then, of course, any pain is more bearable, at minimum because the sufferers can view themselves as participants in God’s plan of redemption. Soldiers under enemy fire can hold together better if convinced that their trauma is for a noble cause. Consequently, for both pragmatic and philosophical reasons, a Christian “under fire” would find “everything happens for a reason” to be a valuable, comforting viewpoint to adopt.
And there are Bible stories that strongly imply a particular event, seemingly bad at the time, indeed happened for an underlying, good reason. Or at least was turned ultimately for good, by God. Arguably at the top of such a list is the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers (Genesis 37:18–36). This proved fortuitous years later when he became governor in Egypt and provided famine relief to his family. But it was self-evidently bad initially, and for years to follow. Also among the list-toppers is the story of Esther, who might have become queen “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). These stories can comfort the afflicted by making them feel that their difficult experiences parallel such biblical examples.
All Things Work Together for Good?
Perhaps the strongest perceived scriptural warrant for Christians to believe that “everything happens for a reason” is a long-standing and, I will argue, problematic interpretation of Romans 8:28. Consider two translations, first the KJV, which has had a longer cultural influence, then the NIV:
– “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose“ (Romans 8:28 KJV).
– “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV).
The second part of the verse is virtually the same in both translations and indicates that Paul is addressing professed Christians. But the first part can be read quite differently, depending on the translation. In the KJV it appears that “all things work together” is both categorical and inexorable. That is, no exceptions and unstoppable. And since swirling atoms have no intentionality, the “work” is presumably performed by God. Yet the possibly-categorical interpretation of the phrase can lead the reader to believe that all events in the world, whether we humans label them good or bad, are being inevitably and successfully turned from bad to good, by God. Now, you don’t have to read it this way, but I suggest that the KJV phraseology strongly infers this.
Conversely, the NIV states that “in all things God works . . .” (emphasis mine) This is not categorical, regarding success, but just says that God always tries to move events toward the good, as his nature would dictate. But, you might respond, doesn’t that interpretation make God limited and therefore unacceptably lessened? Not necessarily, because now we move into the territory of the problem of evil and need to consider appropriate possible meanings from that broader perspective. But we do not have to impute limitations on God, thus diminishing him. It seems evident, in our current world, that not everything happens according to a good God’s will. We answer this obvious reality by a theodicy statement saying God tolerates evil presently for (at least) two theologically-acceptable reasons: a) to allow creaturely freedom and b) to give opportunity for the outworking of what Adventists call the Great Controversy—a battle between good and evil throughout human history.
There are at least two harmful mistakes (so say I) that can occur in interpreting the KJV Romans 8:28. One is to conclude that contrary to what seems evident, whatever happens is actually for the best. Supposedly it all turns to good eventually and consequently one should not label anything as bad. This counterintuitive conclusion was actually seriously proposed by the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibnitz (1646–1716) and is sometimes labeled “the best of all possible worlds.” His idea was then appropriated by the English poet Alexander Pope in his “Essay on Man,” where he penned the phrase, “whatever is, is right.”
Such a 180-degree flip from lived experience is indeed very difficult to accept, to put it mildly. Is the Holocaust good? The gulag, Black Death, etc.—all good? The Leibnitz view has been severely criticized, notably by Voltaire in his novella Candide. And I doubt most Christians invoking the “everything happens for a reason” assertion would easily align with Leibnitz/Pope. No, what happened is bad, but somehow, perplexingly, it is supposed to turn out good. No exceptions. Tough to wrap your mind around. Yet for many, this is what the Bible is taken to mean.
The second problematic inference is to accept the first part of the verse and then make it true by questioning whether you—the recipient of the bad thing—are actually, by God’s reckoning, a genuine believer. That is, sure, “all things work together for good,” but you the sufferer, contrary to what you want to assume, actually don’t adequately “love God.” And this does provide a way of accepting the presumed categoricalness of the opening part of the verse. But the bad thing isn’t going to turn out ultimately good as God was planning because you have failed to be sufficiently Christian. That’s quite a price to pay in trying to make sense of this verse. But some people do draw this conclusion when they cannot discern any good from the bad they’ve experienced. So, the failure must have been caused by themselves. Their Christian belief and commitment have not measured up. Wow, what a load of guilt this produces! All in an attempt to affirm that the first part of the verse is categorical.
