Why We May Need to Stop Using the Phrase – “Everything Happens for a Reason”.
“If that were God’s plan, it’s a bad bargain; I don’t want to have to deal with a God like that … My sense is God and I came to an accommodation with each other a couple of decades ago, where he’s gotten used to the things that I’m not capable of and I’ve come to terms with things he’s not capable of … and we care very much about each other.”
Rabbi Harold S. Kushner
“I’ve often wondered why things have happened to me the way they have”,
He was quiet and vulnerable as he sat next to us. He looked much older than the 55-year old man he was, with cane in hand.
“The painful divorce from my first wife and the ensuing estrangement from my children … The loss of the job I loved … The car accident that crushed my leg, forcing me on permanent disability and taking away the one hobby I loved more than anything else, running …
“If God really loved me, WHY would so many cruel things have happened to me with no explanation—especially in such rapid-fire succession? Within the span of three years, my life was radically turned upside down. It felt as if I was trapped underwater, desperately needing a breath of air—and finally getting one—but then quickly getting shoved back underwater again.”
How do you respond? We tried, as sensitively as we could:
“We’re so proud of you for raising the questions you have. They’re important questions; we believe that God does hear us when we confront our feelings and ask these questions.
“We don’t believe that God causes bad things to happen and we’re not even sure that God “allows” them to take place. Sometimes things just happen, with no logical explanation. We wonder, sometimes, if we humans attribute activities to God that aren’t really God’s doing at all.
“There’s a lot about God that is certainly a mystery to us. But if we choose to, we can see God’s activity, though, in our lives, where God is making all things new again – every day – in the midst of the chaos, messiness and ugliness of so much of the world. Seeing how God is involved in helping us to “pick up the pieces”, to heal from a terrible hurt, to find direction when we are lost, is a real key. So, too, is gratitude – recognizing and affirming God’s positive involvement in our pain, loss and despair. We think that God “grieves” right along with us when bad things happen and is there to comfort and sustain us as we go through the challenges and hardships. God is not causing the pain, the loss and the despair. But God is there to help us through those challenges and to give us the ability to grow in them. It’s definitely an interesting and thought-provoking concept to explore.
“We know in our own lives, we too, have asked those same questions.”
He paused for several minutes, almost awkwardly so, as he reflected on our response and crafted his own. It seemed as if he was expecting a very different response than the one we gave, a response more like the one he had received from many well-meaning people, but the response he most “didn’t” need to hear – “Everything happens for a reason”.
There is so much of life that is simply unexplainable, and we are continually learning how to be okay with that. With so much devastation and discomfort globally, as well as in our own lives and homes, with real life issues like hunger and malnutrition, poverty, racism, accidents, disease, and so much more, we ALL wonder if things really do “happen for a reason.”
Is there a reason for cancer?
Is there a reason for terrorism?
Is there a reason for hunger?
Is God trying to “teach us something” in these painful parts of the human condition?
We’re not so sure.
Certainly, our own actions – or inaction – bring some of life’s events on us. We are distracted by a text, take our eyes off the road and our car slams into the car in front of us. We call off sick too many times at work and our supervisor is forced, by business policy, to terminate us. We miss a mortgage payment and our house goes into foreclosure.
Being a sensitive, caring, compassionate listener means NOT always having an answer and learning to be okay with that. It means asking ourselves what we would MOST want and need to hear in your most stressful moments, and then giving a response that reflects that.
Recently, we spoke with a woman whose marriage has fallen apart. Understandably, she is in pain and terribly uncertain about what the future may bring for her. She has also questioned many of the beliefs about God that she grew up with in the church. That “everything happens for a reason”, is one of those questioned beliefs.
She is struggling to understand a God who would cause her marriage to fall apart, who is trying to teach her something by causing it.
But in listening to her questions, we heard her express something that showed a more nuanced and hopeful belief in how God might be involved:
“I think that God is here in the people who have responded to my pain and confusion and have given me more support and love than I could ever have imagined.”
“Yes!” we said. “You’re right. That’s where God is. Not in the causing of the pain, but in the redeeming of. Not in breaking you down, but in building you up.”
“God is in my friends who have stepped in to help me with things I couldn’t possibly have done by myself. God is in my attorney, who is helping me navigate through the complicated legal world that this situation has forced me to enter. God is in people like you guys who will listen to me sort it all out and help me to find my way again. That’s where I have to focus. That’s where I do believe God is.”
In dark seasons of our lives, if people were to say that to us, that God places the darkness on us, it wouldn’t help us. Frankly, it would make us angry. Sometimes the reasons are nowhere to be found. Anyone who tries to rationalize why most bad things happen usually doesn’t have a clue why. We don’t need reasons or explanations usually; in the end they don’t take the pain away or make the situation better.
When we hear that “everything happens for a reason”, we actually hear this:
Just suck it up. Live with it. It’s meant to be.
Don’t whine or complain.
Don’t be weak.
Phrases such as these actually diminish the very real fact that we are in pain. They deny the fact that we’re suffering and that our suffering is valid.
What kind of God would work to bring us suffering and pain? We don’t believe that’s the God who appeared to the world in Jesus Christ.
But we do believe that the God who speaks and acts through Jesus Christ works through the messiness to bring about the resolution and the healing. In fact, never once in the Gospels does Jesus even come close to stating that “everything happens for a reason”. But instead Jesus works through all the messiness that the world and we create and somehow – compassionately, graciously – works to redeem it.