Half Truths: Everything Happens for a Reason

Rev. Shawn Coons
Preached on July 7, 2017

All through the month of July and into August we are going to be looking at a series of “half-truths” that are often said by Christians.  These particular half-truths are coming from a book by Adam Hamilton, called Half-Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn’t Say.  And each week we will explore one of these half-truths and we will try to find the truth in it, as well as explore what may not be so true about it.

Before we go further though, I want to say that the goal of this series is not to offend anyone.  Chances are many of us, myself included, have said one or more of these half-truths at some point.  And I know that when we’ve said these things we have meant well.  So I’m not saying that if you’ve said one of these you are a bad person. Not by any means.

But it’s important to talk about these half-truths, even if it makes us a little defensive or uncomfortable.  If you do feel a little unsettled, that’s OK, I promise that we will all get through this together.  So why is it important to talk about these?  Why is it important to label as half-truths things like:

  • Everything happens for a reason
  • God helps those who help themselves
  • Love the sinner, hate the sin

It’s important because even with our best intentions, saying these things can potentially be hurtful.  It can be harmful. It can wound people in their hour of need, and can turn people away from God and Jesus.  So we’ll be looking at these half-truths, for the truth that is there and the truth that isn’t. And we will ask questions as to how true they are and indeed how Christian they are.

We are beginning with “Everything happens for a reason.”

I’m guessing we’ve all heard this said at some point, or even said it yourself.  We usually say it at the point when something bad has happened, when someone is suffering, and we are trying to help them through a difficult time. We might say, it was meant to be, it must have been there time, it was God’s will, it was all a part of God’s plan.

And we say these kind of things at moments of loss, because we want to affirm that even in tragic circumstances God is in control, that if this awful thing happened then God must have a greater purpose in mind. When tragedy strikes we want to know that even when we are riding through the storm and the waves are threatening to overturn the ship, we want to know that indeed the captain is at the helm and the captain is keeping the ship on course.

It is perfectly natural and understandable to look for God’s strong and loving hand guiding things in our darkest hour. But let’s look a little bit closer at “Everything happens for a reason.”

Let’s ask this question: Does everything happen as part of God’s plan, and is that plan immutable, set in stone?  This is the fundamental question, if the answer to this question is “no,” we can’t trace everything that happens back to God’s immutable place, then everything does not happen for a reason, at least not a reason according to God’s will.

Try this exercise to answer this question.  Watch the evening news one night, and after every story, shootings, war, famine, terrorism, say out loud “Everything happens for a reason, that was part of God’s plan.”

How does that feel to you?

When Carrie and I were serving our church in Florida, there was a 4 year old boy named Mitchell who lived a couple blocks from the church. His family weren’t members, they didn’t come to worship, but Mitchell often came to our Wednesday afternoon children’s program.  One Halloween, Mitchell and his mother were crossing a busy street to get to the Methodist’ church Trunk or Treat event, and a car hit them and killed Mitchell.

Mitchell’s funeral was at our church, and I spent a lot of time with his family during this awful time.  I heard things like, “I guess God needed another angel.” “It must have been Mitchell’s time.” And other versions of “Everything happens for a reason.” I have a hard time believing any of those.  I don’t believe God causes four year old children to get killed. I don’t believe God causes anyone to be killed.

If “everything happens for a reason” as part of God’s plan than God is responsible for tragic death’s like Mitchell’s, for war, for famine, for the holocaust, for terrorism. And I don’t think that sits well with any of us. And I don’t think it lines up with our experience. Nor does it line up with the whole witness of Scripture.  Let’s read a passage from Genesis 2, from Adam and Eve, and see how this helps us this morning.

4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,* and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

This is from the second version of the Creation story that we find in Genesis. And here we see one of the very first things that God does with Adam. God creates Adam, creates the Garden of Eden, puts the forbidden “tree of knowledge” there and tells Adam not to eat from it.  And then God gives Adam one more thing. God gives Adam a choice.  To obey or to disobey. To choose life or choose death.

If everything happened for a reason. If everything was part of God’s unchangeable plan, then there is no choice in this story is there?  God would have had to have made Adam eat the forbidden fruit as part of God’s plan. If everything is a part of God’s plan, than we have no free will, we make no true choices. Everything we do, everything we say, every action we take, every choice we make, has been pre-determined by God and we are just going through the motions. “Everything happens for a reason” not only means that God is the author of all evil acts, but it also means that we have no free will.  It takes away personal responsibility from you and me.

