This is not an uncommon approach by Christians. They respond that if we could only see the bigger picture, we would understand why God allowed you to have that miscarriage. Or allowed children to be mercilessly shot in their kindergarten classroom. Or allowed a good father to be killed by a drunk driver. Etc., etc.
Well I have some good news, Christians: that's all a bunch of hogwash. That is a byproduct of American culture and misreading our Scriptures. Let's trace it back to where this ridiculous theology comes from, and why it is dangerous.
Where it started
You cannot find anything in ancient Christianity which implies that people ever believed God somehow is behind the evil things men do, or allows them to happen as part of a grander scheme. James 1:13 says that God never tempts anyone, and the Bible repeatedly says that the evil men do comes from their own decisions--take Mark 7:21, for example, which clearly identifies the source of evil thoughts and sexual immorality (like rape) as "from within, out of men's hearts." This ability to commit evil against our fellow man is universal in nature and started because of the Fall of man, which removed our innocence and purity and made us all ultimately selfish in nature (cf. Rom 3:23, Rom 5:12, Matt 15:19, Rom 3:10, etc).
The Bible's crystal-clear message over the dozens of centuries of its writing is: God created something good; man screws it up in selfish rebellion; God forgives and is going to make things right again. The source of "making it right" is that Jesus died for our sins, and then later God is going to bring down a new Earth to replace this existing one. God's Rescue Plan to get us out of this "enemy-occupied territory" (as CS Lewis once put it) is not that our works somehow "save the planet" with His help, but rather that He in His timing will accomplish the work of a "new Heaven and new Earth" (Rev 21). He will restore things back to the way they were meant to be, when we lived together with Him in the Garden.*
The problem first occurred when we translated the Bible from ancient Greek into English. In ancient Greek, the word for "you" has plural and singular cases, so it is clear when the Bible is referring to groups or to individuals. Our English does not, however--if we cannot read Greek, then we must try and determine whether "you" means us individually or collectively based upon the context of the situation.
Even worse, the Bible was written by collectivist cultures, not individualist ones (see here if you missed my post on why that is important). In a collectivist culture, their 'default' reading would have been that "you" meant the entire community, whereas our 'default' reading is that "you" means me personally. Thus we are predispositioned to misinterpret passages meant collectively as individuals.
Third, the Bible has become increasingly accessible even as Christians are becoming Biblically illiterate. As a result, they start taking catchy verses out of context and repeating them in ways that were not meant in the Scripture.
In particular, two verses have caused the majority of this bad theology:
"And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose." Rom 8:28
"'For I know the plans I have for you', declares the Lord, 'plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.'" Jer 29:11
These verses have been misinterpreted so consistently in the past few decades that their interpretation has become a staple of modern Christianity--even though it is demonstrably the wrong interpretation. The modern American Christian reads those verses and says, "See, even when times are tough it is all part of God's plan. Everything works together for good, and it is all part of God's plan for welfare." Followed to its logical extreme, this means that the gang-rape of that poor woman in India was part of God's plan. Miscarriage is part of God's plan. Car wrecks are part of God's plan. If anything happens to you, don't worry, it is part of God's plan.
First, let us talk about context. What was actually happening in those two verses?
As I have written before, Romans 8:28 should not be ripped out of its context within the letter Paul wrote to the Romans. In this section, he is discussing the duality of man--the desires of our flesh which battle daily against our spiritual desires. He says in chapter 7 that he does not do what he wants to do, and he (Paul) does the things he doesn't want to do. Paul laments that he cannot will himself into purity, and rejoices that Jesus died to provide such a path.
Moving into Romans 8, Paul continues the same discussion about the inward spiritual struggles that we have against sin. He reminds us that God does not condemn us for those sins (8:1), and that we are now slaves under God's control (8:10). Further, he says, do not forget that these present struggles against sin in your life are nothing compared to the glorious creatures God is making us into (8:17-25, also often taken out of context). Your struggle against sin, Paul says, is a valuable thing that God is using to transform you into the person you are meant to be--more like Jesus. He says that even when we don't know what to pray, the Spirit prays for us (8:26), again helping us in this battle for the flesh. Then he says that all things work together for good for those who love God (8:28), and that no one can bring any charge against us since we belong to God (8:29-35).
