Genesis 1:26 – 2:1, Deuteronomy 30:19-20
I recently conducted a funeral for a young man, 24 years old, who died of an overdose. He suffered from his drug addiction to the point where just after successfully completing a year-long intensive rehab program, he returned to his drug of choice and managed to end his life on the second try. At his funeral, his uncle was giving the eulogy and said he was struggling with this as he did not understand God’s will in taking his nephew at such a young age.
Today we begin a sermon series based on the book Half Truths, by Adam Hamilton. We will be looking at popular sayings that many assume are Biblical. While each of these holds a bit of truth, the rest of the picture brings a more complete idea and understanding of God, of ourselves, and of our relationship with God. Today we are looking at the popular saying, “Everything happens for a reason.”
When have you heard this one used? It often pops up during times of trial or grief. Family members will try to comfort loved ones and basically state that God has some goal in mind for the tragedy we are experiencing. We try to acknowledge our suffering with the notion that God has a master plan, and every event in our lives, including the suffering we endure, happens as part of this plan. If that is true, than every bit of suffering you endure must have been initiated by God to meet with God’s ultimate plan for you and for me. I have heard it said this way, “It must have been the will of God.”
This statement, “Everything happens for a reason” does have a measure of truth. When we look at basic physics, we are steeped in the law of cause and effect. Every action we make has a corresponding reaction or consequence. Every choice we make produces some type of result. Some of those choices are not good ones. Choosing to text while driving can cause serious harm to oneself and/or others. According to one statistic, 11 teens die each day as a result of texting while driving – it is now the number one cause of death for teenagers. I saw this cartoon and thought while it is rather funny, yet there is a serious implication here [show cartoon.] If we state “Everything happens for a reason” there is definitely a measure of truth in this as for every action we make, there is either a positive or negative reaction.
For the most part, when folks make this statement, “Everything happens for a reason,” they are not thinking in terms of cause and effect. Most of the time I have heard this statement said when we are trying to explain or give comfort in tragic situations similar to the uncle’s statement at the funeral I noted earlier. We want to make some sense out of the terrible things happening around us while recognizing the ultimate sovereignty of God. When someone dies unexpectedly, we will often say things like, “It must have been his/her time,” or “It was part of the plan,” or “It must have been God’s will to call him/her home.” We are trying to be a comfort to those who are grieving, noting there was a bigger picture we are not privy to which will explain why this happened. We come to a crossroads when trying to cling to the understanding of God as all-powerful, ever-present, and always in control, with the notion of human suffering.
Adam Hamilton notes three problems with this line of reason. First is the problem of personal responsibility. If everything happens for a reason, than whatever I do must be in accordance with God’s will. If I drink and drive, killing another person in an accident, it must have been that person’s time. If I cheat on my taxes and get hit with a huge penalty, the fact that my family suffers must be part of God’s plan. If we follow this line of reasoning, than I am not responsible for any of my actions or the consequences of those actions as they must have been God’s will.
The second problem with the notion that everything happens for a reason is that of God’s responsibility. This basically credits God for every tragedy in our world being a part of God’s overall plan. Think of some of the horrors we see each and every day depicted on the news. We just honored our lost loved ones who have selflessly served our country last week for Memorial Day. Was it God’s will for our loved ones to die fighting for their country? When children are sold into the slave trade, is that really God’s will? When EgyptAir flight 804 crashed while in route from Paris to Cairo, was it each person’s ‘time’ when they died in this tragic event?
Each day we take precautions to care for ourselves and our loved ones. We wear seat belts, get check-ups, take vitamins, look both ways before crossing the street. If we truly believe that everything happens for a reason, it would seem we are going against God’s will by trying to prevent the inevitable. If we truly buy into this notion that everything happens for a reason, I have a great deal of difficulty worshipping a God who would allow tragedies to occur as part of God’s plan.
The third problem with the notion that everything happens for a reason is that it can lead to fatalism and indifference. There would be no reason to take any sort of precautions in life because everything is already fated. We would not need to wear seat belts, eat right, get check-ups, exercise – none of this would matter. Medical professionals would be completely unnecessary.
So where does that leave us? If we recognize the half-truth in the statement, “Everything happens for a reason,” than what is the rest of the story? Perhaps we should look again at the scripture noted for us from the book of Genesis. God has made us stewards of the earth and all that is in it. God remains sovereign, working through humans to take responsibility over all that is God’s on God’s behalf. We are given free will and the ability to make choices. If not, why would God have placed the forbidden tree in the garden? When we listen to God’s calling – that nudging that encourages us to serve God and our neighbors – the consequences of those actions serve as the message of God to a hurting world. Free will is built into the equation, for better or worse. Numerous scriptures point to this idea of choice – choosing the path of righteousness or the path of darkness. The scripture from Deuteronomy has Moses speaking to the people of Israel, offering them a choice. One choice leads to life and one to death, but the choice is theirs to make.
We are given the choice as well. “God gave us a brain, a heart, a conscience, [the Holy] Spirit, the Scriptures, and the ability to interpret them as guides to help us select the right path.” While we each have dominion over the earth and the ability to make choices, God’s prevenient grace helps us to make good choices that will help to build up the kingdom of God rather than to tear it down.
So if we follow this train of thought, and humans have dominion over the earth, is it all up to us? Does God have any involvement in the world? So far we have looked at one end of the spectrum – the idea that was developed mainly by John Calvin, a brilliant theologian that helped to shape the Protestant Reformation. For Calvin, in order for God to remain sovereign (the highest authority) than God had to cause everything that happens. We have looked at some of the difficulties of this understanding when we consider free will. However, there is the other end of the spectrum known as Deism. This is the understanding of God as being completely hands-off. With this theory, God placed the earth in motion, gave humans dominion over it, and took a huge step back, placing the whole thing on autopilot. This understanding leaves no room for God to work in our lives at all. If this is true, than most of the Biblical encounters with God are just cute stories. God would not have liberated the Israelites from Egypt, God would not have spoken through the prophets, God would not have sent Jesus to save and deliver us. The bedrock of our Christian teaching becomes null and void with this understanding.
Let us consider a more middle way between these two extremes of Calvinism and Deism. God remains sovereign, at times intervening and at times using other humans to do good and lead others to a path of love and compassion for God and others. We are given free will, and often the suffering we encounter is due to the free will choices of ourselves or others. I do not believe God gives children cancer or wills for someone to die in a car crash. One thing I cling to is the notion that all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose” (Romans 8:28). In other words, God will force evil to accomplish good.
I wanted to close with the final paragraph of this chapter in Hamilton’s book.
Between the micromanaging God who causes everything to happen and the absentee landlord God who is not involved in our lives is a picture of God who grants human beings freedom and allows them to take risks. It is a picture of God who does not cause tragedy but uses it, of God who can directly and supernaturally intervene but usually works indirectly through people. It is a picture of God who, through the power of Jesus’ resurrection, gives us assurance that in the end “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). (Hamilton, pg. 48) Amen.