Everything happens for a reason?
Recently, I read about this story online. Pastor Kyle Lake was electrocuted during a baptismal service on October 30th while adjusting a microphone. He was just 33, and he left behind his wife and their three children. It just seemed so pointless to me... I mean, if God can perform miracles then why couldn't he have saved this man's life? I ran accross some excerpts from a book he wrote, Understanding God's Will, and what he wrote made me feel a bit more clear... I'm not saying everything makes sense to me now, or I'll never question God's will again, but I think I might be on the way to understanding...
Here are some of the things that Kyle Lake wrote that touched my heart... I know this looks really long, but if you've got the time, it's worth the read. (I've highlighted a few parts that really stuck out to me...)
"We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose." Romans 8:28 NRSV
There is perhaps no more redemptive verse in all of Scripture than Romans 8:28. For when our lives have come unraveled, this is the passage to embrace. And, unfortunately, this is also the passage that's done quite a bit of damage through the years when referenced by well-intending individuals who chose to quote it at the most inopportune times. For instance, imagine how this verse sounds when quoted to someone who's just experienced the unexpected death of a family member or close friend. Or when a husband and father of four has just lost his job with very little in savings and zero alternatives. Or when a 15-year-old girl has just been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
There are, in fact, times in life when Romans 8:28 can evoke animosity rather than hope for the future, because some Bible translations present the passage from a different angle. The New American Standard translates Romans 8:28 in this way: "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (emphasis mine). In other words, the passage has a different feel because, in the verse, God has been placed before "all things," rather than "all things" being placed before God.
Naturally, people who have found themselves in a place of crisis won't need any help attributing their current predicament to God. They'll be more prone to hearing the passage read, "And we know that God causes all things" and stop there. Immediately, their anger will be stirred, because God is the one who's just taken the life of their family member or fired them from a job or placed a tumor in their brain.
In fact, one of the more popular translations of Romans 8:28 could easily be equated with folklore. "Folklore," or "folk theology," is a term a friend of mine uses to describe an age-old phrase that many people say all the time but no one knows from where it came. He says there are all sorts of phrasings and anecdotes people use today in casual conversation that, for them, function as scripture even though they're not actually found in the Bible. Tragically enough, they've just been assumed. The particular folklore reading of Romans 8:28 might then be, "Everything happens for a reason."
But did you know that "everything happens for a reason" isn't a Scripture verse? It's not a proverb or a psalm, and it's not an admonition from Ecclesiastes. And in this respect, it can take on even more authority than Scripture itself precisely because it's found on the lips of people inside and outside the Church. It's global, and yet it's not actually written down anywhere, alleviating it from actually being examined. It's practically assumed by all as unwavering truth - that is, until you find yourself trying to make sense of unspeakable tragedy or until you begin applying this "creed" to every detail of your life. So, unemployed fathers of four and cancerous fifteen-year-old girls, "everything happens for a reason," so try to figure it out.
A further look at Romans 8:28 might render a different translation, though. First, let's back up and look at the bigger picture of where Paul has been headed in chapter 8. In most translations, this specific verse falls within a section of verses beginning in verse 18. "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18 NRSV). The subject matter Paul is dealing with here is that of "sufferings," times of despair all of us encounter at some time or another. It's almost as if you can hear the question being posed, "So what do we make of all the times in our lives when we encounter suffering, tragedy, and despair? What do we make of distresses, losses, or failures that overtake our lives, often times unexpectedly?"
Then, in verses 26 and 27, a beautiful passage is offered that communicates the Spirit's action during these times. The Message recounts these verses in this way: "Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God's Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don't know how or what to pray, it doesn't matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God" (Romans 8:26-27).
It's in this context of suffering, then, that verse 28 is found. Again, there are some differences among translations about which phrase comes first in the sentenceÃ—"God" or "all things." But whatever the case, I think the intended meaning remains the same. It's important that we take the entire verse in view. To stop short of the last word would create an entirely different message. We can't stop at "God causes all things." Nor can we stop at "all things work together for good."
There are many, many intelligent people who firmly believe that God does in fact cause all things to happen in today's world, even tragic situations. And they haven't come to this conclusion flippantly. Many believe this to be true after diligent study of the Scriptures. However, that is not my belief. I believe tragedy, chaos, and disease are natural consequences of the Fall when humankind was given freedom of choice. Yet, no matter who you are or where your theology stands, all people who strive to thoughtfully deal with God and life are forced to live within the tension of God's providence and a chaotic world.
Still, no matter where you stand on the issue, Romans 8:28 still proves to be a redemptive passage: "We know that all things work together for good Ã… " After reading the passage, a few pivotal questions to ask would be:
What are "all things"?
What kind of "good" is Paul talking about?
Who is this "good" being created for?
What are "all things"? Again, does this statement mean that God is currently causing all things that happen in the world? No. Within the context of chapter 8, Paul is referring to all of our experiences of suffering, disappointment, loss, and failure in this world. In other words, we live in a fallen world where poor, unethical, impaired decisions are made. We live in a world where no one is exempt from illness and disease. BUT, in all these things, God can create good out of disaster.
So, what is this "good"? Does this mean that if I consistently pray, God will automatically alleviate disaster, heal disease, and create tranquility around me? No, although that could very well happen. God's definition of "good" is often different than ours. Previously in Romans, Paul states, "And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given us" (Romans 5:3-5 NRSV).
"Good" does not always mean "good" by our standards. Instead, "good" by God's standards has to do with the continual process of becoming a learner of Christ where our lives are being formed into people of humility, compassion, self-control, respect, patience, contentment, etc. It has to do with learning the very best way to live. If we open our eyes and our hearts during the most difficult times in our lives, then even in those times, God can bring about some of the most beautiful things within and around us.
And for whom is this "good" being created? Does the "good" just happen on its own? It explicitly takes place "for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose." In other words, this "good" happens within those who have clearly and intentionally set their lives on the path toward becoming a whole-life learner of Jesus. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it doesn't just happen. Life transformation isn't an accident. It's a deliberate attempt by those who love God to allow every experience into the interior of their lives, and in the process, hopefully, see God's redemptive activity: friendships restored, renewed reliance on God, an awakening to the beauty of life, clarity of purpose, renewed compassion for others Ã…
So in light of chapter 8, I would interpret Romans 8:28 as saying this: "Disappointment, failure, and suffering are simply facts of life. But for those who are actively following God, He can turn disappointment and tragedy into new life."
Copyright © 2004 Kyle Lake, Understanding God's Will: How to Hack the Equation Without Formulas (Relevant, 2004)
Now, if I can just remember some of this stuff the next time I want to shout to the heavens, "What's going on up there? Don't you see what's happening? Don't you care what's going on down here? We could use a little help!" My problem is that I'm a control freak, and I want everything to work out my way. It's a good thing it doesn't though, I mess things up all the time. I need to remember that there is someone who loves me in charge, and He cares when I hurt and even if He doesn't take away all the bad stuff in my life, He's ready to stand right there beside me and help me get through it.