Deuteronomy 30:19-20a NRSV
[Then Moses said to the Israelites,] I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD, your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.
Today, we are starting a brand new series based on Pastor Adam Hamilton’s book, Half-Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn’t Say. Now, that title might give it away, but we are going to be talking about some common beliefs that many of us have said and have had said to us, but have we stopped and thought about whether they were actually true or even all that biblical? Through June and July this summer, we are going to explore some of these popular truisms and see what we might be missing when we say them. Our first one is “Everything Happens for a Reason.” Now, if we said this to one another to explain that we live in a world of cause and consequence, that would be true as every action and every choice has a consequence. Moses’ words in Deuteronomy this morning strike a similar chord, but this is usually not what we mean by these words. Most of the time, we speak these words “in response to suffering,” where “something bad has happened and we’re trying to help someone through a difficult time.” That somehow asserting that God is in charge of everything including our suffering might help those experiencing pain and grief. At the same time, these words imply more than they first appear, and we end up with a half-truth that diminishes God and our place in God’s created order.
I think it is easy to see how this thought that God causes everything to happen can lead to some silly and even troubling conclusions. For instance, many years back, I was fresh out of high school and just getting used to college and handling life on my own. Well, May rolls around and I get to my first Mother’s Day where I am solely responsible for getting a card and gift. Yes, you can probably guess what happened … I forgot both, and my Mom wasn’t exactly happy about that. Now, imagine if I told her, “Well, it must have been God’s will for me to forget Mother’s Day. Yes, there might be a lesson in this for you, Mom!” How do you think that would have gone over? Do you really want to say something like this is God’s will? On the other hand, do we really want to say something like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook or the Holocaust were God’s will? It leaves us in a very troubling place if we accept this kind of reasoning because it means that God picks winners and losers, and keeps some safe while letting others die. It also means that we lose all personal accountability while God is left with all the blame.
I have a simple question for us today, do you think that people are responsible for their actions? Namely, that we can all be held accountable for what we do and what we fail to do. What do you think? If you want to say no, I would ask another question, do you believe there is sin? If yes, we are left with a problem for as the Apostle Paul points out in Romans: “[For] whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23b NRSV). For Paul, faith is not simply belief but trusting in God’s grace and activity through Christ’s death and resurrection, so much so that you act based on this trust by following God. Sin, then, is straying from God’s will and action. Now, if God controls and wills all things, including what we do and do not do. There can be no sin because there is nothing we can do or even think that can be in opposition to this will. If I cheat on my taxes, it’s God’s will. If I get drunk and get behind the wheel, whatever harm I do as God intended. We cannot be held accountable for our actions, for every murder, theft, abuse, and lie would all proceed from God.
God is responsible for everything, so why do anything? If you are sick, why seek treatment? If you get behind the wheel of a vehicle, why wear a seat belt? How many of you lock your doors or have a gun for personal protection? Why? If it will be God’s personal responsibility whether you live or die, so why resist God’s will in these ways? Look at how this plays out in some news stories from this past week. We all know about the war in the Ukraine, well wouldn’t it be God’s will for Russia to invade, so shouldn’t the Ukrainians just lay down arms and accept Russian rule? What about the news story about the four children lost in the Amazon for 40 days? Why was anyone searching for them? God caused the plane crash that killed their mother. God put them in that jungle, so if they were ultimately meant to survive, we should have just left them alone until they come out of the jungle, and if they didn’t, that was God’s purpose for them to die. If we decide to say yes to there being a reason for everything, I have to wonder what kind of God we are left with and what kind of hope we as a people of God can really hold.
Everything would trend toward indifference and fatalism if this is how God operates. For instance, I heard a story once about a bus crash in India. A group of missionaries were traveling along the steep, narrow mountain roads. Along the way, they spotted a bus that had careened off the edge of the road, down the canyon, and into the rushing river below the day before. Around the crashed bus they noticed boats and people swarming over the wreckage and the bodies from the accident. The group asked their guide if they were looking for survivors or at least rescuing the bodies. Their guide told them, “No, they are looting the bodies.” The group was horrified, and asked, “Why?” Their guide told them that those people thought it was karma that killed those passengers, so they must have deserved their fate so why not loot them? Should we be indifferent to what happens around us? For instance, how many Democrats accept a Republican winning the presidency as God’s will? On the flip side, how many Republicans accept that a Democrat winning is also God’s will? I do not think that we are fatalists because we know that this is not how God works. We see it in those words of Moses.
Moses speaks to the Israelites one final time before they are to enter the promised land, and gives them two choices, “life and death, blessings and curses.” He tells them to “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” In fact, most of Deuteronomy has Moses outlining what will happen if the Israelites choose to follow God, “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” He also told them what will be the consequence if they do not. Now, if everything happens for a reason, if everything happens according to God’s will, why would they be given a choice at all? We have the ability to choose.
You see, rather than God being a micromanager, God is our sovereign and we all live under his providence. Providence is that God provides and “superintends the universe and oversees what happens on our planet.” We also do acknowledge that God is our divine sovereign, in that God is “the ultimate authority, all power and honor, glory and dominion ultimately belong to God.” In other words, if you are looking to know how to live well and true and have life and goodness, and be blessed, look to God. God does not want puppets, otherwise, God would not have given us reason, feelings, a conscience, God’s own Spirit, and even the Scriptures if we were not free to interpret and choose the right path, the one that leads to life.
Where does this leave us in those times of suffering then if we cannot simply say that all happens according to God’s will? It means we have to look for God because we won’t find the divine presence behind what has happened to us but journeying alongside us in the midst of our troubles. We will find God in the care that others give us. If we trust God, God will work through us and in us to try and bring life out of death, and blessing out of suffering. This is the kind of God we should believe in, one that brings resurrection from a cross and love from hate. God is sovereign and our provider, so God will not let evil and suffering have the final word, “God will force evil to accomplish good.” God does seek to teach us, but that is because God has given us a choice and the ability to learn. Those natural consequences of our actions? Those are our tools to learn from, and we will find God there to hold us up and carry us through.
In the end, it is not “Everything happens for a reason,” but rather in everything we find God. We find a God who will always be with us, love us, comfort us, and guide us. We have a God who uses tragedy rather than causing it. We have a sovereign God who could supernaturally intervene but would rather work indirectly through people. We have a God who does not assure us a pain-free existence but promises us that through the power of Christ’s resurrection that in the end “death has been swallowed up by victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54 NRSV). Let us then choose to follow our God, choose to follow the ways that lead to life. Amen.
 Adam Hamilton, Half-Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn’t Say (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 18.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ibid., 43.
Pastor Paul Grossman