Everything Happens for a Reason (September 9, 2018)
1 Corinthians 10:13; Deuteronomy 30: 19-20a
Everything Happens for a Reason
Thank you for that. We’re continuing our series today on things God never said; the things that sound true but are not completely true at the very least. Sometimes a half truth, sometimes just completely false. And today were looking at two phrases that go together: “everything happens for reason” and “God will not give you more than you can handle.” These are phrases that are often times said in good nature by well-meaning people. There often said in times of trouble by people who are seeking to comfort other people. I don’t think anyone says this phrase out of malice or trying to hurt someone. But sometimes it can hurt.
For this sermon I’ve read Adam Hamilton’s book Half Truthsand in that he tells the story of a parishioner who went to a therapist and said she’d been getting a lot of comfort from the idea that God never gives you more than you can handle, which comes out of this Corinthian‘s passage by the way, and the therapist laughed at her. He said “of course people have more than they can handle. I have a job because people have more than they could handle, and they need help with that.” As a pastor, I have a job in part because people get more than they can handle. And this idea that God will never give you more than you can handle can lead to some bad places when indeed we have more than we can handle, and we’re looking for meaning, we’re looking for a reason, we’re looking for why this is happened.
The Corinthians passage says that God will never let you be tempted beyond what you can handle, beyond your capabilities, which implies that God causes what happens to you. And there some other scriptures that back this up, most importantly Job. But that leads to some interesting places when you take that to its full conclusion. Like, for instance, does God cause someone to forget their spouse’s birthday, which could cause a lot of pain? Does God causes the Kansas City Chiefs to lose every single playoff game they’ve ever played (or so feels like)?
There can be some more serious things that happen too: does God causes a person to get cancer? Does god cause a child to lose their life? In his book, Hamilton tells the story of another parishioner:
“One day about twenty years ago, I was in a meeting at church when I received an urgent phone call from the police. They asked if I could come right away to the hospital. A three-year-old boy named Austin had been struck by a car. I left the meeting and drove as fast as I could to the emergency room. When I arrived, the police officer and the chaplain met me. They told me that Austin had just passed away…In the two decades since that awful day, Austin’s parents, Todd and Kathy, have continued to be an active part of our congregation. As I watched this family, who so easily could have turned away rom God after the loss of their three-year-old, I saw them instead turn closer toward God and grow deeper and more committed in their faith…[Kathy said] ‘ At the time I had had people tell me that it was Austin’s “time,” and I was having a hard time believing in a God who would plan to take my child at age three.”
There is a phrase that “God never gives me more than I can handle, but I wish he would stop trusting me to handle so much.” Countless people have taken this idea that God causes the suffering in our lives and have begun to ask “does that mean that God is not good?” And they have gotten to the point where they will tell me that “if that is the God we worship, if the God we worship is giving cancer to children and causing kids to die in an accident, or is causing people to grow up without parents, then I want no part of that God.” And I as a pastor am inclined to agree with them; if that is the God we’re worshiping, I want no part of it. The good news, I think, is that we don’t worship that God.
God has given us free will. This is good news: we are free to make choices that have real and lasting impact in our lives. We are free we can change the world. I got into a discussion with one of my parishioners once who asked, “how could man have caused global warming? How could we possibly have such impact upon the globe that God created?” And I simply opened up my Bible, pointed two pages in and said, “God gave dominion to them.” In the creation story, we see that we have the power in this world to create and to destroy. That’s what dominion means. We do have the ability to impact our world in our free will.
Even the Corinthians passage indicates that we might have this choice. The passage indicates that we might indeed be able to override God‘s plans. Because the context of this passage is that Paul is telling Corinthian Christians, “I know you can eat meat that was sacrificed to idols without being tempted to worship them, but some of the newer converts can’t do that. So for their sake don’t do it. Because God will never tempt them more than they can handle, but you might.” It is about the choices that they have. He’s imploring the Corinthians to make good choices.
If you’re still unconvinced that the Scriptures tell us that we have the power to not do God‘s will, you need look no further than the prayer we just prayed 10 minutes ago. Jesus told his disciples to petition God, to ask God, that God‘s will would be done. If God‘s will was always done no matter what, we would not need to ask that. But God’s will is not always done. We have the ability to choose to follow God or to choose not to.
This passage in Deuteronomy shows that idea beyond anything I really can show. Here Moses, well God through Moses, is telling the Israelites: you have a choice. You have a choice between a way of life that yields joy and health, or a way of life that will bring curses, pain, and suffering. And Moses implores them to choose life, to choose the way that is following God.
