Not everything has a purpose. How God works for the good of His people.
Recently, I spoke with someone about a tragedy they’d faced in their life. "I know God has a purpose for everything," my friend said. "But I’m having a hard time taking comfort even in that."
"Everything has a purpose" is a commonplace saying for Christians. It’s the idea that everything has some God-ordained reason behind it.
We seek comfort in the idea that even evil things and tragedies, like the death of a loved one or a natural disaster, have been sent or allowed by God to accomplish a higher end.
Some of us are too quick to say it to a suffering friend, thinking it will bring comfort. It may comfort those of us who offer the sentiment, but it rarely consoles those who receive it. Tell the parents who’ve lost their baby at birth or victims of violent crime that their experiences have a purpose in God’s plan.
Not everything has a purpose. That may be shocking to read from the pen of a theologian, but let me explain.
The text often cited for the idea everything has a purpose is Paul’s declaration, "We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28 KJV). I affirm the claim of this wholeheartedly. But does this verse really say everything has a purpose?
To affirm God works out everything according to His purposes is very different than saying everything – every event, every tragedy, every mystery, indeed every evil and sin committed in this world – has a God-ordained purpose.
As a perfectly good and holy God, He will not and cannot ordain evil things to happen. To do so would be a contradiction of His nature.
Where evil comes from is one of the most vexing questions theologians have wrestled with over the ages, but we should be clear – we can’t conclude evil has its origin in God Himself lest we introduce evil itself into God’s own being. That means when bad or evil things happen, God does not "purpose" these things to happen.
No tragedy or evil will finally prevent God from carrying out what He deemed He would do right from the start.
Even if we accept God is not the origin of evil, God did not – nor ever will – rely on the occurrence of evil to accomplish His purposes. His good and perfect will – to be in eternal fellowship with His creatures and creation – could have been easily accomplished in the world without the accompanying assistance of evil or calamity. His communion with Adam and Eve predates their fall into sin. He did not need sin or evil somehow to enact this fellowship with His creatures.
The real problem here is trying to make rational sense of some things that are simply irrational. If we think, as many theologians have, of sin and evil as something contrary to the good will and purposes of God – against the rationality of God – we will better understand why not everything has a purpose or explanation. Some things are without purpose because they are by nature unexplainable.
So, what does Paul mean? If we look closely, Paul does not say everything has a purpose. Instead he says, "In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (NIV). Not everything has a purpose, but God works out everything both for our good and according to His good purpose.
Scripture does not tell us to take comfort in the fact God ordains everything for a good purpose, but rather God will not let sin, evil or tragedy remove us from His fellowship. We read Romans 8:28 in light of Romans 8:37–39 where we’re told nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
Some things that happen to and around us are simply beyond understanding. It’s okay to be okay with that. That is the nature of living in a broken world. God will work with, around, over or through evil and tragedy, but that does not guarantee all things inherently have a purpose.
Thanks be to God we are not abandoned in our pain and tragedy. We can’t comprehend how God is able to do it, but He will work all things toward His good. That doesn’t mean He makes wrong things right. But no tragedy or evil will finally prevent God from carrying out what He deemed He would do right from the start – to be in eternal communion with those He loves, and who by His grace (and the Spirit’s gift of faith in Christ) love Him back.
David Guretzki of Ottawa is executive publisher of Faith Today and serves The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada as executive vice-president and resident theologian.