Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him. (NRSV)
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.
…for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. (NRSV)
Grace to you and peace from God our creator, from Jesus Christ our redeemer and friend and from the Holy Spirit, our sustainer and guide.
“It happened for a reason.”
Have you ever heard people say that about some disaster in a person’s life? Maybe you have said it to someone at some point.
It goes right along with “It is the cross you have to bear.”
I am convinced, because I am an optimistic person over all, that the people who say those things usually intend to be comforting. It often doesn’t work though. It negates the pain the person is feeling. Their “helpers” want to put their friend’s difficulties into perspective. They want to alleviate suffering by affixing some kind of meaningfulness to it. They are hoping to make some terrible situation better by pointing out some good that will eventually come of it. In effect, they are saying that God has to do this bad thing now so that some good thing can happen in the future.
It is a hybridization of the doctrine of the cross and predestination. Martin Luther was the first to use the term “doctrine of the cross” to refer to the concept that salvation comes to us through Jesus’ death on the cross, emphasizing Jesus death, rather than simply focusing on the more popular and positive resurrection. Most would prefer to skip over the pain and suffering of Good Friday and just get on with the joy of Easter morning, but that isn’t really the way it works. Jesus resisted evil, not by fighting back, though the disciples wanted him to. They expected him to overthrow the Roman oppressors and restore Jerusalem to its former glory and importance. They wanted him to take up arms, bringing swords and such to the garden when all Jesus wanted to do was pray. Jesus resisted evil by NOT resisting the authorities, dying by crucifixion, a most horrible death at the hands of the empire, then rising with the eternal power to bestow grace upon his people. In that way, grace comes to us at a terrible price. But it is ours forever if we want it.
The term, ‘predestination’ wasn’t around yet in Luther’s time, but his theology laid the groundwork for it. In a nutshell, Luther said that faith is a gift from God, not a work that we do that earns God’s favor. Any good we do is because God has given us the inspiration and the will to do it. Our salvation is a gift from God. The predestinationalists took that a step further to say that if faith is a gift from God, each person’s destination (heaven or hell) must be pre-determined. Their logic is that God would only give faith to those who are bound for heaven. The next step for them was that what we do in life, and what happens to us, is pre-determined too. It is as if our life is a play with a script. Thus, everything happens for a reason. If we could just see the end, we would understand how it all fits together.
When I got my leukemia diagnosis in 2006, some people said to me “Everything happens for a reason.” Most of the time I would just stay quiet and not fuss with them, but in my head, I always said, “Yes. It did happen for a reason. It happened because somewhere deep in my bone marrow a cell mutated and turned rouge. It multiplied faster than any of the other cells there and my leukemia was born.” I refuse to think God gave it to me in order to orchestrate some good thing later on. I don’t believe God works that way.
I am convinced that notion comes, in part, from the story of Joseph and his brothers. In our first reading Joseph himself interprets it that way. “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:5-8,NRSV)
I believe Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because they were jealous not because they were instruments of God. God was with Joseph the whole time, there is no doubt. Joseph’s faith kept him from despair, from wallowing in self-pity and resentment. Joseph’s faith promted him to choose the high road, inspired his dream interpretations, gave him wisdom and strength of character that served him well his whole life. Joseph recognized that God was in it, and the only way he could make sense of it all was that God was behind it all.
This notion that God would put a person through all that on purpose makes me a little squeamish, but in the time that this was written, it was a huge step forward. You see, in those days, it was extraordinary to think that God would be with a person through the worst of times. The gods of the other peoples around were fair weather friends. When bad things happened to you, it was a sign that God had left you, and certainly that you had lost God’s favor. To hear of a God who would orchestrate good out of the bad things in life was astoundingly new. It was two big steps forward in understanding who God is and how God works. But now, after receiving the rest of the scriptures and having 2500+ more years of experience in how God works, we understand God’s actions a bit differently. That doesn’t negate the scriptures, but helps us recognize that we are still on the way to knowing God. The scriptures help us recognize God but they are not the end of the story.
God didn’t cause Joseph to be hated by his brothers who threw him in a pit and sold him to slave traders bound for Egypt. God didn’t cause Joseph to be falsely accused of rape by his master’s wife. God didn’t cause Joseph to languish in jail for years, even after the baker had promised to get him released. But God was with Joseph the whole time, helping him see his life from a higher point of view.
