Theological Mistakes: “Everything Happens for a Reason”

While attending a funeral today I was talking with Paul Miller about the difficulty of expressing condolences. When a loved one dies, what do you say to those left behind? We often want to give words of comfort, but our desire to do this may cause more damage than help.

Specifically, when a father dies, it is not helpful to tell his son, “God knows what he is doing, boy, this is for the best.” or “It’s hard for you to understand now, but God has a plan.” or “Someday you will understand why God did this.” There are many variations on this theme, but the idea is that God either allowed or caused the death of this person. We are put in the untenable position of trying to say that our loving God is responsible for a horrible tragedy that has ripped hearts open.

To me, this is a variation of the pop theological statement, “Everything happens for a reason.” I have blogged before about this, but let me review a little. This is not a Christian idea. It might work in Buddhism, or possibly in extreme forms of Islam, but it is not a biblical idea. Why?

The laws of cause and effect would assume that there is a reason (cause) for all things that happen (effects). So, at one level, the idea that everything happens for a reason is true. There are two explanations for this. First, if we life in an entirely mechanistic world, everything is preordained because of its physical nature. Everything is matter and chemical, all things that happen are the coincidences of nature, There is no free will or independent decision making because everything humans do is the result of chemical processes in their brains. Freedom is an illusion. Second, if there is a divine reality outside of our material world (God), the only exceptions to mechanical processes are God’s deliberate manipulation of the forces of nature. In other words, these two choices say that human tragedy is either the result of inevitable mechanical processes or the intentional machinations of God.

I don’t think this is what most folks have in mind when they say, “Everything happens for a reason.” What the usually mean is “Everything happens for a good reason.” The implication is that something good always comes out of tragedy, even if we have to wait a long time to experience it. A variation on this is “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” concluding that horrible experiences have a useful side: strengthening our bodies or our character. All of this seems to have a biblical patina, proof-texting such verses as Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for good,” or Romans 5:4, “endurance produces character.”

But how does this play out in real life, especially in the time of tragedy? Is there comfort to be found in “Everything happens for a reason”? I don’t think so. If you are in a position to offer words of comfort to a grieving son, let me suggest three things you might say:

1. God still loves you and so do I.

2. Don’t try to figure out a reason for this terrible thing. Your head will explode.

3. It’s OK to be sad, because your father was a wonderful person and he has gone to be with Jesus now. I miss him, too.

There is one other thing I am tempted to say, but usually don’t:

4. The people who tell you this is for the best and that good will come from it are idiots. Just ignore them.

Maybe I’m being too judgmental, but grief should be comforted, not rationalized. If you have been through tragedy, you know that it does get better eventually, but now is not the time to share this. Walk with your friend in his grief and don’t try to dismiss it.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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8 thoughts on “Theological Mistakes: “Everything Happens for a Reason”

  1. Having lost 2 wives to cancer I have heard some well meaning but often hurtful explanations. Thanks for your insight and encouragement.

    Ralph Mehrens

  2. I couldn’t agree more. It isn’t the finding meaning in the suffering, in my opinion, it is remaining constant in our faith despite it. Two excellent examples in scripture:

    1. Job 1:20-22 (After Job’s children are killed), ” At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: ‘Naked I came form my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.’ In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.”

    Job grieved, then worshipped, praising God. I don’t think he praised God because he felt especially good, or because it was turning out to be a super day, or because he saw some great awesome purpose in his whole family being obliterated. So why praise God? Because despite our changing, sometimes horrible circumstances, HE IS GOD. Praise in pain requires thoughtful, intentional submission to something we don’t understand or even like. It is a demonstration of our love to God and our trust in His goodness.

    2. Daniel 3:16-18, “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. BUT EVEN IF HE DOES NOT, WE WANT YOU TO KNOW, O KING, THAT WE WILL NOT SERVE YOUR GODS OR WORSHIP THE IMAGE OF GOLD YOU HAVE SET UP.” (emphasis mine).

    How do you explain good people dying? How do you explain Godly people, in the prime of life, with two boys still at home dying? A faithful Sunday school teacher? How do you make sense of it? Are we supposed to make sense of it? I’ve always liked the passage from Daniel because in the face of terrible suffering, potential martyrdom, the three Israelites answered God can save them, but WHETHER HE DOES OR NOT has no bearing on their faithfulness to God. Could God have spared this father? Surely, he could have. He didn’t, though. The question is will that act have any bearing on our faithfulness to God.

    I truly pray that his family have deep roots that will allow them to face this suffering and not look for reasons, but instead make a purposeful choice to daily be faithful to God, no matter what the circumstances, like their Dad did.

    • Thanks, Nina. The Job reference reminds me of another flawed response: God must be punishing you for something you did. This is what Job’s “friends” try to tell him. A good example is the child whose parents are divorcing, and is made to think it is his or her fault.

      MK

  3. Have a very good friend who, upon my wife leaving me and the eventual divorce, would listen, listen and listen. When I was done venting about the loss and hurt, he would thoughtfully, sincerely say, “yeah, sucks to be you”. Now, while this approach to comfort doesn’t work for every relationship, in ours it did wonders..and, yes, I still count him as my best friend.

  4. I couldn’t agree more. I have learned a great deal on this through Dr. Alan Wolfelt. He teaches “companioning” the bereaved, which is especially critical in a counseling setting where one might be temped to try and “fix” the bereaved. I think God hates goodbyes and death, too, which is why he created a place where we never have to go through it again. Thanks for your words Dr. Krause.

    • One of the things I learned in ministry was that when tragedy struck a family in the church, I just tried to go be with them. Lots of time there weren’t many words, just presence.
      MK

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