What’s right with “everything happens for a reason”?

October 28, 2015

This blog post, “Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason,” is making the social media rounds this week. The blogger, Tim Lawrence, is only the latest to attack the oft-repeated aphorism “everything happens for a reason.” Like a good politician, I’ve been both against it and for it—not the expression itself (which, like all platitudes, should be used sparingly if ever) but the meaning underneath it. Do you remember when I attacked Laura Story’s song “Blessings” before deciding, a year later, that it was profoundly good?

Isn’t that funny? What can I say? I’m a work in progress.

Regardless, with proper qualification, I now endorse the belief that “everything happens for a reason.” I believe it’s an inescapable consequence of God’s sovereignty, it accords perfectly well with the witness of scripture, and, personally, I find it immensely comforting, as I’ve blogged and preached several times before (including here). For my fellow Christians, I always recommend three books on the topic: C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and Timothy Keller’s recent masterpiece, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.

If you want to know why I changed my mind on the subject, start with those three books. They blew me away. They exposed how shallow my thinking on the subject of suffering and God’s providence and sovereignty had been.

Would they make any sense to someone who isn’t already a Christian? I don’t know. (Frankl was a Jewish survivor of Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. His is a “secular,” non-sectarian book, but, in my opinion, it’s premised upon a God who must be there to give meaning to our suffering.)

With that in mind, I don’t know if Lawrence is a Christian, or even a religious person. He uses the language of blessing, as you see below, which is religious language. I read in his bio that he suffers from cerebral palsy and epilepsy. His blog aims to encourage people who are experiencing pain and suffering.

He writes:

I now live an extraordinary life. I’ve been deeply blessed by the opportunities I’ve had and the radically unconventional life I’ve built for myself. Yet even with that said, I’m hardly being facetious when I say that loss has not in and of itself made me a better person. In fact, in many ways it’s hardened me.

His own loss, he says, has not in and of itself made him a better person.

That seems right, as far as it goes: No loss, no suffering, no pain, in and of themselves, can make us better people. As Frankl observed from his experience in the death camps, the suffering that his fellow inmates endured often did destroy their souls. But—and here’s the key point—he didn’t believe that even the most intense amount of suffering necessarily would. As he writes:

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate…

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.[1]

Lawrence, by contrast, is unwilling to put the responsibility of that decision on the person who is suffering. Ever. He’s indignant at the suggestion:

Let me be crystal clear: if you’ve faced a tragedy and someone tells you in any way, shape or form that your tragedy was meant to be, that it happened for a reason, that it will make you a better person, or that taking responsibility for it will fix it, you have every right to remove them from your life.

While I sympathize, one consequence of Lawrence’s thinking is that the suffering person can only ever be a victim, or, as Frankl puts it, a “plaything of circumstance.” Does Lawrence want that to be the case?

I don’t. Although I recognize that wanting something to be otherwise doesn’t make it so.

Still, if Lawrence is right, let’s concede that much of what the Bible tells us about suffering is also nonsense. I’m thinking, for example, of Joseph’s profound words to his brothers after their reunion in Genesis 50: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Or Paul’s discussion of his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12: This thorn, whatever it is, is both a “messenger from Satan sent to torment” Paul and a gift that “was given” by God (notice the divine passive) to keep Paul from “becoming conceited.”

In both Joseph’s and Paul’s cases, therefore, we see God transforming a genuinely evil event or circumstance into something good for them and for the world.

Does God work like this all the time? Is their experience universal?

I think so, at least for us Christians. I’m thinking of the apostle James’s words about the trials we endure, in James 1:2-4, and how they are for our good: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness…” Or Paul’s words in Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Even Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5 to “give thanks in all circumstances” only makes sense if God is working providentially through everything. It’s also worth noting that when Paul wrote his “epistle of joy” to the Philippians, telling them to “rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say Rejoice,” he was enduring a brutal imprisonment that he wasn’t sure he would even survive.

My point is, while it’s true that pain and suffering in and of themselves can’t make us better people or the world a better place, the good news is that we don’t experience anything in the world in and of itself! There’s no corner of the universe untouched by God’s grace. There’s no place in this world where the Holy Spirit isn’t actively at work. There’s no evil more powerful than God’s redemptive love.

If God can take the greatest evil imaginable—the cross of his Son Jesus—and transform it into the greatest good imaginable, can he or will he not do the same with lesser evils in our own lives?

Lawrence replaces one aphorism (“Everything happens for a reason”) with another: “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”

That’s true, although we can trust the Lord that whatever we’re “carrying,” we’re carrying because God wants us to, that it’s good for us, and that we’ll receive the grace we need to do so.

1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon, 2006), 66-7.

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