I wrote a few brief articles about five years ago on claims that God has a plan for one’s life, and the subject came up again recently in some newspaper articles and Internet posts. The idea gets presented as a form of determinism or fatalism that is very popular, at least as far as bumper sticker theology goes, but it’s rife with internal contradictions that adherents seldom recognize, or so it appears to me.
What I hear and read is that God’s plan for one’s life is something one must work hard to find yet cannot be escaped. It is intended to accomplish some particular pragmatic goal that will lead to (godly?) success, it’s a gateway to salvation, but it may lead to hell. It’s all part of God’s plan. Everything happens for a reason, and that reason is always a working out of God’s plan. I’m not unsympathetic with that idea. Most of us want to know what the meaning of life is, why we are here, and whether there is something that we are supposed to accomplish during our time on earth. The idea that God has a plan can be, on the one hand, comforting, but on the other, filled with anxiety about whether one can discover and execute the plan to God’s satisfaction.
As it turns out, I am confident that God does have a plan for your life and mine. Not only does he have it, it’s spelled out in scripture, but we have to do some thoughtful, prayerful work to find and understand it. That’s because it is revealed in bits and pieces scattered throughout scripture, sometimes hidden amongst passages that are more tares than wheat. The Ten Commandments summarize it. Micah encapsulates it, writing that what the Lord requires of us is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. God speaks directly about it through Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and then, with even more terseness than Micah, he condenses it into a new commandment to love one another as he has loved us. That’s the plan. If the details seem a little sketchy that’s part of the plan too. In the words of Paul, each of us has to work it out with fear and trembling.
Why is it so hard to recognize that plan and work on it? My guess is that there are two big reasons. First, we don’t like the plan revealed in scripture. It interferes too much with they way we live, or want to live. It would be so much better if God had a plan was more pragmatic, perhaps more along the lines of “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” which, as it turns out, are good habits to work on. However, scripture’s record of God’s engagement with people doesn’t follow them. Some of us would prefer something even more direct, a Godly Google route map for life, one that would give us turn by turn directions to a clearly defined destination, with delightful stops along the way. What we don’t like is a plan for an ethical life in communion with God and one another that keeps taking us on adventures we can’t know about in advance and would rather not have.
Second, scripture’s version of God’s plan puts way too much pressure on us for personal responsibility, not for success in life, but for living into God’s kingdom that is at hand. Scripture’s version also has plenty of room for chance to invade our lives. Laying any number of life events at God’s feet can be a way to explain away some of the pain in life. The emotional pain of the death of a loved one, a terrible illness, the loss of a job, a broken relationship, or just a series of really bad decisions, may be eased by believing it was part of God’s plan. The reverse is also true. My good fortune and prosperity must be the working out of God’s plan, helped along, of course, by my hard work, intelligence, and deserving character. I don’t think that’s what Calvin had in mind, but it has become the hallmark of a kind of Calvinistic fatalism that combines predestination with American individualism. What an odd mix. Like oil and water, one part will always rise to the top. Blaming God or taking credit, which will it be? What we don’t want is to admit chance into the mix.