Everything Happens for a Reason
The Help and Harm in this Common Saying
Cry from Distress
“I know everything happens for a reason, but why . . . ?” Anguish is speaking. Life has betrayed a person’s trust in goodness – life’s goodness or perhaps God’s. Fear has displaced confidence. Chaos threatens to take over, and this affirmation of some hidden reason rejects chaos as the person’s conclusion. She or he is badly shaken and deeply distressed but refuses to abandon completely the trust that life makes sense and that God cares. I would consider it wrong to dismiss this cry from distress as merely an empty platitude – indeed, worse than wrong. It would be cold and cruel but also arrogant. The person crying from distress is saying, “I matter, and my life matters. I am not just a passing shadow. All that has been good, all that I have been thankful for in my life, was not a deception or a sand castle built in childish delusion that it meant something.”
“Life has turned against me.” “This hurts.” “I am shattered, but I will not yield myself to despair. I will not give up on life (or on God), and I will not give up on myself. I will stand and affirm, however unsteadily, that life makes sense even though I cannot see right now what that sense could be. I will not give up my faith or my hope, either.”
Such fortitude is to be respected. As an affirmation of life, the cry from anguish, “Everything happens for a reason!” speaks a truth deeper than anything reason or science has to offer. It is an assertion of human strength from within the context of human weakness. It keeps faith without explanation to justify that faith. Defiantly, it says, “No!” to the void and, “Yes,” to the future.
Here we listen to a different speaker: not the person in distress but another seeking to comfort the one expressing anguish. I must speak here with care because the line between compassion and self-protection blurs, and people trying to help and support the anguished find themselves in very uncertain territory where good intentions may be misunderstood and words meant to console misinterpreted.
Psychologists speak of something they call “the empathic wall.” At issue is how much we can afford to let other people’s feelings get to us versus how well we must protect ourselves so we are not too easily drawn into another’s fear, rage, or grief. Witness a room full of infants playing contentedly and watch what happens when one starts to cry. The crying builds steadily to a full-throated wail of distress, but see (and hear) what happens to the other infants. They too start crying in what is the empathic form of music’s sympathetic vibration where one struck tuning fork placed close to another of the same pitch will start the second vibrating. For infants, such empathy is natural and fine; for an adult, it would not be healthy. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes of an incident in the experience of the Stoic, Seneca. A Roman aristocrat lamented tearfully to Seneca that the shipment of peacock tongues from Africa he had wanted for his dinner party had been interrupted. Seneca laughed. (Upheavals of Thought, 309). Why did Seneca not feel empathy with the man in distress? He considered the problem trivial and, therefore, the anguish laughable. It would not require a particularly high empathic wall to protect someone from sharing anguish over the loss of a delicacy for an aristocrat’s dinner party. After laughing, Seneca could have offered the ambiguous comfort of, “Everything happens for a reason.”
From the standpoint of the person responding to another’s anguish, saying that everything happens for a reason may come from sympathy’s attempt to comfort or from self-protection’s desire to block empathy. The effect is another matter.
As a Platitude
Minus empathy with the anguished, the saying become a mere platitude, a bromide for the suffering that puts forward false comfort with no heart in it. As a platitude, the saying that “everything happens for a reason” falls far short of the gospel, and the hope it offers is meager by comparison. Worse, it can be cruel. Do we tell parents whose child has been raped and murdered that such a grievous outrage fits somehow nicely into the will and purpose of God? Really? God wanted their child raped and murdered? What monstrous God is that? Women who have conceived by rape have been told the conception was God’s will. Is God in cahoots with rapists? Does God give children cancer or cause dementia in even the most brilliant or most loved of people? If so (and I contend it is not so), what justification can there be for grief or even for compassion? If declaring as a truism that everything happens for a reason meant everything, however horrible, happened in accordance with “God’s good pleasure,” then faith could not mean anything better than surrender to unfathomable power, certainly not trust in God’s compassionate love.
Biblically, God is faithful and just, filled with compassion for even the undeserving, and grieved by human misery. In the hands of the powerful, theology and religion became justifications for the status quo and all the systems of power and authority in place for their benefit. In contrast, the God of Israel enters the stage of human history as the lover of slaves and destroyer of systems of oppression which benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. God intervenes in misery, changes so-called destiny, lifts up the downtrodden, casts down tyrants, and transforms the ways of life on earth. Israel’s God is the breaker of chains and destroyer of convenient platitudes that burden people without power in the world. The book of Job protests innocent suffering, human suffering that makes no sense, and rejects all rationalizations of it. Jacob (Israel himself!) wrestles with God and prevails. Abraham and Moses stand up to God’s righteous judgment upon the wicked, and God is pleased with their impudence and so relents, withdrawing punishment. The Bible, even before we get to Jesus, is a book of protest, not an accommodation to the way things are. God does not send Moses back down into Egypt to tell the Hebrew slaves to resign themselves to their subjugation because “everything happens for a reason” that will be made clear someday. Moses must tell them to get up and get ready to move out.
