“Everything Happens for a Reason”

This summer I have been doing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Bridgeport Hospital in Connecticut. Basically, I’m a hospital chaplain intern. Among other things, this means I spend a lot of time with patients and their families in various levels of crisis.

In my conversations with many of these patients, I have discovered that as people attempt to make meaning out of their experiences of suffering, many of them cling to a particular theological assertion that I find deeply troubling: “Everything happens for a reason.” The notion that everything happens for a reason helps us to make sense of otherwise inexplicable situations, usually by deferring to some sort of divine or supernatural plan that is inaccessible to mere human beings. When we can’t explain why something happened, we suggest that it is part of God’s plan, that “everything happens for a reason.”

One website (featuring a very special soundtrack) provides this example:

Sometimes people come into your life and you know right away that they were meant to be there… to serve some sort of purpose, teach you a lesson or help figure out who you are or who you want to become. You never know who these people may be but you lock eyes with them, you know that very moment that they will affect your life in some profound way.

You’ve had the experience, haven’t you? See!! Everything happens for a reason! It sends tingles up your spine, doesn’t it? The website goes on:

And sometimes things happen to you at the time that may seem horrible, painful and unfair, but in reflection you realize that without overcoming those obstacles you would never realize your potential, strength, will power or heart.

You can relate to that, too, can’t you? Remember all those tough times you went through, and how you came out stronger on the other side? Everything happens for a reason, you guys. Or, as this website puts it:

Nothing happens by chance or by means of luck. Illness, love, lost moments of true greatness and sheer stupidity all occur to test limits of your soul. Without these small tests, life would be like a smoothly paved, straight, flat road to nowhere safe and comfortable but dull and utterly pointless. The people you meet affect your life. The successes and downfalls that you experience can create whom you are, and the bad experiences can be learned from. In fact they are probably the most poignant and important ones.

I can get there with you, really. Sometimes certain events do seem too good to be true, and it’s tempting to say that they must have happened “for a reason.” Patients I have encountered often think of their time in the hospital as one of the “small tests” this website describes from which they can learn something important. “The heart attack was a wake-up call: I need to start exercising.” OK, fair enough.

But for some patients, the “everything happens for a reason” mindset can do more harm than good. The man who was killed instantly when he was hit by a drunk driver–what was the reason for that? Is any reason sufficient to explain why something so horrible could happen to anybody? One woman, whose brother was brain-dead in the intensive care unit after being assaulted and shot in the head, told me, “It’s easy to believe everything happens for a reason until something like this happens.” My point exactly.

Trying to make sense of God’s role in suffering is difficult indeed. Karl Barth summarizes the contradiction that lies at the heart of this problem: “God is either good, but obviously neither divine nor omnipotent in relation to [suffering], or [God] is divine and omnipotent, but obviously not good in relation to [suffering]” (Church Dogmatics 3.3.365). In other words, one either denies that suffering is caused by God, thereby defending God’s goodness but calling God’s power into question; or one affirms that God is the cause of suffering, thereby defending God’s power but calling God’s goodness into question. It is impossible, it seems, to call God both all-powerful and all-loving, both of which are characteristics we would like to ascribe to God.

I believe in a loving God. The Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ (not my tradition, but one whose theology resonates with me) asserts that “In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, God has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the whole creation to its Creator.” A life of suffering is our “common lot”; rather than obliterating suffering from on high, God entered into our broken world, working within an imperfect creation to conquer suffering. This points not to a God who is all-powerful, a God who causes suffering, but to a God of incredible love who accepts the inescapability of suffering, enters into suffering, and endures the very hardships we experience ourselves.

Everything does not happen for a reason. Sometimes bad things just happen. God doesn’t cause suffering. But God is present in the midst of suffering, just as God was present in a most radical way in Christ’s death on the cross.

The featured image for this post is copyright (c) 2014 Emily McDowell.

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