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Good Questions: Everything does happen for a reason

Reflections from Dr. Howell

   Of all the little sugary gummy bears religious people offer to one another in the hour of suffering, one stands out (for me) as profoundly false, and yet surprisingly very, very true. “Everything happens for a reason” – the title of Kate Bowler’s wise book on what she calls “lies we love.” She walks us through things people said to her as a young mom with stage 4 colon cancer: “God is writing a better story.” “This is a test and it will make you stronger.” Or worse, “Think positively…” or “God never gives us more than we can bear.”

Lurking inside “for a reason” is the assumption that God has some good reason for doing this seemingly terrible thing, or for allowing it to happen. We just don’t know that reason. Or not yet – as we count on God explaining things when we get to heaven. The solace in this must be it’s not utterly meaningless or random or wretched.

But there is no veiled, divine reason behind horrors. God doesn’t have any reason to inspire the shooter to gun kids down. God doesn’t have a reason to sow cancer cells in your body. God has no reason to cause a car to crash or a spouse to cheat. There is no hidden divine reason for evil – because God isn’t evil and doesn’t wish it or inflict it on anybody, ever.

If we apply our brains to tragedies, we actually can know why bad things happen. My friend’s 19 year old was killed in a head-on collision, not for some divine reason, but for the simple reason that when we invented cars, we knew some would crash into others due to mechanical failure – or, as in this case, driver failure: someone took his eyes off the road, bumped another car that careened across the median into her car. God didn’t distract the lousy driver, and God didn’t pick Molly as the target. We know the reason.

Human sin is the cause of a high percentage of evil. Wars are waged. A sniper opens fire. A marriage is wrecked by infidelity or abuse. We know the reasons, and they aren’t God’s reasons.

There are ‘natural’ agonies – cancer, floods, etc., and it could be that centuries of human actions or even good inventions have altered the environment so that we have horrors that weren’t in the original design. And God apparently didn’t choose to design a world where it’s safe out there. We love the beauty of a river, or a soaring mountain. But those places are dangerous for people, not reaching out to kill you, but risky. Katrina engulfed New Orleans, not because (as an evangelist declared) God was punishing decadent party people there, but because storms happen, and maybe they’re worse because of ways we’ve harmed the ecological system, and mostly because it was frightfully risky to build a city below sea level and fantasize that the man-made levies would always hold

We know the reasons for most diseases: genes, environment, eating and drinking habits, contagions. And we know how to cure most diseases. A century ago, without antibiotics, people died of things we cure easily today. We’ll cure more tomorrow – although we’ll still be mortal. God isn’t calling secret plays to stick this child with cancer or that dad with an aneurysm. Our bodies have weak points. God doesn’t afflict heavy drinkers with liver disease to punish them; it’s a natural consequence. Everything really does happen for a reason, just not a hidden divine reason.

One big reason things happen is chance. There is such a thing as chance. Accidents happen. The drunk driver happened to veer into your sister. Friendly fire on the battlefield killed your brother. The tornado hit your cousin’s trailer. Could just have easily been the next trailer. The guy in the next trailer can’t say God spared me! – as if God had a reason to do this. There’s a storm, a car out of control. Accidents happen.

None of these, human sin, natural disasters, human error, disease and accidents are doled out based on whether you’re good or not. So it becomes less Why bad things happen – which we can know – and more about When bad things happen. When they do, we love, we don’t blame God or the sufferer. We have immense mercy. We don’t rationalize. We weep with those who weep.

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