An Unfortunate False Assumption

A photographer for a national magazine was assigned to take photos of an immense forest fire in the United States. Smoke at the scene hampered him, so he asked his home office to hire a plane. Arrangements were made, and he was told to go at once to a nearby airport where the plane would be waiting. When he arrived at the airport, he found a plane warming up near the runway. He jumped into the plane and shouted, “Hurry! Let’s go!” The pilot swung the plane into the wind and soon they were in the air. “Fly over the north side of the fire,” yelled the photographer, “and make three or four low-level passes.” There was an awkward silence until the pilot asked, “Why?” “Because I’m a photographer and photographers take pictures,” cried the man in exasperation. After another pause, the pilot said, “You mean you’re not the instructor? This is only the second time I’ve been up in a plane.” The photographer had made a false assumption. 

As the story demonstrates, false assumptions can be a serious and dangerous matter. 

In this article, I want to look at a false assumption made by so many people in our world: old and young; people of all races, ethnic backgrounds, and geographical origins; movie stars and rock stars; the educated and the uneducated; white-collar and blue-collar workers; people of all religious faiths; those within the church and those with no church affiliation at all. This false assumption drives me up the wall. Whenever I hear people state this false assumption, I want to shake them until their teeth rattle!

So, what is this false assumption which drives me crazy? “Everything happens for a reason.” When I hear that statement (which I do quite often), I want to scream! I want us to think through this assumption from a faith perspective. Of course, on one level it is probably true because of a cause-and-effect factor in our world. If you jump out of a twenty-story building onto concrete, you will probably die from the fall. If you drink four bottles of whiskey, you will probably become drunk. There is a cause-and-effect nature to most things in this world, but that is not what most people mean by the statement, “Everything happens for a reason.” They mean something like this: things happen because they are supposed to. They happen so that we might learn some necessary lessons in life. Whatever happens (good or bad, blessing or curse, fortunate or tragic) occurs so we might benefit from lessons we have been sent to this earth to learn during our lives. 

But let’s think through this assumption as we consider a few examples:

  1. An aged widow’s home is invaded by a thug who beats her, rapes her, steals her valuables, and causes her so much trauma that she will never be the same again emotionally, mentally, or physically. Will someone please tell me what possible lesson that widow is supposed to learn from this awful crime?
  2. A town is struck by a violent tornado which leaves 86 men, women, and children dead and countless others homeless and in shock. What lessons are these innocent people meant to learn from this “predestined” natural tragedy? 
  3. During the Holocaust Nazi soldiers tore babies from the arms of Jewish mothers and bayoneted some of these infants as they threw them up in the air while feeding others to guard dogs—all in front of helpless and grief-stricken mothers. Is there anyone who has the gall, stupidity, and wickedness to say that this happened so that lessons could be learned? 

We could continue with many other examples, but I think any person with sense and the ability to empathize gets the point. Can anyone say that these things happened for a reason predestined by a loving God so people could learn some lessons in life?

So why do people say so often, “Everything happens for a reason”? I think they say it because the very thought gives them some sense of security, comfort, and reassurance in an unpredictable and often threatening world. And to an extent, such reasoning is understandable. To believe everything that happens does so for a reason, especially if there is a God behind it, allows people to think that history in general and our lives in particular are not haphazard, meaningless, chaotic, and out of control. God, the universe, the cosmic mind, the force, or something bigger than us is calling the shots and somehow that’s a good thing for us and the world. Such thinking may be comforting for some, but it’s certainly inadequate for most of us if we stop and actually think through what is being said by such a claim. As we shall see, such a false assumption is very damaging on many levels. 

Let me first point out that it’s one thing to say that everything happens for a reason so that we might learn our lessons. It’s quite another to say that after things happen, we can look back on them and learn from those events—perhaps learn from our mistakes or something regarding the human mind and heart. Do you see the difference? If I were struck blind today, I don’t believe God did that to me to teach me a lesson. But years from now I might look back on my blindness and perhaps recognize things I have learned over time from my affliction which I probably would not have learned if I had not lost my sight. I didn’t become blind so that I could learn some lessons. But since I am already blind, I might as well make the best of the situation and be open to the sensitivities and insights I could gain from my condition. Again, do you see the difference? 

I want us to look at the Christian view of God in light of this false assumption that everything happens for a reason.

