Once again, what’s wrong with “everything happens for a reason”?

May 2, 2016

There are many good reasons for avoiding the aphorism “everything happens for a reason.” It’s trite and can be easily misunderstood. But as I’ve written before, I often disagree with the reasons its detractors give for avoiding it.

This Adam Hamilton blog post (the one before the last one) is an example. Hamilton apparently devotes a chapter in his new book to his objection. In response to what he wrote online, however, I offered the following comment. (Again, if I’m failing to consider something, please let me know.)

If God is ultimately sovereign, as you say, then that at least means that God allows suffering. Do you explore the difference between “allowing” and “causing” in your book? I hope so, although I would argue that the difference isn’t as great as we often imagine.

For example, we Christians believe that God answers prayer. Jesus couldn’t be more emphatic on this point. If we pray for a loved one to avoid suffering, for example, and our loved one suffers anyway, what do we make of that?

I only see one of three options: 1) God heard our prayer, but was unwilling or unable to give us what we prayed for. 2) God heard our prayer, but whether or not he grants our petition is completely arbitrary. There is no reason for God’s granting or failing to grant our petition. 3) God heard our prayer, considered it alongside everything else going on in the world—including other people’s prayers and the consequences for the rest of Creation related to granting this single petition—but said no. If (3) is true, then we can rightly say that God had good reasons for allowing our loved one’s suffering, even though God didn’t directly cause it. Therefore, this person’s suffering does happen for a reason.

Is there some fourth option I haven’t considered?

Roger Olson had a blog post a while back about Arminian theology and its emphasis on God’s antecedent will (what God would want in a world without sin) and God’s consequent will (what God wants in the world in which we actually live). Given that we live in this fallen world, God wills things that he wouldn’t otherwise will had we not sinned. That seems very reasonable to me.

I would also emphasize that God has the power to transform suffering and evil for our good. After all, he transformed the greatest evil and suffering the world has ever known—the cross of his Son Jesus Christ—into the greatest good that the world has ever known. Surely he can do the same with lesser evil and suffering.

Isn’t this exactly what he did in the case of Joseph? “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” (Genesis 50:20).

23 Responses to “Once again, what’s wrong with “everything happens for a reason”?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Correct as to all of the above. I might even go further to say that God took all the “foreknown” prayers into account, along with everything else (such as what kind of hearts we would have) that should be taken into account, when he first said, “Let there be light,” and everything is working out accordingly. But, you can’t take prayers into account, either “before” or “at the time,” if the prayers don’t happen, so we can’t adopt some “fatalist” view that it just makes no difference if we pray. “You have not because you ask not,” James says. Then he also says, “You ask, but you ask amiss.” So, both the request and the heart of the requester have been (or are being) taken into account. (Along with everything else that you mention.)

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    You keep sneaking up on the Reformed view of Predestination, but you won’t quite go there.

    If God planned the Cross from “before the foundation of the world”; if God worked evil for good with Joseph according to his plan; if God knows every hair of our heads and every decision we will make before we make it; then why is it such a leap to say that God has a predestined plan for all of creation, including each of us individually. It’s no problem for me to say that, and at the same time to say that our working things out in our “free will” is how he planned to accomplish it.

    Again, “God is Sovereign over all things without doing damage to man’s free will.” That’s what the “Calvinist” believes. Not all that other stuff.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Well, the problem with Calvinism (or at least the brand I have in mind) is that it says such choices by God are “without regard to any merit of the person” God is “acting towards.” That’s what I totally cannot accept. God “predestined” precisely because he “foreknew.” This is why I take something close to what some people call “middle knowledge.” God knew the hearts of everyone he would create from the beginning, and therefore fashioned history around such “foreknown” hearts–not arbitrarily “without regard” to the state of such hearts.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Grant, you’re making a connection between God’s foreknowledge and predestination that I wouldn’t make. God foreknows choices that each person will make, or would make under any other circumstance, but this foreknowledge doesn’t determine those choices. As William Lane Craig says, God’s knowledge of our choices is temporally prior to our making them, but not logically prior. Logically, our choices come first. In other words, God’s foreknowledge is “based on” what God “sees” us doing. It’s our free choices that God sees us making in advance that informs his foreknowledge.

      Armed with this foreknowledge, of course, God can plan accordingly. He doesn’t need to “determine” our choices in order to make his plans; he only needs to know what they are (or would be under different circumstances).

      I have become much more Reformed in the area of God’s sovereignty. Literally, the appendix of C.S. Lewis’s book “Miracles” turned me around on that issue a few years ago. My convictions are right in line with his.

      • Grant Essex Says:

        So it’s up to us, not to God. Is that what you are saying?

      • brentwhite Says:

        No. I’m saying that God’s foreknowledge doesn’t determine our actions. That’s all. If “it” (salvation?) were up to us, we would be doomed.

