Does Everything Happen for a Reason? Well... Yes, but...
Reflecting on the Fourth Sunday of Advent: Two Days After Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 113
Old Testament: Genesis 30:1-24
Epistle: Romans 8:18-30
O sovereign God, in Jesus Christ you set your holy reign upon this earth and within your people. So let its coming be like the mustard seed that grows into greatness, and like the leaven that mixes with the grain until the whole becomes greater, to the praise of the triune God, who lives forevermore. Amen.
Does Everything Happen for a Reason? Well... Yes, but it’s not the way most people mean it when they employ the adage. The phrase is usually another way of saying that everything is God’s will, as if all events from landing the new job to getting cancer is somehow divinely ordained.
I think it should be obvious that everything does happen for a reason, but that does not at all mean that God wills everything that happens. If I fall down the stairs in my home, there is a reason for it—I'm clumsy—but in no sense do I believe God pushed me down the stairs. (I am reminded of the joke that asks what the fatalist said after she fell down the stairs—Answer: “...glad that's over.”) I have diabetes and there are reasons why I now have it (my lifestyle—lack of exercise and weight gain—which I am pleased to say I have somewhat remedied—and a genetic predisposition), but that hardly warrants a conclusion that God wills it or that God gave it to me as judgment for my sin. Neither do I believe that God causes all good things to happen, even though he desires good things for all of us. God may rejoice with me when I am happy that I got the great deal on the new car, but that does not mean God somehow kept other shoppers away from it so I could have it. Of course, God would be even happier if I took the money I saved in the deal and gave it to missions. Indeed, I suspect that God would will that I do so. I can, of course, spend the savings on myself. After all, everything happens for a reason, right?
I think the reason people want to believe that absolutely everything happens for some divine reason is that it gives order to the chaos of life, it makes rational that which does not make sense, it allows us to suffer for a greater cause. If everything happens for a divine reason, then it is possible for us not to take responsibility for our actions when we have caused our own suffering or the suffering of others. It can be difficult for us to accept that things happen “just because.”
The problem with the “everything happening for a divine reason” philosophy is that it assigns evil to God and turns God into a villain. Do we really want to say that there is a divine reason for the sex slave trade? Do we truly want to tell a child that a parent’s death was God’s will because everything happens for a reason? Was the Holocaust divinely ordained? Is Covid-19 divinely sent to teach us something? Yes, everything does happen for a reason, but not everything that happens is caused by God nor is the will of God. The cause of the scourge of human trafficking is evil and nothing less. And God does not will it; God desires to end it—and God wills that his people act to free as many as possible from this modern day slavery.
Now, I am certainly not suggesting a deistic understanding of God—the kind of God that is aloof from human existence and not really concerned with our affairs. God does indeed work and move in our lives and there are indeed things that happen for a divine reason. I believe that God can use my diabetes for his purposes, if I will allow him to do so, but I do not believe God gave it to me. My genetics and personal choices are responsible for that. I do not need to take the responsibility away from myself by laying the cause at God’s feet. God’s sovereignty does not mean that God must ordain everything that happens from my writing of this post to choosing what I had for breakfast this morning. Rather God is so sovereign, bad things can happen and people can choose evil, and yet nothing will thwart God’s ultimate will for this world and for human history. God is not a puppet master pulling our strings with no choices of our own.
The Apostle Paul states, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). It is important to note that Paul does not state that God causes all things, but all things, whether good or bad, God’s will or not, can be used by God for God's purpose. So, even though God is working to eradicate evil in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the meantime God can use evil, that which he does not want and desires to defeat, for his purposes in this world. Now that is sovereignty!
Everything does happen for a reason, but not all reasons are divinely inspired.