(Don’t forget to sign up to receive all of my blogs and updates automatically–simply click here and never miss an article!)
One of the most popular sayings of our time is that “everything happens for a reason.” If you think about it, this is a rather general statement. In a sense, everything does happen for a reason. Leaves change colors because their chlorophyll is broken down and transferred into the tree. Tsunamis occur because of strong and sudden motions on the ocean floor. Animals hibernate to help them survive cold weather periods when food is certain to be scarce. These are a few of the countless examples that could be mentioned.
Of course, this is not what people mean when they say, “everything happens for a reason.” What they mean is that some type of force is guiding worldly activities in order to produce a specified outcome. For the mystics among us, this may just be the universe itself or some type of nebulous “cosmic power” within it. On the other hand, those who believe in a type of personal deity (like Yahweh) call this force “God.” It is the latter group—those who believe in God—that I am concerned with here.
Believers often advance beyond thinking there is some type of rhyme and reason to earthly activities and go to the extent of thinking that God causes nearly all of life’s events to happen. Whether we are dealing with a joyous occasion or the most horrific of tragedies, everything is “God’s will.”
Most of us can offer anecdotal examples of this line of thinking. It is extremely common to hear couples say, “it was God’s will that we found each other.” Some believe God made them lose items (like their keys), so that the lapse of time would cause them to get to the supermarket later. There, they saw an old friend or had a timely encounter with a new one. The same could be said on the negative side, where it is easily more harmful. People commonly attribute natural disasters and viral pandemics to divine ordination. I have even known individuals who lost a child to cancer or other diseases and were “reassured” that it was all part of God’s master plan.
These examples are not intended to suggest that God cannot cause things to happen in our lives, or that events should never be understood as “God’s will.” Instead, these examples illustrate an overall mindset: an approach to how we view the various events of life. Some have so overwhelmingly accepted the idea that God, in His sovereignty, is so “in control” that every detail of life must be seen through this lens. This means that God is responsible for both the good and the bad.
In fact, sometimes the bad—like the tragic examples previously mentioned—are flipped upside down and viewed as positive outcomes. And “every good and perfect gift is from above,” right ?
Like any other belief, there must be some type of basis for it. But what?
There are many parts of Scripture that, if distorted, can cause us to believe that God makes everything happen. However, there are some that are especially prevalent. One of the most used—and improperly applied—passages in the OT is Jeremiah 29:11, and it speaks to this very issue. The text reads as follows: “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Many interpret this to mean that, no matter how bad things get, God has a greater plan in store for each of us. In a sense, everything can be seen as being part of this greater plan. God will ensure that we come out of the darkness, that we leave the pain and sorrow behind us, and that we come into a better life.
God always has a better life in store for us. This is exciting news!
As good as that sounds, there is a clear problem to contend with. As the NIV (and others) titles this chapter, this was a “Letter to the Exiles.” Again, to the exiles. This message concerned the Jewish people who would be taken captive by the Babylonians in the 6th century B.C., after their lands had been pillaged. God was assuring His people that Babylon would not be the end of their story. One day they would return to the Promised Land, rebuild the temple and their society, and continue with the purpose for which they were called (Jer. 33:7).
This is what Jeremiah 29:11—and the surrounding parts of the book—is all about.
God is not using this part of Scripture to tell you and me that He has some grand and glorious set of plans for our earthly lives. More importantly, this is not revealing that our good fortune is set in stone or impossible to alter. It amazes me how quick we are to apply Jeremiah 29:11 to our lives, while so many other passages would never be used in such a way (like 44:11)!
Having a “hope and a future” certainly sounds better than meeting “disaster,” but personal preference doesn’t determine the meaning of Scripture. The words of the Bible do not change for anyone, regardless of time, place or emotional state.
Please don’t misunderstand me: this verse is just as important as any other in the Bible. It helps to reveal God’s character and His intentions with the Jewish people at that time, as well as adding valuable history about the greater salvation narrative of Scripture. However—and most emphatically—this verse is not about us, and it should not be taken that way. This applies to much of what read in the OT, especially the Historical Books and the Prophets.
