Does Everything Really Happen for a Reason?
I am sure you’ve heard the phrase before. “Everything happens for a reason.” I have heard it many times, and I honestly despise the phrase. So I invite you to bear with me, hear me out, and perhaps discover a greater joy along the way.
My own crosses have led me to dig deep into the meaning and purpose of suffering, and I find phrases like this incredibly lacking. When my physical pain brings me to me knees, tears stream down my face, cries burst from my lips, and my body quivers from it all, the sentiment simply falls flat.
I think we find some level of comfort in having a simple answer. It offers the illusion of control, and tells us that it’s okay, without having to scratch beyond the surface. But we were made for more than that. Answering tough questions like why does God allow suffering, and can I be fully alive in the midst of suffering, demand that we dig deeper.
“The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness!” - Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
Pithy Sayings are not Enough
Using phrases like “everything happens for a reason” is a quick and easy way to feel a little better. And I understand wanting to believe that God is in control of everything. Life is crazy enough without leaving our deepest pains unexplained. But if we unpack the statement, it’s actually rather awful. To say that everything happens for a reason means a couple things that really are not true of a God who is love:
It negates our free will. If God is controlling everything that we do and experience, then we don’t have free will. We become puppets. But that’s not how God works. He didn’t just sit back and map out this is everything that Jennifer will do and experience, sign the dotted line, hand it off and move on. Far from it. God is a God of the now. He is working with me—and you—in every single moment, calling us to a greater life, to becoming more fully alive, as he walks with us.
It makes God responsible for all of our suffering. Again, if God is controlling everything we do and experience, then he is the one inflicting the suffering. But God did not create us for suffering, and it pains him to see our pain. Does God work with us in every situation, no matter what, and call us to become holy through all things? Yes, but that does not mean he is solely responsible for all the pain in our lives.
There is far more to suffering. A soul seeking greatness and to become fully alive in Christ will step outside the comfort zone of pithy explanations and venture into the deep.
“In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” – John 16:33
The Origin of Suffering is Essential
That starts at the very beginning. Creation. Adam and Eve. The fall.
At every stage of creation—day and night; waters and land; sun, moon and stars; birds and fish; animals and man—God saw it was good. Everything was good. And everything was in complete unity. Man and God. Man and man. Man and nature.
In creation, God did not will pain; he did not will suffering. He created all things good and in union with one another.
When Adam and Eve turned against God, they broke all of this.
The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination. Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation is now subject ‘to its bondage to decay.’ Finally, the consequence explicitly foretold for this disobedience will come true: man will ‘return to the ground,’ for out of it he was taken. Death makes its entrance into human history.
(Catechism of the Catholic Church 400)
Sin entered the world. Evil entered the world. By man’s own choice.
Jesus transformed suffering
So now what?
We turned our backs on God and invited sin and suffering into the world. But God never turns his back on us. In fact, he entered directly into our pain by sending his son.
“Jesus did three things to solve the problem of suffering. First, he came. He suffered with us. He wept. Second, in becoming man he transformed the meaning of our suffering: it is now part of his work of redemption. Our death pangs become birth pangs for heaven, not only for ourselves but also for those we love. Third, he died and rose. Dying, he paid the price for sin and opened heaven to us; rising, he transformed death from a hole into a door, from an end into a beginning.” - Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering, p. 176–177
This is so important in understanding the mystery of suffering. God never intended suffering. Our pain makes him weep. Suffering is not good. But God can make good out of anything. So he sent his Son to us, and he transformed suffering. God experienced suffering, and he conquered it. Now, suffering can be an opportunity for incredible grace and intimacy with God.
But that means we need to do more than try to explain away the pain. We have to grasp Jesus’ hand, and wade into the depths of suffering.
In the midst of our pain, we must look to the bloody face of Christ and see a God who knows and feels our pain, a God who walks with us and carries us in our pain, a God who says I make all things new.
It is in our suffering that we can know Christ in a deeply intimate way. And it is in our suffering that we can collaborate with God in our path and the paths of others to eternity with him.
“The solution to our suffering is our suffering! All of our suffering can become part of his work, the greatest work ever done, the work of salvation, of helping win for those we love eternal joy.” – Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering (p. 175)
When the pain is overwhelming, when the end seems too distant to reach, it is in those desperate moments when we can turn to God and say, “Thy will be done” in this moment. How can my pain serve you? Let me grow closer to you in this pain. Let me surrender my desire for control and for the end to you.
God Works in the Chaos
As we try to embrace our suffering, it is also important to note a distinction between different kinds of suffering. This relates directly back to my dislike of the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason”.
Yes, God does challenge us and give us opportunities to grow in our faith journey. And that oftentimes involves some level of pain and suffering.
But there is another type of suffering that I think scares us, what Venerable Fulton J. Sheen refers to as crosses that come from without (Treasure in Clay, p. 309). This is a cross that has nothing to do with the way we live, and it is not sent to us by God. It brings us comfort to say “It’s God’s plan” or “God is trying to teach me something” because that means there is a specific rhyme and reason to every pain we have. We feel even though chaos seems to be brimming, control is the actuality because don’t worry, God’s in charge.
But remember the whole free will thing? The destruction of unity between God and man, man and man, and man and creation? That means a couple things. First, there is chaos and evil in the world. And sometimes it just hits us. It could be a natural disaster, or an illness. Other times it comes at the hands of someone’s else's actions. The result of their choice, their free will. And that is scary. It’s chaotic. It’s insanity. But it’s reality.
Everything does not happen for a reason.
Become Fully Alive in Suffering
And, yet, God makes it possible to live fully alive in a world of un-sugarcoated suffering. He invites us to stop looking for control in the source of suffering and instead look to him to see what he can make of our suffering. Because most of the time, suffering doesn’t make sense.
And that’s okay. Because God is there, ready and waiting, to do amazing work in our lives and the lives of those we love through suffering. He takes the ugly and broken and makes it beautiful and fully alive. Will you let him?
“Jesus Christ has taken the lead on the way of the cross. He has suffered first. He does not drive us toward suffering but shares it with us, wanting us to have life and to have it in abundance.” – Pope Saint John Paul II