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).