by Dr. Dyton Owen
Countless times my wife, Tammy, and I have talked about a statement we often hear. We hear the statement – or a variation of it – frequently after some tragedy. Usually it is spoken by well-meaning people – often Christians – who feel as though they must say something in the face of another person’s pain or grief. For them, silence is not an option.
“Everything happens for a reason,” they say. “This must have been God’s will.” Both statements imply God causes – or wills – everything that happens.
At first blush, this statement seems encouraging. Think about it. You or your family have just endured the news of the loss of a loved one. Word quickly spreads to your friends, community, church and neighbors. As any good person would do, many flock to your side to shower you and your family with love and support.
During the rush of people coming and going, offering to help in whatever way they can – perhaps by providing meals, watching your children, taking care of household things – someone sits next to you on your couch, puts an arm around your shoulders and, as you weep at trying to take in all you have just heard, says, “Everything happens for a reason. It’s all a part of God’s plan. You may not know what the plan is, but God never does anything without a purpose.”
The person means well. He or she is trying to offer comfort in what is the most painful time of your life. The individual may actually believe everything does happen for some reason we may not be able to see or understand in the moment, but will become clearer as time passes.
Such a sentiment is often offered as comfort. The truth is, it often comforts the one saying it more than the one receiving it. In other words, it is spoken so the one saying it is comforted because he or she was able to“say something.”
It would be better to say nothing at all.
Such an idea portrays God as uncaring, distant, aloof. It implies God willfully brings about tragedy. It is as if God’s hand is literally guiding a person toward misfortune.
When I was nine years old, my family moved to Tulsa where my father would serve as the senior pastor of an up-and-coming church. Three days after we moved in – boxes still unpacked – Dad walked in the front door and called for my mother who was in the kitchen making a grilled cheese sandwich lunch for my brother and me. He announced their oldest son – our brother – had been killed in an accident while serving in the Army. At that moment the world stopped. I was too young to comprehend what dad had just told us. My mother collapsed on the floor; Dad sat next to her. My older brother and I just stood there, not knowing what to do or say.
Somehow, word had gotten out in the church. Within minutes, leaders of the church were at our door. They had come to express their sorrow and offer any help they could. One of them was a physician. He had come to offer his condolences and, thankfully, administer a mild sedative to my mother. As my brother and I stood there, trying to take it all in, not knowing a single person who came into our house, I saw one of those people sit on the couch next to my mother and heard her say, “You may never know what God’s will is in all this….”
It was the first time I remember thinking to myself, “Did God really cause my brother’s death? Was the accident really not an accident, but something planned…by God?”
In his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord helps clarify why this is poor theology. In the chapter entitled, “Randomness and Regularities of Life,” Oord addresses the misguided and harmful notion that God’s hand guides every incident of every day in every person’s life. In other words, the chapter suggests it is erroneous to believe there are no accidents, only “incidents in God’s plan;” and to reject randomness, therefore, to presume “everything happens for a reason.”
At the same time, Oord reminds us there are regularities we cannot deny. If the regularities of nature were dominant, nothing new would ever appear. On the other hand, if randomness ruled creation, chaos would ensue (p. 43).
Oord’s idea, God is “essentially kenotic” opens a wide door and allows a fresh wind of understanding to blow on how God acts in relation to creation. If God’s nature is uncontolling love – i.e., because God is love, God provides creatures freedom to do as they choose – then God cannot control every action of God’s creation. Controlling love is not love.
Oord goes on to show, because God is essentially love, all the regularities of creation stem from God’s loving nature. Because of God’s essential love, God never controls creatures or creation. Randomness happens; however, God is always calling creation on to love, beauty and health even in the midst of tragedy.
The accidents we experience in life – the accident which took my brother’s life – are just that: random events. Because of God’s uncontrolling nature of love, God could not intervene to prevent it.
It was not part of God’s plan.
It was not a case of “everything happens for a reason.”
It was not God’s will.
It just happened.
There is more to it, as Oord reminds us. Simply because a random tragic event occurs – as devastating as it may be – does not mean good cannot come from it. The death of my brother serves as an example. Because of his death, my family was better able to minister to families who have found themselves in similar situations. We know what it is like to lose a loved one to random events with tragic endings.
God’s uncontrolling love means God does not will everything that happens, but in everything that happens, God wills good to come from it.
When tragedy strikes, perhaps knowing this will move us closer to the love, beauty and wholeness toward which God is constantly calling us.
Dr. Dyton L. Owen is a United Methodist pastor, author, church consultant and clergy coach. He is also a family system theorist which he utilizes in his ministry.