I suppose in the most literal sense this is true. We live in a cause and effect world, so something caused the bad thing to happen, to be sure. But what people typically mean is that the bad thing happened in order to lead to something better, or at least to something good. The bad experience set them up to go a new direction in life, or to get a new job, or to somehow become a better person. At first glance that statement sounds like a verse from the Bible. Romans 8:28 says that in all things God works good for those who love him and who have been called according to his purpose. That sounds sort of like everything happens for a reason, doesn’t it?
We need to remember some things about this world. First, it is a broken world. It has been ever since Adam and Eve fouled the nest. In Romans 8:22 Paul wrote that the “whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” That doesn’t mean the creation is in the process of giving birth to something new, it means that it is hurting as badly as a woman does when giving birth. I don’t know firsthand what childbirth feels like, but I can attest from having watched it that it looks like it is no fun at all. As in, I’ve never in my life seen my wife in as much pain as she felt in childbirth. It is safe to surmise, then, that there is a whole lot of pain in this world, extreme pain, and it stems from the events in Eden a long time ago. Much of the “everything happens” occurs because we live in a world that has been horribly impacted by evil.
We also need to remember that Satan is on the prowl. He is like a roaring lion loose in our world “looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). That is another graphic illustration of the pain of this world. Can you imagine what it would feel like to be attacked by a ferocious lion, to be ripped by those claws and teeth? I shiver to think of it. There is a real being roaming this world looking to do something like that to us. He despises us and wishes us the most intense possible harm. Because of this we should not be surprised when bad things happen. They are exactly what Satan delights in bringing into our lives.
Finally we must remember that there are fallen people in this world, and those flawed people are responsible for some of the greatest wounds we experience. Yes, disease and natural disasters are terrible, no question. But people are going to inflict some of the most hurtful damage to us.
What then, is God doing in all of this? He is working for a purpose. He is working to restore creation, including his people, to the glory he intended for it. He is working so that the original beauty of human beings can be seen once again. How all the things that occur in this world work to bring about that restoration I do not know. That is infinitely above my pay grade. But I know God is always working for that goal. All things happen for a purpose. This is true, and it is different from all things happening for a reason.
A reason is about cause and effect. Reason is about the present, about right now, and about events in our lives. Purpose is much larger. It is about the big picture and about ultimate outcomes. Remember what Romans 8:28 says. God works good in all things for those “who have been called according to his purpose.” So why did that setback, that loss, that disappointment happen? If you are looking for reasons, for how they produced better circumstances in this life, you stand a good chance of being disappointed and frustrated. But if you recall that it is all part of the process of God restoring creation, including you, to the beauty and glory he intended, then perhaps you can accept it. For those who know God and love him there is a point to all that happens in this life. It is not necessarily for a reason that we can see, but we can know that God’s purpose is being worked out.