Sunday, January 06, 2013

For a Reason? (Romans 8:26-28)

If you made a list of the things that Christians like to say to someone after something bad has happened, "Well, everything happens for a reason" might be bear the top of the list. It's well-intentioned and designed to be comforting.

See, when people deal with hard things, sometimes they find the dealing easier if the hard things can be given a context or meaning. For whatever reason, we take comfort in the idea that a tragedy or difficulty might have some purpose, or at least it seems like the idea of suffering without purpose is that much harder to explain or accept.

The thing about that phrase, though, is that in the way that it's true, it's not very helpful. And in the way that it's meant to be helpful, it winds up saying things about God we probably wouldn't want to say -- which means it's not really true.

In one arena -- cause and effect -- it's exactly right to say that everything happens for a reason. Methodist pastor and author Adam Hamilton notes that when we talk about the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 300,000 people, it did in fact happen for a reason. It happened because the same geological processes that make our planet able to support life also create the conditions for earthquakes. Here in Oklahoma, we're currently in a drought and many of us are praying for relief. But the same meteorological processes that will bring us rain can also lead to the tornadoes and storms that make our springtime a TV weather hack's paradise. Earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, landslides -- every natural disaster happens for a reason that's rooted in the physical laws of our universe. And every one of those laws, if it was a little bit different, might make it impossible for life to exist.

As I said, though, that's not a particularly helpful thing to say when someone is looking for answers to their own suffering and loss. It doesn't comfort.

Nor does it comfort if we talk about human actions and the harm they can cause. They have at their root human freedom and people's choices to use that freedom without any regard for anyone else. Why do some people do bad things? "Because they can" is again, not helpful.

What we most often intend to mean with those words, I think, is that God has a plan and that these bad things happened so that good things can come from them. We rely on this verse when we do: "All things work together for good for those who love God."

But think about what that would mean if it were true. We would be saying that God caused the bad things to happen so that could could come from it, but don't be so quick to lay it out that way.

Back in 2011, a 19-year-old girl from Mustang was found dead, dismembered and stuffed into a duffel bag. It turned out she had been tortured and killed in order to send a message to others to cooperate in illegal activities or else face the same fate. Because of her death, a lot more people in the Oklahoma City area started paying attention to human trafficking crimes and operations that use the major interstate highways there for their business. I think we'd agree that efforts to reduce those activities are good things.

But did God cause the suffering of that girl so we could pay more attention to human trafficking? Does anybody want to say that?

Or pick something more on our radar screen: the shootings in Sandy Hook Elementary school. It's early yet, and I have to say that nothing much of what I've heard yet makes me optimistic that any good will come in the next few months or years. But if it does, does anyone seriously want to say that God caused the shooting of 7 teachers and 20 children in order to bring that good about?

What does this verse mean, then, if it doesn't mean that everything happens for a reason and that everything is a part of God's plan?

Maybe it makes more sense to look at this verse in combination with what Joseph said to his brothers after their father had died. They had sold him into slavery and they now worried that with Dad out of the way, he might use his power as the second-in-command of all Egypt to get his revenge for that little prank. But he told them no. What they had intended for evil, God used for good. Joseph never wavered in his devotion to God or belief that God was with him, and that faith allowed God to redeem his suffering. It didn't hurt any less to be away from his family all those years, but God transformed it in the salvation of Israel.

Jesus on the cross suffered physically and spiritually, but even his last words showed trust in God. And God redeemed his death, turning it into the resurrection through which all of humanity could be saved.

Maybe, as Christians, we ought to find other words to embody the comfort we want to give. Maybe we should focus on how we believe a loving God stays with us and hurts with us in those times of pain, and maybe we should not only say it with our words but with our actions. We say, "Christ is still with you," and then we act as the hands and feet of Christ in the midst of whatever's going on.

We believe it, we speak it and then we live it. That's probably how we ought to do more things anyway.

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