That’s In The Bible Somewhere…: Everything Happens for a Reason
I Corinthians 13:12-13
For a long period of time Dr. Fred Grissom was a professor in Baptist life. I never had the pleasure of having Fred for a class or really even of knowing him in an academic setting. Instead my interactions with him came in two distinct moments which both led to my developing a huge degree of respect and appreciation for him. My first encounter with Dr. Grissom came when I heard him speak at a dinner event. He was the entertainment that night and his topic was “The Theology of The Andy Griffith Show.” Like many of you, I love The Andy Griffith Show and it was a marvelous evening as Fred shared with us his knowledge of the show, interesting tidbits he had learned and finally lessons he had gleaned over time from the show that related to our lives as Christians. What I also appreciated so much was the fact that here was an esteemed Professor of Religion with a PhD sharing with us about his love for a television show, laughing with us as we recalled favorite episodes and finding meaning in lessons from Andy with the same ease he could have taught us about the Synoptic gospels.
My second and other encounter with Dr. Grissom came at a funeral. At the time, he was moving toward the end of his career and was teaching at North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount. A student of Fred’s at the time was one of my former church members. When she died in a tragic motorcycle accident, her family asked if I would come back and speak at her funeral. Unbeknownst to me, Dr. Grissom was sitting in the congregation and after the service we connected with each other. Here he was at the end of a long career in academics and here I was still wet behind the ears in ministry and in life. To be honest, I was intimidated. I was also more than a little concerned that he had been in the crowd that day and I wondered how he might have approached that moment and her death with wiser, more profound and more helpful words. Rather than correct my mistakes in the pulpit however, he paid me one of my most cherished compliments. There on the front lawn of that little church, he thanked me for not saying too much. Truth be told, it was an underserved compliment for my sparsity of words that day was more related to not knowing what to say than it was a result of some profound wisdom that comes in knowing not to speak even when one feels they have good words to say.
In essence, Dr. Grissom, on older, battle tested minister and teacher shared with me that day that what he had learned is that such moments are where too many believers and ministers take major wrong turns. He reminded me that so much of life is simply unexplainable and a mystery. Our job, he said, is not really to explain what happened or try to figure out why something happened but simply to trust God’s love and God’s goodness in the midst of it all which is hard enough on its own.
There are many big problems with the statement that “everything happens for a reason”. One of them is the fact that the Bible never suggests to us that this is our job even when we are speaking of our own lives and own circumstances. As a human being our job is not to figure out everything or to explain everything. It is just like life in general. There is simply a lot that happens that we can’t explain or understand. And it is okay to say we don’t understand or that we don’t know. It truly is better to be too quite than to be too verbose.
This belief that it is our job to explain things get us in trouble with others and with ourselves. On the one hand, it gets us in trouble with others when we insist that there must be a reason behind a friend’s child dying of cancer, the end of their marriage or the loss of a job as if to suggest that the only way God could get someone’s attention is by taking their child, ending their career or putting their children in a single parent home. I don’t think this is the place that we want to take people and I don’t mean to suggest that this is where we mean to take people. But this is where people often end up when we insistent that we have to make sense of or find a reason for that which makes no sense.
On the other hand, the incessant need to explain things gets us into trouble with ourselves. When bad things happen to us some of us drive ourselves crazy trying to figure God out, trying to discover the reason for it all, insistent that we must understand or find the lesson. Yet, again, scripture never suggests our job is to figure things out or to be a theological Sherlock Holmes. Most of the time, there simply are no hidden clues to be found or discoveries to be made that will unravel the puzzles of life. And it is not the result of saying the right prayers, talking to the right people or figuring out the way to interpret an obscure Bible verse. Often, the answers are not there.
Instead, I think the best word comes from Paul at the end of I Corinthians 13 where in verse 12, he reminds the Corinthians and us that in this life we only understand things in part. We see, Paul says, through a glass dimly. Life is simply fuzzy, indecipherable and unable to be explained. True Christian belief is that real clarity only arrives in the life to come. Only then will we see fully and clearly.
Really, what Paul was encouraging the Corinthians to do here is to embrace humility. He is inviting them and us to live even as people of faith with less certainty, okay with more mystery and willing to affirm what we believe with a little less of a dogmatic and authoritative tone.
Now, some of you may be saying to yourself, isn’t Rickey contradicting himself today? After all, two weeks ago, he said that in Romans we are reminded that God is always at work and at work for our good. Now he is saying we should not try to over explain things and to be okay with mysteries.
Isn’t that a contradiction???Good question! I am glad you asked. Instead of a contradiction, Romans 8, I believe, is our correction for “everything happens for a reason”. Romans 8 is a way of saying this: listen don’t feel like you have to figure everything out, you can’t! You are never going to understand all of the mysteries so don’t try because generally speaking that sort of attitude and idea simply leads to bad conclusions. Let go of the statement “this had to have happened for a reason”. Let that go and instead live into the conclusion that even in this awful thing that I don’t understand, God is at work, God is with me and God loves me. Even in that which you don’t understand and likely never will, believe that God is there, working on your behalf out of love. Let go of the idea that there has to be a reason all of the time and embrace the truth that even in this God is at work and at work for our good. Let Romans 8 be your correcting passage not a contradiction.
In Corinthians Paul warns us about trying to figure everything out while in Romans Paul invites us to trust even when we don’t understand. Again, the two balance each other out.
Maybe the best way to say it is with another story. It comes from Viktor Frankl who wrote about and wrestled throughout his life with his time as a Jewish Prisoner during the Holocaust. One of the beautiful stories his tells is about a day when exhausted from work and yet again burdened and overwhelmed by the abuse of their Nazi captors, he and his fellow prisoners had returned to their bunks tired to the bone. As they lay on their beds, the position of the sun at that very moment of the day cast an unusual and beautiful hue on the sky. Seeing it, one of their fellow prisoners roused all of the others up that they might go outside and behold the sky in all of its beauty and it all of its splendid colors. Frankl says that even that small act was something they were able able to grab hold of in that experience as a sign of God’s presence with them and love. (Victor Frankl as told in Man’s Search for Meaning)
In that moment, that group of beaten down persecuted prisoners avoided one temptation and embraced a great truth. They avoided the temptation to figure it all out – they were never going to find a purpose for the horror through which they were living. At the same time, they embraced the great truth that the beautiful colors of the sky and sun a reminder that God was still alive and at work. It was a sign that God was still good.
In essence, they set aside the phase and the temptation to figure out the reason for it all and they picked up the much healthier idea that God was with them in it all. For us too, for you and for me, I pray that we can let go of an incessant need to explain it all that we might instead simply trust through it all. Amen.