So...do you see how ridiculous it is to rip this out of context and apply it to some physical suffering like rape or miscarriage? Of COURSE rape is not part of God's plan "for the greater good." Of COURSE miscarriage is not something God had to do so that you would enjoy your next child more, or whatever ridiculous reasoning Christians are misusing for that passage.
The passage is very clearly in the smack-dab middle of a discussion about the spiritual struggle within you. Paul is saying that God does not condemn you for your ongoing struggles with sins, that he has them too, and that God will use those struggles within you to make you a better person and work toward your ultimate goal of becoming more Christ-like.
It has nothing to do whatsoever with "turning evil that someone did to you" into good.
What about Jeremiah 29:11, that favorite verse of graduates (and the unemployed)? The one that seems to give us comfort that--even when we can't see it--God has some wonderful individual plan that will make each of our lives wonderful and we just can't see it yet.
Well, again...read the context. What had happened? The Babylonians to utterly crush them. The majority of the Jews were killed. Women and children and key leaders were kidnapped and returned to Babylon (see: Book of Daniel). The Temple was destroyed. The walls of the city were knocked down. Farms were burned. Women were raped and left for dead. Typical, brutal, horrible ancient war.
God tells the captive Jews not to lose hope. Even though they long ago abandonded it, He promised them through Jeremiah that He would return in 70 years to rescue them from Babylon. He tells them to make peace and pray for Babylon's leaders and become a part of their culture, but trust that He would save them eventually. Why? Because, He says, Israel is part of His ultimate plan for good for the world...namely, that Jesus would die on the cross for our sins.
So you see that the context here is not at all about some wonderful plan for an individual's life. We fail to see that the "you" here is the plural you--and is directed not at believers but at the nation of Israel. God is saying that He has plans for you, Israel--plans that are good (the coming of the Christ) not of evil (another long enslavement like they had under the Egyptians). So take solace because the nation of Israel will be returned in the right time.
As individuals, do you think this was of much comfort? Did it reduce their enslavement? The promise was for something happening two generations down the line! It wasn't God telling a particular Jew that He had a divine plan for that Jew's education or to fix that Jew's broken cart...it was a promise to the plural "you", the nation of Israel, that God's Rescue Plan for humanity did still involve them being in the Promised Land. One day their descendents would be returned.
The Jews were told not that their exile was a necessity for God's plan, but that they could take solace in the fact that their rebellion against God did not remove their special relationship with Him - He would still give them the promised Messiah and the Promised Land. He would uphold His end of their covenant.
Why it is dangerous
As you can clearly see, in neither of these cases is God talking about making your life's struggles meaningful. We modern Christians are obsessed with finding the "hidden meaning" behind it all. "Why did God allow this to happen to me?" You don't see that question asked as much in antiquity as it is today. People then took the Bible at face value. The Bible says that people do evil things (Mark 7:21). It is filled with instances of how this hurts others. Jesus and His apostles went on and on about the fact that Christian lives will be filled with sorrow and suffering and unfair persecution (Matt 16:24, Luke 9:23, Mark 8:34, Acts 14:22, Phil 1:29, 1 Pet 4:12, 2 Tim 3:12, 1 Joh 3:13).
We will suffer. Humans were designed to live in the cool, dewy garden of Eden, and have been thrust out into the hard reality of the wild Earth (Gen 2:8-9, 3:23-24). We are people whose thoughts and imaginations are routinely turned toward evil and we go out of our way to harm each other (Gen 8:21, Isa 59:7, Matt 15:18-19, Rom 8:5, Col 1:21). God's promise is not that He will take those things away, nor that He is using our individual sufferings as part of His grand scheme, but rather than He has a New Earth which will be made, and He will replace everything here with it. And all are offered a chance to join Him there and be cleansed of their wickedness in the next life, as long as they are willing to follow the Lordship of Christ (Rev 21).
