Everything Happens to Everyone

Duke Divinity Professor and public Christian, Kate Bowler, was only thirty-five years old and a new mother when doctors made the terrifying discovery that she had Stage IV colon cancer spreading through her abdomen. When she published an account of her faith and ongoing medical battles in The New York Times, she received responses telling her, among other things, that her cancer was caused by unconfessed sin or that acai berries would cure her. Her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Loved, is her attempt to answer those well-meaning critics, to answer that universal, human question when faced with tragedy: Why? Kate Bowler’s answer is that there is no why, there is no order or reason, and we had better put our energies toward enjoying the good we have today.

While I sympathize with her response, and I agree with her outlook on present blessings, I have another perspective, forged in a similar fire: everything happens to everyone, and it happens for a reason.

No, I don’t mean every tragedy and every blessing possible happens to each and every person on the planet. What I mean is that you cannot single out Christians and say they get more blessings (or curses) in their lives than the average Joe. Just look around you. Christians and non-Christians get cancer in the same proportion as everyone else (though outcomes may be slightly better). They lose children in the same proportion as everyone else. They get divorced in the same proportion as everyone else, and that’s a behavior-related problem! If they didn’t then someone would have noticed, and surely everyone on the planet would be calling themselves a true believer. Christians also get rich, attain their dreams and live long lives in approximately the same proportions as everyone else. You cannot look at a person or their beliefs and predict or explain what happens to them. Everything happens to everyone. 

In contrast to Dr. Bowler, however, I believe these statistically random events do happen for a reason. I can’t tell you that reason, not beyond a generic response such as, “for God’s glory.” And I suspect the individual reasons may be many and varied. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. We can examine any story in the Bible and find there are reasons for the tragedies therein. Joseph was sold into slavery and accused of a crime he did not commit so as to put him in the right place at the right time. Jonah was nearly drowned because of his disobedience (there’s a behavior-related problem for you). Mary and Martha grieved the death of their brother so the faith of many, including Mary and Martha, would be supernaturally strengthened. Paul and Barnabas had a bitter fight so that many more churches could be planted and discipled. Jesus died on the cross, an innocent man crucified like the lowest of criminals, so that all His brothers and sisters could live forever.

To all who struggle and hurt, who crave answers, who might even be willing to suffer if you knew it meant something, here is what Scripture says to you:

  1. God is in control. I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things (Is. 45:6,7).
  2. God has His purposes. I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.’ (Is. 46:9-11) 
  3. For you who love the Lord, those purposes are good. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).

Because we can’t, at times, understand the last point, we tend to doubt the others. Some might even call it heresy, profaning God, to say that a young mother with cancer could, in any sense, be good. I don’t pretend to understand it, either, and I am not trying to give you the answer. I am just repeating God’s assertion that there IS an answer. If God could take the greatest disaster that ever occurred (the murder of His only Son) and turn it into the greatest good that ever happened (the eternal salvation of all who believe), then, surely, He can do that for our little tragedies, too.

Most of the time we must wait our turn for a personal audience before we can “know as we are known,” but occasionally, we do get glimpses of God’s glory shining through the darkness. In my own case, if I had to do it all again, to live through years of cancerous gloom in order to get to the place of faith and ministry where He has brought me today, I would do it willingly, gladly. I truly believe there is a similar happy ending to all the stories, even the ones where young mothers aren’t healed, but faith means believing that without seeing it.

We serve a God who does not discriminate in the gifts and catastrophes He allows upon the earth during our era of brokenness. But we also serve a God who controls the sparrow in the sky and the hairs on our head with love and with purpose. Everything happens to everyone – and it happens for a reason.

Related Material:

Why Me? – Dear Christian Counselor
When God’s Sovereignty Scares You – The Gospel Coalition
On God’s Sovereignty in Painful Times – John Piper
A Few Examples of Reasons We Suffer – Focus on the Family
Kate Bowler’s Original Article – New York Times

Transient Global Amnesia

My husband drove me to the airport last week where I passed through security (with some extra attention due to my artificial leg), found my gate and boarded a plane to visit my daughter, something I have done routinely for several years now. However, one thing wasn’t routine this time: I don’t remember any of it. From a particular point on our half-hour drive to the airport until the plane landed in Pittsburgh four hours later I have virtually no memory of anything that happened. My husband said I was acting strangely. For instance, I packed my travel mug containing the dregs of a just-finished cup of coffee, despite his puzzled inquiries. And I complained of some vertigo, apparently. But I am not a morning person, so I guess it didn’t look that different from my normal 6 a.m. muddle.

The next thing I knew, I woke as from a deep sleep (which may actually have been a deep sleep – I am not sure) as the plane bumped along the tarmac toward the terminal. The hours and stories of those I encountered along my twilight journey are lost, presumably forever. My seatmate seemed in a hurry to exit. A few items like my book and my boarding pass, appeared to be awol, but I found most of them tucked neatly into my backpack under the seat in front of me. My boarding pass was gone, but my id, cash, phone and credit cards were all where they should have been. From the moment I awoke, I was increasingly myself and have felt perfectly fine ever since. It was much like coming out of anesthesia after a minor medical procedure. I would pay a lot of money to have a video of my trip through the airport and onto the plane, because it is a miracle that I got uneventfully to my destination under the circumstances.

