Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

Acts 6:8–8:4

The longer we live in this Covid-19 world, the more I realize that there is no such thing as going back to normal. We are never going to go back to the way things were before this happened. What we are experiencing is not a temporary blip of difference between two seasons of sameness. What we are experiencing is a new season. We are finding a new normal. We know that the way things are now is not how they are going to stay forever. As we continue to learn more about how the virus spreads and when we eventually have a vaccine we will again adjust our habits and be in yet another season, creating another new normal. 

That’s why I think the book of Acts is such a meaningful and helpful story for us right now. Those first Spirit-filled Jesus follOwers were also in a new season, finding a new normal. They weren’t going back to the way things were before, when Jesus was with them in the flesh. They were trying to figure out how to merge their familiar habits with new practices. Everything was on the table and they were learning on the fly and making it up as they went along. Just like we are. Things didn’t always turn out the way they wanted and this morning we are going to hear a story about the death of one of their key members, a pillar of the church. Now I planned to preach this story on this day before we even knew Peg was going to have surgery, much less what would come of it. So this morning I want to talk to you about whether everything happens for a reason. Let’s start with the story. 

This is the story of a man named Stephen. He was one of the first deacons, people chosen by the church to make sure that the needy among them were being cared for equitably. The early church was experimenting with the division of labor between teaching and leadership, and service to those inside and outside the community. Seven people were chosen as deacons and among them Stephen is described as being “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” 

Let’s pick up his story in Acts chapter 6 verse 8. We are going to read selected verses through chapter 8 verse 4.

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freed Slaves (as it was called)—Jews from Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.

Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” So they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes. They seized Stephen and brought him before the council. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?”

To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! {Stephen gives a testimony starting with Abraham to show how from the beginning God has acted in unexpected ways and used unlikely people. But the Jews and their ancestors, and we also, almost always fail to recognize when God is trying to do something new and instead we try to stop it. Stephen ends his testimony by saying} “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”

When the members of the council heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. And those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.

This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

In the spring of 2004, on the day after Easter, my dad was in a car accident. He had Type I diabetes and he was driving with a dangerously low blood sugar. His truck went off the road and seven days later he died. 

As my family and I grieved the loss of him, well-meaning people said the things that people always say, including “Everything happens for a reason.” But does it really? Everything? This phrase rolls easily off the tongue and may provide some temporary comfort, but it’s quite a powerful assertion so I want us to take a closer look at it. When people say it, what they are saying is that God directly causes everything to happen for the purpose of causing something else good to happen. 

We often say this when tragedy strikes, when we can’t see any good in the current situation, or really anytime circumstances feel outside our control. Not being in control makes us nuts. But if we can understand, or rationalize, or justify, that makes us feel better. It makes us feel a little bit like we are in control. So we tell ourselves that there must be some grand purpose behind everything that happens. But it raises a lot of questions, like how far does this go? And how do we decide if something is “good,” because something can be good for you but not good for me.

The idea that everything happens for a reason is a modern-day phrasing of the doctrine of providence, which says that God is the maker of all things and the provider for their well-being. And as a general statement, I pretty much agree with that. But it gets complicated when you try to pick it apart, or when you try to apply it to specific situations. Does God directly cause everything that happens, from whether I get a good parking space to when and how I die? Is God directly responsible for tsunamis and mass shootings and police kneeling on the necks of black men? Does God make everything happen? Does God get the credit for all the good stuff and the blame for all the bad stuff? Is God morally responsible for the results of each thing that happens at every second everywhere in the world? This has been a hotly debated question since Christians started hotly debating theological questions. And we can get in the tall weeds real fast, so I’m going to try to keep us out of them. But if we are going to make this glib statements to ourselves and others in times of crisis, we should know that we mean what we say. 

I’m not going to tell you whether or not this is objectively true. You have to decide that for yourselves. But I can give you a few options as you think about it. First, let’s say that it is true. God is directly responsible for each and every event that happens in the world, the good and the bad, including the moral implications of all those events. This can be a tremendously comforting and powerful idea. Everything that happens is right in line with God’s plan for the whole world including everything that happens to little me. 

I think that holding this belief is ninja-level spirituality because it requires a very deep trust that goes beyond what most of us are willing to extend, even to God. Here’s why. If this is true, we have to be willing to accept that God uses some people as a means to an end. I have to be willing to accept that God directly killed my father for some other benefit. And that’s hard for people to swallow. We also have to be willing to accept that things which look bad to us either are not actually bad, or that our perception of them is not the last word on the matter. A tsunami may seem like a disaster to us, but our sense of disastrousness is less important than whatever God is planning to do as a result of it. In order to believe this, we have to radically decenter ourselves, to give in to the mystery of God’s working, to accept that we may never ever ever this side of eternity understand why God did what God did and we have to be willing to trust God anyway. I actually think that’s a good thing.

But we also have to be willing to affirm that all evil somehow fits in God’s plan. That it’s OK that God is responsible for evil. That God is morally responsible for evil. And I frankly just don’t know too many people who are willing to think that. 

That is the most extreme version one one end of this belief. You may not like that specific description, but you may still have some version that works for you. Just please ask yourself some hard questions, push your belief to it’s most extreme conclusion and see if you are willing to live with what you find there. Because our beliefs drive our actions. What’s in our head drives what we do with our hands. And we need people who are willing to act in the world and not just sit back and watch. 

