We’ve all received that phrase “everything happens for a reason” personally gift-wrapped by well-meaning friends, caring loved ones and kind strangers. It usually comes delivered with the most beautiful of intentions, a buffer of hope raised in the face of the unimaginably painful things we sometimes experience in this life.
It’s a close, desperate lifeline thrown out to us when all other words fail.
I’ve never had a tremendous amount of peace with the sentiment. I think it gives the terrible stuff too much power, too much poetry; as if there must be nobility and purpose within the brutal devastation we may find ourselves sitting in.
In our profound distress, this idea forces us to run down dark, twisted rabbit trails, looking for the specific part of the greater plan that this suffering all fits into.
It serves as an emotional distraction, one that cheats us out of the full measure of our real-time grief and outrage. We stutter and stop to try and find the whys of all of the suffering, instead of just letting ourselves admit that perhaps this all simply sucks on a grand scale.
Even if somewhere beneath all of it; far below all the dizzying trauma that we experience here there is a fixed, redemptive reason for it all, it’s one that will likely remain well beyond our understanding so long as we inhabit flesh and blood.
Deep within the background operating system of my faith, there’s a buried, fiercely protected trust in a God who is good and an existence that matters. But this core truth doesn’t come with the assumption that all things, (including all the horrors we might encounter), have a purpose. It doesn’t come with a hidden silver lining always knitted into the fabric somewhere, if only we can uncover it.
It’s exhausting enough to endure the dark hours here and not lose our religion, without the addition of a Maker who also makes us bleed. Instead, I prefer to understand God as One who bleeds along with us; Who sits with us in our agony and weeps, not causing us our distress but providing a steady, holy presence in it. This still leaves me with the nagging question of why this God can’t or won’t always remove these burdens from me, but it does allow me to better see the open opportunity provided in tragedy.
There’s an oft-misused excerpt from Scripture, where the apostle Paul writes:
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
This isn’t a heavenly insurance policy paid with faith and exempting us from anything unpleasant, but the promise that if we choose to respond to all things from a place of love and goodness; that we—not necessarily our circumstances—will be better for it.
In this way, I believe in suffering as a sacred space.
It’s not a supernatural cause-and-effect experiment from the sky, specifically designed to do something to us or in us, but it is a time and place where we can respond and as we do, we are altered. Our pain does not have a predetermined purpose, (otherwise we would be straddled with the terribly complicated task of figuring it out in a billion small decisions every single day), but that pain will always yield valuable fruit.
As much as I hate to admit it, my times of deepest anguish have almost always been the catalyst for my greatest learning, but I could have easily learned different lessons had I chosen differently. Yes, I certainly grew tremendously in those trying times, but I could have grown in another direction altogether with another choice. In that way, those moments of devastation held no single, microscopic needle-in-the-haystack truth to hunt for while I grieved and struggled, but there was still treasure to be found in the making of my choices and in their ripples.
No I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do believe there is meaning in how we respond to all things that happen to us, even when they are not at all good things.
Be encouraged as you suffer and choose.
is a pastor, writer and activist from Wake Forest, North Carolina. In the past four years his blog Stuff That Needs To Be Said has reached a diverse worldwide audience. A 20-year veteran in the trenches of local church ministry, John is committed to equality, diversity, and justice—both inside and outside faith communities. He recently released his first book A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community.