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Sunday, January 29, 2012

That's NOT in the Bible! "Everything happens for a reason" (Romans 8:28, Genesis 50:20)

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.

Congratulations! You have made it to the midway point of this sermon series. Today is week four of seven in this particular series, so if we liken the seven-part series to a week, today is sorta like Wednesday. In fact, keep your comments PG-rated, but turn to the person next to you and wish them a “Happy Hump Day.”

This series is called “That’s NOT in the Bible,” and each week, we’ve looked at a phrase or saying that might sound like it comes from the Bible, gets quoted like it’s from the Bible, and some people might actually think does come from the Bible that’s not actually in there. However, it really is true that if you torture the Bible long enough, you can get it to say just about anything!

Trey Warren asked me earlier this week which myth we were going to bust today. And you know, Myth Busters might have been a more accurate title for this series, but we’re into it now and it’s already been published. Besides, the name “Myth Busters” belongs to some other group, and I don’t have the budget for pyrotechnics they do.

Most of these sayings are little morsels of worldly wisdom, passing themselves off as Godly wisdom. Many of them are sorta true, to a point, in the right light, in the right context, but as we’ve seen, they just don’t quite cut it, because God offers us so much more. My hope is that through this series, we’ll all get plenty of food for thought and see how God works far beyond and far more than just what the world offers. Take out your sermon notes as we look at and beyond today’s phrase, “Everything happens for a reason.” May we pray.

Thursday night is date night in our home. This week, it happened to coincide with Charlotte Restaurant Week, making an exciting list of possibilities for us. We decided well in advance that we would go to the Melting Pot in Huntersville, and Ashley would make the reservations. However, as happens to so many of us, my beloved wife got distracted by the cares of the world, and forgot. And so, we did not go to the Melting Pot for dinner on Thursday night.

However, on Thursday afternoon, two friends of ours called. They had tickets for that night’s performance of Madama Butterfly, but he had gotten ill and they wouldn’t be able to use the tickets. Did we want them? We said sure, and enjoyed our date night at the opera instead of the Melting Pot and just between us, I got off cheap this week!

Now, you could easily say, “God must have intended for you to go to the opera instead of the Melting Pot.” Depending on what you think about an evening at the opera, you could even say that was our punishment for forgetting to make the reservations! Still, think about the implications of what that’s really saying.

For one thing, God must have screwed with Ashley’s memory so she would forget to call and make the reservation. Then, God must have caused our friend to get ill and start vomiting. Apparently, God cared so much about making sure that we got to the opera that night that God made our friend get sick, just so we could go. And so, if everything happens for a reason, that’s great for us, but from our friend’s perspective, God is sortof a jerk, and honestly, Ashley would prefer to have her memory instead of stumbling into this good fortune!

Further, saying “everything happens for a reason” is the wrong moral of the story - it places God in the story in the wrong spot. The real story here is not about how everything works out, it’s that we have some amazingly kind and generous friends who were thinking of others even when their day wasn’t going so great. They said, “OK, clearly our day is not going to go as planned. We are not going to get to enjoy the fun thing we have planned. But, these seats shouldn’t go to waste. Even though we can’t enjoy them, someone else still can.”

So no - the evening didn’t go exactly as planned, either for us or for our friends. Even so, God is not found in the orchestrating of events that cause Ashley to be forgetful and someone to get sick all for the purpose of sending us to the opera. Rather, God is found in bonds of friendship and an act of generosity, and in redeeming good out the jaws of brokenness.

When you think about it, redeeming good out of the jaws of brokenness is something God’s been doing all along. We worship a God who brings resurrection from crucifixion, who defeats death with new life, who overcomes sin with eternal life. It is not that God wills calamity or death or destruction - no, in fact, God desires just the opposite. And yet, even though God is not the author of these evils, God is at work in those hard places for good purposes.

That’s what happens in the story of Joseph. Joseph, not the father of Jesus, but the Old Testament character whose story is told over the last 15 chapters of the book of Genesis. It’s a great story - go home and read it this afternoon! In a nutshell, Joseph is the favored of 12 sons of Jacob, who spoils him and causes the other brothers to resent him. The other brothers sell him as a slave to some passing merchants, who in turn sell him to the captain of the guard in Egypt. Through an interesting turn of events that include an encounter with a married woman with a raging libido - a cougar, perhaps, time in prison, and some dream interpretation, Joseph ends up in charge of the affairs of the nation of Egypt - sort of how we might understand a governor in our day. Because of what he saw in the king’s dream, predicting seven years of bumper crops followed by seven years of famine, Joseph devises a plan to store away the excess grain in the good years so it will last through the lean years. He ends up providing an invaluable service not only to the people of Egypt but to neighboring countries as well, ensuring that everyone has the food they need.