GOD THE CREATOR: Christians believe that God created this universe. The Apostles Creed begins with the words, “I believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth.” According to Genesis, God chose to create in a very special way. Throughout the first chapter of Genesis, God says, “Let there be.” In Hebrew grammar, that verb is in the jussive mood which is the mood of invitation and permission. God did not command creation to come into being. The imperative form of the verb “to be” as a command was certainly available to the writers, but God refuses to command. God invites creation to participate with Her in an exciting adventure. And that invitation finds fulfillment with the statement that God created human beings in God’s own image and shares Her creative and imaginative powers with us. We are to make wise decisions and act out our roles as agents and representatives of God in the care of this earth. To say that we are created in God’s image means that we have the freedom, dignity, creativity, responsibility, and ability to relate healingly to creation and to form community. God did not create us as robots. Instead, God created us in the divine image and invites us to join Her in an amazing and mind-blowing adventure. Together with  God, we decide our lives, our destiny, and the future of creation.

Where is there room in this understanding of God for the assumption that everything happens for a reason—that all that occurs somehow is the unfolding of a predetermined blueprint already decided by God—a plan in which we are no more than pawns or robots playing out the predestined roles decided for us and without our knowledge or consent? God has allowed an incredible amount of freedom for us and indeed for all creation. She invites us to live our lives and decide our destinies with Her. The assumption that everything happens for a reason only allows for is a response of passive acceptance. Yes, maybe we will learn something, but I think the original intention of God as expressed in Genesis and assumed elsewhere has a lot more to offer and is worthy of our identities as creatures made in God’s image. 

GOD THE LORD OF JUSTICE: Throughout the entire Bible God has a major concern with justice, with things being fair, with all forms of oppression being eliminated, with wrongs being made right. Every prophet preached God’s passion for justice. Micah summed up the prophetic message with these immortal words: “What does God require of you but that you do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Jesus made justice a central pillar of his understanding of the Kingdom of God when he said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.” (“Righteousness” is a synonym for “justice” in the Jewish tradition.) God as the Ruler of the universe seeks justice for Her creation. We as disciples of Jesus must make justice a priority in our lives if we are to enter the Kingdom of God. The New Testament knows nothing of a gospel which omits justice. 

But how does a God of justice relate to the assumption that everything happens for a reason? With that assumption, there must be an acceptable reason for oppression, racism, child abuse, genocide, rape, slavery, hunger, poverty, and torture. How can we claim that God has a preordained and acceptable reason for these tragic and evil occurrences and at the same time maintain that God’s eternal essence is love? (That’s one reason I have a problem with some understandings of karma and reincarnation in certain forms of Eastern religions.)

The Bible teaches there is evil, injustice, and wickedness in the world. Our world is not as God ultimately wants it, and neither is it as most of us want it. Many things happen not because God wants us to learn lessons or because those things are preordained. So much happens because arrogant, greedy, and violent people do things and make decisions which plague this planet and humanity. And if that’s true, then everything which happens does not happen for a reason that has anything to do with God or with health, wholeness, and beauty. God seeks justice, and so must we. To think that everything which occurs was intended to happen is not only ignorant—it’s a copout. It produces a passivity whereby we think we don’t have to do anything. We are called to make this world a better place, and the way to begin with such a mission is to expose evil for what it is and to work for God’s alternative.

GOD IS LOVE: The New Testament teaches us that in Jesus Christ God is ultimately defined by compassionate love. I John says, “God is love.” And that love is unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, and everlasting. Jesus’ claim in the Sermon on the Mount that God causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust and the sun to shine on the good and the bad is the most radical statement made in the Bible. It contradicts all those sermons which maintain God punishes the evil and rewards the good in this life. As humans we may suffer from the consequences of our sinful and foolish choices in life, but those consequences are the result of our decisions, not God’s will. If God’s love is anything like what we see in Jesus or the love Paul describes in I Corinthians 13 or what we witness in great saints like St. Francis, Mother Teresa, and John Woolman, then God’s love will respect our freedom and will only the best for us. How can that be if everything that happens in this world happens for a reason determined by a manipulating and controlling Deity? 

God has chosen to create a universe which shares Her freedom. God promises to be with us through the good and bad of life which comes with that awesome freedom. And God promises ultimately to direct creation to a new dimension, a new heaven and a new earth where love, justice, joy, freedom, shalom, and community will thrive in a beautiful harmony. But God promises to do all of this without violating our freedom and dignity. 

Romans 8 has an interesting verse: “All things work together for good for those who love God.” A textual variant reads, “God works in all things for good for those who love God.” Do you see the difference in these two translations? 

Summary: Sometimes things happen in this world for a reason, but many times they do not—not in the sense that they are preordained and a part of some detailed, rigid plan by a manipulating God. What is most important is how we respond to what happens. Our calling is to co-create with God a better world; to seek and do justice; and above all to respond as God responds with love and compassion. Such a response is anything but passive, irresponsible, and status quo. And it is a part of the “Kindom” of God which Jesus said is now in our midst. We are not called to accept the world as it is. We are called to live God’s alternative so that things can truly happen for a reason—God’s reason—on earth as it is in heaven. 

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