The Problem of Evil
This whole misapplication is rooted in the failure to sufficiently understand and grapple with the consequences of the classic conundrum—the problem of evil. The Leibnitz “solution” to the problem of evil is by summarily eliminating evil. If “whatever is, is right” then what we think of as evil is merely an illusion. But without a long, digressive justification-explanation here, I don’t think such a move is defensible, on either philosophic or biblical grounds. Evil is real. And for the recipient of some evil to then beat themselves up with the idea that the fault is theirs—well, that seems doubly evil. So, we’re faced with the reality of genuine evil, but we want to somehow both make sense of it and give ourselves comfort and perseverance through it all.
But if evil is real, then it must constitute genuine loss that will not always be counterbalanced at present by God’s unilateral will. This doesn’t mean that evil won’t eventually be conquered or that God is not fully able to stop evil at any time. But the most responsible theodicy to explain the problem of evil involves God respecting free will plus being in the process of working through an overarching plan that necessitates tolerating evil, for now.
What Then Is Defensible?
Consequently, I would suggest that several ideas are defensible and several are not. Here are some (overlapping) assertions to consider:
1) It is justifiable that some specific bad events have indeed been “engineered” by God for a future good. The Joseph-slavery story, noted above, might be an example of this. However, not all or even most evil should be regarded this way. It can certainly be argued that God likely intervenes in human affairs (much?) more than humans realize. But not to the extent of “all.”
2) It is also possible that some intended occurrences of #1 above fail because the person involved really does violate the “those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” requirement. But I think this would be comparatively rare (as #1 being true would also be rare). Christians should surely not, by default, treat the failure of an experienced evil to flip into good to be the result of some personal faith inadequacy.
3) Given our current situation, where evil is given great latitude by God, Christians ought to consider the bad that happens to them as most likely not something that will turn into good. It is probably a genuine loss that won’t be compensated for, short of the Second Coming.
4) Thus, the maxim of “everything happens for a reason” isn’t true at the level many Christians who employ the phrase wish it to be. Yes, an overarching reason for what has happened can be assigned to God’s plan as embodied in the Great Controversy, but most evils are not examples of #1.
5) The best way to understand bad things that happen presently is that God has chosen to allow their occurrence by not interfering with either: a) creaturely freedom or b) the physical laws of nature. In this second case (e.g., earthquake, tornado), a bad occurrence results from “secondary causes”—that is, nature operating according to the laws of physics.
6) A miracle is what occurs when God chooses to intervene to counterbalance what otherwise would be a bad/evil event. And miracles are rare, by definition. However, it is also reasonable to suppose such interventions happen more frequently than we realize and will only be revealed to us after the close of this current age.
I recognize that some of the above assertions may be controversial. My aim here is to challenge an over-simple, although well-intentioned, belief that is employed by many Christians.
Now, at this point, a month ago, I had “put to bed” this article—basically as you read it above. Then by accident (but perhaps by providence), I picked up a book from my reading stack titled Is God to Blame by Gregory Boyd. I began reading and was stunned by his introductory chapter, as it was a real story, a real person, who believed “everything happens for a reason” and suffered—dare I say—tragic consequences. At considerable risk of making my essay overly long but recognizing that my above somewhat abstract argumentation is incomplete without being grounded in the real world, I will add Boyd’s story here, as it profoundly illustrates what I’ve been trying to say:
Several years ago, after delivering a sermon on living with passion, I was approached by Melanie, a distraught middle-aged woman. "I have lost my passion for God and my joy in life," she said. "I used to be a fired-up Christian who poured herself into her faith, but now I feel nothing toward God and I'm always depressed. I used to run marathons, but now I'm a blimp. “My husband and I used to be so close," Melanie informed me, "but now we're almost total strangers. Church used to seem so exciting, but now it bores me to death. I used to love to read the Bible and pray, but now I find both laborious and aggravating. I just feel dead!"
. . .
After some conversation I learned that Melanie's downward spiral began about four years earlier when she lost a baby in childbirth. As long as she could remember, Melanie had wanted to mother children. She didn't marry till her mid-thirties, so to beat the biological clock she and her husband immediately began trying to have a baby. After three years with no success they discovered that because of a medical condition, it was unlikely they would ever be able to conceive a child. Melanie’s extreme disappointment was short-lived, however, for quite remarkably Melanie conceived. "We thought it was a miracle," she told me.
