* The following was originally published by The Llano News on January 26, 2022.
Some Christians have given this matter a lot of thought. They believe that God controls every single thing that happens, down to the minute detail. They usually are Calvinists and follow the writings of contemporary people like John Piper, and the late R. C. Sproul.
Former U.S. surgeon general C. Everett Koop was a Calvinist. His son was killed in a mountain climbing accident. He spoke in Christian college chapels delivering a message entitled “God Killed My Son.” He believed that if God killed his son, it was not an accident, but an event filled with meaning and purpose, even if those are unknown right now. This is not a meaningless cliché to him, but a deeply held belief in God’s providence as being all encompassing and meticulous.
For many Christians, however, it is uncomfortable to say that God single-handedly caused something bad to happen, even if they affirm that “God is in control.” They reject that God caused the Holocaust, Hurricane Katrina, and other calamities; yet, they might be quick to assert that “everything happens for a reason.”
What do they mean? Why would a non-Calvinist (a person who believes that God gives us free will), say that “everything happens for a reason?” Perhaps this is a leftover view from our Puritan ancestors. Even though some of us have shied away from their Calvinist tendencies, our theology has held on to what that belief implies about things that go wrong in our world.
I believe it is possible to say that “God is in control,” while also eschewing that “everything happens for a reason.” Why? Basically, because I am not a Calvinist. I do not affirm that God pre-ordains every, single thing (including whether or not you or I will believe the Gospel) before it comes to pass. I do not intend to set out an exhaustive explanation of my decision, because I realize two things: 1) a case from the Bible can be made to the contrary; and 2) doing it justice would take too long! I realize that my affirmation of human free will over divine determinism is not universally held, and that it does not need to be in order for someone to be an orthodox Christian.
That being said, affirming human agency in God’s divine plan has some important implications that are often overlooked, especially by my “free-will-affirming” brothers and sisters. This is what I will aim my attention toward for the remainder of this article.
Perhaps no verse is quoted more to refer to God’s plan in our lives than Romans 8:28: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Before I comment on this, I want to recognize that the verses following refer to words like “foreknew” and “predestined” that provide a context that Calvinists point to in affirming their doctrine. Presenting an alternative point of view involves examining what is meant by these terms in the overall context of the book of Romans, and even in the entire old and new testaments together. For our purposes, we will simply discuss how affirming Romans 8:28 affects one’s understanding of how God works in the midst of human free will.
First, it is important to note that saying “. . . in all things God works . . .”, is not the same as saying that “God works all things.” God works in all things, but God does NOT work all things. To affirm this is to affirm that God specifically causes horrible things like the Holocaust, or even trivial things, like the color shirt I choose to wear on Tuesday. This is not the point the author of Romans is making.
Second, affirming that God does not directly cause every single event that comes to pass does not place any limit on God, other than what he has allowed to be placed upon himself through creating people and allowing them to make decisions. On the contrary, believing that “in all things God works” attributes a greater status to God because it holds out confidence in his ability to achieve his ultimate plan, even as he allows people the agency to make decisions for themselves.
Am I splitting theological hairs? I do not think so. When a broken-hearted mother approaches me with questions regarding why God allowed her seven-year-old daughter to die of Leukemia, I can’t respond with “everything happens for a reason;” or even, “I don’t know, but God does.” What I can say, based on my understanding of how God functions in his sovereignty, is “I am not certain that God had anything to do with your daughter’s passing, but I am confident that he CAN use it for your good, and his glory.”
Everything does NOT happen for a reason; but God uses what happens for HIS reasons.
Note: the concepts in this article are largely based on ideas found in Questions to All Your Answers: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith, by Dr. Roger Olson.