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First Reading = Romans 8:22-30
22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
This Lenten season, we are in a sermon series about Good Grief. Each week we are going to highlight some cliches and things people say to each other when someone is suffering or grieving. We’ll try to highlight what’s not helpful, what is helpful, and how we can create a good grieving process.
This week we are looking at a three phrases that try to be helpful but miss the mark. The first one is, “everything happens for a reason.” At its core, this phrase is trying to make meaning out of our suffering or grief. That’s not bad. But we’ll talk more about how to make good meaning.
Sermon Text = Romans 8:31-39
31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Cliche: Everything happens for a reason
Everything happens for a reason. Or another way of saying that is that God has a plan. Have you ever heard that? Maybe said it? It’s pretty common.
But here’s the problem with that in the context of grief or suffering. I was listening to the radio last week and I heard a story about a man who was helping to extract people from Ukraine. This was a special case – two very premature babies born in Ukraine the day before the invasion, and the parents are American so the babies need to get out safely and continue to receive appropriate care.
As the reporter was speaking to the man who was leading the extraction, the line went dead. And it stayed that way for hours. Finally, he picked up his phone after the babies were transferred to their parents at the Polish border. He said that some nearby artillery shelling had knocked out their cell service. And the shells were so close, the ground beneath them was shaking from the vibrations.
And he said something very interesting about those artillery shells. He said, “An artillery shell doesn’t look down and notice two babies and decide to land elsewhere.”
If those shells had landed on the two premature babies, would you tell the devastated parents, “God has a plan” or “Everything happens for a reason?” If so, that would make God responsible for the artillery shell instead of the military who fired it. You see, I firmly believe that God allows us to make consequential decisions in our lives. And I firmly do not believe that God has angels directing the trajectory of all the shells deciding who lives and who dies according to some giant Excel spreadsheet. That would take away all of our actual free will and it would make God very cruel indeed.
As I mentioned earlier, this phrase is trying to create meaning, to connect our grief to a larger story. That’s not bad. Now I have to take this from those who know, but I have heard it reported that childbirth is one of the most painful things a human can experience. But I have also heard it reported that it’s different and more bearable because it’s pain with a giant purpose. The baby makes the pain more bearable. Again, that’s only according to reports.
I have also heard it reported that a kidney stone can be one of the most painful experiences as well. Only a kidney stone has no purpose, no baby on the other side to make it worthwhile. It’s just painful.
So when we suffer with a purpose, it’s not as bad as just plain suffering. Finding meaning is a good thing. But chalking everything up to God’s unknowable plan has some side effects.
It can make the person being abused think they deserve it.
It can make the grieving parent think God hates them.
It can make the confused child think God is evil.
And it can lead us to distrust God instead of turning to the comfort of Christ when we need it most.
So does God have a plan? Yes. But I don’t think God’s plan stretches down to manually directing every moment of our lives or guiding each artillery shell in a war. If that’s God’s plan, he has pretty bad aim. If God were truly directing the shots to that degree, I don’t think they would have been fired in the first place and the good guys would always win and the Broncos would win the Super Bowl every year. That’s not the world we seem to live in.
Cliche: God works everything for good
Another similar cliché is reminding someone that God works everything for good, or God has something better on the other side of this. Again, there’s some good to this idea, and there’s some bad.
We heard the Bible passage about this in our first reading today. It said, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
I want to make an important distinction here. It does NOT say that all things are good. Cancer isn’t good. Epilepsy isn’t good. Injustice isn’t good. Lying isn’t good.
Instead of saying that everything is good, this text says all things work together for good. In other words, God graciously causes miraculously good things to happen even in the midst of bad situations. God is present and active in the midst of those bad things, even if he doesn’t make them go away.
So a caregiver can become more compassionate or stronger as a result of being a caregiver, but I can’t see God giving your spouse or your child a debilitating disease just to make you more compassionate. The disease is still bad. But God is graciously present and makes good things even in the midst of those bad things.
The good news is NOT that God makes everything good. The good news is that God is with us through Jesus Christ through everything, and inexplicable good comes out of even the worst situations – even death on a cross. Those situations are still bad, but God’s presence also brings about amazing good. The promise of God’s presence is what our main text today highlights starting in verse 38, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
So you don’t have to pretend that your bad situation is good. It can still be bad. But it IS good to realize that God is present, bringing about inexplicable good in the midst of every bad situation.