Her pregnancy went forward without incident. But her delivery had tragic complications. The umbilical cord was wrapped around her baby's neck, choking the child to death during the delivery. Their miracle had turned into a nightmare, and their life turned into one tormenting why question. Why would God miraculously give them a child, only to take the baby away while coming into the world? Why did this happen to them? Even more tormenting, why was God preventing them from conceiving again? Melanie's biological clock had all but wound down in the four years since the tragedy.
After about two years of struggling with doubt and depression, Melanie and her husband sought answers to their questions from a Bible teacher she knew and respected. The answer they received was consistent with the theology she had grown up with.
"God has a reason for everything," this teacher confidently told her. "There are no accidents in God's providence," he continued. "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, and you just have to trust that God knows and always does what is best. The hand that smites is also the hand that heals. You just have to trust him."
When Melanie asked what good the Lord might have intended by taking her baby and now leaving her without a child, the teacher suggested there was a lesson she and her husband were to learn from this event. "When the timing is right—and God's timing is always right—and when you've learned what God wants to teach you, perhaps then God will bless you with another child," the teacher intoned. "Or perhaps it's simply not his will for you to have children."
Melanie accepted this instruction as gospel truth. She felt guilty because she had difficulty trusting "God's plan." The fact that her life, including her relationship with God and her husband, was slowly deteriorating intensified her guilt. Melanie had come to me with a question about passion, but at this point in our conversation her request changed. She wanted me to help figure out what lesson God might be trying to teach her. Maybe this would enable her to have a baby and get her life back on track.
My heart broke as Melanie told me her story. "Let me get this straight," I said. "You're supposed to believe that God gave you this strong desire to mother a child and then miraculously set you up to believe he was going to fulfill this desire, only to kill the baby he gave to you?" "Well, yes," Melanie sheepishly replied. I asked, "Does that seem like something a loving God would do? Can you picture Jesus doing that to someone?" Melanie was completely stunned by my reply. She had been under the impression that the perspective of her upbringing and of the teacher she consulted was basically the perspective of all Christians.
"What are you saying?" she asked. I took Melanie’s hand and looked deeply into her eyes as I continued: "Melanie, do you really believe that God kills babies to teach parents a lesson? And do you really think that God is now refusing to give you any more children until you learn this lesson—though he won't tell you what the lesson is?" "And the clock is running out, so I need to figure it out fast!" Melanie interjected with a desperate tone of voice.
I began to weep when Melanie said this. I felt such grief for the tormented state her theology had put her in. "Wouldn't a good, wise and loving teacher at least tell you what you're supposed to learn?" I could almost hear the wheels turning in Melanie's brain as her eyes stared into mine for a long moment. Finally, as though confessing a deep sin, Melanie spoke up, this time with a tinge of anger in her voice. "To be honest, I know we're not supposed to get mad at God. And I've been afraid to admit this before because it might further jeopardize God's willingness to give me a baby. But this whole thing makes me mad. I just don't get it!"
Then, like an erupting geyser, Melanie exploded with anger and frustration. She pulled her hands away from mine, threw them up in the air and with a loud voice protested, "God lets irresponsible teenage girls and women strung out on crack have babies, but I have a lesson to learn! I mean, we must really be terrible people to be disqualified from having kids when the bar is set so low!"
When Melanie was done venting, I said to her, "Given your picture of God, Melanie, I'm not at all surprised that you're finding it hard to have a passionate, loving relationship with him. If I can be perfectly frank with you, what you were told to believe sounds like a sick game. God takes your child and refuses you future children till you learn the lesson you're supposed to learn but he won't tell you what the lesson is. This doesn't sound like a wise and loving teacher, to say the least. How are you supposed to be passionately living for God when this is the picture of God you're trying to live for?"
"Are you saying God didn't do this to me?" Melanie asked.
"I have absolutely no reason to think this," I replied. "The one thing I know for sure is that God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ. When we see him, we see the very heart of God.
—Greg Boyd, Is God to Blame, pp. 11–14
Now you see what can happen when well-intended people who think they are following divine (biblical) counsel have not adequately considered the consequences of their theology. “Everything happens for a reason,” when employed without careful qualification, is clearly not harmless. A failure of the maxim can cause the believer in it to search for a solution that retains consistency. And too frequently this can result in guilt and/or an unnecessary slide toward unbelief. Melanie’s story is a tragic reminder that we cannot be simplistic in trying to live out biblical principles.
Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is columns editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.
Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found by clicking here.
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
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