So we said this is a half-truth, so you may be wondering where is the truth in “everything happens for a reason?”  Let’s talk for a moment about the concept of God’s sovereignty.  What does sovereignty mean in this case?  YOU are probably familiar with the word sovereign.  It simply means the boss, if someone is sovereign it means there is no higher authority.  In our Christian tradition, the sovereignty of God is important. We don’t believe that anyone has power over God, or that anyone can control God or have more control than God. 

And so when we say “everything happens for a reason” it is a way of affirming God’s sovereignty.  God is still the ultimate authority. Not the powers of hate or violence or death. God is supreme.

So if God is supreme, is sovereign, and bad things happen, but God doesn’t cause them to happen, then who does?

There are a couple ways Christians answer this questions. One way is to say, yes, everything happens for a reason and often times that reason is that we are stupid people who make bad choices.  Much of the suffering and pain in this world we inflict on one another.  That’s not a part of God’s plan, it’s part of ours.

We read the beginning of one of the Creation stories in Genesis, later on in that same story God speaks to Adam and Eve and tells them that they are the caretakers of the Garden, of Creation. They have dominion (authority) over it.  God remains in charge, sovereign, but delegates responsibility for taking care of things to humanity. And further more, God gives us all sorts of instructions and guidance for how to choose the right thing to do.  But time and time again, just like Adam and Eve, we choose the wrong and someone gets hurt.

Well, does that mean that God handed the keys to the shop over to Adam and Eve and then checked out? Are we on our own, God created everything but then like an absentee landlord left us to our own devices?  There’s a fancy name for this way of thinking about God, it’s called Deism. It was pretty popular with a number of America’s founding fathers. In Deism, we sometimes call God the “Watchmaker God.” God creates the world like a watchmaker would create a watch. He gets it running, winds it up and then leaves to let the watch run on its own.

In our tradition, we reject this idea that God is no longer here. We believe God does not abandon us. So now we’ve said that God doesn’t control and script every last thing as part of an eternal, unchangeable plan. And we’ve rejected the idea that God got creation started and then went on vacation.  So if God doesn’t control us and God isn’t hands off, how do we understand how God works in the world in our lives.

Ray Firestone lost his wife in a car accident, and he often shared this quote that guided him:

Suffering is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. Suffering is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved. Suffering can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life.”

God is present at all times, and through all circumstances, and even when tragedy strikes, maybe especially when tragedy strikes, God is with us and can bring healing and comfort, and in time perspective and maybe new insight.

My mother died three months ago.  I don’t believe God gave her cancer as part of God’s plan. I don’t believe God took her because it was her time.  But I do believe God was part of the closeness and love I shared with my mother and the rest of my family in her last days.

Think back to the most painful times of your life.  With time can you now see God working through the tragedy? Not causing it, but coming to you when you are vulnerable and in need. Lifting you up, teaching you compassion, showing you love.

One final story, and I apologize that I’m hitting you with tragic ones this morning, but this is another story of a lost child.  Todd and Kathy were parents to three year old Austin, when he died. It was a horrible time for them, but through it all their faith in God emerged stronger.  This is Kathy’s thoughts on how their faith was strengthened:

At the time I had had people tell me that it was Austin’s “time,” and I was having a hard time believing in a God who would plan to take my child at age three. I learned that tragedies weren’t necessarily part of God’s plan, but that God gave us free will, and that bad things sometimes happen. Understanding this helped me to turn to God instead of away from Him. . . . Since Austin’s death, I believe that my faith has grown and continues to grow. His death changed the way I view God and my faith. I no longer have a naive, childlike faith where God protects you from all harm and makes everything OK. It’s a deeper faith that has been tested through tragedy. I know that God doesn’t promise me a pain-free life, but He does promise to always be there to love me, comfort me, and guide me.

Does everything happen for a reason?  That’s not what our faith teaches us. Does God have an immutable plan that scripts everything, good and evil, that will ever befall us?  No.  But I do believe that God has a plan, and that plan is to love us and be with us, no matter what.  And that plan is a promise, now and forever just as the Apostle Paul wrote to the church of Rome:

5Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.