On the Claim that “Everything Happens for a Reason”

Here’s the thing: I certainly get why “Everything happens for a reason” can be irritating to suffering people when it is meant (or taken to mean) “God is doing shit to you to make you suffer”, particularly when the suffering is innocent and not self-inflicted.

But the truth is, the Christian tradition does not teach “Everything happens for a reason” when it comes to sin. Sin is radically unnecessary. It is entirely negative and often completely irrational. It happens, in the end, for *no* reason because it is the act of a creature asserting its Nothingness.

The paradox is that a strict Materialist, not a Christian, is bound by his philosophy to assert that absolutely everything happens “for a reason” and that reason is and can only be that everything which ever happens is the latest outworking of the interplay of blind and inexorable time, space, matter and energy. Materialism is bound by its tenets to assert that everything that has ever happened or will happen will have happened “for a reason”: because of the blind physical causes that happened just prior to the Bad Thing.

Christian theology insists that, in the end, sinful things happen for *no* reason. They were not necessary, they were not willed by God, and they are entirely gratuitous acts of abused freedom that, paradoxically, result in enslavement to evil that God hates.

What the Christian tradition *does* assert (and is the only valid way of meaning “Everything happens for a reason” in the Christian tradition as far as sinful acts goes) is that God wills to turn even our irrational, mysterious, and evil acts to good. As Joseph put it to his brothers after they sinfully sold him into slavery, only for him to wind up as Pharaoh’s Right Hand Man and save his family: “You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good.”

It is the same pattern as the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In that sense only do sinful things happen “for a reason”. But that is not because God wills sin, but to turn our meaningless and stupid sinful choices and acts, done in perverted freedom, to his glory and our good, despite ourselves. In this, the very thing materialism is bound to affirm–“Everything happens for a reason”–is denied by the freedom both of sinners to do things for no reason and of God to insert his free and gratuitous love into the supposedly machine-like working of Creation.

“God has loves, not reasons.” – Robert Farrar Capon


7 Responses

  1. hmmm. It is a very secular comment, “everything happens for a reason”. Hadn’t really thought about it too deeply before.

  2. This explanation doesn’t seem to cover most of the situations where people (Christian or secular) use “everything happens for a reason”. Most of the times I hear that, it isn’t used to explain situations that are visibly caused by someone acting sinful, malicious, negligent or whatever. In those cases, the proximate reason is pretty obvious.

    Instead I see it used in cases where the result is harmful, but the cause can’t be easily traced to a human doing something bad. So people say “everything happens for a reason” when a tornado destroys someone’s house. Or something burns down, but it’s not arson or obvious negligence. And so on and so forth. And I basically never hear a secular person say it in those cases, because that would be obviously nonsensical. Obviously “blind chance and the interplay of natural forces” would be “why” it happened. But what good would it do to say that? Instead, I hear it used in those cases mostly by religious folks, as short for “Take heart. It’s not chance. It’s God intentionally doing it with the intent of producing some future more positive result.”. Basically to comfort the afflicted with hope that, in the grand scheme, things are still somehow good and fair.

    Mark, your thoughts?

    1. I see it deployed for every big bad thing, both natural disasters, but also traumatic sins like 9/11. It is always, as near as I can see, a callback to the idea that Something Good behind the visible world is working to bring something good out of the chaos and evil of the visible world. Paul puts it this way: All things work to the good for those in Christ Jesus, who are called according to his purpose. That is *not* an attempt to limit Providence solely to Christians. Paul thinks the entire created order is order to the glory of Christ and that includes, in the end, not just the whole human race, but the entire cosmos. Rather, he is writing to reassure the Romans that their particular situation is under God’s eye and that, as a later mystic would put it “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

      1. Fair enough. Thanks.

        So, a more direct version of the question: If a tornado destroys my neighbor’s house and badly injuries him, and since that event can’t be traced to humans, was that God’s “intent” that the tornado do that? And, assuming it was intentional, did it happen because God is bringing about some long term greater good, that would not otherwise have occurred? (This is very close to what happened to a close relative last year, just replace tornado with flood.)

        I have some discomfort with the idea that God “intended” it to happen. It sounds very utilitarian. “Doing evil that good may come of it.” Like we’re saying somehow he couldn’t come up with some other solution. But I also feel discomfort with the idea that it’s purely accidental, and produces a *worse* result than would otherwise have occurred. That matches the secular understanding of the situation, but leaves “why” unsatisfying unanswered.

        I remember back during the Indonesian earthquake / tsunami that killed so many people. One of the big Christian websites (think it was christiananswers.net) published at article titled something like “How can God allow a hundred thousand poor villagers to be killed by a natural disaster?”. I was honestly rather amazed that their answer was essentially “Because the villagers deserve it. Just like we do.” I sort of respected its… courage?… while being horrified by what felt like its heartlessness. Still trying to square that circle. *shrug*

  3. I’ve probably heard the saying used mostly to console someone who has lost a loved one unexpectedly. “Everything happens for a reason”. I’ve always thought it was an insufficient consolation in those circumstances. A Christian is more likely to be consoled by knowing they are sharing the Cross. A non religious more likely to be consoled by empathy/sympathy than such words. I’ve also found that the statement “there but for the grace of God go I” to not be quite fitting for purpose.

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