Sunday, May 18, 2014

Faith that's Bigger than a Bumper Sticker: Everything Happens for a Reason? (Genesis 50:20, Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 8:28)

You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today.

I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.

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

If you’re just joining us today, we are in the middle of a series on “Faith that’s Bigger Than a Bumper Sticker.”  We’re taking a look at supposedly “Christian” platitudes and cliches that easily could fit on a bumper sticker, and are both popular and wrong.

Why does it matter?  Why am I putting any effort into debunking these phrases?  What harm do they do?  A lot, actually.  For one thing, I want you to have a faith that’s rooted in the Scripture and the living core of Christian tradition, not some phrase you read on a bumper sticker.  Further, every time we use these phrases, we are saying things about God that aren’t true, which violates at least two of the ten commandments – not taking God’s name in vain, and not lying.  That’s what is at stake, here!  Finally, not only do they present a picture of God that is inaccurate, but also one that causes more harm in God’s name than good.

We’ve debunked several of these sayings over the last several weeks, and today we take on the biggest and most popular whopper of them all – “Everything happens for a reason.”  May we pray.

Did you bring your brain with you this morning?  Never check your brain at the door.  God gave you a brain, and God wants you to use it – not only out there, but in here, in church, too.  There’s an old rabbinic saying that “A shallow mind is a sin against God.”  God gave us brains, and God wants us to use them.

We like answers.  I don’t know that we’re as eager for understanding, however, as we are for answers.  I had a middle school teacher who would give us a quiz every Friday on the chapters in our textbook we had covered that week.  It didn’t take long for us to realize that each quiz, always 20 multiple-choice questions, were taken from the back of the book, where there was also an answer key for each quiz.  To score well on the quiz, you only had to memorize the sequence of letters for the questions.

So, each week, I had all the answers, but that doesn’t mean I understood anything.  Answers always came easily for me.  I skated through school and even finished second in my high school graduating class, and never really had to study the entire time.

The thing about easy answers is that they work really well until they are challenged.  In college, my propensity to get by on easy answers was challenged by one Dr. Berry – my academic advisor and the chair of my major, whose classes I had at least once every semester.  From her, I learned quickly that I was no longer going to get by on easy answers, and I was faced with a choice – either learn how to study and wrestle with tough material, or flunk out.  I learned how to study, and it’s a good thing I did, too.  Grad school was even more challenging, and now in my work as a pastor, I am faced almost daily with situations and circumstances and questions, from the very things happening in your lives, that won’t be satisfied by a stock set of easy answers.

“Everything happens for a reason” is the ultimate easy answer in the life of Faith.  Many belief systems have their own version of “Everything happens for a reason” – astrology?  It’s all because of the alignment of planets and stars.  Karma?  What goes around comes around.  Fate?  It was meant to be.

Depending on your worldview, fate, or karma, or the stars, or “god,” all act about the same, and of course, reach the same conclusion: behind it all, there is meaning.  Again, we like easy answers.  “Everything happens for a reason” is an easy and ultimate explanation for that which is inexplicable.  Easy answers, however, quickly turn into a filter through which all of life is sifted.  If we already have the answer in mind before we ask the questions, we end up with some rather strange explanations.

Consider the pastor who said during the children’s message, “I’m thinking of something that lives in the trees, eats nuts, and has a long, bushy tail.  Anyone know what I’m thinking of?”  One little boy finally put up his hand and said, “Well, it sounds an awful lot like a squirrel to me, but I’m sure the answer is Jesus.”

“Everything happens for a reason” is a ready-made easy answer to many of life’s questions, but it’s the wrong answer, and when it’s challenged, it crumbles. Tragedy strikes, and in our search for meaning and comfort, we tell ourselves and one another that God must have some purpose for the suffering.  You know, “God’s ways are not our ways.  God has a plan, even if we don’t understand it.  We can’t see that plan right now, so just trust God.”  Sounds pious, doesn’t it?  Logical, even!  And so, whatever happens to us must be the will of God, right?  Well, not so fast.

Don’t settle for easy answers, especially ones that turn God into some sick monster.  Think about these things.  God gave us a brain and God expects us to use it.

We believe everything happening to us is part of God’s will because of two other things we misunderstand about God: God is in control, and God has a plan.  Hear me carefully: Yes, God is in control, and yes, God does have a plan.  But, those two things are easily misunderstood.  We keep using those words, but they do not mean what we think they mean.

So first, the idea that “God is in control.”  I hear this, and I immediately get an image of God sitting in a giant control booth somewhere, overseeing everything, pushing buttons and pulling levers – orchestrating everything that happens to us.  Got a cold? God did that.  Hurricane?  Yep, that was God, too.  Drunk driver?  Not her fault, but, you guessed it – God!  That’s not what we mean when we say God is in control.  It’s a misunderstanding.

God is in control, but God is not controlling.  God doesn’t control us or manipulate us like puppets on a string.  As we said a few weeks ago, God is not the only force at work in the world.  We are at work, other people are at work, nature is at work, evil is at work.  Sometimes the reason something bad happens to me is that I made a bad decision.  God didn’t do that to me, I did it to myself!  Or, you may run a red light and broadside my car in an intersection.  God didn’t do that to me, you did!

God doesn’t make us do anything, but instead gives us the freedom to choose.  We make good decisions and bad decisions, but those are our decisions to make freely, without any force or coercion from God.  God gave us this freedom because God is Love, and we are made by God in love and for love.  We are created in the image of God; we have the capacity for love, God tells us to love God and our neighbor, but in order for love to be genuine, it must be freely chosen.