      • Grant Essex Says:

        Right, so God “intervenes”, because we would never choose Jesus on our own. We are inherently evil. We might “try Him for awhile”, but without God’s determination to save us, by His Grace alone, we are doomed.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Yes, I affirm all those statements. Additionally, I would say that God’s determination is, at the same time, in concert with our wills.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    To quote one commentary:
    Calvin on Election:

    “God’s eternal decree, by which He compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others.

    This definition requires some qualification because many of Calvin’s opponents, including Arminius, would not have a problem with this definition. Arminius did not deny predestination, in fact, he believed in it, “I do not present as a matter of doubt the fact that God has elected some to salvation, and not elected or passed by others”. The difference is he did not base it on a “divine arbitrary decree”, but upon God’s foreknowledge of man’s merit.”

    Well, I don’t believe it was arbitrary either.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      So, then, do you agree with Arminius, as you appear to be quoting him, that: “The difference is he did not base it on a ‘divine arbitrary decree’, but upon God’s foreknowledge of man’s merit”? That is what I believe.

      • Grant Essex Says:

        Yes, but it’s somewhat circular, because the only way God could “foreknow man’s merit” would be because he created him that way. It still comes back ultimately to the fact that our eternal souls are at God’s disposal. He created you to be you, with all that that involves. You are you, because God made you that way.

        Maybe it’s a distinction without a difference, as it relates to reconciling our views. 🙂

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        No, I don’t think it is a distinction without a difference. I think that God created us to be “free choosers,” in other words, creatures that can make choices that God does not make them make. I realize that is “logically difficult,” but there are other things that are “logically difficult,” but still true (e.g., the Trinity as one example; Christ as “fully God and fully man” as another). This may be a strained picture of the matter, and not exactly how I think the matter worked, but what if when God was setting out to create, He foreknew how “loudly” we would say either “yes, Yes, YES!” or “no, No, NO!) to him who created us as our “love response,” and so He “added on” all else about us, intelligence, skills, disposition, etc., as well as environment, time in history, etc., so as to “bring out” that response from each of us (as well as accomplish his plans for history). Perhaps the “essential us” is almost something as “basic” as that. And I think that “free choice” necessitates that the “Yes” or “No” is simply something that God did not, or does not, control.

        As I say, logically difficult, but other things logically difficult are true. And NECESSARY to be true in this instance for God to be a “just Judge” when he judges men and sends some to Heaven and others to Hell based on “who they are” and “how they responded to him.” God can’t “make” that decision for us (based on how He “made us to be,” or otherwise), and still be just. “Will not the Judge of all flesh do right? Far be it from you to treat the righteous as the unrighteous, far be it from you,” Abraham says. So, I go with logically difficult due to ethical necessity.

        Is it, then, “up to us, not to God,” as you question Brent? It is up to God to create us at all, give us a choice, die in our place, woo us, but when it comes down to, will we get saved and into heaven, then the “last step” is ours, not God’s. And is that not how it should be? Since God will judge us based on that choice, shouldn’t it be our choice that decides the matter?

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    What does “God’s determination is, at the same time, in concert with our wills” mean? Is it what Tom says above?

    Are we dead in sin, or just sick?

    Was Lazarus dead? 3 days dead? What did he contribute to his being raised?

    Did Jesus raise himself from the dead, or was He dependent on the Father for that?

    I’m totally comfortable with someone thinking that their eternal salvation comes down to whether they decide to say yes or no. I’m just not comfortable thinking that for myself. If God had left it up to me, I would be lost.

    It’s a dialogue that has been going on for hundreds of years and I realize that we aren’t going to shed new light on it. We’ll all find out when we pass on. For now, you have to go with what you are comfortable with, but be open to the possibility, yea certainty, that you don’t really understand it all.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Agreed, I “don’t really understand it all.” Nonetheless, that is not to say that “I don’t understand ANY of it.” It seems to me that we can say (in my estimation, HAVE to say) that in the ultimate analysis, we MUST be “able” to say “Yes” or “No” to God’s undeserved offer of salvation without God “imbuing” that in or for us. Otherwise, I simply don’t see how God can be “just” in sending some to Heaven and some to Hell when it is Him that is doing the “accepting” for all who “accept.” Why not just imbue “acceptance” for everybody? I can’t see how or why God would “select” just “some” if the “selecting” was altogether up to Him. So, with due recognition for my capacity for error, I nonetheless affirm that at a minimum God’s “selection” of whom gets saved must have something to do with the “state of heart” of the person who gets selected. “For out of the heart come the issues of life.” “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. IF ANY MAN WILL OPEN the door, I will come in to him.” “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I would have gathered you under my wings as a hen does her chicks, BUT YOU WOULD NOT. Behold, your house is left to you desolate.”

