Working All Things Together For Good: Walking the Line Between Acceptance and Learned Helplessness

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

I grew up hearing Romans 8:28 used to justify everything from cancer to violence and abuse. Within the IFB, it was one of many verses that “proved” that God brought certain things into a person’s life on purpose—even harmful things—and that we should endure suffering for the sake of “spiritual growth.”

It was a theme I also found rearing its head when I explored Buddhism—the concept that suffering is to be endured, therefore we should accept it rather than fight it.

It’s a harsh fact of life that no one has complete control over anything. Catastrophe can strike and upend decades of hard work. A death can send loved ones into a downward spiral. Choices have unforeseen consequences. And people sometimes just take a different path than intended.

In the words of a cynical Simba in The Lion King, “Sometimes bad things happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Some could say that spirituality is all about learning how to cope when shit happens. But where do you draw the line between acceptance and learned helplessness? Between comfort and coercion?

I categorically reject the idea that an omnipotent being can predestine evil and also be loving and good. That particular Christian theology is not only oxymoronic but also toxic and abusive. It turns God into a psychopath, doling out pain to manipulate his children into further obedience or submission.

However, I don’t reject the idea that evil can be part of a person’s path and that good can come of it, but the good that comes from evil is not a result of evil.

It’s a subtle but important distinction to make.

When evil is portrayed as the impetus for good, it necessitates that evil be good.

On some level, one can argue that the good or bad of a situation is largely determined by perspective, e.g. the person who thanks the universe that they missed a bus that later crashed.

However, a fatalism like that quickly becomes problematic when taken to an extreme, such as when an incest survivor is told that it’s “good” that her father raped her as a child because it made her strong or when a grieving mother is told that it’s good that her baby died because he might have been a serial killer.  It’s more than just a heartless worldview. When horrible events or harmful circumstances are dismissed by trying to reframe them as good because good may or has come from them, it makes those events requisite in a person’s life.

If evil is essential in order for a person to grow into who they should be, that means fighting evil is the same as fighting one’s own betterment. In the end, the “everything happens for a reason” mentality virtually requires that people passively accept mistreatment and abuse. It’s a form of learned helplessness that preys not only on the idea that you can’t do anything to change your circumstances but also that you shouldn’t want to.

Spirituality should give people something to hold onto during those tough times to help them get through, but disempowerment shouldn’t be the result.

Most mainstream religions, especially the patriarchal ones, have adopted this fatalistic approach to evil, giving people phrases with which to comfort themselves even as they stifle their own hope. Few want to believe that our lives are entirely at the mercy of chaos, yet they embrace a philosophy that is as powerless as chaos itself. Evil at the direction of a sadistic deity is hardly better than evil for no reason whatsoever.

Is there an alternative? Something in the middle that allows people to take comfort in a spiritual philosophy that promises the development of good from bad without making the bad good?

I believe so.

The verse I referenced at the beginning of this post has most often been credited to God’s power. Good comes because God brings it through evil. However, the actual language in the verse never mentions the source of the good. It just says that all things work together for good.

But if God isn’t the source of the good—if God hasn’t brought evil into someone’s life for the purpose of growing good—where can good come from?

From within the individual.

Bad things do happen. Uncontrollable things happen. Life is constantly changing, and with that change comes the possibility for catastrophe.

And therein lies the opportunity.

The reason that it’s possible for good to come from evil isn’t because the evil was necessary or predestined; rather, it’s because we, as humans, have the tremendous power of being able to engage with life and respond to our circumstances. We can’t control everything, but we don’t need to. We have the power to transform everything. Pain, loss, abuse, destruction—they’re fucked up building materials, but we are wired to create.

Spirituality can’t promise people an easy life. It can’t promise that good will happen. (And if it does it’s a lie!) But it can offer the hope that something can be made from whatever happens in life. Not all change is good, but all change is an opportunity to create good.

It’s Easter weekend, and everyone around me is seemingly celebrating resurrection. I am too, but I’m not celebrating the resurrection of a god. I’m celebrating the resurrection of the human spirit.