There are plenty of Bad Things happening in the world at the moment. There are thousands, nay millions, who find cause to mourn today, this week, this last year or two. If that isn’t you or a family member then it’s a friend or neighbor. Yesterday, it was another school shooting, another two dozen parents in anguished shock, another incomprehensible act of violence and death. Yesterday, this happened in a small town in Texas, but it could have been your town or your kid’s school. Like you, I’m sad and frustrated and angry, all at the same time. Who’s fault is it? Why does this happen? Is God to blame? Is it guns? Bullying? Mental illness? Is it you? Is it me, Lord? Why do Bad Things happen? Maybe once in a while you can claim that Bad Things happen for a Good Reason, but not all the time and maybe not even very often. Stephen’s W&T post yesterday invited a critique of that strange claim that everything happens for a reason and, in particular, that Bad Things happen for a reason. In this reply post I accept that invitation.
In the comments to Stephen’s post, commenter Damascene offered an insightful comment suggesting that a lot of LDS views related to this topic tie in to a Calvinist view of the world, and that somehow those Calvinist views, so strongly rejected by early Mormonism and indeed by Joseph Smith himself, have snuck back into Mormon thinking. This post is also a reply and an addition to Damascene’s fine comment.
I want to add another Calvinist teaching that has snuck into Mormon thinking: Calvinism’s exaggerated view of God’s sovereign involvement with the world (aka Providence) and the view that God is right there controlling every little thing. This Calvinist view takes the comment attributed to Jesus in Matthew, that no sparrow falls from the sky without God’s action or at lease God’s active acquiescence, and runs with it to an extreme conclusion. This exaggerated view of Providence is what makes the Problem of Evil such a conundrum. If that’s your view of God, that He runs every little thing on Planet Earth and indeed the Universe, then why is there so much Evil in the world? But the problem isn’t God or Evil. The problem is the exaggerated view of Providence, of God’s action in the world, which creates this pseudo-problem. Sorry, God doesn’t pull every lever or monitor the flight of every sparrow. Sometimes Bad Things … just … happen.
The other end of the theological spectrum is Deism: God created the Universe and set it running with its laws, but then He steps back and just watches it all play out. He isn’t involved at all on a day-to-day or year-to-year basis. But there are some midpoints along this theological spectrum. They are hard to defend in theory but they work nicely in practice. God puts a finger on the scales from time to time, but not very often. God may extend His hand of mercy from time to time (a miraculous healing or a tragedy somehow averted) but not every time. Not even very often. Yes, a lot of Bad Things happen, but that’s just the way the world works. That’s why we mourn with those who mourn. There are those who have cause to mourn, and we should mourn with them, not tell them things happen for a reason. Not tell them that their son or daughter is in a better place. Just mourn with them!
So here is my message to those who say, in the face of a tragedy or a devastating loss, that “everything happens for a reason.” It is often believers who think it’s God who has the hidden reason and that God pulled the levers (or refrained from intervening) to make the Bad Thing happen. These believers somehow find reassuring the notion that when a Bad Thing happens, God is directly responsible for it. What they are trying do, often with good intentions, is to deny that a Bad Thing is really Bad and that somehow this claim alone makes things better. This is reflected in Mormonism in the idea that you shouldn’t really mourn when someone dies: “They’re in a better place.” Or don’t be sad when a young missionary dies while serving: “They were doing God’s work.” No, don’t do that. They don’t need a lecture. They don’t need a justification like “things happen for a reason.” They need sympathy and support. Just mourn with them.
A final thought. It’s not easy to mourn with a stranger, but if you mourn with them a few minutes, they are no longer a stranger. It’s easier to mourn with an acquaintance than with a stranger. It’s easier to mourn with a friend than a casual acquaintance. That, perhaps, is a reason to reach out and be friendly to more of those around you. If you are an introvert — and I know that many of those who write on blogs and who read them are — that’s moving out of your comfort zone. Too bad. Right now the world needs you to be a friend to more of those around you. Elsewhere in Matthew it is said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Do some comforting today.