a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. – Ecclesiastes 3:1-11
We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28 (CEB)
I hate buying sympathy cards.
I love writing notes, so when a friend or loved one is going through a hard time, I want to send them a card. But anytime I go through the “Get Well” and “Sympathy” sections of the greeting card aisle, everything seems so trite and inadequate.
That’s why I love Emily McDowell. Emily is a writer and illustrator who created a beautiful collection of empathy cards. They are meaningful and funny in the way only something that faces grief head-on can be. In big bubble letters, her empathy cards offer consolation that is honest in both the seriousness and awkwardness of trying to find something to say when things go wrong. Here are a few examples:
“I’m so sorry you’re sick. I promise not to try and sell you on some random treatment I read about on the Internet.”
“I’m really sorry I haven’t been in touch. I didn’t know what to say.”
“One more chemo down! Let’s celebrate with whatever doesn’t taste disgusting.”
“There is no good card for this. I’m so sorry.”
And, most relevant to our conversation tonight:
“Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason.”
We’ve all heard our phrase for tonight: “Everything happens for a reason.” Most of us have probably said it at some point. It’s meant to be comforting. It’s what we say when we can see no reason in what is happening.
The problem with “Everything happens for a reason” is precisely what we’re calling this worship series: “That’s not in the Bible.”
Certainly the Bible gets pretty close to “Everything happens for a reason,” so we can be forgiven for that mistake. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “[God] has made everything suitable for its time.” Some translations of that verse even say, “God makes everything happen at the right time.”
And our Romans verse seems to suggest that God makes everything happen for the best—the implication being that even if something seems to be bad, God made it happen for some good reason, we just can’t see it.
I do believe that great good can come out of great suffering, that time and perspective and big pictures can transform grief and loss into beautiful things. However, I do not believe that “Everything happens for a reason” in the cosmic sense that God makes things happen for his own divine purposes.
I once saw a bumper sticker that I love. It says, “Everything happens for a reason. But sometimes the reason is that you’re stupid and you make bad decisions.”
That’s an off-the-cuff rendering of what I think is a really good point. Case studies can be helpful in breaking down why “Everything happens for a reason” is an unhelpful response to tragedy or grief. The example I think of most often is of Molly McKay.
Molly was in college at UNC Chapel Hill when I was in middle school. Molly was a beam a sunshine, an incredible young woman who loved life and loved Jesus. In the summer of 2000, Molly was a youth intern at our church, her home church, where she helped younger kids like me get excited about God.
On August 17, 2000, Molly was driving back to Chapel Hill to start her sophomore year of college when a car going the opposite direction on the highway crossed the median and struck her head-on. Molly was killed instantly.
I still remember being in the carpool line when Dad got the call. I remember being one of several students pulled out of class to see a grief counselor during school that day. I remember weeping through her memorial service with other members of the youth group.
And I remember my mom asking me a very important question. We were talking about Molly some time after her death, and Mom asked, “Do you think that God took Molly away?”
I was so, so young, but even then I knew that just couldn’t be the case. That was not the God I knew and loved. After a pause, I told my mom, “I don’t think God took her. But I do believed he welcomed her home.”
Since then, I have often used this story to think about whether “Everything happens for a reason.” Because the reason Molly died is not that God needed another angel or that it was her time or that he had a bigger purpose for her. The reason Molly died is that somebody fell asleep at the wheel. To say anything more than that is to make God into a cruel puppeteer who tortures us for fun, and I just can’t do that.
Isn’t it true that when we look for the reason behind some tragedy, what we’re really looking for is blame? When the unthinkable happens, we want to hold someone responsible, thinking in our grief that perhaps this will make us feel better.
The problem is that the question of blame is often either too simple or too complicated to satisfy our need for closure. In Molly’s case, it is almost unbearable to think that something as awful as a 19-year-old’s sudden death can be explained by something as simple as another person’s drowsiness. There has to be a better explanation.
And haven’t we all done what Stevie Wonder’s heart has done—blamed it on ourselves? When a loved one commits suicide, don’t we play our last interaction with them over and over in our heads? When an addict we care for relapses, don’t we hold ourselves responsible, thinking that if we had only done something different, this wouldn’t have happened? In cases like these, the problem isn’t that the explanation is too simple; it’s that there isn’t one.
And when disaster strikes on a large scale, when thousands die in an earthquake or tsunami or hurricane, or fire, wouldn’t we rather say they were at the mercy of God than at the mercy of the randomness of natural phenomena? Wouldn’t we like to think those people deserved to die, because then we wouldn’t be haunted in our dreams by the images we see on the news?
