Does everything happen the way it’s ‘supposed’ to happen?

Is it just me and the people around me, or is pretty much everyone having kind of a tough time lately?

The economy is part of it, of course. A lot of people are losing jobs, losing income, losing homes, losing retirement accounts, etc. But it's more than that. For some reason, it just seems like more and more of my friends are facing crises of various sorts. Right now I have two friends with cancer, one with a baby in ICU and another facing the abrupt end of her only three-month-old marriage. And that's before I even mention all of the friends with ill or dying parents, friends with money problems, and friends facing other various and sundry life-altering situations. I've faced a few significant challenges of my own in the past month or so, the details of which I may share at some point. But right now I have a different point to make.

In the midst of all of these various crises, I have heard so many people attempt to console me, or themselves, or each other, by saying "Oh, well, everything happens for a reason." Or "things happen the way they're supposed to happen." Or something like that.

And I want to ask, "Really? Was the Holocaust 'supposed' to happen? Does a deadly earthquake happen 'for a reason'?"

Seriously, I know people who say these kinds of things mean well, and there's a sense in which they're recognizing something that is very true and very important. But it just isn't as simple as "everything happens for a reason."

I think people tend to look back on bad or difficult things that have happened in their lives, and in hindsight they find they can say, "Well, if that hadn't happened, then this other good thing wouldn't have happened." They recognize the good that came out of a bad situation, which makes them almost grateful that the bad thing happened. They credit God (or The Universe, whoever that is) for looking out for them, and figure the whole thing must've been part of The Big Plan - that God directed the bad thing to happen because it was "supposed" to happen, to bring the good thing about or to make them stronger people or whatever.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it implies we live in a pre-ordained world, where God is up there busily directing what is "supposed" to happen and we really have very little say or control. We're kind of like chess pawns in the great game of "What's Supposed To Happen."

And that's not the way it is.

The thing is, we have free will. Which means that things don't generally happen because God ordains them to happen. They happen because of the free choices of men. What happens isn't necessarily what God wants to happen. When people disobey His will, when they make bad or cruel or evil decisions, they are actually thwarting what God wants to happen.

This, if we want to get theological, is the difference between God's active will and God's passive will. God's active will is what He wants to happen, the way He wants things to be. God's passive will constitutes all of the things He allows to happen - even if He doesn't like them - because of the free will He granted to us.

That isn't to say God isn't active in the daily affairs of man. I believe He is. But not in overriding free will to orchestrate our lives. It's in reacting to man's free will. Of course, the term "reacting" is a little simplistic because God, being outside of time, isn't waiting to see what happens so that He knows what move to make next. God already knew, from the beginning of time, what choices we would all be making over all of these years. So He could "pre-act," if that's a word. He doesn't necessarily want bad things to happen to us. He doesn't want other people to make decisions that will leave us hurt or disappointed or worse. And He certainly doesn't want us to make those kinds of decisions. But He, in His infinite wisdom and love, has been spending eternity weaving the problems, challenges and downright catastrophes that we face into opportunities of one sort or another.

One of my favorite sayings is that "God writes straight with crooked lines." God didn't necessarily want the lines to be crooked. It's the choices of men, and the nature of a fallen world, that messes up the lines in our lives. But God meets us where we are, and where our lives have taken us. And He brings good out of those crooked lines, sometimes for purposes only He can see.

The important thing to remember is that God has different priorities than we do. To us, our immediate problems are the most important things in our lives. God cares about those things, for sure, but He cares much more about the Big Picture - our eternal destiny. He wants us in Heaven forever with Him. So when He's reworking those lines, that's the goal He's working toward. And He knows, in ways we couldn't possibly understand, what will benefit us and how it will work.

So next time you're in a tough spot, remember that God is indeed in charge, in a way that goes far beyond a simple case of "this is supposed to happen." And instead of thinking "Why did God let this happen to me?" start thinking in terms of "What good is God going to bring out of this for me?" Look for that. Believe in that. Trust in that.

"We know that all things work together for good to those who love God" (Rom 8:28).

Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We're On a Mission from God and Real Love.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009