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Why “Suffering is Never for Nothing” is Not the Same as “Everything Happens for a Reason”

...and why the difference matters

“Everything happens for a reason.” People frequently offer this phrase as a means of comfort, letting it escape their lips to fill an awkward silence.

It’s a terrible phrase, really. Things do happen for a reason, but sometimes that reason is a doctor’s error, or consequences from someone else’s horrible sin, or a devastating diagnosis with no rhyme nor reason. The phrase tries to explain away the unexplainable and brings no comfort to those who are grieving or suffering.

Suffering is Never for Nothing book by Elisabeth Elliot

It makes sense, then, that I was a bit resistant to read Elisabeth Elliot’s Suffering is Never for Nothing, the title sounding just a little too close to “everything happens for a reason.”

I’ve long admired Elliot’s writing, but I just didn’t know if I could stomach more over-spiritualizing of people’s pain. I’d been through enough of had the author, so I finally submitted that she’d earned the right to be heard on the topic.

I’m thankful I opened the book.

Resisting Peace

As a 20-year-old, I spent months in a hospital bed angrily willing the time to pass. I saw no reason for my suffering and no lessons to be learned until the pain subsided.

“Worthless,” I thought. “I’m worthless and the time wasted in this hospital is worthless.”

With every slow walk around the hospital ward, every sponge bath, every bitter conversation, I held onto a despondent grudge over my unwanted reality. Loved ones tried to encourage me into gratitude, grace, and God’s presence. I resisted at nearly every turn.

As a good Christian girl, I knew all of the verses:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds. James 1:2


And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

Sure, sure.

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:18

Gratitude? I don’t think so, God.

My good-girl posture - and my good mood - refused to return until my favorable circumstances did.

Elisabeth Elliot admits that our desire to answer the “whys” often goes unmet, but the exchange for the “Who” is where real peace begins:

"There would be no intellectual satisfaction on this side of Heaven to that age-old question, why. Although I have not found intellectual satisfaction, I have found peace. The answer…is not an explanation but a person, Jesus Christ.” -Elisabeth Elliot

So while I lived in denial to my pain, I was missing out on the presence and person of Jesus. I’d known about Him my entire life, but this was an opportunity to invite Him in as my co-suffering Savior.

The Difference that Makes a Difference

Fast forward 13 years and another health crisis hit. I was a new mom with a devastating new diagnosis (VEDS) with the same choice in front of me: Do I trust God or do I resist Him?

Through years of questions, tears, doubts, and searching the Scriptures, I’ve learned a few things:

Suffering really is never for nothing.

My good and God's glory could co-exist on this side of Heaven. However, training my heart to know it and my mind to see it, without a full understanding of "why," is a willful act of obedience and trust.

So how IS “suffering is never for nothing” different from “everything happens for a reason” - and why is the distinction important?

The definition of reason, according to Google, is “a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event.” Relying on a reason - or a reasonable outcome - means we are trying to trace a cause and effect in our finite human thinking.

Not that God is unreasonable - He is a God of order and not chaos - but He is supernatural (that is, outside of the visible and observable), all-knowing, and all-present. He tells us His ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). None can comprehend God’s thoughts (1 Corinthians 2:11) or works (Ecclesiastes 11:5), and His knowledge is too high for us to attain (Psalm 139:6). We cannot explain events like suffering because we cannot see the big picture that God sees.

Countless events make no human sense to us (well, to me, anyway):

  1. The majesty of creation

  2. The vastness of the worldwide flood

  3. The Old Testament laws for believers

  4. The fact that we cannot earn our salvation by outweighing our bad with our good.

  5. The physical act of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection applying forgiveness to all who believe past, present, and future.

Trying to find an explanation for suffering is a common line of thinking throughout Scripture. In John 9, when encountering a man blind from birth, the disciples asked Jesus who sinned to cause his blindness - the man or his parents? But Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3)

His suffering was not for nothing. The answer: that the power of Jesus was made known. Jesus did heal him, but that’s not always the case with our trials on this earth. There are many in the Bible who didn’t see healing or resurrection.

While there may be no good human reason - a cause or explanation - for our suffering, the fact that it’s never for nothing should bring us comfort. It takes great spiritual discipline for us to give up our need to know “why” for the presence of the “Who” - our all-good, all-knowing God.

I can exchange my questions for peace and trust that:

  1. My tears don’t go unnoticed. Psalm 56:8

  2. He’s near to the brokenhearted. Psalm 34:18

  3. He will restore the years the locusts have eaten. Joel 2:25

  4. He will wipe away every tear and death, crying, mourning, and pain will be no more. Revelation 21:4

“For wisdom is more than just seeing our problems through God’s eyes - it’s also trusting Him even when the pieces don’t seem to fit.” -Joni Eareckson Tada, A Step Further

When we’re seeking the answer to “why,” what we’re often searching for is peace. And that can come without an explanation or justification, but within the person of Christ. His presence and God’s promises can usher in peace beyond our understanding and the world’s (Philippians 4:7, John 14:27).

We can trust that “suffering is never for nothing” because God will not waste our precious lives; He loves us too much.

Using Romans 8 to Comfort a Friend

With an incurable genetic condition afflicting my daily life with scary unknowns, I can’t dismiss my pain with a trite "everything happens for a reason." And we shouldn’t dismiss others’ pain with those words, either. Often, comfort simply means offering our presence and silence.

Hold their hand. Cry with them. Agree, “This stinks and it doesn’t make sense.” Wash their dishes. Fold laundry. Bring them food. If you want to point others to God and his goodness, I suggest writing it down on a card so they can meditate on it later and not have to respond to it right there in your presence.

If you are a child of God, allow Him to do His sanctifying work to help you see that your suffering is never for nothing. It may be a slow, difficult work. Comfort may not include full understanding of the “why,” but can manifest itself in the person of Jesus. The result will be the peace only He gives - no matter the storms swirling around us.

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