If that version of the doctrine of providence doesn’t work for you, you have other choices. I’m going to tell you what I believe and you do with it what you want. I trust that God is at work in ways that I do not understand that my perception of a situation is not always accurate. But I can’t dismiss injustice and mass suffering. I personally can’t live with the idea that God uses people as a means to an end without their consent. And I don’t want to follow a God who is morally responsible for evil in the world. So here’s what I think instead.

I think this world is a craphole because of sin. I think we consistently distort God’s intention for the world, in what we do and what we leave undone, intentionally and unintentionally. I think we have built monsters that are too big for us to control, whole systems that are designed to perpetuate injustice. I think even creation itself manifests this in natural disasters. I think our bodies are in bondage to decay and the power of death and we are going to break down sooner or later. I think we are morally responsible for evil, as individuals and as cultures and as a species. I think that as Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, “Some are guilty but all are responsible.”

And yet, I think that God is still active in our world. I think that God is a redeemer. One of the messages of Christ’s resurrection is that something good is always possible, not because of what we can do, but because of what God can do when we can’t see any way out. I trust that the times when I have been empowered to go on when I was sure I couldn’t go on, those times were a direct result of God’s Spirit in me. I trust that no matter how bad things get, if I invite God into the situation, God will come alongside me to make good out of the bad. 

On a cosmic scale, I trust that God is inviting us, wooing us, luring us, empowering us, influencing us, to partner with God for the revealing of the Kingdom, a new empire springing up right in the middle of the old one. And I trust that God will triumph not because of disaster, but in spite of disaster. 

When people say that everything happens for a reason, that everything happens so something else good will happen, they are often thinking of Romans chapter 8 verse 28. Most of us know the version that says, “All things work together for the good of those who love God, who have been called according to his purpose.” And that’s a grammatically acceptable way to translate that verse. But I have some problems with it.  First “things” in general don’t work together for good, and as Christians, we don’t believe that anyway. Most of us don’t believe that “things” in general work on their own; we believe that God works. And if “things” did work on their own, they tend towards decay and destruction because of sin. Plus why would that work only for people who love God and are called according to his purpose? Can “things” tell who loves God and who doesn’t? Plus I see just as much bad stuff happening to Christians as to anyone else. So I don’t like the translation of that verse. 

Thankfully there’s more than one way to understand this verse. It’s Greek. As a language Greek works differently than English, and so we often wind up with multiple English options to convey what is written in Greek. Here is another completely legitimate way to translate this verse, and some of you will even find this in the footnotes of your Bible. Ready?

Romans 8:28 “In all things God is working for good, together with those who love God, who have been called according to God’s purpose.”

There’s some important differences here. First of all “things” are not working; God is working. And God is work IN ALL THINGS. There is nothing that happens that God cannot participate in. And when God participates, it is for the good. But God is not doing this alone. Instead of the good being for our benefit, this translation says that we are partners in the work for good that God is doing because we have been called according to God’s purpose. Because we have decided that we are followers of Jesus, we choose or orient ourselves towards God’s work for good in the world.

I think this verse affirms that no matter where the suffering comes from, God is able to work for good in the midst of it. God is able to bring good out of it, especially when we choose to partner with God in it. We can choose to simply experience the suffering, or we can turn to God and invite God into our suffering and the suffering of the world, and ask God how we can partner with God to make something good out of the bad.

Sometime in the few months after my dad died, I came across some verses in Second Corinthians that came alive for me in a new way. Chapter 1 verses 3 says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

Please notice this does not say that God causes our troubles so that we can comfort those in trouble. It says that God comforts us so that we can comfort those in any trouble, with the same comfort we have received from God. It’s the comfort that comes from God, not the trouble. The trouble is going to come. That’s just the way the world is. But the comfort comes from God. 

So as we think about the story of Stephen and whether everything happens for a reason, let’s notice what happened after Stephen’s death. A great persecution broke out against the church, so bad that people fled Jerusalem and were scattered around the countryside of Judea and Samaria. But where they settled, they shared the good news. This is how the gospel left Jerusalem, carried by the Christians’ grief for Stephen and their need to escape persecution. So does that mean God caused Stephen’s death in order to spread the gospel? Or does it mean that those grieving and terrified people invited God into their grief and terror and God brought something good out of it? You decide what you believe. And please make that decision based on what kind of a Christian it will make you, how this belief about God will shape your actions. Because bad stuff is going to keep happening in the world until Jesus returns. The question is how are we going to live in the meantime. Are we going to sit passively or are we going to join God’s revolution? 

Ask yourselves hard questions, but don’t get bogged down in theological arguments. Our beliefs are only valuable if they shape our lives. Whatever we think, it must lead to action that reflects God’s love for all of creation and reveals God’s Kingdom in our midst. We will not be saved by what we think. We will be saved—which means rescued, healed, and victorious—by what we do. Not because what we do earns us some heavenly reward. But because living differently from the world is to be saved from the ways of the world here and now. If we trust that God can and wants to work for good in every situation, then we can seek God’s redemption in any and every situation. This is how we have hope in the midst of disaster. Amen. 

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