You can’t force someone to love you.  God doesn’t force us to love God or anyone else.  God asks us to choose love, which runs the inherent risk that we might choose all sorts of things that are harmful to ourselves and others.  We might make choices that displease God or work against God’s will.  Part of the risk in giving us freedom is that we might and probably will misuse our freedom to do the very things that break God’s heart.

Perhaps we would prefer a God who oversaw the world in such a way that nothing bad ever happened, that nothing outside God’s will ever took place.  That would mean that God would have to take away our free will to ensure that we never make a bad or harmful decision, and the moment that is taken away, we are no longer human, but puppets.  Yes, God could have set up the world in such a way that God retained absolute control over everything, but God didn’t.  In such a world, God would control us as puppets, instead of relate to us as humans.

It doesn’t mean that God’s not Almighty and powerful, but it does mean that God has self-limited some portion of God’s control and power in order for Love to remain supreme.  If you were to place two attributes of God on a scale – love and control – you would see that love outweighs control.  God’s love is a higher priority than God’s control.  God sacrifices control in order to practice love.  The result of that is things happen that grieve and hurt God just as much as they do us.

Those of you who are parents and grandparents know you can’t control your kids.  You couldn’t even if you wanted to!  I’ve known parents who have tried, and the moment their kids leave the house they usually go wild – I’m talking on video on spring break in Cancun, wild.  Your children will be free, they will make their own decisions, you can’t force them to do what’s in their best interest.  At times their decisions will harm them and us, frustrate you, grieve you.  What choice do you, as a parent have?  You tell them, “I love you.  There are consequences to your actions.  But I will always love you.”

So the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason” only works if God is manipulating us like puppets on a string.  It breaks down when we realize that we humans have been given a great deal of freedom to make our own choices, and that those choices have real consequences.

So what about God’s plan?  Again, I think we misunderstand the idea of God’s plan.  Maybe we think of God’s plan or God’s will for our lives as this carefully written book, penned before we were born, with everything that will ever happen to us noted ahead of time on its pages, and though we don’t know what’s on the next page, God does, and our story unfolds, in its own way, just as God intended.

That’s called a script, not a plan.   God has a plan, not a script.  God’s plan for us actually has very little to do with whether we eat Cheerios or Corn Flakes tomorrow morning, and more with an overarching concern for our well-being.  God’s plan is less about micromanaging and every choice we make and more an enduring, loving disposition toward us that always has our best interests in mind.

God’s plan for us can be summarized in Jeremiah 29:11: “plans for peace, not disaster; to give us a future filled with hope.”  That’s a good plan!  And it’s also a God-plan.  But, a lot happens to us that works against that plan.  Things that work against peace, that promote disaster, that lead to despair.

That car accident?  Your job loss?  That fight with your spouse?  The 20,000 people who die each day of hunger-related diseases?  The young girl who was raped and murdered on her way home from school – if all of that was part of God’s plan, it means God wrote those events into the lives of all those people, which is not the action of a loving and just God, but a sadistic madman.

None of those things are part of God’s divine plan, but when we fall back on “it happened for a reason, then we’re saying God caused it.  Is it any wonder that fewer and fewer people want anything to do with such a god?  It is easy to see why so many people have turned away from God when they have been taught, by Christians, that every disappointment, every loss, every painful tragedy are the will of God.[1]

Friends, that’s not God.  If murders and rape and wars and genocide and terrorist attacks and accidents and disease are part of God’s plan, then I’m not interested in the god with that particular plan.  You shouldn’t be, either, because that’s not who God is.

Personally, I take great comfort in knowing that all of those things aren’t from God, aren’t part of God’s plan or God’s will for me.  It makes it easier for me to turn to God when those things do happen, because I know that God is not the one who put them in my life.

So, where is God when it all hits the fan?  Where is God when our lives crumble to pieces around us?  God is where God has always been – rescuing something good out of the jaws of evil.  Though God doesn’t cause pain, God can still bring healing out of it.  God can bring light out of darkness, hope out of despair, life out of death.  This is called redemption.  God can enter into the worst possible situation, and bring something good out of it.  God doesn’t have to cause it in order to redeem it.  God is in the life business – the abundant life business, the life-out-of-death business.  God didn’t do it.  But God can still use it.

In the life of faith, don’t settle for easy answers.  Don’t be fooled into believing it all happened for a reason.  God gave you a brain, God wants you to use it.

The message of Christianity is not that we will have a life free from tragedy – we should have to look no further than Jesus himself for that to be clear.  But just as important, let’s realize that God is not the one who writes tragedy into our life’s story.  The world does that.  Life does that.  We do it to ourselves and to each other.  But not God.

When we suffer, God suffers.  When we weep, God weeps.  When we are grieved, so is God.  God’s heart breaks right along with ours.

So yes, everything happens, but it’s certainly not for a reason – at least not one that God caused. God is Love, whose will is ever-directed to his children’s good.  God doesn’t introduce unjust suffering into the lives of his children any more than you would torment your children.  But with God, suffering never gets the last word.   God may not have caused it, but if there’s any good to come from it, God will find it and bring it out, and redeem it.

[1] Hamilton, Adam. Why? Making Sense of God’s Will. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011. Pp 6-9.

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