Hearing there is food in Egypt, Joseph’s brothers travel there, and that’s where they have an ironic family reunion, realizing that the brother they hated so much they sold him into slavery is now the one who will literally decide where their next meal will come from. However, Joseph’s disposition toward his brothers is summed up in the verse we read earlier from the 50th chapter of Genesis: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20a).

We live in a world where bad things happen, but we are certain God didn’t do them because of who we know God to be. In a variety of ways, the Scriptures tell us over and over again that God is Love. In fact. if you remember nothing else today, just go home with the knowledge that God is Love. That’s the starting point - the reality that God is Love is the trump card in our understanding of God. Love is the framework from which God operates. It would make no sense for God to visit calamity upon God’s children “for a reason” because God is love. If something isn’t rooted in love, then we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it didn’t come from God. God is Love. Period. God is ALWAYS Love. Period.

Yes, we live in a world where bad stuff happens. In the enduring words of Forrest Gump, “It happens.” And when it does, God’s heart breaks for the evil this world - and we who live in it - are capable of committing. Just because something bad is taking place doesn’t mean that it’s happening for a reason, and it especially doesn’t mean that God did it. No, like a good and loving parent, God is weeping right along with us, grieving as we are grieving, hurt by the very things that cause pain to us. Look around - and you don’t have to look far - to places where people are hurting, and you’ll discover that God is also hurting in those places. God is not a masochist, deriving pleasure from inflicting pain on God’s self, nor is God a sadist, getting a kick out of the pain of others. God is Love, and God’s will is ever-directed to his children’s good.

Honestly, I don’t know why we say things like “Everything happens for a reason.” Perhaps it numbs us to the pain that is present in the lives of so many. Perhaps it helps us find meaning in the midst of difficulty. Perhaps it gives us the illusion that we understand and are in control of things our feeble human minds will never understand. But - and here’s the dangerous part - it too easily allows us our minds to make God the author of suffering and the perpetrator of evil.

The phrase “everything happens for a reason” leads us to a place of mistaken identity about who God is. As we blame God for things God hasn’t done, we may get mad at God or turn away from God, when we need to be saying, “God, I am in a real mess, and I need you more now than ever, and I need you to take this difficulty and redeem it for good. I give it to you, and if there’s anything good to come out of this, please find it.” Saying “everything happens for a reason” keeps us from this honest, raw, and healing place with God.

Looking back, Joseph realized that the horrible, painful, and inexplicable things he experienced, not least of which was being sold into slavery by his own brothers, were not done by God. That’s not the role God plays in the story. Rather, God says, “Given these circumstances, what you’ve had to endure, the things that have been done to you, the atrocities you faced that were so far outside my will, outside my desire for you - in light all of these things, what would be best for you?” Even as our circumstances may change moment-by-moment, God’s will is always for whatever is best for us. Do you see how different that is than simply saying “Everything happens for a reason”? One view makes God a monster. The other is rooted in the reality that God is Love, an all-powerful healer whose will is ever-directed toward our good.

I close with some thoughts on this subject from Dr. Ben Witherington, the Amos Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY. He wrote the following earlier this week, just two weeks after his 32-year-old daughter die, completely unexpectedly, of a pulmonary embolism. He writes:

>> I was determined from Day One to be open to whatever positive thing there might be to glean from this. I cling by my fingernails to the promise of Romans 8:28 that “God works all things together for good for those who love him….”

The first point that was immediately confirmed in my heart was theological: God did not do this to my baby. God is not the author of evil. God does not terminate sweet children’s lives with pulmonary embolisms. Pulmonary embolisms are a result of human fallenness and the bent nature of this world.

One of the primary reasons I am not a Calvinist and do not believe in such predestinings from the hand of God is (1) because I find it impossible to believe that I am more merciful or compassionate than God. Also, (2) the Biblical portrait of God is that God is pure light and holy love; in him there is no darkness, nothing other than light and love. (3) The words “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away,” from the lips of Job, are not good theology. They’re bad theology. According to Job 1, it was not God, but the Devil who took away Job’s children, health and wealth. God allowed it to happen, but when Job said these words, as the rest of the story shows, he was not yet enlightened about the true nature of where his calamity came from and what God’s will actually was for his life — which was for good, and not for harm.

