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sovereignty

"Everything Happens For A Reason" May Not Be Helpful -- But Don't Stop Believing It

I recently read an article encouraging Christians to stop saying “everything happens for a reason.” The argument? Everything doesn’t actually happen for a reason.

According to the author, some of life’s occurrences are random — but they “can ultimately be redeemed and used by God for a purpose (Romans 8:28).” There’s a distinction between some of life’s events happening with purpose, and some happening randomly but with qualities God can redeem after for his purposes. “These two things are quite different if you begin to unpack their meaning and understanding.”

But there are a few problems with this. First and foremost, the Bible doesn’t support it. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers (Genesis 37). Job lost everything he owned, his children, and his health (Job 1-2). Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, was sick and died—causing confusion and pain for friends and family—since Jesus wouldn't go to heal him (John 11). Paul was given a thorn in the flesh, “a messenger of Satan to harass him” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Jesus, an innocent man, was murdered publicly and with the approval of all the involved religious and political leaders (Acts 4:27-28).

God doesn’t spin the world, take his hands off, and wait for opportunities to step in and clean up a mess.

Can we all agree these are horrible events? Of course we can. And while not a single one of us would like to find ourselves in a similar situation, often times we do (except for being crucified for the sin of the world). We lose jobs. We lose loved ones to cancer and car wrecks and house fires. We go through divorce and abuse. These are all situations of intense pain and suffering.

And yet the Bible is clear. God is not random. He doesn’t spin the world, take his hands off, and wait for opportunities to step in and clean up a mess. He is sovereign. He is wise. And his ways—though they may include hard times and pain—are higher than our ways and always work together for our good (Isaiah 55:8-9; Romans 8:28).

Joseph was used to save Israel and preserve God’s people during a great famine (Genesis 50:20). Job experienced God’s faithfulness and blessing on the other side of heavy suffering (Job 42). Jesus let Lazarus die on purpose so that the power of God would be displayed in his resurrection and people would believe (John 11:14-15). Paul’s thorn kept him humble and taught him about the sufficiency of God’s grace (2 Corinthians 12:8-10). The death of Jesus was the most heinous act of evil ever committed — but it brought salvation to the world (Romans 5:6-11).

While it may sound like a help to believe suffering does not intentionally come to us from God, the biblical truth is that it does — and the real comfort is in knowing God has a plan for your pain, to grow you, to make you more like Jesus, to use you as his ambassador.

It’s a mystery why and how God allows pain and suffering, and how he intends to use it for good. Yes, God is love. Yes, he is good. But yes, he is still sovereign over his creation, absolutely sovereign over all of it (Isaiah 46:8-11). While it may sound like a help to believe suffering does not intentionally come to us from God, the biblical truth is that it does — and the real comfort is in knowing God has a plan for your pain, to grow you, to make you more like Jesus, to use you as his ambassador. The only real comfort is in knowing God is not out of control and in every situation there is a definite purpose.

At the same time we can all agree it typically doesn’t comfort hurting people to hear aphorisms like "everything happens for a reason.” Most of the time it can be insensitive, and therefore I agree it shouldn't be used lightly on people in the midst of their pain. So get rid of the bathwater, sure, but let’s get the baby out first.

Don’t fall for a fake comfort. Everything does happen for a reason. Jesus said not even a bird falls from the sky apart from God (Matthew 10:29-31). Your circumstances are not random and meaningless. It’s precisely because everything happens for a reason that you can trust God to fulfill his purpose and bring you safely through it. It may just take a little faith.

Sovereign Purpose and Saving Power in John 11

Someone asked what my points would be if I could only teach one lesson from John chapter 11. My answer:

As the story begins to build, Jesus’s words indicate that Lazarus’s illness has a sovereign purpose; it is intended to bring glory to God and to highlight the Son, Himself (vs 4). Lazarus’s illness (and ultimately his death) are purposed to encourage belief (vs 14). As we learn from Joseph’s story in Genesis or the story of Job, God uses--indeed purposes--many unfortunate-seeming circumstances to glorify Himself and save His people. Most ultimately, we see this later in the very death of Christ, of which Lazarus’s own death and resurrection foreshadow.

Although Lazarus’s friends and family were grieving, Jesus’s confidence in verse 15 (“for your sake I am glad I was not there”) is rooted in the knowledge that their belief and joy will be greatest not because He made it in time to heal Lazarus, but because after he had been dead four days (and by now stunk!), Jesus was able to revive him still. That Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead demonstrates the power of the Creator, but that He allowed him to die in order to maximize His own glory and the belief of the witnesses, teaches us that God is sovereign and wise in His purposes--and that we can trust God to work for His glory and our good regardless of our circumstances.

[On the side, I would note the tension created by God’s sovereign purpose in Lazarus’s death, and the strong emotional reaction Jesus has in verses 33-36. Far from a stoic, detached presence, the Son of God was fully and emotionally human. He wept with his friends. His emotions may have even been heightened as he grieved at the reality of death, but pondered the nearness of the coming time when He would defeat all of death in His own. The humanity of Jesus we see here encourages us that we have a Savior who sympathizes with us in our suffering (Hebrews 4.14-16).]

Before actually resurrecting Lazarus though, Jesus proclaims His saving power to Martha (vs 25-26). He is the resurrection and the life, and spiritually we live in Him--united with Him in His own life and resurrection. To physically demonstrate this spiritual reality, he calls forth a dead-for-four-days-and-stinky Lazarus. And at the very word of Christ, Lazarus walks--or shuffles--bound out of his tomb. And, as much of the New Testament expounds later, we’re left with a very clear picture of God’s saving power, His giving life to the dead. We see how He causes us to be born because of His word and His work, not our own (Ephesians 2.1-10). Like Lazarus, we are dead and unable to give ourselves life. When God gives life to His people, every time He saves someone then, it inspires awe and worship, and results in joy and celebration. (And encourages a servant's posture--like the one taken by Mary in the following chapter.)

So while John 11 is a diamond we might spin forever to take in all the dazzling angles, God's purposes and the gospel of Jesus giving life to the dead are my main points. What else do you see? Where would you spend time if you could teach this chapter only once?