Why Saying “Everything Happens for a Reason” Doesn’t Help

“We need to stop telling people that everything happens for a reason,” my theology professor boldly said. He went on, “People use this phrase left and right, but do you even understand what you are saying to another person when these words leave your lips? Do you think about how this might sound to a friend of yours after they’ve confided with you that their parents are splitting up when you say this to someone whose family has been affected by hurricanes, earthquakes, and all types of natural disasters? To a friend that has been sexually assaulted? To someone who suffers depression and anxiety? And what about those that live in third-world countries, young children born into such poverty? Will saying ‘everything happens for a reason’ just make all this pain go away? Whatever you, your friend, or your family member is personally fighting, you did not earn it. God does not inflict evil and suffering for an unknown reason. He is Love, so while He permits evil and will draw good from it, but He does not want bad things to happen for some arbitrary reason beyond our knowledge.”

Our class just sat in utter silence and deep reflection. Suddenly, it all made sense.

First like this…

And then, it sinks in like this…

It was then that I began to recount times in my life where I experienced suffering and really question God’s purpose through it all. The first experience that came to mind was my journey and struggle with depression.

My depression seemed to spiral out of control the summer before my freshman year of high school. That summer I was dealing with severe health complications and was uncertain about my chances of survival. I was left with many unanswered questions, became attached to seclusion, and came to believe hope was merely a hoax. I lost complete faith and trust in God during that period of my life and doubted the purpose of my life, of depression, of everything.

I was lost for a long time and didn’t begin to be found until I made what then seemed like small efforts to hand my heart over to my loved ones and Jesus in His sacramental presence.

Through my own journey, I had to make the conscious decision in times of suffering to look at ‘purpose’ in a new light. I realized I could no longer rely on the assumption that God was giving me this suffering because of some reason only He knew. I had to look around me and see all the ways He was with me in times of despair, even if it didn’t feel like it at the time.

I still remember the peace of heart I experienced when I told my mom I wanted to seek professional help for the first time. I still recall the immense amount of life I felt when I told a priest all the ways I was struggling with depression for the first time ever during Confession. I’ll never forget the Scripture phrases and passages mentioned in simple conversations that helped me see that God was always with me in my pain.

What I came to understand through all those moments, conversations, and relationships is pain, suffering, and brokenness do not have meaning in and of themselves. They can be understood, however, only through Christ’s suffering, death, and Resurrection. Pain DOES have a purpose because Christ, on the cross, gave it a purpose. Because of the cross, pain is no longer meaningless — it is now a way we can die to self and rise with Christ. This is not to say that God causes pain or asks us to seek it out, but it is to say that He can and will use suffering for our sanctification and His glory if we let Him.

Our Response

While saying, “everything happens for a reason” is dismissive, trusting that God will bring new life from every death (literal or figurative) is something every Christian is called to do. So, How do we respond, then, when we see our friends or loved one’s suffering?

  1. Allow your friend or family member the permission to feel the pain. We may never know the true purpose in the moment and there isn’t always a black and white answer, but a lot of the time people just want to be heard, to be held, to give the weight of their pain to someone else to hold for a little while. Be that person for them. Instead of rationalizing the evils of the world, practice true empathy and be the kind of person Jesus beckons us to be — the kind of person who doesn’t pretend like suffering doesn’t exist, but instead mourns with those who are mourning.
  2. Remind the person that whatever suffering he or she is enduring isn’t something God desires, but is something He will draw new life from if He is invited into it.
  3. When we suffer, we have a unique opportunity to draw near to Christ in His suffering on the cross and His glory in the Resurrection. Invite your loved one into that glory amidst the suffering. Encourage him or her to visit Jesus in the Eucharist as often as possible and dive deeper into God’s word in Sacred Scripture. Share with him or her a Scripture passage that really emphasizes God’s comforting nature. Some good passages to suggest are Psalm 27, Psalm 46, and Psalm 139.

Like many other people, I was always told, “everything happens for a reason.” This was supposed to be an explanation for the difficult event or experience, or serve as a form of encouragement to trust that there was some reason for it that would reveal itself in time. But, what I soon began to realize is that using such language invalidates and dismisses the very real emotions and pain of a dark situation, and, most of all, neglects who God is: love and goodness.

Telling someone “everything happens for a reason” won’t put an end to suffering or ease the pain. So, instead of offering this advice when hard times come, and they will come, face the truth of a suffering world. Embrace suffering as a time to know Jesus more intimately and be His hands and feet to those around you. You can, and always will, draw God’s goodness out of even the darkest situations, but only if you invite Him to accompany you there.