Here is a verse that is not in the Bible: “Everything happens for a reason.” While the statement is logically true – everything does happen for some reason – the phrase itself is useless. It does not tell us what that reason is, nor does it tell us whether the reason is intended, accidental or naturally occurring. Saying that everything happens for a reason is no more informative than saying that something did or did not happen. The statement is always true, and yields nothing insightful. But we have embraced this phrase as a way to comfort others, unintentionally adding to their burdens. We see someone in turmoil, and we quickly assure them that “everything happens for a reason,” hoping that the existence of a greater plan can ease the suffering of the moment. Does the statement fit the following situations?
A close friend calls to let you know that the man she’s been dating for the last six months has called things off. She isn’t holding out much hope they will get back together. You let her know: “Everything happens for a reason.”
A man learns that he has just been laid off, and his job prospects are very grim. He is worried about providing for his family and the significant debts that are piling up. Let’s assure him together: “Everything happens for a reason.”
A small child is diagnosed with a rare illness and the treatments do not seem effective. Doctors have given her a short time to live, and the parents live each day with the double weight of their own grief and the pain of their young child. “Everything happens for a reason.”
A young mother is involved in a fatal car accident that leaves her husband a widower and her young children with a parent. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Are we equally comfortable telling someone that everything happens for a reason in all four of the circumstances above? If not, is this statement only true for the mundane difficulties in life — the ones we think others should recover from easily — or does it also apply to real tragedies? Does the inconsistency in how we use this phrase reveal that we don’t believe this phrase to be universally true? And when someone asks us what the “reason” might be, how do we respond? How can we presume to know the reason, let alone to know that it’s a good reason? If we were honest with ourselves, our real motive behind the use of this phrase is to dispense with the other person’s situation. Rather than sit with them in their difficult circumstances, willing to live with them through the range of emotions that accompany suffering, we are simply patting them on the backside and telling them to get back into the game. Why are we so quick to write off real issues with trite phrases? Is it because we don’t want to take the time to walk alongside another? Do we find it much easier to simply sprinkle them with meaningless phrases in the hope it will cheer them up? Are we hoping to prepare ourselves for the times that we, too, might be touched by unexpected tragedies, declaring in advance that tragedies must have greater purposes? Maybe it’s just easier than facing the realization that life is not always happy and trouble free. Most likely, we use this phrase because others have used it with us. We have learned to do the same, much like saying we are “great” when someone asks us how we are doing. Perhaps a more helpful response to the difficulties experienced by others is to truthfully admit that we don’t know why these things have happened, and to instead sit with them for a much longer season than the momentary comfort that accompanies trite phrases.