If everything happens for a reason, if the prosperity gospel is taken literally, then we don’t have to help anyone. It works great for easing our consciences on the poor, the sick, the refugee, the prisoner, or anyone else we can call the “other.” Everything happens for a reason means that they are responsible for their own situation whether it’s through bad actions, lack of faith, or maybe just God’s will. And who are we to interfere with that?
When author Kate Bowler got sick with stage four cancer, people told her that maybe God had let her get cancer so she could help other people. (See her TedMed Talk). There’s multiple parts to this sort of statement. And I haven’t read her book yet, (it’s on my list!), she may get more into some of this, but here’s my take on everything happens for a reason.
People desperately need to make some sense out of bad things that happen. The world can be scary and dark and chaotic, and maybe, just maybe, if the bad things happen for a reason, then there’s sense to be made out of it all. People quote or misquote that Bible verse “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” (my paraphrase of Romans 8:28 but it is similar to multiple translations of this verse). This verse, this one tiny phrase from the whole library we call our Scripture, gets turned into “everything happens for a reason,” the beloved American proverb quoted by religious and non-religious alike.
This misquote or misunderstanding is scary; this underpinning of a five-word phrase that can literally shape the course of a nation. It is so commonly said, commonly quoted, commonly believed.
Everything happens for a reason allows us to distance ourselves from someone who is suffering rather than entering into their pain with them. When I got pregnant the first time, I made the mistake of telling a whole lot of people right away. So then a few short weeks later, I had to go and tell them that I’d miscarried. I received so many reactions, and almost all of them were distancing ones. People needed to put distance between my pain, my loss, and their lives. “Oh, everything happens for a reason!” “The baby must have had something wrong, this is a good thing!” “At least you know you can get pregnant.” Needless to say, all of those rubbed salt in my wound. I was excited to be pregnant, excited for the possibility of a child, and my hopes and dreams in that moment were dashed. The second time it happened, I was somewhat wiser, but as it was later along and I had one child, I needed support. It was hard to find people to just come watch my kid so I could deal with the physical symptoms I was experiencing. People don’t want the awkwardness. I had one friend who volunteered, just one. To be fair to some of my long-time friends, they didn’t live nearby and I know they would have helped if they could.
Everything happens for a reason allows us to distance ourselves from poor people and from addressing poverty as a system of injustice. If God blesses those with the “right” kind of faith, then they are poor through their own fault, right? And people who are sick are sick because they lacked faith, and the prisoner is in jail because of their actions and the sentence was surely just because, everything happens for a reason. And the refugee, and the immigrant, well, if their faith is right it will get them where they need to go, no need to reform immigration, or offer our aid.
It’s great for justifying ignoring everyone, putting all the onus on God to bless or not bless, and then we can just sit here and judge people because of their lives, after all, aren’t their lives the fruit of their faith?
And that’s all well and good for soothing consciences, except…
Except, literally none of that is scriptural. In fact, it’s as close to the opposite of the story God is telling us in Scripture as I can think. The story that follows God trying to be in relationship with messed-up, broken people. That follows those people of God through slavery, through the desert, as refugees, as people displaced from their homes and carried off into captivity. And yes, I’ve heard all the arguments about how those people disobeyed God and brought all that one themselves. Everything happens for a reason, after all. But if we follow the story, it was God that led them to Egypt in the first place as a salvation but they were later enslaved. Where babies were killed because Pharaoh was worried they would outnumber the Egyptians and take over. If God led them to Egypt and left them there, and everything happens for a reason then God is the author of all that evil too. But we don’t usually like to think of the full implications of that statement. Obviously there’s more there than can be tackled in one blog post, but it bears thinking about.
Perhaps most clearly, everything happens for a reason ignores the very Saviour it claims to worship. The Saviour that was born a poor brown baby in a kingdom ruled by an evil king. A Saviour who had to flee a massacre–becoming a refugee from violence–when he was just a little boy. A Saviour who did nothing but kindness and mercy and healing, but was still wrongfully convicted by a justice system that was anything but just, and put to death at the hands of broken, messed-up people who thought they were doing God’s will.
If Jesus came to show us God, and also came to show us how to be human, then what Jesus shows us is a God who enters into human particularity and doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff. Doesn’t blame people for circumstances wrought by unjust systems, doesn’t leave those who are grieving or without hope. He sits with those society shunned, touched the unclean, and broke the rules of the religious orders of the day. He was executed by the government for fear he would cause an unrest. His arrest was instigated by religious leaders because they thought he’d blasphemed God.
The cross has many lessons for us, but the one for today is this: we must be very very careful thinking we know what God looks like, especially when that picture of God we hold looks like us and agrees with us. Scripture shows us that wherever God is moving it’s disruptive. Things that Jesus did in Scripture were revolutionary and even transgressive. So we must be wary of a picture of God that makes us too comfortable with what we believe, because there’s a good probability that picture is an idol.