When something bad happens, it’s common for people to offer the encouragement that “everything happens for a reason.”  Is it really true, however, that everything that happens, happens for a reason?  To answer that question we need to explore what we mean by “everything,” “for” and “reason.”

Let’s start with “reason.”  What do we mean when we say something happens for a reason?  It means there is some intelligible and discernible relationship between two events, and that this relationship was purposed by an intelligent agent.  For example, the reason I give money to the checker at the grocery store is because I want to buy food.  There is a rationality to my action that links the events of giving money and receiving food.  One is done for the reason of the other.  In a similar manner, there is a discernible and intelligible relationship between bad and good events in our lives that was purposed by God.

What does it mean to say everything happens “for” a reason?  Do we mean to say that God intended for the bad thing to happen so that He could bring about His purpose, or do we mean to say that God will use the bad thing that happened for His purposes even though He did not intend for that bad thing to happen to us?  I think it’s the latter.  God didn’t make something bad to happen to us so that He could, in turn, make something good happen.  The bad things are not predestined by God so that He can bring about certain goods.  Rather, bad things happen to us because humans freely choose to do bad things (or chance, natural processes result in our harm), but God uses these for His larger purpose.  God doesn’t cause the bad things to happen, but redeems them nonetheless.

Finally, what do we mean by “everything?”  Do we literally mean that God has a reason for every instance of evil, such that there is a 1:1 correspondence between evil and good?  Is every instance of evil used by God to accomplish some larger purpose, or just some things?  Surely some things happen in order to accomplish some other/larger purpose, but it’s hard to believe that everything does.  Stubbing my toe brings me intense pain and suffering.  Does God have a purpose for my stubbed toe?  What about mosquito bites?  They cause suffering, but does God use my mosquito bites to fulfill some larger purpose in my life?  I don’t think so.

So it’s not true that everything happens for a purpose.  Only some things happen for a purpose.  When bad things happen, they are not caused by God, but they can be redeemed by God for His purposes and our benefit.