The verses above, however, are rather dangerous. In context their meaning is clear: one is a promise to ancient Israel that their rebellion would not stop God from returning their nation to the promised land two generations hence (Jer 29:11), and the other is a comfort to we Christians, reminding us that as we struggle to battle sin in our lives, God is using that struggle to make us more Christlike (Rom 8:28).
Taken together and out of context, though (as they often are), and read as though we individually were the intended target of those verses (as they always are in American Christianity), we end up with an insidious and dangerous false theology. We end up interpreting that EVERY ACT which is done happens because God is using it as part of His grand plan for good.
Logically, then, all of those sufferings were NECESSARY. When you have this view, that God needs evil things to happen to turn them into part of His master plan, you end up with a very dark religion indeed. Miscarriages become not a sad reality of living in a broken world, but rather a devious and painful plan of a God who cannot make good happen without making your child die. Rape becomes not a sign of the evil depravity of the rapist, but rather an shrug-inducing byproduct necessary to produce this child who somehow is a part of God's master plan.
Take Randy Travis' song, "Three Wooden Crosses." In it, a preacher, a prostitute, a teacher, and a farmer are on a bus in Mexico. The bus gets in an accident and everyone dies except the prostitute, who is given the Bible of the preacher. The prostitute reads the Bible to her son, who ended up being a preacher himself and leading Travis' congregation. The implication is that if God had not allowed these otherwise good people to die, then the hooker would have never raised her child as a Christian and therefore God's plan--in which her child was a preacher--would have been thwarted.
Reading these verses in this way, and in these contexts--where God's wonderful plan for our lives requires whatever horrible things happen to us along the way--leads to several dangerous theological results.
1. Lack of compassion for suffering.
The Bible is clear that we are to mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12:15), and that we are to love our neighbor as though they were ourselves (Mark 12:31). Even if they are enemies, we are to love, help, and pray for them (Matt 5:43-48).
Instead, if you believe that bad things happen because God needs them to happen for His plan, it becomes impossible to be truly compassionate and mourn with fellow believers. If your friend's child is killed by a pedophile, and your answer is, "It all happens for a reason, we just don't know what..." then you are a horrible friend. Yes, her child's death had a reason--the reason was that there was a depraved man who did horrible and evil things. That was the reason. It was not part of God's desire that the child suffer this way. That plan came from man, not God.
Believing that horrible things are part of God's plan inevitably leads to a calloused, uncompassionate heart. Because deep down you are thinking..."It will all work out in the end. It's all part of God's plan for her life. One day she'll be better for having been horribly disfigured in a fire" (or whatever the tragedy is).
This is exactly what we see in the Mourdock quote at the beginning of this post--a horrible lack of compassion, because he believes that the rape was a 'necessary evil' to achieve God's plan.
2. Lack of accountability for your own decisions.
Another byproduct of this belief is a lack of accountability for your own decisions, and lack of ownership for your life. This occurs in all who follow this, but is most prevalent among the Millennial generation. They believe that as long as they love God, somehow life will just "work out" right. If they lose a job, it is part of God's plan (and not because they did poor quality work or showed up late too often). If they are broke it is because that is God's plan (and not because they waste money on frivolous things). If their girlfriend breaks up with them then it wasn't part of God's plan to be together (and not because they didn't put time and energy into the relationship).
If you believe that God has a wonderful plan for your life that He will enact with none of your help, and your suffering is just a byproduct of reaching that goal....well you are right--about SPIRITUAL things. God does have a wonderful plan for the believer's spiritual life. He will achieve it with or without you. The internal struggle you have against sin IS just a byproduct of reaching that goal.
But when you misapply those same principles to your daily life here, you end up often failing to take accountability for your own life. You believe you don't need to plan/save/be wise, because God will do that for you. You believe you don't need to worry about when something bad happens, because God had to put you through that to achieve His goal. So you end up take no ownership of your own life...you let life happen to you. You are a passive participant in your own story.
