I’m going to be honest with you this morning:
I don’t believe everything happens for a reason.
When someone dies, especially a child or someone in the prime of life, I don’t believe it’s because God needed another angel.
When bad things happen to us, the very worst possible things, I don’t believe it’s because God is punishing us for something we did wrong.
I don’t believe that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle—because I don’t think God is in the business of measuring out suffering and then giving us just a little less than whatever amount will undo us.
I also don’t believe that everything will necessarily work out in the end or that we’ll be around for the “end.”
When our lives don’t turn out the way we had hoped, I completely understand the feeling that it’s because we’re not good enough or lovable enough or deserving enough—but I don’t actually believe that’s true.
I don’t believe that faith in God’s goodness requires us to sugarcoat life’s injustices and pain.
I don’t believe that religion is a crutch for weak people to lean on; I’m pretty sure Jesus demonstrated that the heart of true religion—which is loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves—is likely to get us in a heap of trouble. On top of that, most of the strongest, big-hearted, and open-minded people I know are people of faith.
Whether we consider ourselves spiritual or religious or none of the above, most of us prefer certainty over mystery. Fact is, virtually every culture on earth since the beginning of time has its own stories to explain the way things are. And the harder and crazier and more uncertain things are, the more likely we are to want to tell ourselves and others a story that will help make sense of things.
Stories like: Everything happens for a reason. Stories like: God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. Stories like: This, too, shall pass. Stories like: The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. Stories like: Love is stronger than death.
I understand the need to make sense of things, and I totally get the desire for certainty, a desire that seems to grow in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty in our lives at any give time. It’s just a normal human thing. From whether it will rain today to the meaning of life, from why bad things happen to good people to when black lives really will matter just as much as white lives, from when we can go back to school and church and travel and Red Sox games to when we can go back, please God, to hugging—it’s only natural to want some clarity about what is happening and why.
Well, thanks be to God that there are some things we can count on.
That the sun will come up tomorrow, for example, and the day after that and the day after that. That the river, if left to its own devices, will flow to the sea. That love will break your heart again and again and again, even as it gives you more joy than you ever thought possible. That human potential—for good, for evil, for beauty, and for the utterly amazing—is seemingly endless. That we will never be able to count all the stars in the sky and that, no matter how old we get or how many advanced degrees we have, fireflies will always seem magical. That the hotter it is, the sweeter the lemonade.
And that’s what God’s goodness is like, Isaiah says—as sure as the rain and snow that water the earth, as sure as water that brings forth life from the ground, as sure as earthy life that gives seed to the sower, as sure as the seed that produces wheat for the baker, as sure as the wheat that becomes bread for the eater.
God’s word, Isaiah says—God’s promise of presence, God’s promise of love, God’s promise of deliverance and redemption, God’s promise of restoration and wholeness, God’s promise of justice and home and more—God’s word is as sure as the most fundamental cycles of life.
You can count on it. You can take it to the bank. You can build a life on it. You can harness your life to it and let it transform you, he says.
Isaiah’s God is not some distant clockmaker who sets things in motion and then leaves us on our own. Isaiah’s God is intimately involved in the lives of her beloved children. This Creator God has baked divine goodness into the natural order of things; this faithful God who will never leave you or forsake you will can lift up the lowly and heal the brokenhearted; this purposeful, powerful Spirit God will not rest until her vision for all creation has been fulfilled.
Now it’s worth remembering that Isaiah is speaking to people who have lost everything—home, heritage, hope. Notice that the prophet doesn’t promise the people a rose garden but, instead, concedes that thorns and briers infest the earth. The prophet doesn’t say we won’t have trouble, that we won’t suffer injustice and loss and death, but that God is with us in it and will bring us through it.
The story Isaiah tells is not that everything happens for a reason but that whatever happens, God can use it for good. That God is in it all, that by God’s Word Made Flesh of grace and redemption, by God’s engaged and empowering Spirit, through God’s beloved children and, yes, through nature and even Christ’s imperfect church, Love is at work in the world, and that Love’s purpose will be fulfilled.
We and our lives are shaped by Love—by divine mercy, by the people who love us (or not), by the thread of grace that pulls us gently onward, and also by the stories we tell. It’s not a question of whether we have stories—because we all have our stories—but which ones we choose to trust.
We can choose to believe, for example, that everything, even the most god-awful things, happens for some twisted reason, and we can try to figure out what that reason is.
Or, like Isaiah, like Jesus, like our ancestors in faith, we can choose to trust that no matter how bleak things are, there is a Light no darkness can overcome, a Life Force no death can conquer. We can choose to trust, even when we’re drowning in uncertainty, that God’s love is at work in the world. We can choose to trust, even when everything seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, that the long arc of history is bending toward justice and God’s extravagant love is accomplishing its purpose. We can choose to trust, even when our lives are defined by distance, that nothing can separate us from God’s love, that not even our very worst circumstances can limit God’s power.
And when we feel that we lack the strength or hope or faith to trust God’s goodness, we can rest in grace. We can reflect on how far we have come. We can remember that God is with us.
By God’s grace, we can hold on until the day that we will go out in joy and go home in peace. And if the mountains and the hills can burst into song, surely we can, too—even now. And if all the trees of the field can clap their hands, then we, too, can praise the Source of Life and Love and give thanks for all that is.