      So were we “dead in trespasses and sins” before we were saved? Yes, but that may be a “legal” determination as opposed to a “capacity” determination. Our “fate was sealed” as we stood in our trespasses and sins before any salvation was obtained. We were “on death row.” But I don’t think that means we could do nothing about it. The President may “pardon” certain persons in prison, but hopefully he won’t do so without regard to any difference between the person pardoned and all else otherwise condemned. If he did “without regard,” we would have to say he acted “arbitrarily and capriciously,” as we in the legal industry would say. Similarly with God. We are all justifiably on “death row,” but when God selects to “pardon” some of us, he is not doing so “arbitrarily and capriciously”–He is looking to “something” in us that differentiates us from “the rest.” (And now I will put the matter “to rest.”)

      • Grant Essex Says:

        I’ll close with some quotes myself:

        “You did not choose me, but rather I chose you”.
        “No one comes to me unless he is drawn by the Father”.
        “You are not of my flock…..”
        ” I have other sheep….”
        “Go Paul, for I have many people in this city….”

        Dueling verses will go on until we get to the final destination.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Arminians would agree with you, Grant, that God doesn’t leave it up to us: It’s only because of prevenient grace that we’re able to reach a point where we make a decision for Christ. This grace affects everyone in the world to some extent: Grace, in this case, is more like the fallout from nuclear bomb than a guided missile, if you know what I mean.

      But Tom’s perfectly reasonable pushback to this would be, “Why is this grace enough for some and not others? How is God not still determining?”

      I get it, believe me. I wish I had asked more questions in seminary on this and many other topics.

      Still, I’m happy to live within the tension. That man is free to accept or reject God seems to be, with few exceptions, a theme throughout all of scripture. That God is just is without question. That man is corrupted by sin is without question. That God does not “foreordain” this sin; rather, it’s humanity’s choice, seems clear.

      • Grant Essex Says:

        Prevenient Grace. That’s one I struggle with too. There seem to be different views on what it means.

        I like the word “tension”. Andy Stanley uses it a lot. So does the “Grace Truth Paradox” by Randy Alcorn.

        Yes, we all “live with the situation” of our lack of understanding, but belief in the goodness of God.

        Have a great day, y’all!

  5. Tom Harkins Says:

    Well, I am stuck at the office here for a bit on a Saturday morning, so I thought I would take a short break and make another comment on this important topic. Grant, it is true that there are scriptures “on both sides” that can be invoked. But there may be a “predilection” toward interpretation depending on what one “brings to the table.” I confess that I “bring to the table” a bias towards what seems to me to be “justness” or “justice.” Specifically, I believe (and WANT to believe) that God is a “just” God who “gives to every man according to his works.” That’s why I come back to Abraham’s discussion with God over God’s planned destruction of Sodom. God is not going to treat the “righteous” as he does the “wicked.” (Notice that God did not “correct” Abraham by challenging his view that some, in some sense, can be considered “righteous.”)

    So when I find a passage such as “Turn, turn, for why will you die, oh house of Israel!” or “Choose you this day whom you will serve, but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” I “latch onto” to those as indicative of the ultimate “culmination” of salvation as being something in our court. Again, God INITIATES and “PAYS FOR” and “WOOS”, but then it is up to us to “open the door” so that Christ can “come in.”

    What about the verses you cite, then?

    “You did not choose me, but rather I chose you.”

    God has to initiate salvation–it is not something we would choose on our own. Doesn’t mean, however, that we do not have to “accept” versus “reject” God’s choice.

    “No one comes to me unless he is drawn by the Father.”

    Again, God has to initiate.

    “You are not of my flock…..”

    Certainly not all are saved, and God “already knows” who will or who won’t be and therefore can address those in each camp according to their ultimate predilection.

    ” I have other sheep….”

    Salvation is not limited to the Jews, but God looks to those willing to follow him, as Peter tells Cornelius.

    “Go Paul, for I have many people in this city….”

    Again, God “foreknows,” and therefore “directs events” toward “bringing out” those whose hearts are right. God “calls the end as though it were the beginning.”

    I’m sure that you have many other verses and you may not find my rendition of these as totally persuasive. But my interpretation of these and others is most certainly and admittedly “colored” by what I perceive as God’s “revealed nature”–and that nature is God’s “love” and “justice” and “fairness.” Bottom line–I can’t find the enormous and permanent difference between residence in Heaven versus Hell to be “right” if it is “simply up to God’s election,” without there being something in us, which God does not “control,” which “contributes” to this “destination.”

    • Grant Essex Says:

      So, just for arguments sake; if God did chose the elect based solely on His own desires as to who would be with Him in eternity, and for no other reason than His own omniscience and omnipotence, without regard to what the man/woman might do in this life, you would label God as unjust.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Yes. (Contributing factor to why I left the faith many years ago.)

      • Grant Essex Says:

        Then you and I have a fundamentally irreconcilably different view of Almighty God. We are each in positions that are diametrically opposed.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        I get that. But this is why I argue the point, so as to get people to see that God is NOT demonstrated to be unjust in scripture so we CAN venerate him as the great God that he is.


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