My family and I have considered multiple causes for this bizarre occurrence: sleep-walking, reaction to medication, seizure, mini-stroke… but (best of all possibilities), I believe I experienced an episode of Transient Global Amnesia, something I had never even heard of before. It may be related to migraine headaches in some way, and I am a life-long migraine sufferer. According to the Mayo clinic, this rare problem is unlikely to recur or to have any long-term effects.

While it relieves a burden of worry to know that this is a benign condition, my biggest emotion about the whole episode is gratitude. God cares for His helpless ones, and there is no better illustration of that for me. I spend most of my days believing that I am in control, that I can handle the small, easy things in life without resorting to prayer or any other conscious dependence upon God. I spend most of the rest of my time worrying about the ‘big’ things I’m afraid I have to manage. But it is all a trick of this fallen world, an illusion of control we maintain to allay our fears, an unfortunate barrier which keeps us at a distance from our Provider. Are we ever really any more in control of our journey, our well-being or our destination than I was at the airport last week? I think not. I can’t even control my own brain. The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs His steps (Prov. 16:9).

I don’t believe this experience will forever cure all my anxiety or rebellious independence, but I do hope it will serve as a touchstone and a reminder for me when I am tempted to forget that God cares for His helpless ones.

And that includes all of us, all the time.

If you or anyone you know has experienced Transient Global Amnesia, please reply to this post. I would love to hear about it!

Related Content:

Another lesson in control and trust from John Piper.
Scriptures about anxiety and God’s faithfulness by Lesli White.
A prayer about feeling out of control from Scotty Smith.

Lost Boys

Wendy: “But where do you live mostly now?”

Peter: “With the lost boys.”

“Who are they?”

“They are the children who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent far away to Neverland to defray expenses. I’m captain.”

“What fun it must be!”

“Yes,” said cunning Peter, “but we are rather lonely.” 

JM Barrie, whose dialog is quoted above, was the author of Peter Pan, the stage play, and several other works that contained references to the lost boys. These stories hint at a darker tale than we have gleaned from the Disney films. Barrie’s first lost boy was his older brother, who died as a child, leaving Barrie to compete for his mother’s attention with a sibling who would never grow up. The rowdy crew of animal-boys described in Peter Pan were actually the childless author’s surrogate children who lost their own parents and eventually became Barrie’s wards. Two of them also died in the Neverland of adolescence. Barrie’s lost boys inhabit a child’s limbo where they will never mature, never find love and where they will never really live.

This is uncomfortably close to the situation for boys who are leaving the church today in droves. Most of them would say they have quit the world of make-believe faith for the reality of science and culture, but they have chosen a half-life, based on their own brand of faith, where they will find it hard to mature, difficult to know love and impossible to hope for eternal life. I suppose we had best consult Chaos Theory to know why this phenomenon is occurring, since the variables must be nearly infinite, but I would like to consider a few of them.

Superficial Heroes. Pick up a few children’s books from 150 years ago, and you will see that kids today are given little concept of philosophy, honor or purpose by comparison with generations past. Media heroes today are often violent, simplistic caricatures who save only themselves and achieve only pleasure. Such are our sports heroes, financial titans and video stars. This is an especially glaring lack for boys whose God-given love of adventure and combat can serve a bright purpose or an easy, empty vanity.

Surrendered Science. Boys mapped the known world and launched the first rockets, invented the telescope and split the atom. There is a reason beyond discrimination (which has also played a large role) for their prowess in the field. Boys are better at problem solving and spatial thinking. It’s how they are made. But science today has been conquered virtually unopposed by deists and atheists. Although there are some excellent Christian scientists, they are a small minority, and their influence has been tainted by other Christian voices which spoke disparagingly of things they did not understand. So boys, who still pursue scientific endeavors in greater numbers, are exposed to mentors and teachers who shame their belief in something they cannot quantify.

The Feminine Church. Churches are largely female and becoming more so all the time. There are denominations where more than half the ministers are women, and every denomination is plagued by desultory male attendance. It’s a self-perpetuating problem. But there is something else which has become increasingly feminine about the church: an emphasis on the softer side of God. Whether it’s the unbiblical grace of universalism or the true grace of a sinner’s salvation, you will hear more about grace in the church today than ever in history. Salvation grace is real and necessary and good, but our God is also a powerful and uncompromising warrior-king, capable of great ferocity in service to righteousness (see Revelation 16, for example). His love demands something of us and asks us to count the cost. He is a God who imparts strength, equips leaders, commands attention and makes an impact. This is a man’s God, and He has gone missing from the church.

Barrie’s Lost Boys cannot become real men unless they give up their make-believe world of shallow and selfish pursuits. One might be willing to make that leap of faith if there was a place where real purpose, real adventure, and real love could be found together. That is the place we must make visible, by telling it in our own stories and living it aloud every day. As a last word, I must say that I believe in the sovereignty of God, that neither Satan nor human beings can thwart the Lord’s intentions, that He is not wringing His hands ineffectively over our folly but is continually working in time and events. However, that does not excuse us from doing our very best to make God known and to be most like Him, our intrepid Savior who fought His great enemy and confronted death and to save women and men, girls and boys alike.

Related Material:

Gender Gap in World Religions – Pew Forum
What Men Want from Church – CT Pastors
Another Thought on the Gender Gap – The Gospel Coalition
Great book, good resources for encouraging men and boys here