Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. Thank God!

October 17, 2012

On This American Life a couple of weeks ago, author Tim Kreider describes the happy year following the near-fatal stabbing that he endured, a period during which he felt a profound sense of “euphoric gratitude” to be alive. The experience “jolted [him] out of a lifelong stupor.”

I like this piece. I’ve never had a personal brush with death. I’ve never (so far) nearly died. Nevertheless, I’ve had experiences with loved ones dying that have had a similar (though obviously far less intense) impact on me. I’ve preached before that we could all use a good funeral to remind us of how precious life is. I’ve experienced at least a few of those.

Still, I was disappointed that this experience didn’t awaken Kreider from his spiritual stupor. After all, the experience made him grateful to be alive, but to whom is he grateful for his gift of life? Not God, as he makes clear. In the following excerpt, he rejects any sense of God’s providence at work in or through the terrifying event:

Not for one passing moment did it occur to me that God must have spared my life for some purpose. Even if I had been the type that was prone to such notions, I would have been disabused of it by the heavy-handed coincidence of the Oklahoma City bombing, occurring on the same day I spent in a recuperative coma. If there is some divine plan that requires my survival and the deaths of all those children in daycare, I respectfully decline to participate. What I had been was not blessed or chosen, but lucky.

Give Kreider his theological props. In this short paragraph, he puts his finger on the best reason not to be Calvinist. As theologian David Bentley Hart makes clear in his book Doors of the Sea and in an essay from First Things written soon after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2005, one of the most liberating ideas Christianity has given the world is that the world as it is—in its current, fallen state—is not morally comprehensible. God does not require evil and suffering to accomplish his sovereign will. Indeed, God stands opposed to them, and he came to us in Christ to defeat them.

Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

I’m hardly surprised that Kreider doesn’t know this much about orthodox Christian theology. Why should he? After all, how many times do I hear Christians recite that damnable bit of bumper-sticker theology, “Everything happens for a reason”? Far too often!

Everything does not happen for a reason! And thank God for that! God does not require, for example, tsunamis, war, and genocide to play a role in history’s turning out the way God planned it. God does not require evil for his glory to unfold in some heretofore unimaginable way. God does not need to override the freedom of earthly agents, human or otherwise, for his sovereign will to be accomplished. God is God. He’s not constrained in the way that this Calvinist bumper-sticker theology implies.

I doubt even many believers who say “everything happens for a reason” mean it in the strongest, most deterministic sense. They’re expressing, very imprecisely, the providential idea that “Nothing happens beyond God’s control, or beyond God’s ability to redeem. And God will bring good even out of this suffering.” For them, “Everything happens for a reason” will do in a pinch. But not for me.

Nitpicky, you say? I hope not. I am paid, in part, to think about stuff like this, and to express what we Christians believe as clearly as possible.

As for Kreider, I hope he continues to reflect deeply on his feeling of gratitude for the goodness of life. When one’s argument against God is rooted in moral indignation at evil and suffering, one is nearer to God than one knows.

7 Responses to “Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. Thank God!”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I think this issue is all kinds of complicated. Jesus says not a sparrow falls to the ground without your Father. God says that he knows the end of our days before there was one of them. So deaths, at least, are within God’s “providence.” This should be comforting to a significant degree. My dad is at this very moment in a hospital with heart problems. I like to think that God kept him alive as long as he did for any number of purposes, and that he will go or stay for much the same reasons.

    Of course, as you have said before on this subject, I am thinking of an easy case, as opposed to many dire tragedies imposed by very evil people. But I am not sure we can have it both ways–God is in charge when death is “okay,” but not when it is “tragic”? I don’t really think God can keep things “under control” without some degree of “control,” as He did with Job.

    So, under this view does this make God the author of sin? “God forbid!”, as Paul would say. This takes me back to the analogy I have mentioned before, which you liked at the time (though not necessarily used to this extent). God is both the author of the total play and an actor on the stage. As the person doing the “acting,” he is opposed to evil, and fights against it, as he did when He was here on earth. But as the playwright, he orchestrates who is where and when so that these other actors, playing out “who they are,” will accomplish his ultimate good purposes in the end (or at various points). In most good plays, there are “tragic” scenes, ultimately leading up to a climax and a “happy ending.” Doesn’t it seem reasonable that God’s “story” of history would be the same (and best of all)? Jesus said, “Offenses must needs come, but woe to those by whom they come!”

    Now, this would still be “unfair” and unworthy of God if those who suffer “unjustly” reached their “final end” when they died. But we know this is not the case. Judgment Day is coming! And so are Heaven and Hell. And all will therefore and thereby be “made right.” Meanwhile, “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain,” awaiting the ultimate fruition.

    How should this make us feel and respond to injustices and tragedies? By playing out “who WE are.” And who we are is to try to minimize these harms to the best of our ability. That, then, is how the “play” works.

    Not totally satisfying, I know, but this is generally how I work out the “providence versus freedom and tragedy” quandary.

  2. brentwhite Says:

    As for having it both ways, I disagree with you. But in doing so, I’m being faithful to my own denominational background and Arminian viewpoint. Would you expect me to be any other way?

    God has foreknowledge and God is sovereign. We can both strongly affirm that. To say that God knows when and how we die, and that God is working his will through the circumstances of our deaths, whether tragic or not, is not the same as saying that God makes it happen that way. Right? Logically, how is this off-base?

    • brentwhite Says:

      As for your analogy about the director who orchestrates, etc., you are, I think, reflecting a Molinist position. God has “middle knowledge” of how we would act under an infinite number of circumstances. He places us in history at certain points so as to make history turn out the way he wants. In doing so, he isn’t abrogating our free will, because we are free to be the people that we are.

      This is within the realm of orthodox Christian thought. The famous Christian apologist William Lane Craig loves this theory of God’s sovereignty and theodicy. I haven’t studied it enough to know what I make of it. At first blush, I don’t think it’s necessary in order to sidestep the difficult questions of theodicy. For me, sovereignty is not opposed to human freedom the way many Christians imagine.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        From how you explain “Molinist,” it sounds like that is pretty near to my position. Glad to hear that I am “orthodox”!

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      No, I don’t expect you to be any other way. But we all have to do our best to be true to scripture as best we can read it (and I know you do and don’t mean to suggest otherwise–just explaining my own “tenacity” on the subject). I do agree that God does not “make it happen that way,” in the sense that he is not the “actor” causing the immediate events. But I do believe he is the “orchestrator,” who puts people “where and when,” as he did with Moses and Pharaoh. He was not the “actor” hardening Pharaoh’s heart–he put Moses there to tell Pharaoh what to do, which enraged Pharaoh (as he was, in himself), and thus “hardened his heart.” God did not “harden” (in my view, at least), but he put Pharaoh and Moses “on stage” when He did to “play out” that particular scene, including showing Pharaoh “as he was.” Is this an okay view of what I am trying to say from your perspective?

  3. khargaden Says:

    I’ll leave the Calvinist question aside, because I wasn’t predestined to convince you on it… yet. 🙂

    But I loved how he spoke about the eagle pulling the fish out of the water but then dropping it again. The fish had to go back to his fish friends and say “Seriously, I left the world…!” Its was a lovely thing to hear and has me thinking all week.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Keep trying, Kevin. I shall reject your pro-Calvinist arguments of my own free will! 😉

      Yes, I foresee using that fish illustration in a sermon in the near future.


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