Cliche: God needed another angel
One more cliché to cover today. When someone dies, have you ever heard (or said), “Well God just needed another angel?” Now, with the other cliches today, I have highlighted the good and the bad of the phrase. This one is mostly bad, so I recommend retiring this one.
First off, humans don’t become angels when they die. Everywhere you see angels and people in the Bible, they’re different. Even in the visions of heaven, the angels and the people are different. So if God needed another angel, he would make one. Because a human who dies doesn’t become an angel in heaven.
Second problem here is that it assumes God needs humans or angels more than we who remain need them. So if we tell a child when a parent dies, “God just needed another angel,” they actually hear, “you didn’t need your parent enough.” Yuck! That’s no good!
And it’s not like there are leaky pipes in heaven, so God needs to zap a plumber off of the earth to fix it, right? Although that would be one way to avoid the per-visit service fee… God didn’t make us because he needed us to perform tasks – in heaven or on earth. Our text today reminds us, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?”
God gives his own Son! Heaven doesn’t need someone’s mom or dad or brother or sister or aunt or uncle or grandparent or dear friend! God created us for relationships and love, not to perform necessary plumbing in heaven. So God doesn’t need another human in heaven, and that human isn’t going to become an angel in heaven. And subtly telling people they just weren’t as needy as God just seems really off to me. So let’s retire this cliché! It’s trying to make our grief part of a bigger story, to impart meaning, but it’s incorrect and unhelpful.
So to recap, there are a bunch of cliches people say to essentially try to help a grieving person find meaning in their suffering. But the cliches fall short of that goal. So is there a better way to try to grieve with purpose?
Our previous book discussion on Sunday morning was Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” And I want to lift out two key ideas for that book.
First, he has a big discussion of the book of Job. That is basically an entire book asking the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
In chapter two, after Job has lost his health, his money, his home, his family, everything, here’s what his three friends do. “When Job’s three friends… heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”
OK, if you know someone who is grieving and you want to help them – do that! Just don’t do what they did for the next 40 chapters! Eventually Job essentially asks, “Why did this happen to me?” And Rabbi Kushner observes that Job was actually seeking compassion, not a theology lesson. But his friends deliver 40 chapters of unhelpful explanations for his suffering instead. So don’t do that! Do what they did in chapter 2! They showed up instead of feeling uncomfortable and staying away. They sat in silence instead of feeling like they needed to say the right thing. And they sat with Job instead of just praying for him from a distance. Fabulous!
But I have found that the cliches like “Everything happens for a reason” aren’t actually for the person who is grieving. Those cliches are often for us – to say something that “makes it right.” There isn’t anything you can say to make it right. You can make it worse, but you can’t fix deep pain with a cliché. You can help with your compassion and your presence, but you can’t fix it with a cliché. And Job’s friends show that you can’t even fix it with 40 chapters of theology. So don’t try!
If you want to help someone who is grieving, show up, don’t try to fix it with your words, and let them feel your compassion and empathy. If you bring a chocolate cake while you’re there, even better!
And when we’re the one who is grieving, is there a way we can seek meaning and purpose that doesn’t fall into those cliché traps?
I like how Rabbi Kushner re-frames the question in his book. He says that we shouldn’t ask “Why did this happen?” Instead, we should ask, “Now that this has happened, how will I respond?” If you ask why, you’ll never get a satisfactory answer. But if you ask how you will respond, the ball’s back in your court.
Someone might have done something to you, but how will you choose to respond? You’re back in the story. You have agency. You can’t change what happened, but you can shape what will happen next.
You might ask, “What kind of person did God create me to be in this situation?”
You might ask, “How can I respond in a way that is faithful to Jesus?”
You might ask, “Where is the Holy Spirit giving me the strength or peace or perseverance or hope to continue beyond my own abilities?”
You might ask, “Even though I’m furious with God for allowing this, how can I draw nearer to God through my response?”
We can’t change what happened in the past, but we can shape what happens next. “Now that this has happened, how will I respond?” There’s a lot of meaning and purpose in reclaiming your agency in the midst of your grief.
I think that’s a lot better than saying “Oh well, everything happens for a reason.” I think that’s a lot better than saying, “God has something better for you letter.” And I know it’s infinitely better than saying, “God just needed another angel.”
“Now that this has happened, how will I respond?” That’s grief with a purpose. That’s good grief. Amen.