One thing I wasn’t back when I practiced Criminal Defense was an enabler. I would spend countless hours at the county jail visiting clients who were being held on bail for some sort of criminal misdeed. Often, they would try and invite me to their pity party and start moaning and groaning about how unfair it was that they were being singled out for this offense when everyone else does it and doesn’t get caught. Sometimes they would rhetorically ask or exclaim: “I don’t understand why God is doing this to me!” After they were done with their rant I would calmly and matter-of-factly explain to them that they probably weren’t being singled out as an example and that God wasn’t doing this to them. It wasn’t God that made them sell dope to an undercover officer or burglarize a house and leave their fingerprints behind. That was a choice, a decision they made all on their own. I would tell them that I probably couldn’t do much about the why but that I would do my case investigation and legal research to see if there was anything I could work with. I would counsel them to stop dwelling on the why and try and focus on the what’s next.

Something unexpected and tragic happens to somebody and they often ask themselves what they did to deserve such a thing or somebody close to them wonders why the innocent suffer needlessly. Some well-meaning person might say, “It must have been the will of God.” Such a statement might cause the affected person to question God’s goodness and sometimes even his existence. Somebody else might offer up that everything happens for a reason and that this situation is just part of God’s plan which will cause the person to wonder why God would want to make their personal tragedy a part of his plan. My child contracting a life-ending childhood illness is part of God’s plan? My husband being paralyzed because of a drunk driver is part of God’s plan? How does that make any sense or bring them any comfort?

Key to this is understanding how and why we were created by God. God created us in his image and gave us dominion over the planet making us responsible for our actions and inactions. He gave us the ability to choose good from evil as evidenced by the story of Adam and Eve in the garden when God told them they could eat the fruit of any tree but the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve exercised their free will to make a choice between doing what they wanted or what God wanted for them. Because of our sinful nature, we have a tendency to be drawn towards what is not good for us. God has given us an intellect, a soul and a conscience in order to help us know the difference between right and wrong but so often when we exercise our free will we choose poorly. Even the best of us have something within us that draws us to stray from the path. What was intended as a gift from God, our freedom, when misused, leads to suffering.

When you hear someone say that it says in the Bible that everything happens for a reason this is one of those half-truths. It doesn’t say any such thing. They may be thinking of Romans 8: 28 where the Apostle Paul says, “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” What Paul is saying is that no matter what happens, however bad it may be, God will somehow bring good out of the situation for those who love him. God will force evil to accomplish good. So, to say that everything happens for a reason is true if you mean we live in a world of cause and effect. Our actions or the actions of others create consequences and those choices produce results. When I was a DWI Task Force sergeant I was broadsided by a motorist who made the conscious decision to drive after drinking too many alcoholic beverages. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. If he had hit the driver’s side rather than the passenger side my wife would have been a widow with two small children to raise. These exercises of free will may lead to a course of action that will lead to suffering in our lives or in the lives of others when we use our freedom to do what God does not want us to do.

So how do we handle these tragedies, whether self-inflicted or inflicted by circumstances beyond our control, without blaming God or rationalizing it with some reasoning like it was going to happen anyway so what’s the use? James, the brother of Jesus and a leader in the Jerusalem church gives us some excellent advice. James advises us to look at our adversity is a positive light. He says to consider it a pure joy whenever you are faced with trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance, the ability to move forward. James says that perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. Turn your hardship into a time of learning. He says that if you lack wisdom, don’t understand or can’t comprehend, ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault and it will be given to you. James is talking about the ability to make wise decisions, the what’s next, in difficult circumstances, rather than the why. James qualifies this request with the requirement that you must believe and not doubt because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. This means that you are relying on God, that you believe in his loving care, and that you expect God to hear you and answer you when you pray. We must have confidence that God will align our desire with his purposes. If you waver that means that you are not completely convinced that God’s way is best. James proclaims that blessed is the person who perseveres under trial, because when he or she has stood the test, they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. Love God and stay faithful even under pressure. James continues and says, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” James is talking about our exercise of free will and our knack for being drawn to the wrong thing. This is the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian. A person who makes excuses is trying to shift the blame from himself or herself to something or someone else. A Christian, on the other hand, accepts responsibility for his or her wrongs, confesses them, and asks God for forgiveness.

The sweeping message of the Bible is not a promise that those who believe and do good will not suffer. Instead the Bible is largely a book about people who refused to let go of their faith in the face of suffering. God is not a micromanager, nor is he following a hands-off approach letting the world run itself. God is more like a parent who invites his children to make their own choices, even knowing they will sometimes make the wrong ones.

This is not to say that God doesn’t get directly involved when he needs to. I firmly believe he does. There are too many times when you see the hand of God at work or you feel the Holy Spirit moving you to do something. God often does his best work when he gets us to do it for him. That little nudge you feel from time to time is God prompting you to take action for his purpose. If we are attentive to God’s mission we can often see the reason why something may have happened or why you happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The point is that when we make a wrong choice or someone else makes a bad decision that adversely affects us or our loved ones we can’t blame God. The disappointment, disillusionment and confusion is of our own making. No matter what, no matter how bad it may seem, God will somehow bring good out of the suffering for those who love him. God will force evil to accomplish good.

Please pray with me.

Precious Lord, how grateful we are that you are ever present in our lives to take our hand and help us stand when tragedy strikes. When we are lost in the darkness you are there to lead us back into the light. Because we are human we make mistakes and poor decisions that affect us, those closest to us and even people we don’t know. When we are faced with these trials we know that our faith will help us persevere giving us the ability to move forward. We learn from our hardships and gain wisdom when we turn to you in prayer for answers and guidance. Give us the confidence to know that you will align our desires to your purposes in this world. When we see another, who is suffering and hurting, move us to action to provide help and comfort. When we find ourselves enveloped in despair send someone to find us and stand alongside us while we endure the hardship. Keep us ever mindful that you will somehow bring good out of the suffering because of our love for you and your son, our comforter, Jesus Christ. Amen.