Sunday, February 9, 2014

"Everything happens for a reason:" Why this statement stings so much: Part 2

In Part I, I wrote about how "everything happens for a reason" cuts off connection. I'd like to reiterate that I'm not suggesting people intend harm when they use this phrase. People want to help, but again this isn't about intention. It's about the reality of what this phrase and others like it communicate to people when they're suffering. 

Reason 2: It's bad theology and nonsense psychology.

It is one thing to suggest that God allows suffering; it is quite another to insinuate that He causes it. The statement, "everything happens for a reason," implies that God is a puppet master causing this and that event "for a reason." It implies that God is "testing us" or "teaching us a lesson."

The Church herself names man as the author of sin. Man sins when he rejects God (Catholic Church 386). The Catechism clearly states that Satan acts in the world and his actions can cause grave injuries- both spiritual and physical. "It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but 'we know that in everything God works for the good with those who love" (Catholic Church 295). See??? It is a great mystery why God permits suffering and He can bring good from the most horrible circumstances. He can bring good from evil. He is not causing evil.

"For Christians, by contrast, the Creator of all things is a perfectly good, perfectly just,14 and perfectly loving Father. Suffering and death, and all the evils we experience in this life, have their origin in human sin against God our Father. From a Christian point of view, the finger that the atheist points at God, blaming Him for all the suffering we experience, or using our suffering as an argument against God’s existence, is man blaming God, for what man freely did in disobedience to God" (Cross 2009).

 Yes, there is some truth to "everything happens for a reason;" more often than not, the reason for suffering is the reality of living in a fallen world. Sickness and death exist because evil exists- not because God is willing them. 

Do you think God could ever will the abuse of helpless children? St. Paul tells us, "God is love;" abuse is certainly not a reflection of love, and so we know that God could not possibly be the author of it. If the ends never justify the means than God would not will evil in order to 'make us better people'. 

Parents may claim they are beating their children to teach them right from wrong and 'make them better people,' but this behavior is misguided at best- evil at worst. 

Many of the most severe emotional and behavioral problems (ie Borderline Personality Disorder and Anti-Social Personality Disorder) are directly linked to early caregiving experiences where the parent was both the source of the child's fear and the only hope of relief from that fear. I am no theologian, but I know we are called to love as Christ loved. I know that the above mentioned parenting style is not a reflection of Christ's love, and when we imply that God is causing suffering, we are asking others to accept a heavenly father that is the cause of their fear and their only hope for relief from that fear. 

Years of research in the field of psychology and child development tell us that severely abused children blame themselves for their suffering in order to survive emotionally. Even though their parents are the objective source of their pain, they internalize the hurt and come to see themselves, rather than their parents, as bad and evil. Children simply cannot live in a world where their seemingly omnipotent caregiver is the source of pain. It seems their minds are designed to automatically and unconsciously make sense of the experience of fright without solution by seeing themselves as the authors of their own suffering. 

The human mind is, of course, the work of God the Father. Modern psychology and neuroscience are just beginning to tap into the wonders of how this infinitely complex system functions. As Christians, we know that God usually works within the natural order of things. Natural law tells us there are certain things about human nature, which are immutable. It stands to reason then that God would not ask us to accept as truth something that fundamentally contradicts that which is an immutable part of our human nature. 

Just as small children cannot accept their parents as the source of their pain (even when this is indeed the case), adults are psychologically unable to accept their heavenly Father as the source of their suffering. When someone says "everything happens for a reason" and so suggests that God is causing some suffering for a purpose, the human mind is apt to reject the idea- if only on an unconscious level. We're left feeling confused, disorientated and unsatisfied, because we know on some level that God simply could not be the author of our pain. Depending on the state of our emotional and spiritual well-being, we may be able to consciously reject this most absurd suggestion, or we may feel we have no other choice than to convince ourselves of its truth. In the case of the latter, we are bound to become angry and rageful because we are trying to convince ourselves of a truth so out-of-sync with what is written on our hearts. 

Luckily, the Catholic Church, in all her wisdom teaches with clarity that God does not will our suffering. But for whatever reason, we've developed the bad habit of responding to suffering with "everything happens for a reason" and in doing so we are confusing others (and ourselves) about what the church actually teaches, as well as adding to the suffering of others by suggesting they accept all the psychological absurdities the statement implies.  


  1. very interesting post. thanks for sharing your thoughts! i'm in a lay formation group right now started by a certain father and the first truth that is outlined in the beginning is: "1. Nothing happens accidentally but everything is gifted providentially. All that you have experienced in your life, are experiencing now, and will experience is in God's hands. Either He directly wills it or has allowed it. God's favors do not depend upon your worthiness." This was so hard for me to swallow at first because I heard what you wrote about here when I first read it, instead of what it actually says. The difference between God's will and his permissive will is subtle, but so important. The "everything happens for a reason!" line seems like an easy way to brush off suffering and try to give humor or levitity to a situation, but i've found it rarely actually does so.

    1. Thanks for your feedback! Yes, the difference between God's perfect will and his permissive will is subtle but so important! Do you think anything I said conflicts with your understanding of his 2 wills? Like I say, I'm not a theologian and I am definitely open to correction.

    2. No nothing conflicts! I think what I quoted supports it. I don't think that people always intend to be incorrect theologians, I think they just don't think about what the statement is really implying. What I meant to say was that when I first heard the quote for the group I posted, in my head I heard "everything happens for a reason". And like a reflex I said "nope! Not true." But there is a major difference between the ttwo, and only one is true. Anyway, sorry for being confusing!

  2. Amen! This is what we really need to stop and think about with this saying. I remember one of the darkest times with struggling with my life and thinking that if God had a reason to want to go through that, then He must hate me. He has brought amazing grace out of that time, but that's when I really started re-evaluating this whole statement and attitude. I agree with what Alison is learning as well, but I don't think it's at all contradictory to what you're saying here.

    1. Thank you, Catholic Mutt:-). Yes, I googled to read more about what Allison was saying and I agree it doesn't seem to contradict anything I said. All of this is so nuanced so I just want to be careful I'm never contradicting the Church, but in my experience sound psychology always affirms correct theology and I love understanding one in light of the other.

  3. This is a great post - and a wonderful explanation as to why "everything happens for a reason" is untrue. "nonsense psychology" - I love it!

    Alison touched on with the quote she shared and her further comments, but I wanted to point it out as well - God's perfect will (what He actively wills) and God's permissive will (what He allows) are two very different things, though there is a fine line between them. I've spent many hours trying to wrap my head around the two, both on my own and with my spiritual director.

  4. Yes, I always felt this in my heart, but could never articulate why it bugged me so much when people said it. Thanks for writing this!

  5. This is another great post! And I love how you related it to your psychology studies. It just makes sense that God doesn't will bad things. And how angry I used to get at Him for allowing all the bad things in my life to happen. Nope, nope, nope. Wrong perspective. After I read your first post about this, when you had found this topic on other blog... that's when I started clinging to Him in my hard times as opposed to getting in a fight with Him. As I said before, it completely changed my relationship with Him. I even gave a talk about this very topic when I was leading my youth group's retreat a few weekends ago. This message needs to be shared because I think many of us have it so wrong. That silly phrase needs to be banned!!