Recently I returned home to Omaha for my Aunt Lugene’s memorial service. At 47 she was too young to die. She left a husband (a pastor) and two beautiful daughters (14 and 17), along with a host of family and friends to mourn her. I was able to see her about 2 mos. prior to the memorial service, and, by that time the chemotherapy had taken a serious toll on Aunt Lugene’s mind and body. Her last year was full of suffering.
A few weeks after the memorial service I returned to Omaha for a high school class reunion. Upon arrival, my mother was speaking with a neighbor and it was clear they were grieving together. When I asked my mom about the conversation she said Neighbor Mary has a brother suffering of Pancreatic cancer, and as the discussion ended Mary stated,“everything happens for a reason.” This statement broke my heart.
I don’t know much about Mary. I’m not bashing her theology or doctrine, and quite frankly it’s none of my business. In fact I wasn’t even involved in the conversation, so I could be taking it out of context. That said, I believe the statement is particularly poignant. “Everything happens for a reason” is a commonly held belief in the American psyche, Christian or not. The underlying assumption behind such a statement is God is like some cosmic puppeteer, orchestrating all events, evil and good, for a certain purpose, and it’s our job to find that purpose. So, if this assumption is true, I would just ask, why did God give my Aunt Lugene cancer, allow her to suffer for over one year, then allow her to die leaving her husband alone, and daughters without their birth mother? What was the “reason” for this?
If we’re trying to answer such complex questions we first need to consider the variables responsible for determining actions and events in this world. Think of it this way, every event or action that occurs, however major (the bombing of the World Trade Center) or minor (a ripple in a pond) results from one of the following variables, or some combination of the following variables interacting:
Upon creation God granted humans free-will. The very nature of such a gift means humans have as much capacity for doing evil as good. So, for every Mother Theresa there can be a Hitler.
The perfect revelation of God’s character is Jesus Christ. Fully human, and fully divine, he embodied perfect love by dying for those who crucified him, then resurrecting from the dead three days later. Any act or event inconsistent with the character of Jesus is not from God. Jesus answered: “Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father…” (John 14:9, NIV).
3. Evil Spiritual Forces.
From beginning to end, the bible emphasizes a realm of this world that humans are often ignorant of, the supernatural realm. The book of Job illustrates the impact these spiritual forces can have upon any one person’s life. This book starts with Satan (literally translated as “the adversary”) challenging God’s omniscience. Satan believes that people only love God because they are compelled and under His protection. So, to prove this is not true, God removes His protection from the most righteous man in the land, Job, and allows Satan to have his way. Unfortunately, Job is unaware of this wager and believes he's become the victim of an unfortunate string of bad luck, or punished for his sins (both wrong). Paul reiterates the power evil spiritual forces have on earth in Ephesians 6: 12 (NIV), “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
4. A Fallen Creation.
However literally or figuratively one chooses to interpret Genesis, it’s clear that things changed drastically after Adam and Eve ate the apple (the Fall). Not only does sin enter the world, but creation becomes fundamentally flawed. What God originally declared “good” is, at best, partially so. Sure we can go to Yellowstone National Park or view a sunset and witness God’s creative genius, but the effects of the Fall are also apparent in creation. Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, AIDS, Malaria, the food chain, etc. all weren’t created by God, but instead entered the world as a result of the Fall. In Romans Paul emphasizes this, yearning for a day when creation will be liberated, like all of humanity, “We know the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8:22 NIV).
So, if we factor in these four variables when considering why future events occur, whether these be, earthquakes, brushing our teeth, or cancer, can we conclusively say “everything happens for a reason?” Maybe, in a cause-effect sort of way. But to say that God is behind every event in our lives is simply wrong. I’m sorry, but God was not responsible for my Aunt’s cancer, nor is he responsible for Mary’s brother’s pancreatic cancer. The Jesus who was crucified for those who murdered him does not afflict people with cancer to teach a lesson.
I don’t know why my Aunt Lugene got cancer. The variables are too complex and many to determine a cause. My guess is that it was a combination of a fallen creation and evil spiritual forces. The only thing I can know for sure is that God had nothing to do with it. From this point forward I have to rest in the knowledge of God’s perfect omniscience, “And we know that in all things [good and evil] God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,” (Romans 8: 28). It will be interesting to see the good God weaves out of my Aunt’s tragic death.
For an excellent in-depth study on this topic I’d recommend Is God To Blame? Beyond Pat Answers To the Problem of Suffering by Greg Boyd. It has been very helpful for my family in the days since my Aunt’s death.