“Everything Happens for a Reason” Sucks as Theology

One prominent adoption narrative I reject completely is that God always planned for me to parent my sons: that somehow, even though Benjamin and Samuel were born thousands of miles from Oregon, God pulled some strings, engineered some circumstances, and gave me two of the best kids in the world.

Here’s why I reject this ideology of “God’s Plan” for adoption: Because I refuse to believe that God caused suffering and loss just so that I could be a mother. God did not manufacture difficult life events for mothers in India and Vietnam, compelling them to relinquish their children to me. God also did not want my sons to lose familial relationships and cultural ties in their birth countries so I could raise them. If God’s plan is for women to suffer the loss of their babies, and children the loss of their birth mothers, then I’m not sure that God is someone, or something, I want to worship.

The idea of God’s plan in the midst of loss has been on mind a lot lately, because it seems like so many people in my life are suffering immense pain. People I know are struggling with the serious illnesses and deaths of parents, of spouses, of life-long friends, of children. Some are contending with the difficult work of raising teenagers. Others are facing the dissolution of marriages. Violence seems ubiquitous, both at the world-wide level, where a terrorist’s murder of children at a wedding no longer fazes us as it once did; and at the local level, as Kendra wrote about last week, mourning a friend, a victim of domestic violence.

Many people choose to believe God has a greater plan in mind for those who suffer, and Christian culture is good at providing ready-made clichés in the midst of loss: That Everything Happens For A Reason, and God is trying to teach us something when bad things happen. Or that God believes we have a lesson to learn, and is allowing us to suffer for our own moral education. Or that because God’s plan is greater than we understand, we should accept suffering, rejoicing in the mystery of God’s beautiful design.

I am grateful that people are beginning to call bullshit on this ideology of “God’s Plan” in the face of suffering. In the last few months especially, I’ve found several resources incredibly helpful in reshaping my own understanding of loss.

The first is Jessica Kelley’s book, Lord Willing? Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death, which has transformed both my understanding of God’s role in suffering and has given me new language to use in thinking about suffering. Kelley’s book is emotionally challenging, and I cried through much of it, especially in the detailed story of her son’s death at age four from aggressive cancer. Kelley deconstructs what she calls the Christian “blueprint worldview,” which says that her son’s death was part of God’s great plan, or that God allowed her son to die so that we might see God’s glory. She also challenges the idea that God used Henry’s death for educative purposes. Who needed a lesson, she asks: a four-year-old boy who underwent immense pain? Parents who were trying to live a righteous life? Kelley’s book offers a different understanding of God, one that posits a God whose very essence is love, and who cries alongside us when we suffer. (Last spring, I wrote a more complete review of the book here, for Mennonite World Review; you can find more of Kelley’s story here.)

Several recent posts by Benjamin Corey at his Patheos blog have echoed what Kelley posits in Lord Willing? Writing about his family’s heartbreaking adoption loss, Corey shares his deep grief and his acknowledgment that sometimes, shitty stuff happens, and not because God plans it to. In a subsequent post, titled “If God’s the Cause of Our Suffering, He’s Kinda a Jerk (Just Sayin’),” Corey outlines an understanding of God and suffering that is similar to Kelley’s: If God’s very essence is love and goodness, as the Bible tells us, then God will not cause us to suffer; if God allows suffering to happen so that we can learn something, God is perpetuating evil, and that is against God’s essence.

At the church I attend, Newberg Friends, our pastor Gregg Koskela has been doing a sermon series on suffering. You can read the transcripts here, on Gregg’s blog. Though we are only two sermons into the series, I already appreciate so much Gregg’s ability to acknowledge the problematic nature of a theology that says if we do everything good and right, God rewards us and we will live happily ever after; if we stumble, God will teach us a lesson and bad stuff will happen. I’ve lived under the weight of that theology for my entire adult life, certain that if I fail as a believer, God will smack me down. Gregg reminds us that God doesn’t operate that way, but that God promises to walk with us, even through darkness, especially through darkness. Often, God works through the love, comfort, and presence of others, holding space with us through suffering.

One important point these writers and thinkers make again and again is that, when we experience great loss, God is with us, mourning as we mourn. Because God’s essence is love and goodness, we are also called to bring love and goodness to the world. If we believe in a deity that allows suffering, or who hopes to teach us through suffering, we are stripped of our agency. In what Kelley calls a “warfare worldview,” though, God longs for us to fight for good alongside God.

Although it’s easy to be paralyzed by the suffering of others, or of ourselves, we are called to work with God to fight evil with love and goodness. One of my dearest friends is bearing witness to this idea as her father faces complications from ALS, a debilitating and terminal illness. Two years ago she couldn’t have imagined doing the “ice bucket challenge” to raise money for ALS research; this year, she is actively advocating to fund research that might someday lead to a cure. You can read more of her family’s story(and contribute to an ALS fundraising walk, if you are willing) here.

I am confident that God is walking alongside this beautiful family, and I have learned a lot from them about grace, mercy, patience, and love; but God did not cause their suffering, nor did God allow an ALS diagnosis to happen for God’s glorification or to teach anyone a lesson. That kind of theology sucks, as does that kind of God. Of this, at least, I am certain.