Similarly, there have been good things that have come of my leukemia. I have run three marathons and seven half marathons for Team in Training, The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s fundraising and empowerment arm. I have finished every race I started. I have raised over $50,000 for cancer research and patient services doing those races. I have met some wonderful people in the process and many have told me I inspire them. In addition, there have been some important life lessons. I have learned how to manage pain in a whole new way. I have learned to be patient with myself and others. I have learned to persevere.
Is that why I got leukemia? So I could run those races, raise that money, learn those lessons? No. I don’t believe that. I would have been just as happy to run with Team without leukemia. Although I will admit, I don’t know how I would have gotten the idea to do it, and the fundraising is definitely easier with my story.
This notion that God orchestrates the bad times in life so that good can come after it has been around forever and it persists. No one is immune from that kind of thinking. Not even Paul. He doesn’t follow that line of thinking all the time, but here in Romans he does. He says it this way in Romans 11:32 “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” In other words, God has designed it that all will be sinners in need of redemption so he can be the hero and save everyone.
Pretty much the whole of Romans 11 is a long meandering treatise on how the Christ following community ought to think about and relate to the Jews who chose not to follow Jesus but stuck with the old ways. The question being asked was: Are they to be rejected because they aren’t being obedient to this new thing God is doing in Jesus? Paul wrote, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” (Romans 11:1, NRSV)
BUT, he goes on to say that the gentiles were disobedient to God before they became believers. Now these Jews are being disobedient to God by not following Jesus. Paul’s perspective is that God set it up this way. If everyone has some distance from God, then everyone gets to enjoy God’s mercy in due time.
Paul is saying, “It happened for a reason!”
It is the same thinking that says Jesus was sent by God as a substitute, the innocent man sent to the cross to bear the punishment of the sins of all and even things out. It is called ‘substitutionary atonement’ and it has been one of the ways Jesus’ crucifixion has been explained from the beginning, but it just doesn’t work for me any more. I want to say, “NO. God, you are powerful. You can be merciful just to be merciful. You don’t have to make people be bad just so then you can make them good. You don’t have to make people be far away from you just so you can later draw them near. Nor do you have to cut people off just so they can be rescued.”
But then Martin Luther taught not to resist the parts of God we do not like or do not understand. Accept them as part of the mystery. Keep seeking, but accept that the whole truth of God is beyond our capacities, so we must not be put off by what we do not understand. Nor are we allowed to be judgmental if somebody else doesn’t understand either, I might add.
The thing to remember is this: God is with us all along the way.
Good things happen after bad things because that is the way it works. No bad thing lasts forever and no one is ever far away from God. No winter is not followed by spring. It is manure, after all, that fertilizes the soil. The dreadful in life changes us for better or worse. When we look for ways to make life meaningful in the midst of it, it changes us for the better. In Jesus’ case, resurrection comes after death on the cross. It comes at a terrible cost, but it comes, and it brings new life.
Things happen for a reason all right. But usually it is because someone has chosen to act despicably. Or because of some biological accident. Or because of any of a whole host of other reasons. God will always be nearby, ready to be called upon in faith and hope; ready to give strength and inspiration for the moment it is needed. I do believe God intervenes in life. But I don’t believe God is the director and playwright, helping us discover the right script.
One more lesson I have learned in my life: The question “Why did this happen?” isn’t all that helpful. Joseph tried to explain away why his brothers would do such a despicable thing to him, but he wouldn’t have had to go there. He could have answered the question with, “You did this to me, but that isn’t the end of the story. Just because you all rejected me doesn’t mean God did. God has been with me the whole time. And because God has been with me, I can be here for you today.”
The big issue isn’t why it happened, but “What am I going to do with it?” That answer is much more meaningful. “What am I going to do despite what has been done to me?” is right up there too.
So we ask ourselves, “What am I going to do with the opportunities presented to me today, both the ones that come in packages I like and the ones that come in packages I would rather not go through?” “What do I need to do to take the high road?” “How do I stay close to God who is staying close to me?”
These are the important questions for living life from day to day. Ask them often and live well.
Please join me in prayer.
Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Inspire us in serving your people and being the church for the good of the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
blessings to you,
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.