Moving Beyond “Everything Happens for a Reason”

I had a pastor friend tell me a story a few months back about some couples that he had been doing marriage counseling for. When he asked them to tell him a little bit about their faith background, he was shocked with the responses. Many of them went something like this: “Well, you know, I believe in God and all that. And I think that everything happens for a reason and… yeah. That’s pretty much it.” Hearing this was troubling in a lot of ways… but I was left with one question that I just can’t shake.

Since when is “everything happens for a reason” a synonymous paraphrase of the Christian faith?

It may suffice for some people, but I sense for most it does absolutely nothing to satisfy our deepest questions about the world and our existence in it. It does nothing to answer some of the unanswerable questions of life. It doesn’t even try. It comes up short in so many ways.

Q: Why did George’s brother die in that car accident?
A: Well, everything happens for a reason.

Q: Why didn’t Karla’s cancer go into remission?
A: You know, everything happens for a reason.

Whatever happened to being okay just saying “You know what? This really sucks right now. And I’m angry and I have no idea why it’s happening.”? Don’t we deserve a better response than an overly-simplistic, unengaged platitude? Why can’t we wrestle with why bad things happen to good people? Why must we always have an answer?

It seems to me that this is a case of two different faiths.

  • Faith number one says that if I have faith and hold fast to “everything happens for a reason”, then nothing bad can happen to me and bad things that do happen to me happen for some kind of test from God or other cursory reason (often something like “I didn’t pray hard enough” or “I didn’t have strong enough faith”.)
  • Whereas faith number two says that there are bad things in life that will almost surely happen to me. Jobs will be lost. Diagnoses will not always go the way I hope. Tragedy will strike when I least expect. But even though those things will certainly happen to me, they are nothing to be afraid of.

It’s a subtle difference, but I think the effects of switching our perspective that much can have profound effects on the way we live our lives. I’m not saying it’s easy — but I think removing the responsibility to justify something will add so much more to our interactions and engagement with ourselves and our communities.



  1. Great! I just had this conversation with a confirmation student the other day… their faith statement talked about this very concept, but Im not really into letting that fly by with out taking a swing, so I went after it. I said, I disagree. I dont want to believe in a God who “allows” my mom to have cancer, I dont want to believe in a God go causes earthquakes, and other disasters, I dont want to believe in a God who teaches us a lesson because we arent “enough”.
    Rather, I want and do believe in a God who weeps with us at the onset of a diagnosis, or a tragedy, a God who feels bad when we feel bad. This God then is not just sitting on a cloud and waving the wand of “who’s life will I ruin today so I can teach them a lesson” but rather a God that says this sucks, and this is not what I intended when I created Adam and Eve to be in relationship with me. But while we are being honest, I think this sucks too, and because its who I am, I will do what I originally intended, and that’s try to reconcile, and make something good, make a message out of this mess.
    Why is it so much easier to be complacent and apathetic than to actually face the reality of a broken world? Have we created the idea of a “broken” God out of our apathy?

    • That’s some really great stuff! Two things when I re-read your thoughts… 1) I think it’s so important that we recognize our attempts to try to reconcile/justify/make a message out of something. What’s most important is not just jumping right to that. I think we can learn things through tragedy. But the purpose or reason for the tragedy wasn’t so we can learn something. You know what I mean? There’s a difference between learning something because you’ve experienced brokenness, than having God be a sadistic puppetmaster out to teach us all lessons. You get that. I know that. But it’s important to understand that kind of nuance. (Whoa… long first thought). 2) This one’s shorter. I think your last two questions are money. Instead of really wrestling and engaging with why bad things happen in the world, it’s so much easier to just say, “Eh, there must be a reason.” or “God’s trying to teach me something.” I absolutely cannot believe in a God who would use cancer as a teaching tool.

      Side thought — I wonder if this doesn’t edge more into the “generation me” group where everything is about me. Like God would give my aunt cancer and completely ruin my family all to teach me a lesson. It’s such an ego-centered thing. Any thoughts? But the idea that we’ve created a broken God is fascinating to me. Because in a lot of ways, I think we have.

      Sorry… this was a lot to take in. I just think it’s pretty clearly a problem that a lot of people are dealing with (or avoiding) on a number of levels.

  2. Lindsay Lowther says:

    Clapp, wow. I’ve been thinking about this blog seriously for the past 2 weeks. I have a lot of comments for you, but first I think you should see the movie “The Adjustment Bureau” if you haven’t already. It’s not the greatest of films cinematically, but it does have Matt Damon in it and I really think there’s some good discussion that comes from it. Let me know what you think about that and if you have anything else to offer. Thanks for your blog–I really enjoy reading it 🙂

    • Thanks for your comments, Lindsay! It’s cool to be able to stay in touch with people in this kind of way. “The Adjustment Bureau” is a great movie. Really plays around a lot with the whole idea of free will and if anything we really do is our own doing. I guess what I’m trying to go after here is if Matt Damon were to really want his freedom from the adjustment bureau, so they let him have it. But then when things go wrong, he’d say “well everything happens for a reason.” Well… no. Not really. It’s a weird thing to try to describe. There’s a weird sense, I think, within certain areas of Christianity that people really want free will but also want God to be in control. I guess, for me, those are in direct conflict with each other. Is that a weird way to try to explain it? Does that make sense?


  1. […] the answers. This is where some pretty lame platitudes can come into play. We can say things like “Everything happens for a reason”, but that gets us nowhere […]

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