Whenever something disappointing, unfortunate, or even downright tragic happens, something we often hear from kindhearted and well intentioned friends is that “everything happens for a reason.”
This isn’t even a distinctly Christian belief. Many people who are even just vaguely spiritual have a sense that everything will be cosmically arranged the way it’s supposed to be and that every step in the process is a part of the universal forces steering our lives in a particular direction.
For followers of Jesus, we tend to root our belief in the idea that “everything happens for a reason” in more fundamentally Christian ideas, speaking often about God’s sovereignty and quoting Romans 8:28.
And here’s the thing. I love Romans 8:28, which says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything happens for a reason.
In fact, I don’t buy it. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. Here’s why.
God Is Not the Author of Evil.
When my wife, Tamara, was 15 years old, her mother passed away after a years-long battle with cancer. Trena was a single mother who often worked multiple full-time jobs and had overcome so many hardships. Since they had no father in the picture, Trena’s death left Tamara and her brother as orphans.
Though friends and family had been united in prayer that Trena would beat cancer and return to full health, those prayers were tragically not answered in the affirmative.
Some time after Trena’s death, someone, whom I can only imagine said this in a failed attempt at condolence, told Tamara that “it brought God more glory to take your mother than to save her” and that this was why she had died.
I have to say—I think that is just terrible theology. If for no other reason that it just seems morally heinous.
And before we jump to saying, “His ways are higher than our ways,” let us first remind ourselves that Christians are moral beings who are made in the image of God and who are indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit. So we should at least be able to make heads or tails of the basic tenets of divine morality.
I absolutely don’t think that God took Tamara’s mother, or any other loved one who has ever died of cancer, heart disease, AIDS, or any other ailment that led to their untimely death. I think God gave them life, and the ailments cut that life short.
God is the author of life, not death. And death in itself isn’t even really a substantive force. Death isn’t the presence of something tangible but instead the absence of something tangible—life.
This is the same with all evil. Evil does not exist in itself but is merely a privation of God’s goodness.
This is what sin has wrought, from the very moment Adam and Eve ate the fruit that God forbade them from eating. Sin removed humanity and creation from the presence of God. And the result of being removed from the presence of God has been evilness, tragedy, and death. And that’s because to be separated from God is to be separated from life itself.
God does not cause these things. It is the fact that God’s very presence has been removed that these things even exist. He is not the author of evil. Evil is merely the absence of his signature.Death in itself isn't even really a substantive force. Death isn't the presence of something tangible but instead its absence. Click To Tweet
What About God’s Sovereignty?
The question that arises from here is how all this relates to God’s sovereignty. If God really is in control of all things, then doesn’t he necessarily cause everything, both the good and the evil?
I don’t think that necessarily follows. God is completely sovereign, meaning that he rules over everything as the King of creation. But just because you rule over something, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you control everything inside it—even though, in this case, God certainly could if he wanted to.
There are some theologians that believe that God does control literally everything, down to the way every leaf blows and which branches the birds land on. And if that is the case, then God necessarily has to ordain every evil thing.
Then there are those who think of God as more of a “divine watchmaker.” They imagine that God built all the components, put them together, wound the world up, and essentially walked away to let us live with the consequences of our collective choices from there.
I don’t think either of these perspectives accounts for everything the bible says.
Because the bible is clear that God knows the end from the beginning. The flow of time in the universe is a stream that is headed for the very specific destination of Christ’s victory and the full redemption of everyone who belongs to him. And there are multiple stops along that path that God has already laid out.
But there are also myriad times in scripture where God is calling people to account for the decisions they’ve made and the actions they’ve taken. And he has pointed out that those decisions and actions they’ve made have consequences. I don’t think God is playing a big charade with us, merely giving us the illusion of choice. I think the stakes are real, and humanity has a say in how the events of the world play out.
