In this post, I contemplate a common refrain in Christian circles and ask, Does everything happen for a reason?
We have all heard the well-meaning cliché, “Everything happens for a reason.” But does everything happen for a reason? Do we take the time to appreciate the implications of that statement, and do we really put forward the effort to interpret the teachings of divine sovereignty we have received from those who have gone before us?
Consider the quotes below.
“Receive the accidents that befall thee as good, knowing that nothing happens without God.” Didache 3:10
“If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will—that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings—then we may take it it is worth paying.” C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity
“God works in mysterious ways.” “God’s ways are not our ways.” “Everything happens for a reason.” Such platitudes stem from Christian attempts to explain tragedy, providing comfort in their ability to point beyond our suffering to a greater good.
Such assurances, however, undermine God’s holiness and love, crediting him as the author of all the world’s sin and pain. Are we to believe that wars and terrorism are part of a divine plan, a greater good? Are we to see in the rape and murder of children or the enslavement of young women in the sex trade the mysterious work of a loving God?
Surely suffering has redemptive qualities, but can we not distinguish divine discipline from genocide? Must all suffering come from the hand of God for him to utilize it for our betterment? Does everything happen for a reason?
Accepting simple answers to complex questions serves only to distort reality.
Christians frequently speak of past trials as leading up to a present good. Whether that be the infertile couple who found their beautiful children through adoption or the humanitarian inspired to help the poor by a childhood marked by hunger, these stories provide comfort, pointing to a loving, sovereign God.
Paul writes in Romans, “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.”
I never understood, however, why so many insist that God’s use of tragedy for good requires that he be the source of that tragedy. God’s turning our lemons into lemonade does not mean he is cultivating the lemons!
Does Everything Happen for a Reason?
We would do well simply to accept that we do not know why things happen. Some may contract cancer as part of a divine plan to bring about a greater good, while others acquire it by dumb luck.
It is natural to search for meaning in significant events, but as believers, we must not allow our discomfort with chance to color our view of God. In attributing all things to a predetermined plan, we create the God we think we need, instead of accepting the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Attempting to find simple explanations for every tragedy collapses the complexity of the world into a two-dimensional parody of itself. Worse still, it makes God the source of evil, a cold, distant entity willing to inflict horrible torture and death upon us “for his glory.”
In creating autonomous creatures, God has created a world that he does not completely control. The Augustinian view that God is the direct source of every event misconstrues our reality. We are not players acting out scenes written by the divine playwright but soldiers living in a chaotic, war-torn world.
We should accept that God, while omnipotent, has limited the exercise of his power for a greater purpose. This means that God has freely created a reality in which there are things that he cannot do.
Suppose a married man who spent his single years carousing with friends responds to a party invitation with a simple, “I can’t. I’m married.” Does he mean that he is physically incapable of participating? Of course not.
Rather, he means that in entering into marriage he has voluntarily restricted what he will do because there are some things he cannot do without destroying the relationship with his wife. By making one choice, he has foreclosed his ability to make another.
Only the truly powerful can restrain the exercise of their authority.
So it is with God. In granting us free will, God has limited his ability to influence the world. This does not mean he is incapable of interfering, but that he can unilaterally intervene only where it does not violate humanity’s freedom.
If we have free will, God must allow the ramifications of our decisions to play out. If we are free to act only when our actions bring about the divine will, then we are not really free. If we are free to choose between A and B, so long as we choose A, then our freedom is an illusion.
I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’s argument in The Problem of Pain,
If you choose to say, “God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,” you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words, “God can.”
Saying that God can both give us free will and ensure his will is always done is logically incoherent. We pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” because it currently is not.
So, what is the appropriate response to tragedy? Does everything happen for a reason? How do we answer that question?
Simply put, we must accept that we have no answers to the “Why?” questions. We cannot know when events are part of a divine plan, the misuse of free will, or simply the result of random chance.
We do know, however, that God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ, that he walked among us, lived with us, and experienced our pain.
Our God knows what it means to suffer, not simply because he is omniscient, but because he has experienced it himself firsthand. Our God has mourned the loss of loved ones, experienced injustice, and endured the horrible pains of death.
God is not some far off entity orchestrating tragedies for his own glorification. He is a God fighting against the evils of this world to bring about our eventual redemption and salvation. The world is not as it should be, but the story of Christianity is God’s work in correcting this state of affairs.
Whatever tragedies may befall us, we can take comfort in knowing that God is on our side. God is not the source of our pain; he is its solution.