Does Everything Happen for Purpose?
A Sermon by Rev. Rich Tafel
Sept 12, 2021
Everything happens for a purpose.
You’ve heard it, and maybe you’ve said it. But is it true? What does this all mean from a spiritual perspective?
In one of my favorite movies, “Sliding Doors,” the actress Gwyneth Paltrow works at a PR company in London. One day on her way to catch the subway, two scenarios emerge. In one, she sees the train, and in the other, she misses her train. In one, the timing works out that she catches her partner with another woman, but in a different scenario, she comes home later and never finds out she’s being cheated on. The two plots run side by side. If you get a chance to see it, let me know what you think.
What the movie illustrates so beautifully is the reality that our lives can go in completely different directions at a moment’s notice.
One of the most fascinating parts of our lives is that one decision, conversation, or action can completely change the trajectory of our lives.
There are some fascinating stories in our little church community. One member pulled a muscle on a jog and walked into a worship service. Another was overwhelmed with a question that was answered in the sermon she happened to walk in on. Another happened to be sitting next to the minister at a conference but hadn’t been to church in decades. Another engaged in conversation at a Christmas party and had never attended church. Another happened at a concert at the church. Another was a speaker at a church discussion on spirituality and economics. None approached the church with a plan. Even our small church community membership is made up of random acts.
During her illness, our late president Helen Sioris wondered, “What if I hadn’t accepted an invitation to a book party at the church for Malcolm?”
One small thing decision in a day can change your life. We make thousands of decisions each day, and each changes our life trajectory. It is cosmic.
If you take a moment now to reflect, think about the big decisions in your own life, and remember when you made a choice or events that changed, that will change everything. Maybe it is a story about someone who crossed your path or some insight you had.
This weekend, we commemorate the 20th anniversary of 911. As I shared in our newsletter this week, one of the big game-changers in my life was the decision for the TV show “Politically Incorrect” in Los Angeles to cancel my appearance and book someone else on American Flight 77 that was crashed into the Pentagon. When I tell that story, people usually respond with some sentiment that everything happens for a reason and I was spared, but that’s always left me uncomfortable. Does that mean that the people who died that day died for a reason? Why me?
The idea that makes everything happen raises a profound theological question. If a loving God is in control and makes things happen for a reason, it increases the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people. If God is all-powerful and loving, why do bad things happen under God’s watch?
Our secular culture doesn’t offer much help to understanding questions like this. It teaches that there is no meaning to events. We are random particles in an unexpected system bumping into each other. Life is entirely arbitrary. Some are lucky in life, and some are not. Work hard, plan make the best of this random bouncing around until you die.
This worldview creates a culture that lacks meaning and purpose.
So, let’s look to theology for some answers.
In the gospel story, Zacchaeus, a short tax collector, climbs a tree to see Jesus. To his and everyone’s surprise, Jesus approaches him with news that there’s a purpose for his life. That he climbed the tree for purpose, and he’d be hosting the disciples that night at his house all according to some divine plan. The Scripture is full of stories showing the definition of a person’s life.
Swedenborg gives us some profound insights to help make sense of this. He uses the phrase Divine Providence to describe the belief that God has a plan for everything. We can either get ourselves into the flow of that river, or we can fight it, but there is a plan for each of our lives and the world.
But what about all the bad things that happen?
We must recognize that God has two types of power in the decisions we make—God’s will and God’s permission.
First, there is God’s will for us and this planet. God’s will for us is to be at peace and be happy. We achieve this by deciding to love and forgive. If everyone followed God’s will, we’d have heaven on earth, and that’s the vision God holds. Those who call themselves Christian are tasked with helping live lives of love and justice to bring that vision to life.
But God cannot require us to make the decisions that God wants in our life. If that happened, we’d lose our freedom. Instead of being agents of free will, we’d be robots acting as we were programed.
Our ability to choose our path is our spiritual struggle to do good, not evil. It is the purpose and work of our lives.
I said there were two powers at work here, and we’ve discussed God’s will for our lives and the world. The other power is permission. God grants license in the laws of this spiritual universe for things to happen they God would not choose for us. To have the choice of good requires the selection of evil.
God doesn’t do bad things, but God does allow it. And God works to mitigate against the disaster of our poor choices but allows them.
What God wants and what God allows are two different things.
Here’s an analogy.
Think of a parent when their daughter is dating someone, they know will be a disaster. This guy is bad news. The daughter asks to invite this boyfriend over for dinner. While it is against the parent’s wish to date this guy, they might decide to permit their daughter to invite the bad new boyfriend to dinner. It’s not ideal, but the alternative of constantly making decisions for their daughter won’t help her grow and make her own decisions, and some of that growth might take place through suffering.
They want one thing and, but they allow another.
In our lives, God may not want what we choose by will give permission.
We are taught that God then works with us after a wrong choice through angels to offer every opportunity to get back on track. If you’ve ever decided to ignore your GPS and it keeps saying “U-Turn” or “Take a right at the next street,” it works to get you back on track.
So too, does Divine Providence seek to mitigate bad choices and get us back on track. However, we can decide to keep ignoring it.
The other teaching that helps us understand this is that Divine Providence only makes sense when we look back. It rarely makes sense now. There are times we are praying, “Why did you allow this?” only see in our own lives that sound came from that challenge. Most will say that the most profoundly painful period of our lives brought forth the most spiritual growth for good, though we couldn’t see it now.
This gets cosmic when you imagine billions of people making billions of choices, each impacting billions of other choices for good or evil and God working through all of that to find people who can do good and working through them.
Is it true that everything happens for a reason?
The answer, as we’ve seen, is a paradox.
It is complicated. Yes, God is working through our lives in everything we do. That doesn’t mean that we accept suffering in the world by suggesting it is part of God’s purpose, though. It is not an excuse for injustice or inaction. We can’t look at others less fortunate and think they somehow deserve their lot. Instead, we must seek to bring into the world God’s love and justice through the actions in our own lives.
God’s purpose for our lives and the world is peace, joy, and happiness.
God didn’t want people to suffer on 911 or ever. We may someday learn that God mitigated the evil to bring forth good that day. We know that the great plan that day was to crash a plane into the Capitol, which didn’t happen thanks to the bravery of passengers on that flight. We can’t see all that could have happened. That’s where faith comes in.
What can we do in our own lives to be more purposeful?
We can each seek to make decisions for the good of others. We can seek to move away from purely selfish choices. We can also pray to God to guide and give us the Flow of our lives floating down the river of providence that will lead to our most extraordinary life.
We can work to make every action in our life have more of God’s purpose, and in doing that, we can bring more heaven to earth.