If anything, the OT clearly reveals that much of what happens in life is not God’s will. From the Fall of Man, to the Flood, to the Tower of Babel, to the corrupt period of judges and kings, to the exile, to the many decisions made by God’s people (like David having Uriah killed), and so much more, it is clear that not everything is strictly determined.
God’s ultimate plans for our corporate world will not be thwarted, but individuals can certainly make a mess of things along the way.
If there were a NT equivalent of Jeremiah 29:11, it would probably be Romans 8:28: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” That is how the text literally reads in most of our translations.
Now, let’s consider what many of us hear when we read it: “God makes every event in my life happen, because it will serve a greater good.”
This is one interpretation, but it simply isn’t an accurate one. Scholars have noted for centuries that a key part of the text may best be translated as “God co-operates for good in all things.” This would represent a profound difference in how we understand the text. On the first interpretation, every event that ever happens in our lives must have some divine purpose. On the second view, every event—whether good or bad—can still be an opportunity for God’s activity in our lives. Without question, I believe the second option makes the most sense of things.
It isn’t that God planned someone’s cancer: it’s that He used a negative to build their character. It’s not that God caused the sudden death of a loved one: it’s that He somehow helped to bring about a new relationship through it. It isn’t that God caused someone to become a drug addict: it’s that He worked through them to show others that recovery is possible.
This is the difference between making God the author of evil and affirming that He is—only and always—the solution to evil.
Romans 8:28 is telling us that, even in bad situations, God can still be working some degree of good in it. A perfect biblical example is recorded earlier in Romans. Paul says, “. . . we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope” (5:3-4). A true believer can even see the value in suffering, though it is often difficult to do so in the moment. Through suffering, God can help produce in us a better faith and a stronger character. This does not occur because God wills our misery, but because we live in a corrupt and fallen world where the forces of evil fight against us (1 Pet. 5:8).
It should also be noted that the good is not necessarily intended to “balance out” the bad. For example, forming a relationship with an estranged child through someone’s death does not replace that person or make it “worth happening.” God co-operates with us to make the best of situations.
This is a good place to pull in some of Jesus’ central teachings on the matter. In my estimation, one of his most powerful parables is found in Matthew 13:24-30. The Parable of the “Tares/Weeds among the Wheat” reveals the way the world really works and how to understand God’s general involvement in it.
The premise of the tale is that a landowner plants good grain in a field, and “an enemy” comes at night and sows bad seed in it. The field of course begins to grow both good and bad crops. Alarmed, the workers run to the landowner to see how best to handle things. Their idea is to gather the weeds and separate them from the wheat. The landowner’s response to this suggestion is perhaps the most important aspect of the story:
“No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn” (Mt. 13:29-30).
Later, Jesus actually interpreted this parable for his bewildered disciples (Mt. 13:36-43). Jesus revealed that he is the landowner, the evil one (Satan) is the enemy, the weeds are the children of Satan, the wheat are the sons of the kingdom, the reapers are the angels, and the field is the world we live in.
This tells us something very important: God is currently allowing the wicked and the righteous to live together, and He is not meting out justice here and now. Instead, justice will finally be done when Jesus returns. In some way, the lives of the righteous and the wicked are bound together and must not be separated here and now. Among the possible explanations is that separating the two now would destroy human freedom. This would condemn those who might later come to repentance and destroy the growth of those who already have.
For the sake of the current discussion, the “landowner’s” verdict means that a great deal of what happens in our world is not “God’s will.” There are plenty of adversarial powers, wicked people, and heinous deeds being done around the globe every day. Sometimes, the “weeds” negatively affect the “wheat.” Though God will ultimately reconcile these issues, we should not typically expect it to occur in this lifetime.
Instead of that, God will determine a precise time to “stop the play,” so to speak.
There is an often-overlooked passage of Scripture that connects to the idea behind this parable, and it is recorded in Luke 13:1-5. There, Jesus addressed two distinct events. The first concerns a horrible massacre that had transpired sometime before that. Pontius Pilate—the Roman governor of Judea at the time—had apparently ordered the slaughter of certain Galileans while they were offering their own sacrifices (13:1). Here was Jesus’ reaction to this event:
“Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (13:2-3).
