“Everything happens for a reason” is often a response given to all manner of tragedies in the hopes of comforting sufferers. We attempt to cover some of life’s most brutal tragedies and failures with the vague sense that brokenness is not meaningless and frankly, benefit to the sufferer won’t be far off. (Just hang in there and look for it!)

When I read an article with angst toward this common assurance, though I didn't believe the writer's theology was biblical, her wrestling with “everything happens for a reason” was admittedly relatable. Quit saying this, she said. God’s will is not the bad things that happen to us, but the good we bring from the bad in how we respond. She painted a bleak picture of a small God impotently presiding over sufferers who must somehow manifest his un-sovereign will through their good responses to crushing circumstances. But she also made me think.

For those of us who do believe in the sovereignty of God, “everything happens for a reason,” seems like an encouragement . . . because it tells us that someone perfectly good is in control of things that seem exclusively horrible.

But practically, what is our expectation of this concept when we offer it to one another? Does everything really happen for a reason? And if so, what is that reason? Do we always see these reasons? Do we need to see these reasons to be comforted? Is the point of our comfort the very fact that we do see these reasons?

There are three biblical principles that qualify what is true (and therefore, comforting) in the idea that “everything happens for a reason.”

The universe is not random.

While much of what happens to us on this earth can seem randomunplanned, and therefore lacking an ordained purposescripture assures us that the universe is created, ordered and sustained by our Trinitarian God. God created and ordered the universe through Jesus by the Holy Spirit’s power from a formless void (Gen 1:1-2). Jesus sustains and holds together all things (Heb 1:3; Col 1:17). Not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from the will of God (Mt 10:29). When Jesus walked this earth, he could rule over nature, rebuking the wind (Mk 4:39). Nothing therefore that happens in this universe is truly random . . . no matter how it may seem to us.

God is sovereign and good.

In addition to having willfully, purposefully planned and allowed everything that has and will happen in the universe he created and sustains, scripture teaches that God is not only sovereign, but also perfectly good (1 Jn 1:5; Mt 5:48; Ps 145:17). This is key. If One who is perfectly good is also perfectly in control, then the tragedies and horrors that happen are not out of his control, but rather can be assured to end in something that is ultimately good and purposeful. It may not be on this side of heaven, but with an eternal perspective we rely on his sovereign good. God, who is both purposed and good, cannot create or allow anything other than ultimate victory.

God’s ways are higher than ours.

When something horrible happens, something that seems unfair or unexplainable, we grasp for meaning in our suffering. More than that we try to reconcile our experience with our conception of God. The problem is, if we don’t trust his character first and foremost over what we are able to see, we will demand that in all of our trials, he answer to us. This is sin. When we lookor encourage others to lookfor specific and multiple reasons why our suffering happened (that benefit us, no less) we are really saying that we will only trust God if he proves a satisfactory level of goodness in exchange for the suffering. Lord, have mercy.

Scripture never promises us that we will see the particular reasons behind every circumstance that causes us to suffer. But it does promise us as believers that in our trials our good and sovereign Father is working all things for good, all the while providing faith that produces steadfastness making us more complete in Him (Rom 8:28; Js 1:2-4).

In the aftermath of our greatest failures, wounds and disappointments, God’s “reasons” for allowing “everything” to “happen” to his children will always be that we might know him more fully. Everything happens so that we may be humbled under His perfect holiness to trust him more deeply and walk with him more closely. For us, there couldn’t be anything better than that.

Dorsey Swindall is a biblical counselor with One-Eighty Counseling and Education in Louisville, Kentucky. She and her husband have two children.