I got your attention, didn’t I? There are few statements that stir up as many emotions as, “everything happens for a reason.” In fact, there are few statements more designed to make the recipient of such “sage” advice want to smack the speaker in the head! And yet, it is so prevalent. It’s everywhere (especially on Facebook)! And it is the cause of so much anger and hurt in those of you who have been through the worst that life can dish out and whose distress is compounded by thoughtless others whose idea of comfort is to offer these condescending words. Why are people so enamored of using this platitude, and why do the recipients get so upset by it? I think the answer to the second question is that the underlying message seems to be, “I can’t handle your feelings.” It is a highly invalidating statement. Despite the fact that whatever you are going through is extremely painful and worthy of copious tears, blazing anger, screaming, moaning and otherwise being a huge emotional mess, this other person doesn’t want to hear it. It’s too uncomfortable or overwhelming for them to deal with. They want to say something, placating though it may be, that allows them to walk away from the emotional cesspool and tell themselves that they tried to help you but you just weren’t listening. They want you to stop suffering so they don’t have to look at it, acknowledge it, or harbor the thought, even for a moment, that this same thing that happened to you, could happen to them! They cannot entertain that possibility, lest it open up such a deep chasm of fear that they would be swallowed up by it.
Another underlying message in this statement is that the “reason” is about God. (I think they’re wrong, which I will address in the next paragraph.) Unfortunately, one of the harmful effects of this mindset is that, if God is in control of everything, even our suffering, then why bother trying to change anything for the better? It gives people permission to be utterly passive in the face of injustice and evil. It allows them to be indifferent to unfair practices and antiquated laws that allow people to be victimized and ignored. Not only do the words allow the speaker to walk away from the person who is hurting, it prevents them from considering the broader context and the conditions that exist that may have contributed to the situation at hand. And even when the situation is completely random and unconnected to any social ills, there are still things that could be done to ease the suffering of those who are impacted by it. As people of faith, we are called to be forerunners of the kingdom of God, working to minister to a broken world and right the wrongs that we see around us. When our philosophy is “Everything happens for a reason,” it seems to excuse us from responding to John Lewis’s call to arms: “If not us, then who? If not now, when?”
But let’s get back to the main issue. Does everything happen for a reason? The answer to that question is yes, but they’re not good reasons, and I don’t think God has anything to do with it! The implication with the “everything happens for a reason” gambit is that God caused this to happen for God’s own mysterious purposes, and you had better just be grateful, because something good is going to come out of it, if you wait long enough and quit your whining in the meantime! That’s just bad theology. God does not cause our suffering. God does not willfully put us in harm’s way or devise situations that will cause us unimaginable pain for the benefit of the “greater good.” I just don’t believe that’s how God works. But while I don’t believe God is involved in the “before” of an event, I absolutely believe God is present in the “after”— comforting, strengthening, and surrounding you with people who can understand and accompany you on your difficult journey. And certainly, God is involved in your healing and in the transformation that can sometimes happen in the aftermath of tragedy.
So what are the reasons for suffering? Here are just a few:
…because someone decided to get hopped up on drugs or alcohol and drive into a crowd of people on a sidewalk.
…because a sick and twisted individual decided to act out their sickness by violating an innocent child.
…because a virus ran rampant through a community that had no access to clean water or quality health care.
…because a mutation in one of your genes caused you to be infertile or to bear a child with severe abnormalities and disabilities.
…because a train operator fell asleep at the wheel or a religious fanatic high-jacked a plane or a troubled kid took his father’s gun to school.
The list goes on and on. Everything does happen for a reason, and sometimes the only reason we can come up with is that we live in a random universe where s— happens. But the reason is not God. God is not the cause of tragedy; God is the agent of healing from tragedy.