Jesus of Nazareth and the Kingdom of God
Jesus’ beatitudes have been neutralized too often into platitudes. They are not inspirational nuggets of Christian virtue but promises of radical change in this world. Jesus declares the poor blessed, not because he sees some virtue in poverty, but because God is coming to lift up the poor and cast down the rich. The kingdom of God belongs to the poor, the humbled, the grieved, the merciful, and all who look to God with hope for the promise of a world in which love and human dignity at last triumph over power and oppression.
“Thy kingdom come!” is not a plea for heaven someday but the expression of longing for the transformation of earth into a realm of compassion and justice. It prays for the passing away of the status quo of earth’s domination by wealth and power. It expresses the longing of the faithful, especially the powerless, for a world in which nothing is allowed to hurt or destroy life. It longs for the very opposite of what those in charge presently maintain for their own benefit.
“Thy will be done on earth . . . !” voices Jesus’ opposition to everything that happens contrary to God’s will. For him, sickness is not God’s will. Suffering is to be overcome, not rationalized. God’s people are to meet life with hope and courage, not resignation to the way things are and to whatever happens. Death makes no sense to him because it is not what God wants for us, even though we and everything else born into this world live currently under the dominion of death. Look at the evils in life and throughout this world, and believe that God’s will is otherwise! Then act accordingly.
A leper, an outcast regarded as sinful and not merely sick, challenges Jesus’ representation of God’s will: “If you will, you can heal me.” Like Abraham, Moses, and the great prophets, this leper challenges Jesus and calls God out on God’s commitment to compassion. And the impudent leper is vindicated. Jesus answers, “I do so will; be healed.”
People use Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane as the model for resignation to the hurtful and destructive. That’s wrong. There was something Jesus had to do, and he knew it would be terribly painful and humiliating, but he had to do it for the sake of God’s love for this world and its people. He did not give us the right to say of every horrible thing that happens in this world, “It’s God’s will.” No, it is not! As Christians, we believe that Jesus represents God’s will and purpose truly and embodies God’s empathy with us and compassion for us. As the theologian Jürgen Moltmann boldly proclaimed (The Crucified God), Jesus’ suffering on the cross reveals and represents God the Father’s suffering all along since committing to this created world, to Israel, and to the people of all nations and ethnic groups. If God would not simply destroy evil and all who belong to it, then what was left was for God to do but suffer it with us? The Bible presents a God who refuses to go on being God without us, and the crucified Christ represents in his own body what refusing to give up on us means for God.
All Things Work Together for Good? How?
The eighth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans plunges the apostle, the Roman Christians, and us into the conflict between what happens in life on one hand and what God wants for us on the other. Romans 8 presents, not a study in resignation to evil in blind trust that it somehow makes sense to God, but a resolution to live with hope and expectation in a world groaning under its bondage to decay and death. Paul sees the world as given over to its present systems, however futile they may be on their own, in hope for liberation when the children of God are liberated from their own bondage to death. So, yes, bad things happen and will continue to happen until God’s work is consummated and all creation is made new, made as it should be in accordance with God’s will.
What does Romans 8 mean,“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (NRSV)? Does that knowledge not amount to resignation to whatever happens in trust that it will all work out? No, Paul is no champion of determinism but, rather, a proponent of hope. He is not calling evil somehow secretly good, but calling people to faith that God will transform the harm done by life’s chances and cruelties into something better than ever. I call this process “redemption,” not just in the ultimate sense, but in the present sense of taking up our griefs and putting them into the service of something good.
The past is past, and the events of the past are done and gone. Paul is not talking about some divine version of time travel to go back and undo the past but about transforming the effects of the past. Redemption of the hurtful in our past does not make that evil into good but redeems it by turning the effects of the bad toward the creation of something good. It’s not, “Oh, thank goodness the child died because it made her parents much more compassionate people.” No! I refuse to buy into that kind of pious and pitiless sleight of hand. What is grievous is grievous. What is unjust is unjust. What hurts and destroys is evil. We may thank God for the newly compassionate lives of the dead child’s parents but not for that child’s death. The grief remains within the compassion.
I have made mistakes, and I have done wrong I regret. I cannot go back and undo what I have done, nor can I go back to do what I regret not having done. Neither can I “just turn it all over to God” and no longer regret it. How convenient for me it would be if I could, but then how would I change, learn, and grow? My regret would be wasted. God’s Spirit is not brain wash like the mythical waters of forgetfulness. I can, however, work toward trusting God to bring good out of evil, service out of regret, understanding and empathy out of pain, and compassion out of shame. Please note that I tend to see the good God brings out of harm as turned outward for the sake of other people and not merely for my personal improvement. Is that noble? No, it’s realistic. As Jesus was sent to represent God to us, so he sends us to represent him to others in the world.
While I will never like the saying, “Everything happens for a reason,” nor agree with it in principle, I do understand how it helps people who find in it an anchor for hope when life no longer makes sense but just hurts. I will not accept the notion that evil in and of itself happens for some good reason or higher purpose, certainly not for “God’s good purpose.” I do believe in God’s will and power to redeem the hurtful and senseless, in both the immediate (here and now) and the ultimate (when all tears are wiped away and all hurts healed). I believe that God’s will for us is for good and not harm, for hope and not despair, for courage and not fearfulness, and for life not death. I base this belief upon the primary belief that in Jesus of Nazareth we see the will of God as it truly is, for us and for all creation, and that will is for life and wholeness.