3. You stressfully seek out your "calling."
An extension of error #2, we often fret about finding God's unique calling for our lives. We read how God called Jeremiah in the womb and how His spirit filled John the Baptist in the womb, and therefore we say that we must all have a big Calling which is a necessary part of achieving God's plan. This is a direct result of believing that everything which happens to us, down to what color shirt you pick today, is a part of God's grand scheme.
This is such a tempting lie. Why? Because it makes our relationship to God works-based again. We desperately want our relationship with God to be governed by a tit-for-tat relationship, where we give some and He gives back. Christians are willing to accept that our salvation is not based on our works...but boy do we want our ongoing relationship to be based on it. And this is one way to do it--that we have to discover our calling and be in the 'perfect will of God' in order for God's plan for our lives to unfold.
Of course, the absurdity of this should be obvious. People all the time are discovering "new" callings from God after their old ones failed, and no one is consistent at all with achieving their goals. Therefore, either God's plan was secretly to call us to failures, or...He never called us to those things at all. And we all see others screwing up their lives all the time...does this mean God called them to bad things? Or did He call them to something and they failed--and if so does this mess up His plan of salvation? Or are they not people who "love God" at all?
It's a ridiculous rabbit hole once you start going down it. Before long, you see God as having a plan for everything from what socks you wear this morning to what you study to whom you marry to where you live and work. And considering how often we screw these decisions up, I guess we are all thwarting God's plan daily!
No, of course that is not true. All of this comes from misreading the verses above, and applying them incorrectly.
What is God's plan for your daily life? He wants you to love God and love others (Matt 22:36-40). He wants you to be someone known as kind, gentle, loving, happy, and peaceful, regardless of your circumstances in life (Gal 5:22-23). He wants you to exhibit wisdom in your daily life (Prov 6, 9). He wants you to work hard in your profession (Col 3:23). He wants you to be a good family member (Eph 6). He wants you to help those who can't help themselves (Jam 1:27).
THAT is God's plan for your life, folks. Can I be honest with you? Your chosen career path or where you go to school or even who you marry is somewhat irrelevant to God's plan. His plan for you is to be a humble, loving servant who does God to those around you and above all else loves and serves Him. So stop stressing out--you aren't going to get in a situation where God 'called' you to be a pharmacist and instead you became a plumber, therefore messing up His plan for your life.
No, His plan for your INDIVIDUAL life is that, "whatever you do," you do it as to the Lord. He doesn't have one soulmate chosen for you before time--rather, He wants you to be wise in choosing a bride. He doesn't have one job that is the perfect will of God for your life--rather He wants you to work hard at your job, be humble, be joyful, be gracious, and be wise.
For us COLLECTIVELY, His plan was to send His son to die for us (check), and to destroy all of creation and start anew (in progress, but He assures us that everything's still running according to plan!).
God does not intend evil. It is not part of His plan. Your suffering in this world is not because God needed it to achieve His plans for you, but rather because we live in a sinful, fallen world and bad things WILL happen while we are here. We will suffer and frankly it will be worse for Christians than for non-believers. This is not our home, and the evil men do is from their own hearts and plans, not God's. To say otherwise is a horrible misreading of Scripture, one which results in lack of accountability and lack of compassion in our lives.
Don't take this too far the other way, of course. Overcorrection is not the desire here. Do not think that God does not care what you do, of course He does! The point is that His concern for your life is about HOW you go through life. His plan for you is SPIRITUAL growth to be more Christ-like. That is the big message of the two verses we quoted at the beginning, and ironically this is exactly what is missed. The point of the Jeremiah passage is to tell us that even though terrible things happen to us on Earth, God's "big picture" plan of salvation will not be thwarted--He knows His Rescue Plan for us, and it is a good plan. The point of the Romans passage is to tell us that the internal strife we have when trying to conquer sin is a good thing, and to reassure us that God uses that to transform us into a more Christlike person.
In other words, both of these passages are very important to us, because they reassure us of God's plan for us...spiritually. Where we go wrong is when we apply that same principle to our earthly/common/profane lives.
* The original essay in this portion went a bit too far here and got off track. Faithful reader Kyle from Japan kindly disagreed with one of my statements, and after re-reading it and reflecting, I thought he was right, so I made the alteration above.