Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

Everything happens for a reason.  Some things are meant to be.  These well-worn clichés are bandied about by religious and non-religious alike, and the romantics among us can’t help but believe they conceal something true.  Especially when we fall in love, the beloved appears as uniquely “for me.”

Does this sense of necessity belong only to poetry and fairy tales, though? Human beings are not the center of the universe, especially not you, or me.  Nor are we in control of our lives. If everything happens for a reason, reason is a cruel master, since every day the lie is given to a naïve faith that we live in the best of all possible worlds.   The classical belief in the arbitrary Fates often seems to capture the human situation better than a blind trust that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” in the words of Julian of Norwich. The fact remains that most happenings of our lives don’t seem particularly significant, and worse, lots of the time things emphatically don’t work out as they should.

No matter how many times we realistically confront our contingency, however, the hope that everything is for a reason, and a good one, never quite dies.  Religious people validate this intuition with a belief in Providence: there is a loving God who guides the course of every man’s life, and all of human history. Judaeo-Christian faith includes an explanation for evil and suffering in its account: beginning with Lucifer, God’s creatures have thwarted His providential plan for their happiness. Almost immediately after they were created, human beings gave themselves over to the arbitrary powers of sin and death.  God’s power remains triumphant, but His providence appears as His justice, which is first our purification.  As T.S. Eliot writes in the Four Quartets,  quoting Julian, “All will be well and all manner of things shall be well/ By the purification in the ground of our beseeching.”  Things will not always work out as they should, at least not now, and we can’t assign significance to everything that happens to us.  We can trust, however, that the failure of our ideals crucifies our hope, so that it can be reborn more humble and pure.

In this way, Christian trust does validate the human intuition that everything happens for a reason.  That reason, however, might be a painful purification that is not yet happiness, a reason stemming from human failure, rather than God’s original plan.  Christ’s desire did not need purification, but even He prayed that “This cup be taken from Me,” (Mt 26:39) and it was not.  If there is any reason to be found in Christ’s agony, it is in the Father’s allowance that His Son might suffer on behalf of the healing of all.  Since all human beings are entangled in the lives of one another, the reason underlying the events of our lives is not only our purification, but also the purification of others for whom we are allowed to suffer, grafted onto Christ.  The events of our lives, then, are “meant to be”: nothing that happens to us is arbitrary, because the whole course of human affairs falls within the realm of God’s providence, which is His plan to lead each person back to Himself.

The question remains, though, as to what extent the arbitrariness of sin and death still holds sway.  When we and other people resist God’s grace and make the wrong choices, do we forfeit the original plan that God has for us?  What sort of necessity is involved in the course of our lives?  Must all of our particular human hopes obliterate into a simple desire for holiness?  If the reason for every moment was originally God’s love, is it now this love expressed only as our purification, whatever specific form this has to take?

Irenaeus, a Father of the Church, gives a further account of Christian hope.  God’s justice always remains the form of His love, rather than the other way around.  Sin and death must be accounted for, but they have been finally swallowed up in God’s mercy.  In response to our weaknesses and sins, God does not abandon His promises, which we glimpse in our human hopes.  His response when we thwart His loving plans, Irenaeus writes, is long-suffering patience.  His response is to give us more Time.  Time allows even our failures and sufferings to be transformed into instruments of grace, so that God may bless us more and more wonderfully, if we manage to trust Him.

Taking up this Irenaean theme, Hans Urs von Balthasar writes in Heart of the World:  “When has Time ever been lacking?  When has it run out like too short a piece of string?  Time is as long as grace.  Entrust yourself to the grace of Time” (24). When God’s promises seem to take unbearably long to be fulfilled, the reason for the delay is the overabundant happiness that God has planned for us. We are right to unwrap our lives as providential gifts, although we cannot see exactly what this is until the last paper has fallen. The reason underlying every thing that happens to us is not only our purification and the purification of others, though this is the first miracle of grace. We are right to want to be happy, though perhaps in a sense different than people use the term today. What looks like failure or disappointment is really the quickest route home, and the most beautiful, if we return to God with our whole heart. It is not a pious or romantic error to believe that things are “meant to be,” because the reason for every moment of our lives is God’s love.  His love is “other,” but as it conforms us to itself, we see that it is, in truth, “not other”—it overflows with necessity and meaning.

[Image of The Three Fates Courtesy of Wikipedia]

About Margaret Blume

Margaret Blume graduated from Yale University in 2010 with a degree in Humanities. She received a Masters of Theological Studies from the University of Notre Dame in 2013 and is currently pursuing a doctorate at Notre Dame in historical theology.

  • Troy Stefano

    Margaret, I love this post. It’s so meditative and deep. I hadn’t realized you were such a profound thinker! I guess that’s what happens when I’m always either locked up studying or at the gym, I don’t get the chance to get to know people too well and drink from their wisdom!! This piece is a beautiful reflection on the question of God’s intimate and loving presence with us, in contrast with a more deistic understanding of God. I love how clearly you make the case for hope, that “all will be well” in God’s time. And that this applies also to one’s romantic considerations! haha! … I wonder, however, if a distinction could be made between the “principle of sufficient reason” (i.e., the philosophical conviction that everything that happens, happens for a reason) and the belief in providence. My fear is that if people believe that everything happens for a reason, then whatever is actual is necessary, and therefore justified; this would mean to say that the Holocaust happened for a reason, was divinely ordained, and is justified by whatever God will bring of it, for example. And as such, what room is there for God to permit freedom, which is the basis for sin, without ordaining it? Can God permit true contingency, and somehow, transfigure it in the fire of his mysterious love? … Perhaps we can say that part of the mystery of Christianity is to re-understand what “reason” itself is. Since the mystery of God’s love is that he can bring goodness even out of our sinfulness, then we can say that all of our “logoi” are transfigured by the logos itself. Perhaps if we see God’s causality as working from the eschaton, rather than from creation, this will come through more clearly. The Spirit is the transforming presence of the end of days, with the communion of saints, in the world; God permits freedom (hence, the actuality of so much sinfulness), but we call “providence” the underlying principle of God’s intimate transformation. Another way of expressing the question that you’re addressing here is as follows: is Christ’s paschal act an expression of an eternal truth, or is it a truly historic and concrete act, and thus particular, that *becomes* universal through the work of the Spirit? If we don’t believe in contingency, then we do away with the drama of the cross; the greatness in God is seen in that he can work in the realness of contingency, and yet, offer us that gift through the universalizing role of the Spirit.


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