I’m starting a new sermon series this week that will center around some of the popular Christian sayings that make their way into our vocabulary. While the words may be meant to comfort, often times they do more harm than good. We’ll look at the theology and scriptural basis for these sayings and talk about the good and not-so-good aspects of each saying. I hope it is meaningful for you!
SCRIPTURE – Romans 8:18-28 – I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good[u] for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
Christian Cliches Sermon Series
#1 – Everything Happens for a Reason
Jan. 12, 2014
“Everything happens for a reason.” “Just have faith and everything will be OK.” “I’m praying for you.” Have you ever said one of these? I know I have. In many cases, these words and other spiritual sayings can be great sources of comfort to be people during difficult times. But that’s not always the case. In our sermon series starting today, we want to take a closer look at the Christian clichés that come easily to our lips when we’re confronted with a crisis or put in an awkward situation.
I’m not expecting us to conclude it’s wrong to say these things. In many case, these words can be very soothing. But it’s important for us to ask why we say them. I believe they are often said, not to offer comfort, but to provide some sort of explanation when there really is no explanation. There are two things we human beings don’t particularly like: silence and mystery. And we really can’t stand a mysterious silence! So when we’re faced with a situation that has no logical explanation, we will quell the mystery and shatter the silence by saying something that we think will be helpful, probably because someone once said it to us. When we simply don’t know how to respond, we lean on these Christian truisms, which one author called “spiritual urban legends.” That same author said, “Sometimes we treat the Bible as if it’s a series of sound bites and little sayings that we can put on T-shirts, coffee cups, and posters. But it’s a big book.”
I believe when we use a Christian cliché, we are accomplishing two things. First it provides an answer to the mystery, no matter how misguided or theologically inadequate that answer may be. And second, it provides us a way out of the conversation. When someone tells us that they were just diagnosed with cancer, it’s a bit of a conversation stopper. So we respond as we have learned, with a saying that conveys care and concern and some vague sense of spirituality, like “Don’t worry, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Then we give the person a hug and we’re on our way. The problem is, we may have done more harm than good.
Let’s start today with one of the most common Christian clichés: Everything happens for a reason. I heard the story about a pastor making a hospital visit one day. When he got to the patient’s room, they were asleep, so he set down his keys to write them an encouraging note. He left the note on their bedside tray and made his way back to the car, only to find he had left his keys in the patient’s room. He trudged back into the hospital and up to the room to retrieve his keys. When he walked in, the formerly sleeping patient was now awake and they had a wonderful visit together. As the pastor was leaving, he told the patient about leaving his keys and coming back to the room a second time, to which the patient responded, “Well, everything happens for a reason!”
When something fortuitous happens like that, we often look for a deeper meaning. You’re running late for a meeting and parking spot opens up right next to the door of the building. You get caught by a red light, only to witness an accident up ahead that might have involved you. You didn’t quite finish your homework over the weekend, and then wake up Monday morning to a snow day. Hallelujah! Everything happens for a reason! Or does it?
At the last church I served, there was a little girl named Emma Short. Emma had Down Syndrome and was one of the bright lights in our congregation. She loved to sing and play and the congregation loved to love on her. I got a call the night before Thanksgiving one year that Emma had been taken to the emergency room. Doctors eventually found a massive brain tumor, and Emma died a few days later. A few minutes after she died, the parents called me into Emma’s room as they held her body and asked me to say a prayer. Do you think I should have said to them, “Well, everything happens for a reason?”
Of course not. Can we agree that some things happen for a reason, but other things happen for no reason? Sure, there may be a meteorological explanation for a hurricane or a medical explanation for a brain tumor, but there’s no reason for them, there’s nothing we can say that will explain thy “why” behind such tragic events. But sometimes, when we are faced with the magnitude of someone’s grief or the enormity of bad news, we just don’t have anything to say. So we say, “Everything happens for a reason,” hoping that provides some sort of comfort.
But here’s the thing. That’s not in the Bible. And here’s another thing. It’s not even spiritual. It’s more mystical, pointing toward something greater than our understanding, but if you think about it, the statement doesn’t say anything. Why did it happen? Who made it happen? What’s the reason behind it? It’s the quasi-spiritual version of saying, “Oh well…”
The implication, of course, is that God is behind it, and God has a reason for this event happening. That makes perfect sense when the outcome of the situation is good, like a pastor getting to spend quality time with a parishioner after forgetting his keys. But when this statement is applied to a tragic situation, it paints God into a logically indefensible corner. If everything happens for a reason, and God is somehow behind that reason, then God has a lot of explaining to do to Emma’s parents and to all of us who’ve experienced tragedy and loss.
I think I know how this scapegoating of God happened and it starts with Romans 8:28. Here’s a great example of where translation plays a crucial role in our understanding of God’s word. I’ve printed these in the bulletin insert so you can follow along if you’d like. The first authorized English translation of the Bible, the King James Version, renders the verse this way: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” This can be interpreted that all things, good and bad, happen for a reason – for the good of them that love God. Since this was the only English Bible for about 400 years, this way of understanding God’s work came to be authoritative.
We can see how this line of thinking was picked up in subsequent translations. The NRSV, which we use in worship, reads very similarly to the King James: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” And the NLT translation makes God’s role even clearer: “And we know that God causes everything to work togetherfor the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” In this translation, God’s role in all things that happen, good and bad, is that God causes them. It’s a short step from this verse to “Everything happens for a reason.”
But let me offer an alternative translation. The NIV says it this way: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The difference can be found in one little preposition, two tiny letters: in. There’s a Grand Canyon of difference between all things working together and God working in all things. The NIV version says that no matter what happens, good or bad, explainable or unexplainable, God is at work in them. God is working through even the most tragic situations to bring about good. The semantic difference is small, but the theological difference is enormous.
For example, after Emma died, her parents established a fund in her name for the church to use for any music-related needs. We used that money to buy children’s music and to upgrade instruments, and it was a huge blessing to us. Now, did God cause Emma to die so the church could get that fund? You see how ridiculous that sounds. Or did God work through the tragedy of Emma’s death and her parents’ grief to create that fund as a way for Emma’s legacy to continue?
The problem with saying “Everything happens for a reason” is that the word “everything” is all-encompassing, covering everything from well-timed snow days to killer tornadoes. But what kind of God would open up parking spaces but not stop planes from flying into buildings? That’s not the kind of God I want to worship. When we say this line in the face of a crisis or tragic situation, we are ascribing to God a causal role that paints God as a capricious, finicky deity who has the power to control everything but chooses not to do so.
So what do you say when faced with these kinds of situations? When silence isn’t an option and we feel like we have to say something, what can we offer? I honestly don’t remember what I prayed with Emma’s parents that day, but I do remember saying, “God is with you.” That’s what Romans 8:28 says, at least in the NIV translation. No matter what circumstance you are in, God is with you. No matter how you got there, be it a failing body or your own boneheaded choices, God is with you. No matter what the outcome will be, God is with you. That’s the role of grace in the midst of our tragedies. Life may never be the same, but life can still be good. God is at work to help make that so.
Life is hard. Stuff happens. I know that’s not very pastoral of me to say, but it’s true, isn’t it? Sometimes things happen for no good reason, and blaming God as a way of explaining it only makes matters worse. Instead, let’s choose to worship a God who works for good in all things, even the things we screwed up. God is always there for us, not teaching us lessons by causing things to happen, but loving us through things that happen. Our hope is not dependent upon finding a reason to explain why bad things happen; our hope is founded on the belief that God is with us. Whether there’s a reason or no reason, God is with us. In all things. Always. Thanks be to God.