And so “Everything happens for a reason” becomes our way of blaming God, because maybe if it’s God’s fault, there’s some bigger purpose, some larger plan, something, anything better than too-simple facts or the mystery of human suffering or the depth to which we are powerless over nature in the end.
I just returned from a mission trip to Haiti along with 8 other Centenary members. This was my second trip to Port-au-Prince, so instead of being emotionally paralyzed for a week after returning like I was last year, I’ve just cried multiple times a day. Progress.
Amy Poehler described Haiti best in reflecting on a trip she took there. She said it looks like someone picked up Haiti, turned it upside down, shook it, and then set it back where it was. When people ask me whether you can still see the effects of the 2010 earthquake, I tell them it’s hard to know what’s the earthquake and what’s just Haiti.
When that 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit on January 12, 2010, some Christians quickly said “Everything happens for a reason,” and in this case, that reason was that God was angry. The earthquake, they said, was God’s way of punishing the Haitians for their voodoo beliefs and practices.
But I do not worship a God who causes a disaster that kills over 100,000 people, not for any reason, and not for carrying the practices of indigenous religions a thousand years after those people were kidnapped from their homes and brought to the land Christopher Columbus “discovered” in chain. And now that I’ve been to Haiti, now that I’ve started to get to know and love some of the people there, it is that much more unimaginable that God would have brought more suffering on this already profoundly impoverished and oppressed people.
And here’s something I started thinking about while I was in Haiti: not everything happens for a reason, but everything matters.
That thought comes from a story. The moment that stuck out most to me from our trip came when we were walking back to the compound where we stayed in Port-au-Prince. As we went down the street, a little boy appeared and ran right up to us, grabbing one of our group members by the hand. He looked to be 3 or 4 but was probably at least 5. He wouldn’t tell us his name but quietly asked if we had any “chocolat,” so our group has continued to refer to him that way.
Little “Chocolat” clung to a few of our group members as we walked, eventually climbing into the arms of a young woman on the trip. He was obviously desperate for love and affection.
What we learned later is that this little boy has a life more difficult than we could imagine. He is one of 11 children; all the others have been given away to orphanages. Since he was born right before the earthquake, his mother kept him, him being too young to adopt out at that time. But he mostly fends for himself. He once fell and broke his arm carrying filtered water back to his home. The other street boys make fun of him, calling him a derogatory Creole name that refers to the sound a sandal makes on the ground.
And so what we were told was that although it didn’t seem like much to hold a little boy’s hand for a minute or to give him a hug, those small actions were revolutionary to him. In a world where he is constantly overlooked and pushed aside, our presence and responsiveness told him that he matters.
I refuse to believe that God created a 7.0-magnitude earthquake to create orphans in a country that already cannot feed and educate its beautiful children. God did not cause little “Chocolat” to be born into the horrific situation he now inhabits. But that young boy matters to God. God’s heart aches whenever he hurts himself or is called a name, and God rejoices whenever someone holds his hand and lets him know that he matters.
MaMary Oliver has a very, very short poem called “The Uses of Sorrow.” It goes like this:
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
It is important that she calls this “The Uses of Sorrow” and not “The Causes of Sorrow.” To go back to our Romans passage, “God works all things together for good”—we know God can bring beauty and healing and redemption out of horrible tragedy, unbearable pain, and unthinkable loss.
But that doesn’t mean that God makes bad things happen to teach us a lesson. Whatever good might come out of grief or pain, even that good is not the reason—it’s the use, it’s the proof that it mattered. God never causes the sorrow—he just uses it.
15 years after Molly McKay’s death, a memorial to her life stands across the street from Davidson United Methodist Church. It’s the Molly McKay Youth House. It’s the space where the church’s incredible youth ministry continues to grow and reach young people, giving them a place to belong and to come to believe, a place where they can experience the same light and love that Molly gave us many years ago.
God didn’t take Molly’s life so that we might have a moving story to give meaning to that youth ministry. Someone fell asleep at the wheel—and God has used and is using the sorrow that came from that terrible day to bring new life and healing to Molly’s family and church home.
Ecclesiastes says there is a time for everything—not a reason, but a time. We cannot explain it all—really, we can’t explain much of it. But wherever there is mystery, God is there, too. We can stop looking for someone to blame and instead let the mystery be, knowing that somehow, someday, everything can be useful to God even if it wasn’t caused by God. When we run out of reasons, we run into what really matters: that in God’s time, everything can and will be a gift.
Sarah S. Howell