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

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, a book review

Why do bad things happen to faithful people? It’s a question which drove me to despair as a young Christian struggling with the devastating effects of stage 4 cancer. It’s a question which has caused my friends and clients great dismay over the course of my counseling ministry. When I needed answers, I was able to find books dealing with either the theological tangles (most notably for me, The Sovereignty of God by AW Pink) or the emotional process of suffering (e.g., A Grief Observed by CS Lewis or Holding On To Hope by Nancy Guthrie). Now there is a book which attempts to include both the intellectual questions and the practical strategies in one volume, Tim Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Random House, 2013).

 

The book is divided into three parts. Simply put, the first part defines the questions inherent in suffering, the second part wrestles with those questions and the third part offers some Scriptural strategies for coping with suffering. That means two thirds of the book is intellectual in nature, a preponderance concealed by the title. And yet, that was the crux of the matter for me. When I was able to discern a little logic, a little purpose in the universe which included suffering, it eased some of the exhaustion, anger and depression I carried with me like a dead weight. Keller also deals with the heavy intellectual emphasis by including personal stories at the end of each chapter in the first two sections, a practice I wish he had continued into the third part, as well.

 

I liked this book – but I like Keller, and I like theology. Before recommending it to someone else, I would want to know whether they are ready for a gentle exercise in philosophy. Part of the reason I enjoyed the book was that it confirmed some of my own beliefs, for example, that God is in control, that the world is a broken place and that suffering is and will be redemptive. Everyone must come to their own conclusions about the meaning of life and the purpose of suffering – I don’t think being handed a mantra on a silver platter solves anything – and this book allows room for that kind of wrestling. It also attempts to provide some practical strategies for dealing with pain, largely from the Psalms, but there is something about those final chapters which falls short, remaining too academic for me. Coping with suffering, like everything else we do, can be worship – should be worship – and at its best, worship is a passionate undertaking. For that you will have to read something else.

Beads on a String

It was an incongruous place to be stringing pearls. Her hair was a memory, and her face was puffy with swelling, but those beautiful, shapely fingers were quick and steady. One by one she picked out the beads, setting them aside to become an integral part of her latest creation. The others sitting nearby looked on curiously as a slow drip ran varicolored fluids into her chest beneath the collar bone. They, too, had bare metal trees flowing toxic sap, infusing hope. But they did not have the beads, the flashing silver spacers, the diamond-cut glass spheres, and the pearls that ran from her fingertips onto tiger-tail circlets.

 

Her smile was out-of-place, too, in the clinic. Most people tried to sleep the hours away while burning liquid invaded their tissues. But if a cocky beret and an inviting countenance were not enough to induce a conversation from her neighbors, there were always the beads. If you wanted to try, she would let you choose your colors from her box of surprises, show you how to handle the pliers, how to close the crimp beads to just the right tension. So that when you left you would have something to remember: a bracelet, a keepsake, a connection.

 

She gave them to all her friends in those days, a little bit of herself that sprang from the dark hours. A little bit of herself that glittered with life. She let me make my own one day, but I’ve never been very inventive, and she had to help me choose the colors. We picked a handful of blue beads in turquoise, powder and midnight, pearls in white and silver-gray. Some of them looked nearly black to me, dull and uninviting. Others were unusual, with bits of contrasting glass stuck on at odd angles. And several of them were my favorites. I would have made the whole circle of just those beautiful beads: creamy white with soft blue accents and elegant gold trim.

 

She knew better than I, however. Because when I had inexpertly strung all of them together and she had helped me finish off my bracelet, it was a little work of art. I stare at it now, examining each bead and the way they all meld into one eclectic whole. That was her wisdom. Each bead is unique, some dull, others wild, a few lovely. But when the artist has finished, they blend into a satisfying creation that can never be duplicated, a song from the heart of its maker.

 

As day upon day is strung on the cord that becomes a life, it is a gift to hold each one in our hands and notice without rancor whether they are troubling or luminous or ordinary, dull or wild or lovely. The uniqueness and delight of God’s work comes not from a bland sameness of beauty, but from His blending of the light and the dark in a pattern which can only be fully appreciated from afar. And thus the Creator is glorified, taking pleasure in each story which reflects His sovereign artistry. Year upon year, life upon life, like pearls on a string, our days are meant to reflect the heart of God – just as surely as my sparkling bracelet still reflects her love in a world she has long transcended.

 


I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Thy doings; I muse on the work of Thy hands.  Ps. 143:5