...Pickle. I think "Everything happens for a pickle" would be a better phrase than "Everything happens for a reason." I don't know how many times I hear this phrase used at work, at the grocery store, at church. Virtually everywhere you go, you hear this sentiment bandied about. It's a romantic thing to say, but is it true? It sounds spiritual, but is it biblical?
This philosophy, which is so popular in pop culture with our vague and smooshy ideas of karma and destiny, has infiltrated its way into the thinking of mainstream Christians. It seems to go hand in hand with our use of "God is in control" and "God has a plan" which both relate to an over-simplification of the relationship between God's sovereignity and free will.
It's understandable that we fall into such thinking, because it's always easier to think in a simplistic way than it is to think in a balanced way.
"Everything happens for a reason" is often said to comfort ourselves or others when something undesirable has happened. It's the idea that there is some force in the universe - God or karma or some other mystic force like destiny - shaping every event in the world, ordaining and ordering them in a perfect way. It's the philosophy of romantic comedies, like "Serendipity," "Fools Rush In" and "Only You," which make for good girl movies, but for bad philosophy. It's the philosophy of Voltaire's Candide, that this is the best of all possible worlds because everything that happens is the perfect plan of some great hand above.
But Candide showed this world view to be patently absurd. We know from experience, common sense, and the Bible that this is not the best of all possible worlds, but in fact really screwed up.
Implicit in the idea that "everything happens for a reason" is that every bad thing that happens was supposed to happen. This idea implies that God has actively orchestrated all the bad in this world. But this is simply not true. We know that things happen that God did not want us to choose - like child abuse and hate and adultery. If I had an affair, you wouldn't comfort Mike saying, "Oh, everything happens for a reason, honey!" The reason it happened was that I made a bad choice that God clearly didn't want me to make. (And when we use this trite phrase to comfort someone, it has the very uncomforting effect of dismissing the very real pain and tragedy of this life.)
The two oft quoted verses on the topic (which I absolutely adore) are Genesis 50:20 and Romans 8:28. In Genesis 50, Joseph's brothers were bad dudes. They sold him into slavery because they were jealous of him. But even though the brothers did this awful thing, God used their actions to save the nation of Israel from famine:
"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." Genesis 50:20
In Romans 8:28, Paul exhorts Christians who are suffering and facing persecution: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
Isn't it incredible to know that God is actively working to redeem this fallen world? But that's exactly what it is - God working to redeem this fallen world and the fell things that happen. It isn't some fairies and puppies version of Christian destiny.
Probably the opposite catch phrase from "everything happens for a reason" is "S**t happens." So on the one hand, there is the nihilistic philosophy that bad stuff happens and this world just pretty much sucks. On the other hand, there is the mystic philosophy that everything that happens really is part of some beautiful tapestry that was meant to be.
The truth the Bible reveals lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, bad stuff clearly happens. Horrible stuff. Stuff we weren't made to experience and God never wanted to happen. God allows them to happen, but God does not will sin. This is the mystery of free will in a world that God is sovereign over. I think we must tread lightly here.
In some cases, there is scriptural support that God allowed things to happen in order for a certain line of events to take place (like Joseph's story and the hardening of Pharaoh's heart). But I think we take this too far when we as Christians adopt this mystic philosophy of destiny.
We live in a world in which the Creator blessed us with free will, rather than creating robots. With that, unfortunately, comes a whole lot of dreadful things. But we also live in a world in which God will redeem all that happens to serve his purposes (not ours) - in one way or another. For although we live in a "dark world" for a time, we know that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him."