God’s will was that Moses would not have to deliver this speech. God’s will Was that the Israelites would have entered the land 40 years before this and would’ve been comfortably living in the land they already possessed at this time. But 10 out of the 12 sent by the Israelites to spy out the land came back with a bad report, and the people listened to the majority, and God’s will wasn’t done. God is saying through Moses “don’t do that again. Learn from the lessons your ancestors had to learn and do the will of God.” Moses is saying to them “pray ‘thy will be done.’”
Of course the story of the history books of the Bible is a constant story of Israel not choosing the path that led to life. It is a constant story of Israel making a mistake, and then turning around and asking for forgiveness, and God having to rescue them; again, and again, and again, and again. And in the New Testament we see the same pattern emerging: some of the Israelites rejecting Jesus, the early church making mistakes, Paul and Peter fight amongst themselves. Every letter of the New Testament is a letter from an apostle yelling at the church for making a mistake and not choosing the path that leads to life.
Eventually that leads to the question that if so much pain gets caused by God‘s will not being followed, and if God has so much trouble every time that he’s got to come and fix it time, after time, after time; then why are we allowed to not follow God‘s will? If we have to have choices, why don’t we just have plenty of choices, but none of them are wrong or none of them are against the will of God? This is a question that John Wesley first introduced to me. It was a question that he explored. He asked the question “why was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil even in the garden? If the garden was in Iraq, why does that tree not exist in America or something? Why was it there where Adam could reach it if there was so much suffering that could come from him eating from that, and only that, tree?
That was a question I had never thought of before reading Wesley‘s answer to it, but it’s a question I’ve never stop thinking of since. And Wesley basically answered that you’re not free or really making a choice unless you could choose wrong. In order to have true liberty you have to have the ability to choose incorrectly. And that was why the tree was in the garden: so that Adam was truly free. When I give Caleb choices of what pair of pants to wear, whether he wants to wear the plaid pants or the gray pants or the jeans, he doesn’t give the option of choosing no pants. He cannot choose incorrectly; I’m OK with any of the things I place for him to choose from. But for adults, we need to be free to choose wrong or we’re going to rebel.
Being free means that we have the ability to choose wrong, it means that there are times in the world where people make choices that were not God‘s will. Sometimes people make choices that were actively against God‘s will. There are things that happen that God did not cause, that God did not want, that weren’t part of God’s plan “to prosper you, and to give you hope and a future.” Some of these things cause pain. Some of these things cause suffering. And they are real. And sometimes they are more than we can handle. And sometimes there’s no rhyme, and there’s no reason, behind them.
But the good news is that we have a God who is active in history. God is a God who repeatedly came in and saved the Israelites, a God who entered into our midst in the form of Jesus Christ to save us from sin. We have a God who is active in history and uses what happens in our lives for good, even if what happened in our lives was not the way he wanted it to go; even if what happened in our lives was actively against what he was trying to do. Even then, he still manages to use it for good.
When I was 5 ½, almost 6, years old, my father went to go and mow the yard. He came back in because he needed a breather, and he fell. He had a heart attack. When the paramedics arrived, he was unresponsive, and soon after he was declared dead. I do not believe that it was God‘s will that he would die that day. I don’t believe it was God‘s will that a man died at 44 years old. I don’t believe it was God‘s will that his father, who was caring for an increasingly less abled wife who was struggling with and would eventually lose a battle to lung cancer, would get a phone call that his firstborn son had passed away. I don’t think it was God‘s will that I would grow up without a father. But I do think that God was there with my grandfather, with my mother, with me; holding us the whole way through. And I do think that God used that event for good.
When I was in six grade in the same elementary school I was in when my father passed away in kindergarten, the school had a period of two months where four different kids lost a really important loved one at home (either at Grandparent that lived in the home, or a mother or father), and the counselor for the school decided to create a support group since we had so many in so little time. And she pulled in a couple of other students who experienced this problem, one of whom was me. So, as a sixth grader, I was able to go back and help other children through this experience because I had lived it. I think that was God creating a good out of the bad situation, both theirs and mine. And I believe that my experiences growing up without a father place me in a good position to be a minister to several people in the world today. Did God cause it? No. Did God use it? Absolutely.
One of the things that was vital to the formation of Church of the Resurrection, that big mega church up north, was that very quickly after it was first founded a retired elder by the name of Ray Firestone joined the congregation and helped Adam through quite a bit of the growing pains of those early years. And Ray Firestone had a quote that he said to Adam that has found its way into at least seven of Adam’s books I think. And the quote goes like this:
“Suffering is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. Suffering is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved. Suffering can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life.”
Place your hope this week in a God who is active in history, who actively makes good out of suffering. Place you’re hope in a God who walks with you through the valley of the shadow of death. Place you’re hope in a God who is powerful enough to bring light into the deepest of darkness. Trust in this God, and experience the joy of salvation. Amen.