It’s just that no matter how far humanity tries to divert the waters of the stream to fulfill its own purposes, God has a way of always rerouting the stream back to its intended course. That’s why he can hold us accountable for our free choices while also maintaining sovereignty over the story of creation.I don't think God is playing a big charade with us, merely giving us the illusion of choice. Click To Tweet
But Why Doesn’t God Stop Evil Things From Happening?
It could be argued that I’m doing some theological gymnastics here in order to simply argue semantics. Because, after all, where God has the opportunity to stop an evil and doesn’t, isn’t that functionally the same as causing it?
If he wanted to, God could cure every cancer, stop every hurricane, halt every earthquake, and forestall every genocide. But he doesn’t. That’s why some atheists say that if there is a God who is all-powerful, he can’t be all-good. And if there is a God who is all-good, then he can’t be all powerful—because evil still pervades the world.
But the fact remains that evil isn’t here because of him. It’s because of us.
As judgment for humanity’s rebellion against him, God has allowed us to experience the consequences of our decision to cut ourselves off from him. This is what Paul describes in his letter to the Romans.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:24-25)
This is on us.
Our Brokenness Has Resulted in the Presence of Senseless Evil.
As a result of our brokenness, the world is an evil place. It is full of casual cruelty and violent indifference.
Sometimes, babies drown in swimming pools. Sometimes, elderly women are attacked in their homes by violent assailants. Sometimes, young men of integrity with transformative leadership potential are cut down by disease and death. Natural disasters, economic collapses, and violent political massacres are all germane to the human experience.
None of this makes sense. These events are existentially absurd and often tragically ironic. In short, they are devoid of any meaning, any purpose, any redemptive qualities. We don’t have to pretend that they do in the name of faith.
I don’t reject the idea that everything happens for a reason because I’m cynical. In fact, it’s my disbelief in the idea that every tragedy and hardship I’ve ever experienced was inflicted upon me by a sovereign God that keeps me from becoming cynical.
Because even in the middle of what is senseless and absurd, God is still ready to perform a miracle in the lives of those who call upon his name.
God Always Intervenes in the Life of the Believer.
Whatever evil thing that has happened to you or might happen to you, God didn’t do it. And frankly, he has no moral obligation to do anything about it. And yet, for those who seek out God in light of the prospect of evil, he is always waiting to perform a miracle.
And he’ll do that in one of two ways.
The first is that God is powerful to respond to prayer, even to supernaturally contravene the natural order of things to avert an evil that was headed your way. God can miraculously cure cancer. God can miraculously preserve lives in the midst of a war zone or natural disaster. He can miraculously move the hearts of or otherwise inhibit people who would seek to harm you. Oftentimes, he does.
And, oftentimes, he doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean that there is no miracle in store. In fact, the miracle he may have for you is even more impressive than if he had answered your first request.
Paul describes it to us in his second letter to the Corinthians.
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)
What Paul is saying is that God can take what was senseless and futile, and use this very tragedy, this very evil, to produce a particular type of glory that he will gift to you for eternity. In other words, the object of your consternation and shame will be transformed into something not only meaningful, but beautiful. The glory is particularly branded to the pain it is birthed from.
Much like the scars on Jesus’ hands were reasons for worship after he rose from the dead, by the power of that same resurrection, God can bring meaning to the meaningless. He can bring glory to the shame.
And this isn’t just about having a new lease on life. This is eternal. When this life is over, you will walk into eternity with your scars. But God is so good and powerful that even the sight of your deepest, darkest pains will become a reason for rejoicing. This is what Paul means when he says that God works through all things for your good.
Not everything happens for a reason. Not everything makes sense, and we don’t have to chalk that up to God working in mysterious ways. But the true mystery is that he will take the evil that he did not inflict and yet that we actually deserved, and he will replace it with glory in his name.Much like the scars on Jesus' hands were reasons for worship after he rose from the dead, God can bring meaning to the meaningless. He can bring glory to the shame. Click To Tweet