Ouch! Maybe Jesus will provide a gentler response the next time? The second example concerns another dreadful event, but this one had been more of a natural catastrophe. This time, the “tower in Siloam” had fallen, crushing eighteen people who were working on it (13:4). This is how Jesus addressed the issue:
“. . . do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (13:4-5).
Another crushing retort! Jesus wasn’t one to parse words.
People of that day tended to believe that those who suffered did so deservingly: that they sinned and “had it coming.” In response to the man who was born blind—who, as it were, was told to wash in the Pool of Siloam—the disciples inquired: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” (Jn. 9:2). In truth, this idea went back centuries and is particularly obvious in the book of Job.
Unfortunately, it is still alive and well today. It is common for people to believe that those going through times of trial must have done something to bring it on themselves. Jesus was quick to point out that this is not necessarily the case. We do not know if the people who died in the events described in Luke 13:1-5 were horribly ungodly or the greatest of saints, but we do know that neither outcome was “God’s will.”
God did not desire Pilate to have the Galileans slaughtered or for the tower to crush those eighteen unfortunate souls.
Events like these should cause us to evaluate our own lives, particularly if we fall into the trap of believing that only the unrighteous suffer. The bigger point, however, is that neither righteous nor sinful living strictly determines our earthly fates. Sometimes, bad things happen to good people and vice-versa. Ecclesiastes 8:14 notes this reality plainly: “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.”
There is a lot more that could be said, but it is time move this post toward a conclusion. When viewed from the perspective faith, everything does happen “for a reason.” It’s just that the reason is often one that does not reflect God’s intentions for our lives. Sometimes the reason is that we live in a fallen world and have broken bodies. Sometimes it’s that evil beings—whether mortal or angelic—are doing evil things. Sometimes things happen not by anyone’s intent at all, but because of oversight or accident.
As Scripture makes clear from front to back, God is not playing the role of puppet master. If God were doing so, I would suggest that our world might look very different. This is certainly true of the biblical narrative, as we would expect to see only good things happening to the faithful and only bad things happening to the unrepentant. The Bible would not tell the story of human brokenness and divine redemption but would only reveal a world of perfect order.
The final thing worth addressing is that we are dealing in generalities: with how God (and our world) works most of the time but not all of it. Certainly, God can (and sometimes does, I think) “will” that things happen. It is even possible to perceive some of these events as “bad” things, such as God’s destruction of humanity through the Flood and Israel’s many defeats. This view, however, has it completely backwards. Those events were never intended to happen; God did not initially “will” destruction to occur but He could not overlook human sinfulness, either.
In this, we see that the issue is not simply black and white. However, Scripture has certainly revealed how things tend to operate. Our world is a fallen and broken mess, where both the “weeds” and the “wheat” are growing together, and God is typically not stepping in to disturb this arrangement. Even still, God is co-operating with those who love Him to bring out some good in even the worst situations.
To view everything—from the joyous events to the incredibly tragic ones—as God’s will is to misunderstand Scripture. This not only fails to fully account for human sinfulness, it also blames God for the work of Satan and warps our very understanding of God’s goodness.
For the faithful, these realities must never be compromised.
If you enjoyed this article, I am offering my newest book, Spiritual Things, for free 3/20-3/21 (eBook version). Click here to download.
 This comes from James 1:17. Contrary to affirming that God is making evil things happen for “our good,” this verse is intended to distance God from evil. Before that, he stated: “For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone” (1:13).
 “Therefore this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I am determined to bring disaster on you and to destroy all Judah.”
 The Pool of Siloam was believed to be a sacred place by the Jewish people of the day. They would draw water from this pool and take it into the temple during the Feast of Booths, and Jesus even sent a blind man there to wash and be healed (Jn. 9:1-7).
 Job’s three miserable “comforters” (a sarcastic title) emphasized this idea repeatedly. Even though the book described Job as an almost unimaginably righteous man, they were certain that he had warranted his demise (22:4-11). To Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, things always worked this way. As Eliphaz said, “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed” (4:7)?