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Stop Saying “All Things Happen for a Reason”

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After a tragedy, sometimes a well-meaning person will comment, “All things happen for a reason.”

Is that so? If the person making this statement is operating from a Biblical world view, are they suggesting that God is the direct cause behind all things that have happened?

If beneath this statement lies the implication that God is the reason something happened, then this statement is wrong. In fact, one of the worst things you can say to someone grieving the loss of property, health, or a loved one is, “All things happen for a reason.” Sometimes things just happen because they happen – not because God has a specific design behind a particular unfortunate event. There does not need to be an immediate divine cause behind every event.

For example, God was not the cause, nor was He pleased, when Islamist Syed Farook and his wife murdered 16 social workers at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California on December 2, 2015. Of course, that terrible event in no way thwarted God’s purpose (cf. Psa. 2:1-4), and perhaps there are mysterious ways God could have used that event for good (cf. Rom. 8:28). But God did not orchestrate that tragedy. God does not cause such wicked events.

But why did God not stop that mass shooting (or any mass shooting)? For the same reason God does not stop you from fudging the amount you owe on your taxes this year, texting on your phone while driving, or living a godless lifestyle; the same reason He does not stop you from cheating on your spouse or ignoring the needs of your neighbor. The freedom to make choices (often catastrophic choices) is an essential part of what it means to be human. Thomas B. Warren writes,

Once man has been created, it is not the case that God could either permit or prevent man’s sinning without so changing man’s nature that he would no longer be man.[1]

There is a school of thought in Christendom today called Calvinism, which gets this topic wrong. Many Calvinists cannot fathom the idea that God doesn’t directly cause all things to happen. On September 17th, 2001, six days after the September 11th terrorist attacks, John Piper boldly said that God “could” and “would” be behind these actions.[2] According to Piper, and all other staunch Calvinists, all things happen for a reason, and God is that reason. Piper reiterates, “That is what the Bible teaches. God ‘works all things after the counsel of His will’ (Eph. 1:11).”[3] What a chilling thought – that God is behind all tragedy!

This is a disastrous abuse of the context of Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:11. We should note that Paul did not say, “God directs all things, period” – but rather that God has entirely (“all things”) fulfilled His plan to redeem mankind and establish His church through Jesus His Son. The fact that Jesus redeemed us and established His church is the context of Ephesians 1 – not the divine orchestration of every individual event, wicked events included.

When a parent or sibling is grieving the loss of a child, sometimes a well-meaning friend will say something to the effect of, “God needed another angel in heaven.” This horrifying statement not only reflects deep Biblical ignorance (human beings do not go on to become angels, cf. Heb. 2:7), but it also leaves the terrifying impression that God is the direct cause of the child’s death. Thank God He doesn’t “need more angels.”

There are Biblical explanations as to why there is suffering (including the loss of property, health, and innocent life) in this world. Sometimes things happen just because they happen. God has given mankind freedom of choice, and sometimes bad choices are accompanied by tragic consequences – at times involving innocent people. Bear in mind, however, that God has a plan for people that is bigger than this temporal world. But the notion that God directly, individually ordains each and every instance of this world’s pain and suffering is not Biblical.

An excerpt from my newest book, You Are A Theologian: Thinking Right About God.

This is another volume in the You Are A Theologian book series. Thinking Right About God challenges readers to think more Biblically about God’s attributes, His triune nature, and His sovereignty. Like the first book in this series, it is ideal for a broad range of applications: personal study, small group discussions, and college/young adult/adult Bible class curriculum.

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Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.

Sources
[1]Thomas B. Warren, God and Evil, p. 298.
[2] John Piper, “Why I Do Not Say, ‘God Did Not Cause the Calamity, but He Can Use It for Good.” DesiringGod.org.
[3] Ibid.

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9 Responses to Stop Saying “All Things Happen for a Reason”

  1. JOHN HENSON July 19, 2017 at 12:47 PM #

    Job’s three friends tried to convince him he was suffering because God was punishing him for sin. While it is true people who sin suffer, it does not mean God is the cause. While cause and effect are valid, linking suffering and death to God is not really valid at all.

  2. Luke July 20, 2017 at 12:46 AM #

    Agreed!

    One thing I have never understood is the Calvinist argument that God foreknowing something necessarily entails that He predetermined it. In my very finite capacity, I can fairly accurately predict certain things (e.g. “That little boy is going to trip and fall if he keeps running with his shoes untied.”), but that doesn’t mean that I caused those things to happen should they take place! How much more can God, who possesses perfect knowledge, know about something that is going to happen without being the cause of that thing?

    “But the notion that God directly, individually ordains each and every instance of this world’s pain and suffering is not Biblical.”

    I agree with this too, and furthermore, would suggest that this is a monstrous and horrific teaching.

  3. Stephen Scaggs July 20, 2017 at 11:15 AM #

    What a great pithy work on such a complex issue. Lady at the park here in the neighborhood I work told me this, “All things happen for a reason” (she was referring to the fact that it took 9 years of marriage before they could start having children). While I understand her distress and her desire to make sense of all her hurt, what that chain of logic implies is that God is no different from a kid with a magnifying glass killing ants. I cannot understand the Calvinistic worldview (even though I’ve read extensively, it just doesn’t make sense for me.) I cannot fathom how God’s sovereignty can override man’s free will. I’ve had my struggles in the past understanding God’s nature (and still do).

    Btw, Ben, can you tell me what are your plans for this series of books? How many in the series? Will there be a complication edition after the end? I still need to buy the first one. :)

    • Ben July 27, 2017 at 9:39 PM #

      Great comment! We must be compassionate with people who do not yet have a Biblical framework with which to better understand their plight. We must do some teaching.

      I hope to put out a new book in the series every year. Ask me in 5 years whether there will be a mega-volume when they are all completed. :)

  4. Alice Ann Bee Simmons July 21, 2017 at 1:58 AM #

    I don’t believe God causes things to happen, but I do believe He has the power to do so if He so willed to. However, I do believe that some things that happen that caused us to change our lives toward God !

  5. Dianne Sanford July 21, 2017 at 9:42 AM #

    Never say this, to a widow, or anyone who has lost a close family member. It comes across as cold-hearted and even hateful.

  6. Linda Lee Polk Anderson July 21, 2017 at 11:38 AM #

    The car accident that happened 23 years ago, in which my husband and our two children were killed, I still get comments like this.

    • Dianne Sanford July 21, 2017 at 10:29 PM #

      Linda, words cannot express my sorrow, for your situation. I pray for strength and comfort, for you.

  7. Glenn A Blankenship July 22, 2017 at 11:16 AM #

    I agree with your article, and it is a good one. The only “criticism” I have is when you said, “God has given Mankind freedom of choice, and sometimes bad choices are accompanied by tragic consequences…” I agree with this, however, tragic consequences also happen as a result of the laws of nature God designed. How would you address this? Good job. Made me think!!

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