So, for me, the beginning of good grief starts with the premise of a good God. Otherwise, all bets are off. If God is almighty and malevolent, then there is no solace to be found in God. If God is the author of sin, evil, suffering, the fall, and death, then the Bible makes no sense when it tells us that (1) God tempts no one, that (2) God’s will is that none should perish but have everlasting life, and that (3) death is the very enemy of God and humankind that Jesus, who is life, came to abolish and destroy.

“He came that we might have life and have abundantly.” If there are promises I cling to, as I weep for my sweet Christy, it is this promise, not the sorry solace and cold comfort of “God did this but we do not know why.” No. A thousand times, no! God and his will are always and only for what is good, and true, and beautiful, and loving, and holy.

As I stared at my baby in the casket — who did not even resemble herself at that juncture — I was so thankful that the God of the resurrection had a better plan for her than that cold comfort that “It’s all God’s will.” I believe in a God whose Yes to life is louder than death’s No — not because God likes to hold [contradictions] like life and death together in some sort of mysterious unity, but because God is in the trenches with us, fighting the very same evils we fight in this world, like disease, decay, death, suffering, sorrow and sin.

They don’t call him the Great Physician for nothing. He too took the Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm.” >>

What does all this mean? Listen carefully. If something happens that causes harm, or distress, or disease, or decay, or death, if something happens that leads someone into a future that has no hope, if something happens that is not fundamentally rooted in love, then it is not from God. Period. End of story.

Yet even though God didn’t do it, God can still work in it, and use it, and if there is any good to be found, God will find it. No matter how bleak the situation, God can and will work to bring good out of it. God is not inflicting pain on God’s children, God is not tempting us, God is not testing us. Even in the worst we might go through, no matter how much we hurt, God is there with us, loving us with the calm assurance that in life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. God is with us!

7 comments:

  1. I found myself saying "Amen!!" through this whole sermon. So right on, and what so many people need to hear! I have to go back and read the other sermons in this series - loved the two I did read. (Oh, and if you couldn't tell from facebook, this is a subject I am pretty passionate about!!! ha ha!)

    Christin

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  2. Christin -

    Glad you were able to "join us" in the series, and particularly for this message! Given the common use of so many of these sayings and the implied theology they represent (which seems absolutely contrary to who God is and how God is revealed in Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience), I felt it's important to untangle these sayings and perhaps give us all the opportunity to say and think something better in their place.

    This topic is pretty near and dear to me, for reasons that should be abundantly clear to both of us. It comes out of the some the deep wrestling I did and meaning-making I had to do when Mom got sick and when she passed away. Where was God in it? If I chose to believe that everything happens for a reason, including my mom getting sick and dying, then I was forced to make God a monster. That would have been enough to make we walk away from God.

    However, my experience confirmed what is revealed about God in the Scriptures, that God is love, that God's will is ever-directed toward our good. I felt God's love and presence through the concern and care of so many people. This confirmed for me that God was not the author of calamity, but that God was with us in all of life's calamities.

    Thanks for being an extended part of my flock!

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  3. Praise God for this message! I'm preaching a similar one tomorrow night and I was just doing some browsing on the internet to see the mass ignorance and you have blessed me, brother. God is good and the Devil is bad. John 10:10

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  4. Glad this message proved a blessing to you. It's certainly a tough topic to navigate through, but I find it's the base assumption of a lot of really bad theology out there. Prayers and blessing for your message tonight!

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  5. Thank you for posting this. I am a youth pastor and just had one of my kids ask me tonight why the Bible says everything happens for a reason. My immediate response was that it doesn't say that, but it opened the door for a deeper conversation on how to handle suffering as a Christian and how we view God's role in our lives and the lives of all those living in a fallen world. I just did a search to find out more about this and your sermon came up. I will be forwarding this on to him. Thank you!

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  6. Pastor Shari - thanks for that! Questions like the one from one of your kids are precisely the seeds that prompted this particular sermon, and indeed, the whole series, in the first place. Simple answers and platitudes don't begin to do justice to the complex world in which we live. Glad to hear the sermon was a blessing to you.

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  7. A.J., yesterday I removed myself from a "personal growth" seminar (led by Christians). I removed myself because I felt a lot of the methods they were using were immoral, unethical, and not biblical. One thing that they successfully hammered into my group of twenty-nine people, was the message that in this life there are "no accidents." This is one of many bothersome messages that led to me walking out the door amongst attacks from the leadership for standing up for my feelings and my beliefs. It prompted me to do a Google search that led me to your sermon and I wanted to say thank you. After what the leaders of this seminar put me through I am desperately seeking God's truth and comfort in my convictions. Again, thank you.

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